Chris Petersen now stands alone in Washington Football History. He is the first Washington football head coach to debut with a road victory. In a game that was ugly, as first games of the year are wont to be, (particularly by previously undisciplined teams who are learning a new scheme) the Huskies held on and found a way to win a game where pretty much the only statistic that favored them was the final score.
The Huskies were outgained 207 yards to 162 through the air and 217 yards to 174 on the ground. Hawaii had 26 first downs to Washington’s 19 and made five stands in the red zone versus two from Washington. None the less the Huskies won thanks to some electric plays by John Ross, a bad pass attempt by Marcus Kemp, and good play calling.
I watched the Husky game on DVR since I was at the Wisconsin-LSU game while the game was actually being played. I felt like there was an eerie similarity between Washington and Wisconsin – two teams with good running backs, a stout front seven, concerns at DB, and a QB who was unreliable at best. Once Wisconsin benched their star running back (Melvin Gordon, 8.8 ypc) for bad mouthing the QB (or so go the rumors) their offense sputtered, and with two starting DL out with injuries LSU began to move the ball to which Wisconsin had no response. In the end Wisconsin gave up 21 unanswered points and lost 28-24. Our fate would have been the same except we were able to continue burning the clock. Wisconsin picked up two first downs in the second half, the first of which was the first drive of the second half. During LSU’s 21 point run Wisconsin managed a single first down. We managed 6 first downs in the second half – by no means a heroic effort but sufficient to do what needed to be done and end the game with the lead.
The game winning play calling – picking up first downs on the ground, has been criticized by some as “playing not to lose”. On the contrary it is actually called “not playing like a 13 year old on a video game”. Coaches lose games by just trying to run out the clock when both teams are having success moving the ball. When you have a RS Freshman QB who has been struggling for most of the game and has become flustered (as evidenced by running around in the backfield behind the pocket to get sacked) you do not pass aggressively and kill drives. You lean on your dependable running backs (anyone notice how 4.8 ypc Lavon Coleman got the majority of the touches at RB?) and trust in your defense to bend but not break. Sure, in previous, recent regimes this was tantamount to bend and then break but this strategy worked for the Huskies on Saturday. We were giving up yards in the middle of the defense but in the end Hawaii only scored one touchdown in five trips to the red zone. The defense was able to do what it took to minimize big plays and hold Hawaii to field goals. They say good teams can win ugly and while I am not saying this is a good team it may be the makings of one – at least they didn't crumble and let the game get away like Husky squads of the past decade have done.
Ok, so we won, the coaches were able to use the players they had to prevail this time, but what about next week? What about when the real season starts against Stanford at the end of the month? What then?
I am not particularly worried about the offense. Between Coleman and Washington we have two backs each weighing in around 220 lbs who can carry a full workload. Cooper and Callier can provide a change of pace and our returning QB Cyler Miles can pick up yards by foot when needed. John Ross is beginning to show why people think he is worth a couple wins a year (he already has last game under his belt) and with accurate passes our other receivers should be able to make plays. I think moving Kendyl Taylor back to WR was a good move and hopefully Kasen will be able to run good routes and be a sure handed pass catcher.
Our OL is, as everyone knows, very experienced. That really just means they came up in a system without any depth on the OL and not that they have meaningfully beaten out other player for the starting job for multiple seasons. With a new offensive line coach who has three times as many players in the NFL as their previous coach they will hopefully receive the instruction to leverage all of their playing experience into a highly functional unit that opens up holes in the running game and gives the QB time in pass protection. Strausser has the highest expectations of all the assistant coaches in my eyes because I feel Cozzetto was one of the worst coaches on the previous staff and left the most room for improvement at his position.
On defense I am more worried. I am not worried how good the defense will become but how long they will take to become good. Right now Boise State has 10 defensive player in the NFL versus 5 for Washington. The coaching staff from Boise clearly knows what it takes to evaluate and train NFL-quality defenders even when working at a recruiting disadvantage… but right now Budda Baker and Jermaine Kelly are showing their youth and they don’t have the benefit of years of coaching. Marcus Peters is a strength in the backfield but until our DBs as a whole become more dependable I think we will find few balls going Peters’ way. Facing the QB from EWU this week will hopefully let the young DBs get broken in against a decent QB who is surrounded by a team we should still be able to beat. We face three of the top quarterbacks in the conference October 18th through November 8th (Mariota, Kelly, Hundley) and what could be pivotal games may become humiliations if our DBs aren't up to speed by then.
I felt our DL was hit and miss and had a good mix of sacks to go with getting pushed around at times. I admit I can’t really place my finger on any individual aspect but Kikaha and Shelton will be stalwarts on the line. If new guys like Qualls can become contributors there is no reason we can’t have a GOOD defensive line. The thing that actually concerns and perplexes me the most is how I felt Timu and Shaq were absent for most of the game. Maybe this was how they were being utilized in this defensive scheme or maybe it wasn't the scheme but they just didn't execute. Timu looked really big to me and I see he is up 11 pounds from last year. Maybe he lost a step? I don’t know. Petersen did comment about the team in general that he felt effort was good for the most part but execution was poor. I think that applied to almost all the positions but in his Monday press conference Petersen noted LB in particular as a position where we may see a different set of starters against EWU.
Something that did impress me was our kick coverage. Hawaii isn't known for dynamic kick returners to my knowledge but after the first kick off I felt our coverage improved and held Hawaii to minimal returns. Elsewhere on special teams Durkee got a lot of reps punting. There were some worrying moments where blocked punts looked probable but in the end he got every punt off and averaged 42.5 yards with a long of 62 – respectable stats.
So what does it all mean? The narrow margin of victory? The inconsistency on the lines? It means nothing - at least nothing of concern. It means we have a coach who will use the capabilities of his players to maximize the chance of winning and not put them in positions to fail. In the end there will be growing pains when you bring in a new coach with new schemes but we have the talent and schedule to win now. Petersen has said all along no one is where they need to be and it shows. Next week we should see more of the same – vanilla schemes that depend on strong fundamentals and talent to put the game away against a lesser opponent. We will likely see some shake up at the starters (beyond of course Miles at QB which we already know) but don’t expect Petersen to reveal his tricks until he has to. I think we can rightfully expect to see more push from the lines and better play next week. Anything can happen the first game of the season and making it through to the second week with a win is not always a given. As has been noted on this site, Don James always said the biggest improvement comes between weeks one and two. If we DON’T see the improvement from week one to week two that we hope to see this coming Saturday, well then that’s a damn shame. I don’t want to reveal much of the playbook against a C (or D) level opponent and if all of our schemes aren’t perfectly implemented by the second week of a coach’s first year that really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. In the meantime no need to fret, moan, or wring your hands. The adults are in charge and they are implementing a rigorous, disciplined program that will result in wins. It won’t happen overnight but it will happen sooner rather than later. We need to get through the first four games with four wins and no major injuries. Let the players get practice and get up to full speed heading into the first real game of the season against Stanford.