1. Who Took The TNT?
Washington’s offense came into this game leading the country in just about every possible metric when it came to explosive downfield passing plays. They torched Boise State and Michigan State with a barrage of deep bombs and still managed their fair share against California. Tulsa had the most success limiting the Huskies but UW still found open receivers all over and 4 drops prevented an even bigger day.
It seems though that Arizona may have found the answer for the first time. Washington’s offense completely changed in this game. Penix had an average depth of target of just 5.7 yards on Saturday per Pro Football Focus. He finished just 1/3 on throws 20+ yards downfield which was a season low in attempts (the one completion was the 57-yard catch and run to TE Josh Cuevas. His previous low was a 1/6 effort against Tulsa which included the Jalen McMillan dropped touchdown.
Not a surprise but Penix's average depth of target and time to throw by game per PFF:— De UW Dawg Pound (@UWonSBN) October 1, 2023
Boise St- 12.5 yds, 2.77 sec
Tulsa- 9.5, 2.44
Michigan St- 14.3, 2.94
California- 14.0, 3.22
Arizona- 5.7, 2.57
No team has been able to keep the Huskies this checkdown-happy so far in the DeBoer/Penix era. Last year Penix’s season low ADOT was 7.1 yards against Oregon State. The Beavers had the best pass defense in the conference last year plus that game was played in a giant windstorm.
How did they do it despite not having an elite defense? Part of it was the personnel that Arizona put on the field. I’m using PFF’s definitions of positional groupings so there’s a chance that it is slightly off but here is who was on the field for the average snap:
1.9 DL, 1.8 EDGE, 1.5 LB, 2.0 CB, 3.8 S
That means Arizona was in what would be considered a traditional dime defense the majority of the time and also had plenty of snaps where they played 7 DBs. They still played an average of 6.67 players in the box so it’s not as if they left the middle of the field completely open on every snap. But you would’ve expected Washington’s OL to have an advantage running the ball given the bodies in front of them.
We’ll see if other teams are going to be able to replicate this formula to slow down Washington’s offense, particularly once Jalen McMillan is back playing again. Although the Huskies still averaged better than 9 yards per attempt and had a 96th percentile success rate so it’s not as if they shut UW down. But given the baseline of UW’s offense, it was an impressive job.
2. Not My Tempo
The 31 points was a season low for Washington and the lack of explosive plays contributed. But this was the Huskies’ drive chart:
End of Half
Field Goal (had 1st and Goal at the 5)
Lost Fumble (had 1st and Goal at the 5)
End of Game
The Huskies only had 8 real drives when you factor in they got the ball with just 23 seconds before halftime and then were trying to run out the clock in the final minute of the game on the last drive. Compare that to the Boise State game when Washington had 8 drives just in the first half alone.
This one ties heavily into the 1st point above. By limiting Washington’s offensive explosive play rate it meant that the Huskies had to take more time with more plays to eventually find the end zone. It took 31 plays to get in the end zone 3 times versus Arizona. In that Boise game the Huskies ran 33 plays to have 8 possessions with 4 touchdowns.
Washington’s offense isn’t designed to go hurry up all the time. Michael Penix Jr. is so good at reading defenses and the Dawgs use so much motion that it’s usually to UW’s benefit to not rush to the line. So if it takes 12 plays for the Huskies to score then it’s going to take 6+ minutes off of the clock.
That limits the total number of possessions in the game. The more possessions, the higher the chance that the best team will be able to assert their talent advantages and the result is representative. When neither team gets many chances then it ups the odds that the game can turn on one weird play such as Germie Bernard’s fumble inside the 5-yard line.
Arizona’s offense helped play into that strategy by sustaining long drives after the first few of the game. The Wildcats had a 51% success rate which ranks in the 90th percentile. Yet they had a below average in yards per play in part because Noah Fifita was 0/5 on throws 20+ yards downfield in his first career start. Obviously, UW’s penalty situation didn’t help by giving out several automatic first downs. But Arizona had four drives of 11+ plays to take time off the clock.
It was a perfect strategic game from Arizona and they still needed to recover a fumble inside the 5 and would’ve had to have an onside kick plus a miracle drive just to tie the game. If one of UW’s 5 ranked opponents managed to pull off that gameplan then the Huskies definitely could’ve been in trouble.
3. Prevent D Only Prevents Wins
For the second straight game we saw a team have success against Washington in the 4th quarter moving the ball with their backup quarterback. Last week I noted that it was reasonable to attribute part of the issue to the Huskies’ substitution patterns as numerous deep backups and walk-ons saw the field. There was less of a reason to use that excuse on Saturday night although it was partially true.
On the final drive of the game Arizona went 90 yards in 11 plays over 2:47 of clock. That meant that Washington had to substitute along their defensive line to keep them fresh. For the final few plays of the drive including the touchdown, the Huskies had Sekai Asoua-Afoa and Lance Holtzclaw trying to get pressure on the edges. Starters Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui didn’t exactly do a great job getting pressure either but it would be nice to have them out there in that situation.
If we continue to see the Huskies let up on defense near the end of the game then we’ll see some games get a little closer than we’d like and some more backdoor covers.
It’s worth noting of course that Thaddeus Dixon dropped what seemed like a sure interception when he hit the ground that would’ve made that moot and doesn’t quite support the argument that UW was in prevent.