What does Washington’s offense do well?
Unfortunately, there isn’t an obvious answer. Through five games, a team that touted the strength of its offensive line and running backs this offseason ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in rushing offense (116.6 yards per game) and 11th in yards per carry (3.58). And though quarterback Dylan Morris’ 252.4 passing yards per game sits second in the conference, that supposed success is deceiving; the Huskies have attempted more passes per game (36) than any other Pac-12 program and rank eighth in yards per pass attempt (7.0), ninth in pass efficiency rating (123.09), ninth in interceptions (6) and 10th in completion percentage (58.4%).
Drill deeper, and mediocrity abounds. Under second-year offensive coordinator John Donovan, the Huskies don’t protect the football particularly well (with 10 lost turnovers, sitting second-to-last in the Pac-12). They don’t protect their quarterback particularly well (with 12 sacks allowed, ranking ninth in the Pac-12). They don’t convert on third down particularly well (their 42.47% conversion rate ranks sixth in the Pac-12). They don’t produce explosive plays particularly well (ranking eighth with 17 scrimmage plays of 20 yards or more and tied for last with just one run exceeding 20 yards).
“It’s not all on (Morris),” UW head coach Jimmy Lake said of the Huskies’ lack of success against pressure. “First, it starts with the coaches. We’ve got to make sure we’re giving good protections that he can feel comfortable with. And I think he’s handled it well. But it’s also on the offensive line. So there’s times there where he feels he should have a clean pocket, and all of a sudden someone’s coming clean. We need to block those guys with our offensive line, our running backs and our tight ends, and he’s trusting that those guys should be there.
“There’s times where he’s been sacked or has been hurried where it could be a combination — a combination of coaching, a combination of us missing a protection, and a combination of our quarterback not seeing what he’s supposed to be seeing.”
One relative strength seems to be UW’s red zone offense, which has converted trips inside the 20 into touchdowns 71% of the time … and even that sits fifth in the conference, behind Stanford, Colorado, Oregon State and Oregon.
So, after sifting through a stormy sea of uninspiring statistics, let’s turn the question to Lake:
What does Washington’s offense do well?
“That’s what we’re going to get to by the end of the day — really peeling back the layers and going, ‘OK, what do we do well? What players do we need to put in position to make plays? What does our quarterback do well?’ ” Lake said Monday, as his 2-3 Huskies arrive at a merciful bye. “Let’s make sure we’re putting everybody in the best position possible to be successful. So I think I’ll be able to answer that question better later in the week.
“I do know this: We need to be able to run the football, and we need to be able to give our quarterback a clean pocket to pitch and catch and get the ball out to our athletes, because we have some really good players outside.”
Not that you would have known it in Saturday’s 27-24 loss to Oregon State.
Outside of junior wide receiver Terrell Bynum — who turned nine targets into five catches for 61 yards and a 44-yard score — Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Taj Davis earned a total of nine targets, recording six combined catches for 43 yards.
As obvious as this sounds — and as often as you’ve heard it in the last several seasons — UW struggles to do something as simple as delivering its best players the ball.
“We need to make sure that we’re setting our offense up for success, and make sure we’re getting the ball in our playmakers’ hands, efficiently and effectively and now,” Lake said, when asked specifically if Odunze and McMillan need to be more involved. “We have playmakers in the backfield as well, and we need to make sure we’re able to get in a rhythm and run the football more effectively. We just had little stretches in our last game against Oregon State where we ran it well, at the end of the second quarter and toward the end of the fourth quarter. Well, we need that in the first and the third. And it starts with us as coaches. It starts with me.
“We’ve got to make sure, hey, let’s build a plan where we’re getting these guys going, and once we do that, we can really open up some good opportunities to get the ball to the wide receivers like you had mentioned — to Jalen, to Rome, but then also to Taj (Davis) and Terrell Bynum and obviously Cade Otton.”
It seems, then, that the priority remains establishing the run to set up the pass (rather than the reverse). UW took some strides in that department against Oregon State, as sixth-year senior Sean McGrew rushed for 104 yards with 6.5 yards per carry and two touchdowns and Kamari Pleasant added 84 rushing yards on seven yards per rush.
After failing to see the field in UW’s first two games, McGrew has scored two touchdowns in each of the last three — with much of that success coming out of the wildcat formation.
But, considering the seeming simplicity of the scheme (UW has not handed off or passed out of that formation once this season), what has made the wildcat so difficult to defend?
“It’s a tough formation,” Lake said. “And we’ve been doing it out of a different formation with different plays going from left to right. I give a lot of credit to JD (offensive coordinator John Donovan) and our staff for causing that confusion. And then you add in the extra gap with the wildcat quarterback, whoever that is. It’s been Rich (Newton), it’s been Sean. That extra gap causes a lot of issues.
“Defensively, you have to react to the perimeter play. We have this real fast player, Giles (Jackson) — who, if you don’t honor him, we’re going to hand it off to him (on a jet sweep) and he’s going to go around the edge. If we don’t hand it off to him you’ve got to make sure you’re protecting both the right and the left side, because we can go either way. It’s been a really good scheme and we’ve got to continue to tweak it.”
There’s a lot that needs tweaking. UW did some of that last week, occasionally trotting out a three-running-back set — featuring McGrew, Pleasant and Cameron Davis — against Oregon State. Lake said that look resulted in “a lot of positive plays, no negative plays. I saw third-down conversions and I saw two touchdowns.”
UW football fans need to see more. They need to see an offense with an established identity. They need to see a staff that understands and optimizes its strengths. They need to see UW’s best players with the ball in their hands.
When the bye week ends, they need to see results against UCLA.