At some point in the 2021 college football season, the Huskies will face a fork in the road.
One path leads to a Pac-12 title. It is well lit and lined with bright red roses, paved with purple bricks, accompanied by speakers serenading each step with an all-too-familiar siren.
The other path? That’s the more worn route, traversed by the timid and mediocre. It’s dim, unspectacular, a barrage of peeling beige billboards. It’s the football equivalent expired, unrefrigerated milk. It’s another forgettable three-month slog, arriving at an unsatisfying eight-win season.
Which path will Washington choose?
That all depends on these five factors — the difference between dominance and disappointment.
Below, you’ll find UW’s opponent yards per carry in the last seven seasons. See if you can spot a trend.
2014: 3.28 (second Pac-12)
2015: 3.29 (second Pac-12)
2016: 3.65 (first Pac-12)
2017: 2.86 (first Pac-12)
2018: 3.53 (second Pac-12)
2019: 3.81 (fifth Pac-12)
2020: 4.54 (seventh Pac-12)
That, my friends, is a three-season slide. And though it was merely a four-game sample size, UW’s run defense was so concerning last fall that Jimmy Lake and Co. have tweaked their scheme to address it — often adding a third defensive lineman to become more formidable inside. It’ll take concerted efforts from defensive linemen Tuli Letuligasenoa, Sam “Taki” Taimani and Faatui Tuitele, as well as inside linebackers Edefuan Ulofoshio and Jackson Sirmon, to definitively reverse that troubling trend.
Not that sixth-year senior outside linebacker Ryan Bowman sounds particularly worried.
“I really honestly have no concern about being able to stop the run at all,” he said. “I know it was a little iffy last season, but there was a lot of stuff going on with the d-line and the outside backers. We were losing guys, injuries, whatnot. Moving forward, I wouldn’t even be concerned about that at all.”
Wide receiver play
The most pointed critique of UW’s wide receivers came right from the top.
“I believe our receivers over the years have held us back from us winning those New Year’s Six games we’ve been in,” Lake said in an interview on KJR 950 AM during Pac-12 media days last month. “It doesn’t just fall on that position group (alone), but that position group needs to be better.”
But will it be? The Huskies certainly have ample talent in the wide receiver room, and Terrell Bynum, Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk and Taj Davis all appeared to emerge in fall camp. Second-year freshmen Jalen McMillan (who may miss the start of the season with a right hand injury) and Sawyer Racanelli and Michigan transfer Giles Jackson are all capable of contributing as well.
But the fact remains, UW has not had a wide receiver post 1,000 receiving yards or 10 touchdowns since John Ross did both in 2016. We know Washington can run the ball, and tight end Cade Otton’s skills are beyond dispute.
On Aug. 21, Lake called this the “toughest, grittiest” group of wide receivers he’s seen at UW.
But can it be the best?
Prior to UW’s scrimmage and fanfest last month, Laiatu Latu and Zion Tupuola-Fetui tossed a football back and forth.
They’re better at rushing the passer.
Unfortunately, Latu was forced to medically retire due to a neck injury this spring, and Tupuola-Fetui’s return from a torn Achilles remains uncertain (though Lake declared he’ll be back at some point in the regular season).
Without “ZTF” — who produced seven of UW’s 10 sacks last season — who will provide pressure?
The easy answer is Bowman, a sixth-year senior with 13 career sacks. But in the outside linebacker room, redshirt freshman Bralen Trice, second-year freshman Sav’ell Smalls, Cooper McDonald and Jordan Lolohea, and Texas A&M transfer Jeremiah Martin are each angling for playing time.
“It’s exciting for me, because I’ve got Coop (McDonald), Bralen and Sav’ell on the other side,” Bowman said. “I know any one of them could pop off at any second and be great, because they all have the potential to be great. In Sav’ell’s case, he’s really matured a ton and he works super hard and he loves the game of football. That’s just how it is with Zion. Practicing with guys like that, it makes the game way more fun. Everybody feeds off that energy.”
In 2016, UW converted red-zone trips into touchdowns a whopping 75.86% of the time — ranking first in the Pac-12 and sixth nationally.
At which point, its red-zone offense spontaneously combusted.
When we assess the same statistic from 2017 to 2020 …
2017: 66.67% (4th Pac-12)
2018: 56.45% (9th Pac-12)
2019: 61.11% (9th Pac-12)
2020: 55.56% (11th Pac-12)
For a team that returns its entire offensive line, every scholarship running back, its starting quarterback and a first-team All-Pac-12 tight end in Otton, red zone offense should be an obvious strength. To put it simply: field goals don’t win football games (especially missed field goals, but more on that later).
On the other side, UW’s defense allowed opponents to enter the end zone on 78.57% (!) of red-zone trips last season — ranking 121st out of 127 teams nationally. (If you were wondering, Washington State finished last.) That’s surely a reflection of the Huskies’ aforementioned rushing defense, as well as a pass rush that offered precious little outside of Tupuola-Fetui.
Point blank: UW needs to be better inside the 20s on both sides of the ball.
Special teams play
UW’s first meaningful special teams play last season was a sailed punt snap that resulted in an Oregon State touchdown.
Things did not get better from there.
Specifically, the Huskies ranked 124th nationally in punt return coverage (21.33 yards per opponent return) and 116th in kick return coverage (25.54 yards per return). Sophomore Tim Horn managed just six touchbacks in 25 kickoffs, which put unnecessary stress on an underperforming return team. And while junior kicker Peyton Henry converted six of nine field goal attempts, he went just 1 for 3 from beyond 40 yards and missed an extra point as well.
There’s hope, however, for improved special teams play. UW running backs coach Keith Bhonapha took the special teams coordinator title from defensive coordinator Bob Gregory; Henry, long snapper Jaden Green and punter Race Porter all return; and the Huskies have a host of potentially potent returners — including Trent McDuffie, Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Giles Jackson (who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in his two seasons at Michigan).
While other areas command headlines, UW’s special teams units could win or lose games.
“Overall, I think the talent level we have across the board on offense, defense and the guys we’ll be able to use on special teams will be really interesting,” Bhonapha said. “To say any guy is definitely standing out, I don’t want to say that. But what I will say is, I think as a coaching staff, me as a special teams coordinator, I’m excited for the talent we do have on this team, where we should be a dominant force on special teams this season.”