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Three Things We Learned: Stanford Cardinal

Washington’s safety depth has become troubling, Pac-12 refs keep flipping coins, and the stakes for Saturday

Washington v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

1. Safety First

Last season the Husky defense really started to struggle once injuries stacked up at the cornerback position and forced players into action who clearly weren’t ready to play for a team with Pac-12 title aspirations. Unfortunately, something similar appears to be happening at the safety spot this year.

Dom Hampton has started every game at one safety position which has provided stability. But the other safety spot has been a rotating door. Asa Turner has played 146 snaps across 4 games. Kamren Fabiculanan has played 252 snaps across 6 games. Vincent Nunley has played 159 snaps across 4 games. All three were unavailable on Saturday night versus Stanford and it showed up.

The 4th string at the position this year is Makell Esteen who showed flashes in previous years but has graded out very poorly when forced into action this season. Esteen’s 48.9 coverage grade from PFF is the worst among anyone on the team to play 75 plus defensive snaps and ahead of only Tristan Dunn among non-DL/EDGE players. His 28.6% missed tackle rate is tied for the second highest among actual rotation players only behind DL Faatui Tuitele.

Washington’s preferred defensive strategy this season has been to force teams into long drives grinding out 3-8 yards at a time until they get an incompletion or offensive penalty to force a punt, field goal, or 4th down try. That means limiting explosive plays.

Stanford completed a season high 4 passes 20+ yards downfield against the Huskies and also drew a pair of pass interference penalties (more on that next). Daniels ended the night 4/7 for 166 yards plus a TD when throwing the ball 20+ yards. That was the biggest factor in Stanford getting to 33 points. Oregon also scored 33 points and unsurprisingly Bo Nix was the only other QB to complete even at least 3 deep passes against Washington (going 3/3 for 104 yards and a TD).

It’s fair to blame the safety play for part of the breakdown. It was also the worst game of the season for Husky CB Jabbar Muhammad who had played at an all-conference level coming into this game. Opponents were averaging 5 targets per game in Muhammad’s direction. Stanford threw it at him 16 times completing 11 passes and drawing a pair of DPIs. Several of those were good coverage where the receiver won a 50/50 ball. It’s also worth noting that despite 11 catches, the receivers had 4 yards after the catch so Muhammad was always in position to immediately make the tackle. But Stanford wasn’t afraid of him and their receivers won the 1v1 matchups.

It’s also worth noting that Ashton Daniels had a bit of an out of body experience. Coming into the game Daniels was averaging 4.9 yards per attempt when under pressure. Against Washington he put up double that at 9.8 YPA. Bo Nix did the next best job against Husky pressure at 6.8 YPA in the Oregon game. The big difference was Nix’s average depth of target in those situations was 4.4 yards. Daniels was at 17.8. Whenever he was forced to leave the pocket he just chucked it as far as he could while on the run and showed ridiculous accuracy more often than not. Hats off to him.

2. Magnum P.I

On the first drive of the game you heard the bumbling announcing duo in the booth say that no one knows what pass interference is anymore. They may have been the most incompetent announcers I’ve heard since the cupcake crew but they were mostly right about that.

Pass interference was a major talking point in the Arizona State game when screenshots started going around of a missed DPI/holding against UW shortly before the game deciding pick-6 by Mishael Powell. I think I did a fair job after the game of noting 5 plays where DPI was either called or clearly should have been called. 3 of those plays went in Arizona State’s favor while the refs called 4 of them incorrectly. It just happened that maybe the most consequential late in the game favored the Huskies.

It was another adventure in officiating against Stanford with a seemingly random outcome for whether a flag would come every time a deep ball was thrown. Several of the calls ended up being questionable and going against Washington which made a big difference in the final outcome.

One of the biggest plays of the night was Stanford’s 39-yard touchdown pass to Elic Ayomanor. It seemed pretty clear on replay that Ayomanor managed to get a full one-handed shove into the chest of Elijah Jackson and used that separation to make an uncontested catch and waltz into the end zone. Offensive pass interference often has to be egregious to get called but there’s no question it would’ve been a reasonable call to make.

One of the flags they did throw was against Jabbar Muhammad in the 3rd quarter with Washington clinging to a 2-point lead. On the play it looked like there was some contact at the top of the route but Muhammad clearly got his head turned around with inside position to get a hand on the ball. Other than getting turned around a half second earlier it’s hard to see how Muhammad could have played it any better. Fortunately for Washington the refs called an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Stanford on the next play which killed that drive. I think it’s fair to say those plays washed out.

The one that will get the most attention was Michael Penix Jr.’s lone interception of the night. It’s worth noting that just 2 plays before, Stanford’s corner was called on DPI on a 3rd and 8 which extended a Husky drive. That one on replay looked like more of a 50/50 call and certainly there were more egregious penalties that night that went uncalled. Such as...

From the 17-yard line I could tell pre-snap that Penix was going to go back shoulder to Odunze against single coverage. Stanford knew it too. There was a safety to the middle of the field but he was clearly inching towards Odunze’s side ready to try to help. Penix briefly tried to look off the safety (who didn’t bite) then launched it to the end zone. It turned out that Penix was right that the safety wouldn’t be able to get there in time. Unfortunately, the Stanford CB got a fistful of Odunze’s jersey with clear separation away from the body before the ball got there. That meant Rome could only really get one hand on the ball, it popped into the air, and landed directly in Stanford’s arms for the pick. Instead of a 9-point lead, Stanford got the ball with a chance to drive for a game-winning field goal.

That entire segment is going to read like whining. What it is really meant to illustrate is that more than ever it feels like Washington’s fortunes turn on when the refs selectively decide to enforce interference penalties. Over time you would expect those calls to even out. I don’t believe the refs are intentionally trying to screw over Washington. But all it takes is two-thirds of those 50/50 type calls (or even 90-10 but these are Pac-12 refs we’re talking about) going against the Dawgs in a single game that could easily turn a win into a loss. Fortunately the last two weeks they merely turned what could’ve been comfortable wins into close ones against substandard competition.

3. The Path Revealed

Last week I commented that I would need to see this Stanford game and determine whether Arizona State was a blip before talking about Washington’s College Football Playoff chances. Well, the result against Stanford didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that the Huskies are going 5-0 the rest of the way (including the Pac-12 Championship Game).

That’s okay though. We aren’t talking about that. What we are talking about is that the path to the Pac-12 CCG has become a lot more clear given the results around the rest of the conference. Washington is now 1 full game up on Oregon and USC in the loss column of the conference standings and 2 games up on everyone else. A win against USC this upcoming Saturday would give the Huskies a major leg up and nearly clinch the Huskies’ spot in Las Vegas.

Should Washington win it would mean they’re 2 games up on everyone else with 3 games to go and they hold the best win in the conference for tiebreaker purposes since they are the only team so far to beat Oregon. Theoretically, Washington could lose to both Utah and Oregon State while each of those schools goes undefeated the rest of the way. That would result in a 4-way tie at 7-2 in what might be the most fitting way for the Pac-12 to end. I’m not going to try to do the math just yet on how that tiebreaker would shake out.

Those games all look less daunting today though than they did on Friday night. USC needed a stop on a 2-point conversion to avoid a loss to Cal and a 3-game losing streak. Utah got demolished at home by Oregon and it looks like the Utes’ injuries have finally caught up to them against a legitimate defense. Oregon State lost on the road at Arizona. Washington can attest to that being a tough trip but the Beavers look a little less fearsome than they did when handling UCLA and Utah. Then of course there’s Washington State who gave ASU their first conference win and have dropped 4 in a row.

The stakes for Saturday are clear. Win, however ugly, and a trip to the Pac-12 title game becomes incredibly likely and a CFP berth is technically still very much alive. Lose to the Trojans and all the hopes and dreams of the season are on the verge of slipping away. No pressure.