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Three Opportunities to Improve the Washington Huskies Offense

Husky fans can be a cantankerous bunch. We often do not agree on issues that other fan bases tend to align quickly around. What constitutes good QB play? What qualities define good coaching? How important is it to attract top-rated talent? Should in-stadium beer sales be offered at halftime of games? These are all questions that divide the fanbase and keep the comments threads of these posts full.

One thing that we all do seem to agree upon is that the Washington offense just doesn’t seem quite right one-third of the way into the season.

The numbers seem to back up what all of our collective eyeballs are telling us so far into the season. If you focus just on the advanced stats, which have the benefit of stripping out various biases, adjusting for competitive quality and eliminating garbage time contributions, the numbers are a little surprising. UW is a respectable 31st in the nation in offensive S&P+ through four games. That’s not horrible. In fact, it is third in the conference behind Oregon (19th in the nation) and WSU (27th in the nation). You are probably surprised to learn that it is well ahead of Stanford (56th in the nation).

But 31st in the nation isn’t where the Huskies want to be, especially given the fact that the defense is 3rd in Defensive S&P+. It’s not hard to imagine how potent this team would look if its offense could even just break into the top 20 in overall offensive S&P+.

The problem is that most fans don’t look at advanced stats. They look at more traditional measurements stats. When you look at those stats, the picture gets a bit more more sobering picture.

Washington’s scoring offense is eighth in the conference. They’ve scored just 13 TDs on the season – half of what Oregon has produced. Surprisingly, it isn’t the passing offense that is the primary culprit. UW is actually fourth in the conference in passing yards/game (not bad considering the competition) and tied for third in the conference with 8.9 yards per attempt.

The primary derailers – at least statistically speaking – for the UW offense have centered around a couple of things. First, Jake Brownings 5 INTs lead the conference and are the primary contributor to UW’s -1 turnover margin. The lack of extra possessions is hurting the offensive output.

Second, the “critical plays” performance has been mixed. On third downs, UW is not bad at 43% which is pretty much where they’ve been on average going back to 2016. The Red Zone performance, however, has sputtered. Washington’s 50% TD % in the Red Zone is tied for Utah as the worst in the conference. UW has scored 10 TDs on 20 tries. Compare and contrast that to teams like WSU (18 TDs on 21 tries), Oregon (17 TDs on 23 tries) and Stanford (9 TDs on 15 tries). Even UCLA, which as only 5 Red Zone trips all season (?!?) has scored 5 TDs.

The third big observation is the lack of sharpness in the rushing attack. UW is averaging about 20-30 yards less per game rushing the ball then they were at a similar point in each of the last two season. The average rush per play is between 0.5 and 1 yard less than each of those two seasons.

It isn’t all bad news. There are some good things happening in the offense that we must point out. The chunk plays are happening at a clip more similar to 2016 than 2017 even before you consider the competition. Much of that is coming out of the passing game where the yards per attempt are almost exactly where UW as at in 2016. This is all being assisted by relatively low numbers of sacks allowed (1.54 – fourth fewest in the conference not adjusted for competition) and a similar penalty rate on offense compared to what UW has had in the past.

That’s the “what”. What about the why?

Without subjecting myself to a tortuous and pedantic film study where I commit myself to a blacked-out room, feed myself a steady diet of Red Bull, Red Vines and Cheese Pizza with red sauce, and utilize ziplock bags and paper towels to handle my biological relief requirements, I’ve taken on the task of trying to find some answers to what ails the Husky offense and, importantly, what the possibility of remedy looks like. These opinions have been formed in part by listening to coaches interviews, discussing these issues with football geeks in my circle and reviewing tape on the games played to date.

Here are the top 3 ailments that seem to be holding back UW’s offense.

1. Bonus Yards

It’s hard to find good stats on yards after contact for PAC 12 games. I’ve not been successful in doing so. Thus, I’ve had to rely on my eyeballs and on collaboration with my fellow dawg fans.

The truth of the matter is that though UW has done a good job in generating chunk plays this year, the majority of them have come through the air where most of the yardage has been generated by Jake’s arm with very little added through yards after catch or yards after contact.

