SEATTLE – Forget the fact that Washington’s top two running backs left the Huskies’ last game with injuries, or that they’ve played without their fifth-year senior right tackle for most of this season.
At the absolute core of the Huskies’ struggling running game, coach Chris Petersen said, is a simple necessity.
“Guys just have to play better,” he said Monday. “That’s the bottom line. We’ve got to block better, give our backs a chance to get something done. Then when we do, we’d like our backs to be able to get out and get loose a little bit.”
Offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith’s take is similarly simplified: “Guys just got to step up. We feel like we’ve got some guys in the program that can run the ball, and it’s an 11-man effort.”
UW ranks seventh in the Pac-12 with 183.1 yards rushing per game, and the Huskies average 4.1 yards per carry as a team. But with a first-year starting quarterback (Cyler Miles) and the rest of the offense struggling to ignite any kind of vertical passing game, their inability to consistently gain yardage on the ground has been magnified – especially in losses to Stanford and Oregon in which the Huskies averaged 2.1 and 3.7 yards per rush, respectively.
With an offensive line featuring three fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year junior – the youngest member is redshirt freshman Coleman Shelton, who has started six games at right tackle in place of injured senior Ben Riva – it seemed a fair assumption that running the ball wouldn’t be so difficult.
“Of course it’s frustrating,” offensive line coach Chris Strausser. “We want to go out there and freakin’ shove it down everybody’s throat every week, but that’s not college football. So we’ve got to find a way to fix it, get better at what we’re doing in the run game and be more consistent with it.”
After ending each of the last five seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher, the Huskies are led in rushing through seven games by redshirt freshman Lavon Coleman, who has run for 438 yards and a touchdown on 106 carries.
He left Saturday’s 45-20 loss to Oregon with an apparent injury, though Petersen said Monday that Coleman’s status for this week’s game against Arizona State (7:45 p.m. Saturday, ESPN) is “better than a game-time decision.”
Sophomore Dwayne Washington, though, who started against Oregon and left in the first quarter with a chest injury, could be a game-time decision, Petersen said.
Of the “core four” group of backs with which the Huskies began the season, fifth-year senior Deontae Cooper is the only who is fully healthy this week. (Fellow fifth-year senior Jesse Callier is out for the season with a ruptured Achilles.)
That has Smith and the rest of the offense searching for creative remedies. He mentioned speedy sophomore receiver John Ross and junior linebacker Shaq Thompson, who has nine carries for 84 yards and a touchdown this season, as possibilities.
“We’re looking at a couple different formulas, whether it’s like you said, Shaq, John, different formations maybe a little bit,” Smith said. “We’re making an effort for that this weekend.”
Of Thompson’s two-way ability, running backs coach Keith Bhonapha said: “He’s a dynamic football player, and it’s exciting when you have a chance to get a guy like that in the room and know he’s going to get a chance to get the ball and be productive. The room is excited for him. As a team and as an offense, we’re excited to see what’s going to happen.”
Miles ‘day to day’
Smith offered no update on Miles, only saying that the Huskies’ starting quarterback is still “day to day” after he displayed concussion-like symptoms following the Oregon game.
Petersen said Monday that if Miles is healthy, he will start against Arizona State.
With Miles limited this week, backup Troy Williams, a redshirt freshman, has been given an opportunity to work with the No. 1 offense after completing 5-of-10 passes and scoring a rushing touchdown against Oregon.
“There’s a benefit any time you go on first team,” Smith said. “I thought just getting in the game and having a series … I think that’s a huge benefit for a guy moving forward.”
When Petersen chose third-year sophomore Jeff Lindquist to start UW’s season opener at Hawaii – Miles was suspended for that game – he did so because Lindquist threw fewer interceptions and took care of the ball better throughout spring and fall camp.
But Williams has improved in that area, Smith said, and that’s likely the biggest reason he’s moved past Lindquist into the backup quarterback position.
“That was the little bit of the slight edge that we thought Jeff brought in the first game,” Smith said. “We really were pleased Troy created some offense with his arm, really has some arm talent, and that showed the last month.”
And junior receiver Jaydon Mickens said Tuesday that Williams had so far responded well to a bigger role in practice this week.
“He didn’t turn the ball over. He was confident,” Mickens said of Williams’ practice on Tuesday. “He controlled the huddle. And he was very aware of things that (were) going on with blitzes and coverages rolling. He looked very good.”
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple