With a true freshman quarterback in Jake Browning and for other strategic reasons, the Huskies are taking a more deliberate pace on offense two years after pushing the pace in Steve Sarkisian’s final season.
Strange sight, it was, at Husky Stadium on Saturday, watching those offensive linemen form a semicircle around the quarterback before a snap.
The Huskies, it turns out, were in what your grandpa would call a “huddle,” in which the quarterback calls out the next play to the teammates gathered intimately around him. For most Pac-12 Conference offenses, the huddle has gone the way of Hammer (M.C., that is), disappearing into an afterthought in this hyper-tempo age of college football.
These days, you’re more likely to find a four-leaf clover on Oregon’s turf field than you are to see the Ducks huddle. That was also true at Washington just two years ago, when Steve Sarkisian, in his final season as the UW coach, ramped up the offense at a rate never before seen in Seattle.
UW vs. Utah State, 2 p.m., Pac-12 Networks
Under Chris Petersen, however, the Huskies have mindfully pumped the brakes on their offense. At least a dozen times in Saturday’s 49-0 victory over Sacramento State, the UW offensive line gathered around freshman quarterback Jake Browning for the play call — a modified “muddle huddle,” as the Huskies call it.
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The 2013 Huskies set school records for yards gained and points scored, running a play every 21.9 seconds and approaching the same galaxy in which Oregon and its hyper-speed offense has been operating. That was Sarkisian’s goal — to Oregon-ize UW’s offense — and he’s continued that at USC. (The Trojans this season rank as the fourth-fastest tempo offense in the conference, snapping the ball every 21.7 seconds. Oregon runs a play every 19.5 seconds, fastest in the Pac-12.)
Through two games this season — admittedly, a small sample size — the Huskies are closer to Stanford’s slug-slow tempo, running a play every 26.3 seconds. In the Pac-12, only Stanford (28.7) and Utah (27.9) take longer between plays, and Petersen is just fine with that.
“I look at Stanford, who huddles every time, and those guys when they’re doing their thing, they are executing,” Petersen said, enunciating the last word for emphasis.
Fast or slow, that’s what matters most to Petersen: execution of the plays called. But there are several benefits, he said, to taking the tortoise’s approach toward that end.
First, Browning is a true freshman, and most of the offensive players around him are either young or inexperienced — or both. The Huskies don’t have the luxury of building the offense around a fifth-year senior QB (Keith Price) and an All-American running back (Bishop Sankey) like Sarkisian did two years ago. Going slower allows the quarterback and the line time to process the play, get in position and read what the defense is going to do.
Second, and perhaps most important: The Huskies want to be “multiple” on offense, meaning they have many formations featuring different personnel groupings they want to substitute into the game, depending on the situation and the matchup with the defense. It’s difficult, if not nearly impossible, to make those substitutions when the offense is moving up-tempo. That’s particularly true with UW’s use of its four tight ends.
“Now we’re truly able to get the players we want on the field and get them in the right position. And that’s really the biggest benefit,” said tight-ends coach Jordan Paopao, the lone holdover from Sarkisian’s coaching staff.
Third, the Huskies’ slower pace, in theory, helps out the UW defense by keeping it off the field, thus limiting the amount of time the opposing offense has the ball. As UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith put it, the deliberate pace “shortens the game,” ideally in UW’s favor.
Petersen’s version of the spread offense is heavily influenced by the pistol formation and utilizes more pre-snap movement than just about any other college offense (it’s not uncommon for four UW players to shift to a different position at the same time before the snap). But Petersen seems to relish that his offense isn’t easily labeled; that way, UW’s offense is less predictable to an opposing defense.
“I don’t think we are one particular thing,” Petersen said. “I don’t think we want to be one particular thing. I think we want to be able to play to our strengths and eventually figure out: ‘What’s the best way to attack a defense?’
“Now,” he added, “that’s easier said than done, because it’s going to take some experience from our guys to be able to refer back to, ‘Hey, remember when we did this?’ As opposed to: ‘This is what we do all the time.’ It’s a fine balance because we’ve got to get those guys into ‘groove’ calls, which we do, but we’ve also bring enough to the table that it doesn’t look the same all the time.”
The UW offense will continue to evolve as Browning develops. Already, Smith said, the Huskies are adding more for Browning to process than they unveiled in the first week of the season.
“If you’re going fast,” Petersen said, “it’s got to be pretty vanilla. There’s good stuff to that, but if we can maybe tweak it for a game plan — this is all down the road as we build this thing. We can’t do it all right now.”
In high school, Browning ran an up-tempo spread, and he looked impressively comfortable running the two-minute offense at the end of the first half Saturday. He completed all five of his pass attempts for 89 yards on the drive, marching the Huskies 90 yards on six plays in 76 seconds — that’s one snap every 12.7 seconds, with no-huddle and no mercy the whole way — en route to a touchdown and a 28-0 halftime lead.
“That,” Paopao said, “is just the emergence of Jake and his football intelligence growing. That’s him understanding what he’s going to get in that situation. Every single week, the kid has been growing up. It’s pretty cool to see.”
At times, Smith said, he will use “go-fast” plays to try catch defenses off guard. More often, the Huskies will continue to utilize the muddle huddles and move at a Stanford-inspired deliberate pace.
Grandpa should be proud.