John Donovan has heard the criticism.
No, not the negativity surrounding Washington’s 0-2 start, or the calls for its second-year offensive coordinator to be excommunicated and sent out to sea. Not the inevitable outcry accompanying an unimaginable 13-7 loss to FCS Montana, or the thorough thumping Michigan dealt UW in a primetime game on national television the next weekend as well.
Of course, the 47-year-old assistant knows what’s being said — even after his offense rebounded with 83 combined points in wins over Arkansas State and Cal.
He just prefers to digest a different stream of criticism instead.
“I’m a New York Mets fan, so I read that stuff. They have 162 games, and they’re going to go to the World Series one day and fire everybody the next day,” the New Jersey native said of a franchise that has lost 10 of its last 11 games, plummeting out of the playoff picture. “So I get the narrative. I probably could assume what’s being said (about me), but you definitely don’t want to go read that. Geez. I understand the nature of it all, but you just avoid it. You don’t have to go searching for it. You know already (what’s being said).
“I’m sure we won the last two games and not many people are happy. So I get that’s the nature of it, but you’ve just got to believe in what you’re doing and believe in the guys you’ve got and try to move on to the next game, move on to the next play during the game, next quarter, overtime, whatever it is. You move on if something’s good or bad.”
In those first two losses, it was usually the latter. Against Montana and Michigan, UW scored a total of 17 points — while being shut out for five consecutive quarters. Second-year starting quarterback Dylan Morris threw just one touchdown pass and three interceptions, while being sacked seven different times. An offense that entered the season with a reputable rushing attack managed just 1.9 yards per carry.
It was a comprehensive catastrophe.
And Donovan is still attempting to decipher what exactly went wrong.
“I don’t know. It’s tough to tell,” he said, when asked which schematic elements were removed after the 0-2 start. “We haven’t gone back and really studied it. You kind of move on once you’re done. On the bye week we’ll probably look back a little bit more. Each play you try to design it to be successful based off of who’s touching the ball and whatnot. Sometimes you have plans that get disrupted on the fly and you have to adjust and adapt. I don’t know if I did that well enough at the time.
“But the last couple weeks I think we’ve done a good job as a staff, trying to get the guys that can make plays for us with the ball. That’s been the biggest thing. They’ve made those plays. First time in a couple years playing in front of people, and it’s for real. It’s a wake-up call. I think they’ve just bought in and kept grinding.”
Of course, it helps that a slew of starting wide receivers — Terrell Bynum, Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze — have returned from injury, providing a playmaking element that was largely missing against Michigan and Montana. Donovan admitted Tuesday that “we had some late scratches that kind of threw us for a loop. And then we had to play some guys that can play, they just didn’t have the reps that were tallied by some of the guys that have been here a little bit longer. That was probably the biggest thing.
“ … When you have certain guys that are going to play and they get most of the reps, the guys behind them have to do a great job of knowing what they’re supposed to do. Then all of a sudden they have to play. Sometimes there’s a learning curve to it, but you’ve got to get it done. No excuses. No explanations. Nobody cares. (Mets ace) Jacob deGrom’s out. Nobody cares. You’ve still got to win.”
Of course, folks on Montlake are aspiring to be the Yankees, not the Mets. They’re aspiring to consistently compete for championships.
But it’s hard to do that when you rank last in the Pac-12 in both rushing offense (101.75 yards per game) and yards per carry (3.18), behind an underperforming offensive line returning all five starters.
Or when you’re the only team in the country that has yet to register a 20-yard run.
“You never really expect to not do well,” Donovan said, when asked if he was surprised by UW’s inability to efficiently run the ball. “You practice and prepare to win. So whenever you’re not successful, it’s not fun. So you’ve just got to get back to work and find out why or move on to the next opponent and see what you can do against them. I just think it’s a long season and we’ve got a couple (wins) in a row here.”
Those wins have coincided with Donovan’s move from the sideline to the booth, where he has called plays in back-to-back wins from a more preferable vantage point. In his first media availability since training camp, he said the shift was his decision — not head coach Jimmy Lake’s — before adding: “Something had to change anyway, and that was one thing I had already thought about.”
“Last year I didn’t know anybody. They didn’t know me.” Donovan said, explaining why he spent his first six games at UW on the sideline. “So I wanted to just be down there, with a new quarterback, all that stuff, to see how everybody operates, how they react, body language, demeanor.
“So I told (the quarterbacks recently), ‘Your job on Saturday is to go out and make plays and play well and be productive, and my job is to put you in the best position possible. In order for me to do that it’s probably best for me to go upstairs so I can see a little better, because I trust you guys. I trust the coaches. I trust everybody on the field that know what they’re doing.’”
The fan base, by and large, does not trust Donovan — not after a historically inauspicious 0-2 start, or after UW failed to score on its final five drives in regulation against 1-2 Cal. Still, the 2-2 Huskies are getting healthier — and they have another opportunity on Saturday at Oregon State.
“I think when you have guys (read: wide receivers) that you’ve practiced with all spring and summer and they come back and they’re ready to go, I think that helps a little bit for sure,” Donovan said. “We try to put our guys in the best position to be successful, and they bought in over a tough stretch and they just kept working. It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish. If we can keep improving, then we still have a chance to write our own story.”
That’s the only story Donovan plans on reading.
Unless it concerns the Mets.