As Washington prepares for a trip to Arizona, home games against No. 13 Oregon and No. 15 Utah are looming in the next few weeks.
This is the most difficult portion of the Huskies’ schedule. Before the season started, it wasn’t irrational to believe they would still be undefeated at this point. Many expected UW to be sitting at or near the top of the Pac-12 North, preparing for a tough race to the finish line. Instead, the Huskies have two unexpected losses on their resume — one to Cal at home and another to Stanford on the road.
A young defense is working through growing pains while the offense is still searching for an identity. As a result, UW has dropped out of the AP top 25. It has a 1-2 record in conference play, which leaves it in fifth place just above Washington State.
So, what’s going wrong for the Huskies? Let’s take a closer look at three major issues.
The Huskies are allowing 146 rushing yards per game, which ranks sixth in the Pac-12. UW hasn’t allowed that many rushing yards in the Chris Petersen era — it gave up 161.3 per game during the 2013 season. In 2018, the Huskies had the No. 2 rushing defense in the conference and allowed just 116.1 yards per game.
“It’s been kind of an on-going theme,” outside linebacker Ryan Bowman said of UW’s issues against the run. “We’re working on it. We’ve been putting some extra attention on that.”
UW is giving up 364.2 yards of total offense and 18.3 points per game, which both rank fourth in the Pac-12. That’s still a jump from last season when the Huskies’ elite defense led the conference by allowing 16.4 points and 306.2 yards per game.
Perhaps the drop-off shouldn’t come as a surprise. UW did have to replace nine starters on defense, including both safeties, both cornerbacks and both inside linebackers. Defensive lineman Greg Gaines, a three-year starter and 2018 All-Pac-12 first-team selection, is also gone.
“It’s not on one position group,” said defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake. “It’s on all three levels. We got to be able to get off blocks off front. Linebackers have to be able to see their gaps and go tackle and they also have to be able to drop into coverage. I think at all three levels, we’ve had mistakes and we’ve made good plays. It’s going to be a continuation, a maturation process with all three levels of our defense. We’re making sure our starters and the backups continue to improve.”
In UW’s two losses, Stanford and Cal rushed for a combined 381 yards. Even in a 28-14 victory over USC, the Huskies allowed 202 rushing yards. It won’t get any easier against Arizona, a team that ranks second in the Pac-12 with 221 rushing yards per game.
Beyond the problems stopping the run, the young secondary has also been prone to coverage busts that led to two long touchdowns against Stanford and USC. In the loss to Stanford, the miscue led to a 42-yard touchdown pass from Davis Mills to Simi Fehoko.
After that defeat, Petersen pointed to missed tackles as a recurring issue on defense. He repeated that critique after the Huskies fell to Stanford and addressed the topic again during his press conference on Monday.
“I think that’s one of the things on defense you’re always frustrated about most of the time,” Petersen said. “You’re like, ‘We’ve got to tackle better, we’re got to tackle better.’ I think when things are going really well on defense, you don’t hear those words. When things aren’t going so well, you’re going to hear that from everybody in the country.
“It’s something that like, we talk about every single week. It’s stuff we work on. You get a little bit of live contract stuff in a real smart way and you do the rest in terms of body position and all that kind of stuff every day.”
The calls for UW’s young wide receivers to get more snaps have been growing louder every game. They reached a crescendo this week after senior Aaron Fuller was the only wide receiver to catch more than one pass against Stanford.
Fuller had nine receptions for 171 yards against the Cardinal — but he also had at least three drops. Tight end Hunter Bryant also had a few drops in the defeat. He finished with one catch for 8 yards. Fellow tight end Cade Otton had two receptions for 16 yards and a touchdown.
Beyond that, the Huskies didn’t do much through the air. Andre Baccellia had one catch for 1 yard. Terrell Bynum had one catch for 9 yards. Chico McClatcher didn’t have a reception. Fuller was targeted 17 times in that game while no other receiver was targeted more than five times.
On Wednesday, wide receivers coach Junior Adams was asked if that was too many targets for one receiver.
“I’ve seen more,” he said. “I don’t know how much is too much or too little, so I really can’t answer that for you.”
Fans would be quick to say — pretty loudly — that there have been two few targets for the Huskies’ younger wide receivers. Freshman Puka Nacua has one catch, and it was a 28-yard touchdown. Redshirt sophomore Terrell Bynum has three receptions with two coming in the season opener. Redshirt freshman Austin Osborne has a single reception.
