As Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin move on from UW, is Jacob Eason alone enough to reignite the Husky offense?
Bush Hamdan, Washington’s first-year offensive coordinator, used the term “complementary football” last week when describing one of the underlying objectives of the Huskies’ offense.
The Huskies ran the ball more often than anyone in the Pac-12 this season — 58 percent of the time — and they did so in part to harmonize with Washington’s defense. The Huskies wanted to dictate pace. They want to own time of possession. They want to play keep-away from the opposing offense.
That formula has worked wonders for the UW defense, which ranked as the best in the Pac-12 for the fourth year in a row and led the charge as the Huskies won their second conference championship in three years.
But when it came to Washington’s offense, that formula was broken.
The Huskies’ 26.4 points per game in 2018 are the fewest in Chris Petersen’s tenure at UW, representing a 27-percent decline in scoring from 2017 and a 37-percent drop from 2016, when the Huskies set a school record by averaging 41.8 points per game.
Following the Huskies’ 28-23 loss to Ohio State in Tuesday’s Rose Bowl, Petersen was asked if he would consider drastic changes to the offense this offseason.
“We need to look at our offense really closely, no question,” Petersen said. “I don’t know. Like the game was kind of similar of a lot of what we went on this season in terms of some red zone issues. We drive the ball, we play, we can run the ball pretty well on occasion and make some plays. And we get in the red zone, and we penalty, sack. I mean, it’s so frustrating. It’s not something we haven’t been paying attention and looking at.
“But we will get that fixed.”
• • •
Between the fourth quarter of Apple Cup and the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl, the Huskies went seven quarters without scoring an offensive touchdown.
Here was the combined output of Washington’s offense in those seven quarters:
• 0 touchdowns
• 2 field goals
• 365 passing yards
• 215 rushing yards
• 36 first downs
Here’s what Washington’s offense did in the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl:
• 3 touchdowns
• 20 points
• 137 passing yards
• 43 rushing yards
• 10 first downs
So the potential is there. It’s been there. Which is probably what has made the Huskies’ offensive struggles all the more frustrating for Petersen.
“We’ll have a plan. We will. We’ll study the hell out of the tape,” he said. “And, you know, pare things down so we’re more precise at what we’re doing. It all comes down to execution, is what it is.
“And I don’t know if — if it’s any one thing, we would have fixed it long ago. But we’ve done it in the past. We’ve played good in the red zone in the past. We’ll analyze every bit of tape that we have of ourselves from not just this year. We’ll figure it out.”
Certainly, the Huskies showed in the fourth quarter Tuesday that they belong on a stage with a power like Ohio State. They just couldn’t afford the kind of disastrous first half that, well, that you thought with a veteran roster they’d be immune to.
“The second half was our game,” center Nick Harris told reporters in the locker room afterward. “We won the second half. We just need to start faster. If we have five more minutes, we’d have won that game. I honestly believe that. But that’s not the way it works.”
The Huskies’ game plan called for an up-tempo attack in the first half, a new wrinkle for an offense that had done very little of that this season. Petersen prefers to slow things down, to be deliberate, methodical and efficient.
They wound up running 91 plays, more than they ever had during Petersen’s five seasons at UW. But it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that they found the end zone.
“It’s kind of been the story of us, man, moving it eight, nine plays, and then something happens and we get ourselves caught in a second-, third-and-XL situation that we just can’t come back from,” Hamdan said. “And that’s on me. (We) eliminated some of those negatives in the second half.”
The red zone was a recurring issue throughout the season, but not the only one.
For all his accomplishments, for all his grit and guile, Jake Browning had his limitations, sure. There are some critics who will start and stop their final analysis of the offense with him. Some of that might be fair. Much of it is tired and oversimplified.
The vertical passing game needs a recharge, certainly. Defenses too often this season did not respect the Huskies’ deep passing attack; they’d stack the box with eight defenders and dare Browning to try throw it over the top.
It didn’t help that the Huskies didn’t have a John Ross- or a Dante Pettis-type talent at wide receiver. Midway through the season, they lost their best deep threat in Quinten Pounds to his third torn ACL in four years, and another veteran receiver, junior Chico McClatcher, stepped away from the team for personal reasons in late October.
Sophomore tight end Hunter Bryant, their most explosive threat in the passing attack, missed the first two months of the season after knee surgery and didn’t have a single target in the first half against Ohio State. He was targeted six times in the second half, finishing with four catches for 51 yards, including a spectacular one-handed grab in the fourth quarter.
“We slowed some things down a little bit (in the second half), tried to get some designed stuff to him,” Hamdan said. “Obviously, he needs to an intricate part of this thing.”
• • •
Where do the Huskies go from here?
How do they go about fixing the offense?
Is Jacob Eason alone enough?
When it comes to finding Browning’s successor, UW coaches won’t concede anything here in January. But there’s no doubt that Eason, the former national player of the year from Lake Stevens, brings a physical presence that few other quarterbacks possess. (One former UW quarterback, KJR’s Hugh Millen, has already said that Eason has more arm strength than of any Husky QB ever.)
Redshirt freshman Jake Haener figures to push Eason in spring ball and through fall camp, with incoming freshmen Dylan Morris joining Colson Yankoff and Jacob Sirmon in the competition for the No. 3 QB job.
“I’m excited for all of our guys,” Hamdan said. “I think all those guys have a redeeming quality that’s going to make them special. It’s going to be an unbelievable competition, and I’m excited to see those guys grow.”
Salvon Ahmed, going into his junior season, figures to succeed Myles Gaskin as the featured running back, with veterans Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant in the mix too.
Right tackle Kaleb McGary is graduating, but the Huskies will return four Rose Bowl starters on the offensive line: Trey Adams, Luke Wattenberg, Nick Harris and Jaxson Kirkland. Also set to return is Jared Hilbers, who started 11 games when Adams was recovering from back surgery.
The Huskies still need help at receiver, and they could get some with the potential addition of five-star recruit Kyle Ford out of Orange, Calif.
Ford is set to announce his decision during Saturday’s All-American Bowl, and he is thought to be choosing between UW and USC.
“Recruiting is always going to be the foundation of this program, and it always will need to be,” Hamdan said. “We’ve just got to continue to build the talent we have.”
Ty Jones, Aaron Fuller and Andre Baccellia will return to lead the receiving corps, and a full healthy season from Bryant could lead to a rejuvenated passing attack in 2019.
“It starts with me,” Hamdan said. “We’ll see. We need to go back at it and primarily how to get more explosive and create bigger plays. At times, it’s felt like we’ve got to be perfect on every play. So it starts with me figuring out how to get guys more open and figure out how to get this thing better.”