University of Washington

Huskies offense hopes to take flight in Colorado

Perhaps here, in the thin air in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, with their starting quarterback playing an hour from his hometown, the Washington Huskies’ offense will finally be able to fly straight.

Or, at least, gain enough yards and score enough points to beat perennial Pac-12 doormat Colorado, which plays host to the Huskies at 10 a.m. Saturday at Folsom Field (Pac-12 Network).

The Buffaloes (2-6, 0-5 in Pac-12) might have their best team since joining the Pac-12 in 2011 … but that isn’t saying a whole lot. They’re still winless in Pac-12 play, though two of their five conference losses came in overtime, and another was decided on the final possession. And, behind sophomore quarterback and Bellarmine Prep product Sefo Liufau, they rank 28th nationally in total offense.

The Huskies (5-3, 1-3) are confident in their defense, particularly their pass rush and penchant for takeaways.

Their offense? Not so much.

Through eight games, the Huskies’ offensive statistics do not reflect their record. They rank last in the Pac-12 and 105th nationally in total offense (355.3 yards per game) and, perhaps more alarming, they rank 113th in yards per play (4.87). Thanks to a historically successful scoring defense – UW has scored a school-record and nation-leading six defensive touchdowns this season – the Huskies have a more respectable national rank of 68th in scoring (29.9 points per game).

But their average of 4.87 yards-per-play puts the Huskies ahead of just six other teams from the five power conferences – Penn State, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Kansas, Tennessee and Wake Forest. Of that group, only Penn State has a winning record.

And the passing game has been of most concern. Cyler Miles, a native of Centennial, Colo., returns from injury this week to start again at quarterback. He sat out last week’s loss to Arizona State after suffering from concussion-like symptoms the week before in a loss to Oregon.

His numbers are fine – a completion percentage of 66, 10 touchdown passes, only one interception. But his paltry 6.6 yards-per-attempt average is perfect evidence of just how stagnant the Huskies’ offense has been for most of this season.

Part of the problem is UW’s inconsistency in the running game, particularly against big, strong defenses such as Stanford and Oregon (though the Ducks’ defensive stats haven’t been all that impressive, either). If the Huskies can’t run it, they have a hard time passing it. And if there’s no threat of a vertical passing game, then there’s no reason for opponents not to load the box and dare the Huskies to throw it.

“We’ve just got to find a way to be a little more explosive, a little more consistent,” offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said. “There’s a two-way street in regards to that. It’s up front, we’ve got to carry some things, movement. Our backs have got to hit the holes. We’ve got to complement the run game with some passes to threaten people in the pass game. If you can’t threaten people in the pass game, it’s uphill sledding in the run game. It’s all of that. There’s so many factors that we’re going to just keep working.”

Colorado’s run defense is the worst in the Pac-12 by a wide margin – the Buffaloes allow opponents to rush for an average of 5.6 yards per carry. The next-worst team is ASU, which allows 4.5.

So whether it’s linebacker Shaq Thompson filling in at running back again, or Deontae Cooper, or some combination of the banged-up-but-

supposedly-available Lavon Coleman and Dwayne Washington, this is a team against whom the Huskies should be able to run the ball.

And maybe throw it, too. Maybe even to sophomore receiver John Ross, who has scored five touchdowns from scrimmage this season and leads the Huskies with 371 receiving yards despite catching only 17 passes.

That might be due to opposing defenses keying on him, knowing the UW has shown little else in the big-play department this season.

“Honestly, I feel like the film that we put on and some things that we’ve got, last week, there were plays where guys just knew,” Ross said. “So I don’t mind being the decoy if that’s the case and get someone else open. I’m a team player no matter what. I’d rather have someone else have a really good game and me contribute than me being selfish and just wanting the ball all the time and trying to score as much as I can.”

Needing a road victory to stop a two-game losing streak, the Huskies aren’t in a position to be picky.

“Honestly, I do feel like it's there,” senior receiver DiAndre Campbell said. “We have a veteran offensive line. We have a great stable of running backs, and we probably have the deepest core group of receivers, depth-wise, probably in the Pac-12. So we just need to get that spark going and just keep it going."

Christian Caple: 253-597-8437