No other UW receiver has caught a pass. Redshirt freshman Marquis Spiker, a four-star recruit in the Class of 2018, doesn’t have a reception. Neither does senior Quinten Pounds, who now eligible after serving a suspension. Junior Ty Jones, who is recovering from an injury, is practicing fully but hasn’t played. Petersen has said a redshirt is a consideration, so it seems like Jones won’t see the field until the final four games of the season. Redshirt freshman Trey Lowe is still recovering from an infection.
Petersen, Adams and offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan have heard the calls for the underclassmen to get a shot. Their responses have been fairly uniform across the board: The receivers who play the most are the ones performing the best in practice.
“You know how the game is,” Adams said. “Everyone’s actually been in the rotation, I will say that. We’re just going to take what the defense gives us. I think some of the young guys are progressing as the season goes on. I think Spiker’s progressing. I think Terrell Bynum’s snap count has gone up. Puka Nacua’s snap count has gone up. Just going to keep getting better this week and their roles are going to keep increasing the more they practice.”
On Wednesday, Hamdan was asked if the younger receivers were getting closer to earning more playing time.
“I think so,” he said. “I think obviously we’re looking at getting those guys an opportunity and we need some guys to step up and make plays on the outside. The evaluation process is not just a one-week thing during the year. This is going back to spring ball through fall camp through the season. As you guys know, the best players are going to play. This is big-time ball. Whoever those guys end up being, they’ll be playing on Saturday.”
Whoever sees the field against Arizona, the Huskies will be looking to solve the reoccurring problem of dropped passes. In the loss to Cal, UW’s receivers dropped at least six passes. They neared that number again while falling to Stanford. Asked about Fuller’s drops on Thursday, Petersen said it was a case of trying too hard.
“I think if you’re a competitor, (a drop) kind of wakes you up and snaps you back to, ‘OK, I got to get a little more focused and finish the play.’” Petersen said. “You know what happens sometimes is guys are pressing. They’re trying to make a play. It’s not like they’re casual. It’s not like they haven’t been trying to make a play.
“That’s what drop balls are. Guys are trying to run before they catch it. And so, that’s when you got to take a step back and all our little coaching terms of eyes on the crosshairs and all those types of things. You just got to get programmed into them.”
The red zone
Last season, UW scored a touchdown on 56 percent (35-of-62) of its red-zone trips. It scored 79 percent of the time, which was down from 83 percent in 2017. Heading into the season, that was a point of emphasis for the Huskies offense.
So, how’s it going?
Not so great.
The Huskies have scored a touchdown on 13 of their 25 trips to the red zone — that’s just 52 percent. They have scored on 88 percent (22-of-25) trips, which is an increase from last season.
But as Petersen said after the loss to Stanford, UW needs to score touchdowns to win. That’s how he explained going for it on fourth down early in the third quarter against the Cardinal. The Huskies were trailing 13-10 at the time and a field goal would have tied the game. Instead, UW turned the ball over on downs.
Right now, the touchdowns aren’t coming as often as they need to. In two losses this season, the Huskies settled for field goals in the red zone four times. They kicked an additional field goal from Stanford’s 21-yard line.
UW appeared to find an answer to some of its troubles in the form of redshirt freshman running back Richard Newton. Newton has six rushing and one receiving touchdown of the season, and the Huskies often turned to the power back in the red zone. But then Newton suffered a foot injury in the third quarter against Stanford. He’s been ruled out for Arizona and is considered week-to-week, according to Petersen.
This week, Petersen and Hamdan stressed the importance of playing to the offense’s strengths. Lately, that’s been the running game. UW was effective on the ground against Stanford but the Huskies shied away from running the ball, even when they were only trailing by one possession. Quarterback Jacob Eason completed 16-of-36 passes in the defeat. Meanwhile, starting running back Salvon Ahmed finished with just six carries. On Monday, Petersen said UW should’ve run the ball more.
“I think there’s always three or four calls a game in any game when you lose that you might change things,” Hamdan said. “Certainly, do you stick with the run more in this situation, in that situation? The reality is, at a time when it was a two-score game, we felt like we had to go and score and try to get the ball back, not knowing how long those guys were going to keep the ball on their next drive.”
Even after the struggles against Stanford, Ahmed said the Huskies are still the explosive team that took the field against BYU.
“Just locking in our details, playing true to ourselves, not trying to do too much,” Ahmed said of finding consistency. “Focus on your job and everybody else is going to do their job. We focus on just doing one play 75 times. We do it throughout the whole game. That’s what it is, being aware throughout the game. … We’re going to bounce back.”