Some of this is by design. Browning has been able to take more advantage this year of his big bodies (Ty Jones, Cade Otton) who generate space just by boxing out their defenders or finding sidelines and corners that their defenders can’t take away from them. In addition, we’ve seen a handful of comeback routes and back shoulder throws that utilize the quickness advantages that both Aaron Fuller and Andre Baccellia possess.

But we’ve had very few plays where a guy like Jones or Fuller have taken a pass in space, made a defender miss (either through quickness or physical force) and generated more yardage. In year’s past, these kinds of YAC producing plays often came from special talents (e.g. John Ross) or RBs or slot guys running unguarded out of a creative formations. While there have been a few of these opportunities this season (Chico McClatcher dropped one such opportunity last week), we’ve not seen too many of them yet.

This might be a gap-in-talent situation. With Hunter Bryant injured and Chico still coming back, UW doesn’t have a natural game-breaker type of receiver ready to take on a number of targets. We might need to wait for guys like Terrell Bynum and Otton to be ready to take on more snaps before more of this potential reaches the field.

2. Oh Snap

This issue is one that has been percolating in our staff discussion group for a little while. John Sayler and Brad Johnson have really put some attention on the quality of snaps coming from Nick Harris (and, to a lesser degree, Jesse Sosebee) and have raised the implications of such with the team.

I admit that it is hard to tell this issue if you aren’t looking for it. It’s kind of like that scuff mark on the hood of your car that you can’t unsee once you’ve noticed it, but which nobody else can see unless you point it out to them.

The truth of the matter is that Nick Harris’s snaps seem slow and flat a majority of the time that Jake Browning is in shotgun. That creates a challenge. The velocity of the snaps throws off the timing of the play and gives defenders a split second advantage to get upfield before the QB starts his drop. The flatness of the snaps further delays the QB’s drop and changes the direction of his field of vision. Instead of seeing all of the movement of his receivers and their defenders through the full periphery of his vision, he has to break eye contact to look down and handle the snap.

These are details that on the surface might seem minor. But, as Chris Petersen is fond of saying, the details are everything. Consistently bad snaps are like a pebble in your shoe when you are trying to run a marathon. You can still do it, but it’s an impediment to your effort.

3. Running Red

The good news here is that UW’s 20 trips to the Red Zone are pretty good. This offense is definitely moving the ball. However, the TD ratio has been horrible. Thank your stars that Patrick Henry has been solid as a place kicker. His six Red Zone FGs leads the conference and has kept UW from having what could otherwise be the worst Red Zone performance in the PAC.

Though fans like to pick on Jake Browning here, the biggest Red Zone issue that UW has suffered is the inability to generate any kind of rushing attack inside the 20. Again, I’m not using stats here because (a) they aren’t published regularly and (b) I didn’t have the energy to go chart all of the plays.

However, I can tell you that of Washington’s 13 TDs to date, 10 have come from the Red Zone. I can also tell you that against UW’s FBS opponents, they’ve scored just 6 Red Zone touchdowns: 5 through the air and just one from a rush (a Jake Browning QB sneak). Those are not stellar results.

Surely, the quality of competition has much to do with this struggle and that a regression to the mean ought to be expected as UW gets the opportunity to play more diverse competition. However, we have to account for other factors, as well. Some issues may well be scheme and playcalling (shall we raise the Jake option play against Auburn or the myriad of failed Wildcat packages so far?). Some of it is simply inexperience among offensive lineman such as Jaxson Kirkland and Jared Hilbers. Some of it may be the running backs themselves either just not channeling their inner Lavon Coleman and putting themselves in a position to have a chance at running through contact when the conditions get cramped.

I believe Husky fans ought to find some solace in the fact that these issues are all relatively small issues that can be coached up. We’ve already seen the benefit of on-the-spot coaching when we witnessed the change in results that came from Jake Browning more intentionally stepping into pocket and the pass rush last week against ASU. As the competition normalizes and as UW gets more experience – particularly in the rushing game – I think UW’s overall offensive efficiency will also normalize. While it is unlikely that UW will ever reach the kind of overall explosiveness that we witnessed in 2016, the sheer number of weapons available combined with the experience in key positions should keep the Dawgs in the top three of overall PAC 12 offensive efficiency as the season progresses. If those numbers can lead UW back into the top 20 nationally, you’ll see the kind of balance across all the units that would support the argument that UW is a legit national contender.

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