clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Mailbag: Opening Salvo Edition

Answering your questions on the running game, defensive improvements (?) and more after a dominant offensive showing in week one

NCAA Football: Boise State at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Great game but run game looked meh. Is it going to be a weak point for team all season? -DawgFan12

Do you think the Huskies can repair their inept running attack? -Boringfan

What’s with our run game? -dawgincostarica

the Run game? Do we worry or relax? It seems that as far back as Coach Pete, The UW run game was always slow to start only to round into form and become a solid strength as the season progressed (Lake/Donavan aside) -kickedOut

So do you think any of your are concerned about the run game?

Look, it obviously wasn’t good. There’s no misgivings about that. Dillon Johnson had about as poor a running performance as you can have with 12 yards on 7 carries. He only forced one missed tackle and that got him from a loss of -2 yards back to the line of scrimmage. Will Nixon was definitely better with a few nice runs a little later in the game that got him to 8 yards per carry. If you put those two together then the Huskies averaged 4.6 yards per carry with their two primary backs. That’s worse than you’d expect for an elite offense but is at least passable.

One way to try to reinforce that is to look at the EPA per Rush numbers. Washington was at +0.04 which is in the 55th percentile. It was below standards but taken as a whole it was slightly above average.

Still, there are plenty of places to look to spread the blame. Boise State certainly appeared to be more worried about winning the line of scrimmage than stopping Washington’s downfield passing attack. A bold strategy Cotton, let’s see how it worked out for them. Not well.

Using Pro Football Focus’ alignment data, the average Boise defensive set up looked like this: 3.8 on the line, 3.0 in the box, 0.8 at free safety, 1.5 in the slot, and 1.8 at outside corner. That’s slightly under 7 total players in the box per snap but also fewer than one high safety. Washington’s offense spreads teams out to play more defenders in the slot but that means you had about 8.5 defenders either in the box or in the slot who are a little more able to help in run support. Boise clearly wanted to stop the run and were willing to risk being beat deep.

It’s also true that Washington’s offensive line didn’t help matters with their run blocking. I’ll admit I’m not an OL expert and PFF has their flaws but is at least one resource. Tackles Troy Fautanu and Roger Rosengarten who were so good last year both had below average run blocking grades from PFF as did starting LG Nate Kalepo. C Matteo Mele was about average while new guards Parker Brailsford and backup Julius Buelow were the only ones with clearly above average scores. It seems likely at the least that Fautanu and Rosengarten will get better in the future and play up to their previously established standards.

That play contributed to Johnson’s struggles. Per Sports Info Solutions he was hit at or behind the line on 57.1% of his carries (4 of 7). Nixon on the other hand was only hit at or behind the line on one of his six carries. It definitely seems like Boise keyed in on Johnson early and swarmed the line when he was in the game on the first few drives.

Johnson certainly didn’t help himself though. He has been recovering from an injury this offseason and the coaches ramped up his usage throughout the month of August. Clearly they thought he was ready if he won the starting job but I wonder if there was still a little hesitancy coming off the injury. He didn’t look decisive at all with his cuts and danced rather than getting upfield which probably took a yard or two off of several of his carries. I’m sure the coaching staff will point that out in film and insist he go north-south more quickly.

And as some of have mentioned, this isn’t new for UW. Back in 2018 Myles Gaskin started the season with just 128 yards on 32 carries over the Huskies’ first 2 games. He of course finished the year with almost 1,300 yards. I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen with Dillon Johnson but there’s precedence for a running game getting off to a slow start.

NCAA Football: Boise State at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

What’s more concerning about our defense this year? The explosive plays given up downfield, or the lack of pass rush from arguably the best edge duo in the conference? Or both?? -Shawnbo

I left the game feeling optimistic about the defense this season. What were your overall impressions of the D? -George RR Tolkein’s Dragon

There are two wolves inside you.

