It’s easy to question a play call after the fact.
Particularly when the call involves a toss near your own end zone.
On second-and-7 from the Husky 6-yard line in the first quarter Friday, quarterback Michael Penix Jr. took a shotgun snap, looked left and made a routine toss to graduate student running back Wayne Taulapapa — who dropped it, then fell on it in the end zone for a UCLA safety.
For Washington, it was the first of several self-inflicted wounds.
“I trusted Wayne a ton,” said UW offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb, in explaining the play call. “Obviously toss plays back there, there’s a certain element of risk. We hadn’t even had a bobbled one in run mesh [during practices or games], so it didn’t even register with me that that was going to be an issue. But yeah, he had his eyes up on his blocks right away. We had a good, two-high look to run the football to, and unfortunately Wayne took his eyes off it for a second, lost track of it and dropped the ball.”
So instead of building on an early 7-0 lead, UW surrendered the safety, then an immediate touchdown, trailing for the remainder of a 40-32 loss at UCLA in Pasadena, California.
But when it comes to calculating risk, coach Kalen DeBoer doesn’t question Grubb’s play call.
“It never even crossed my mind, honestly, after that happened, that that was a risky move,” DeBoer said. “We would really have done a lot of ‘risky’ things already this season, I guess, if we were considering that something that was putting us at a big risk. We’ve done things where we’ve been on our own 1, the way we’ve thrown the ball and so forth. There’s probably more risk to that. Is a shotgun snap or under center more risky? The exchange, when it’s happening that fast, what is more risky?
“We run a lot of zone reads back there. When you’re in [shotgun], almost every play has some type of read element. With that [play], to me, there was no read. There’s no indecisive, ‘What should we do?’ We’re just literally tossing it, and we have to execute the toss.”
An advantageous penalty
Washington would rather take a penalty than allow a touchdown.
That’s what happened on UW’s first kickoff Friday, when UCLA wide receiver Kazmeir Allen bolted up the middle and UW kicker Grady Gross tripped him at the 35-yard line to essentially save a score.
“It happened really fast. And at first I was like: ‘Really? We needed to do that?’ But then watching the film … we really needed to do that,” DeBoer said Monday. “Everyone gets in that spot, and there’s a different reaction, and probably with his background and what he’s done in the game of soccer or whatever it might be, that’s the instinct.
“So you take guys through tackling drills and try to show them how it’s supposed to be done. But when it’s happening that fast and all of a sudden there’s a man you have to get down, that was his instinct. Obviously it’s not the right one. It’s a penalty. But we needed to get the guy down somehow.”
The larger issue was not Gross’ touchdown-saving trip, but porous kickoff coverage that put a freshman kicker in that precarious position. The Huskies struggled in that department Friday, after appearing to rebound from a shaky season opener against Kent State. UCLA recorded kickoff returns of 40 and 31 yards.
“Guys just can’t be hesitant,” DeBoer said of UW’s kickoff coverage. “When we watch the film … there’s maybe a guy or two we can flip around. It’s schemed up to where one guy is flying down and other guys are folding in. One guy is waiting for another, and they just have to both go. Because they all have a lane they’ve got to get to. Give the returner credit: He made a nice cut and got vertical, and that’s the thing you don’t want.
“We need to get the right guys [in position]. Maybe if there’s a guy that’s a little faster, we need him to be the one that’s flying down or folding in and base our scheme on getting the right people in the right spots.”
It’s no secret that UW’s secondary struggled mightily Friday — surrendering 72.7% completions, 315 passing yards and three touchdowns. UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was 9 for 10 for 131 yards on third down. According to Pro Football Focus, he was 5 of 5 when throwing at safety Alex Cook and cornerback Julius Irvin and 4 of 4 when targeting safety Kamren Fabiculanan. The Huskies also relied heavily on a pair of freshman corners in Davon Banks and Jaivion Green.
Through five weeks UW ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in opponent completion percentage (61.3%), eighth in pass defense (233.4 yards per game), ninth in opponent pass efficiency rating (142.01) and 11th in opponent yards per pass attempt (7.8).
But might a personnel shuffle yield improved results? DeBoer confirmed starting cornerback Mishael Powell will be out again Saturday at Arizona State, but safety Asa Turner could return. As for redshirt freshman corner Elijah Jackson, who only appeared briefly in the Stanford game while working back from injury, co-defensive coordinator William Inge said: “He is in a process where he is coming back more and more and more. So he’ll be someone who will be working back into the mix of things here coming up.”
What about junior safety Cameron Williams, who has started 10 games across the last three-plus seasons?
“Cam’s in the scenario of being able to still grow and develop,” Inge said of Williams, who did not play against UCLA after contributing in a reserve role in the previous four games. “Probably the biggest thing, when you look at the guys we have at the safety position, those guys [Cook and Fabiculanan] have been able to give us the best chance to be successful.”
- UW fell six spots in Sunday’s Associated Press Top 25 poll, from No. 15 to No. 21. Four other Pac-12 programs were represented: No. 6 USC, No. 11 Utah, No. 12 Oregon and No. 18 UCLA. Washington State, which improved to 4-1 with a 28-9 win over Cal, received the most votes (91) of any unranked team.
- UW’s home game against Arizona on Oct. 15 will kick off at 2:30 p.m. and be broadcast by Pac-12 Networks, the conference announced Monday.