I would take a little bit of issue with both of the points that Shawnbo brought forward which maybe tells you where I fall on this. Washington really only gave up one true big play downfield when Elijah Jackson got beat without safety help in the first quarter. Boise’s other 2 explosives in the passing game were both short passes which resulted in big gains due to poor tackling and missed assignments. It resulted in long gains through the air but yards after the catch was the bigger problem.

I talked about it in my Three Things We Learned piece but I’m less worried about the pass rush because the Huskies did such a good job limiting what Taylen Green accomplished with his legs. Green struggled with his accuracy last season and showed off an ability to shrug off sack attempts and scramble for first downs. Against Washington, he didn’t have many opportunities to escape and run as UW didn’t take many risks going for sacks that would create run lanes for him. If Trice/ZTF can’t get pressure next week against Tulsa with a QB who is much less of a running threat then I’ll maybe start to get concerned.

At the same time, there were clearly still issues with the defense overall. Washington was willing to dare Green to beat them with his arm but that strategy isn’t going to work against a lot of the opponents on the Dawgs’ schedule. Jabbar Muhammad was beaten on the same play as Elijah Jackson’s long completion but the throw was just slightly too long. There were other moments of open receivers where an accurate QB would have been able to pick up completions.

In the run game, Boise State underachieved based on yards per carry but still managed a reasonably high success rate so they got the yards they needed when it mattered. Washington finished in just the 7th percentile nationally in both run stuff rate and havoc play rate. Incomplete passes were what slowed down Boise. Quite a few of those were pass breakups by Husky defenders but it’s best not to rely on incomplete passes to have a quality defense.

Another person stated rather than asked that the secondary did okay but felt it wasn’t ready for USC/Oregon. I full-heartedly agree that I don’t think Washington is going to hold any of the powers in the Pac-12 to under 20 points. But then again, I don’t know if anyone outside of Georgia the last few years would be capable of holding the top half of the Pac to under 20 points. The winner of the Pac-12 this year will be the team who is able to win the most shootouts. This combined offensive/defensive showing at least gave me some hope that UW could be that team.

Pac 12 is 13-0 as of Sunday night.... have we ever done that before? Is it too late to go back? -Maxine

No, we haven’t done that before. In fact, no conference has done it since at least 1980 which carries you well into the modern era of college football.

Now in some cases that’s not an entirely fair comparison. The Big Ten for instance this year had multiple conference games in week one. If you’re just looking at overall record then it’s impossible for them to go through undefeated (but Purdue lost to Fresno State so they can’t use that as an excuse this year).

That said, it was an incredibly impressive start for the conference. 7 of the 12 teams scored at least 42 points and only Oregon was against an FCS opponent of that group. Colorado was the only underdog in the conference and they pulled off a thrilling upset and look like the best case scenario of what was possible for them.

The only teams that you could say underachieved were Arizona State and UCLA. The Sun Devils were up 21-3 when they saw a 2+ hour lightning delay similar to the UW/Cal game several years back and had to hold on against FCS Southern Utah. Obviously not good but it’s hard to learn too much from a team not playing well when forced to restart close to midnight. UCLA never was seriously threatened by Coastal Carolina but both teams ran the clock in a low possession game which lowered the score.

Temperature check: do you feel the same, better or worse about UW’s chances of being the final PAC champion? -Denver Dawg

The answer is probably worse although if you presented those options on a spectrum then it would be somewhere between same and worse.

As I said above, I saw enough from Washington’s offense (and just enough from the defense) on Saturday to think that the Huskies are a viable Pac-12 title contender. But I already thought they had a chance at that. Meanwhile, just about every other team they’d be competing against looked just as good or better than I thought as well.

My not that hot take is that the Pac-12 may be the best it has been ever in its final year but will still not make a 4-team CFP because no one is getting through the end of the Pac-12 title game with fewer than 2 losses. I just think it’s going to be a gauntlet as every team has 4+ games against legitimate top-20 competition. And even if someone loses only once, that team will probably only be a slight favorite in the Pac-12 title game. They could easily do what USC did last year where they’re 11-1 but then fall to the nominal underdog in the title game and just miss out.