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What does Washington’s offense do well? We’ll find out Saturday night in Arizona

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 11, 2019

Washington quarterback Jacob Eason  hands off to Salvon Ahmed against Southern Cal in the second half Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Washington quarterback Jacob Eason hands off to Salvon Ahmed against Southern Cal in the second half Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – What does Washington’s offense do well?

The answer is hardly obvious – and six games in, that’s the issue. As they prepare to meet Arizona in the desert on Saturday night, the 4-2 Huskies rank tied for second in the Pac-12 in rushing touchdowns (11), fourth in rushing offense (174 yards per game), fifth in yards per carry (4.83), sixth in scoring offense (34 points per game), seventh in completion percentage (65.8), eighth in pass efficiency rating (149.25), eighth in yards per attempt (8.0), eighth in total offense (418.7 yards per game) and ninth in passing offense (244.7 yards per game).

Or, in simpler terms: The Huskies’ ground game has been less than dominant, but more than mediocre.

As for everything else? The outlook isn’t so sunny.

Take UW’s red-zone efficiency, for example. A season ago, the Huskies converted just 56.45% of their red-zone trips into touchdowns, which ranked 105th nationally and ninth in the Pac-12. Washington’s coaches went to work in the offseason addressing the issue, and Chris Petersen said more than once that they had a plan – though details were understandably elusive – for red-zone improvement.

But halfway through the regular season, the same problems persist. UW is converting 52% of its red-zone trips into touchdowns, which sits 103rd nationally and 10th in the Pac-12.

So, even worse.

And what about third downs? A year ago, Washington was one of the best third-down offenses in the country. First-year coordinator Bush Hamdan’s group converted 45.36% of its third-down attempts, which ranked 22nd nationally and tops in the Pac-12.

Through six games this season, that number has dipped to 39.73% – which ranks 64th nationally and 10th in the Pac-12.

So, all of this brings us back to the beginning:

What does Washington’s offense do well?

“You’d like to think we can run the ball a little bit, and we’ve got to get the pass game going a little bit more,” Petersen said in response to that question on Thursday.

A theme on Montlake this week has been Washington’s renewed need to “play to its strengths.” That means running the football with Salvon Ahmed and Sean McGrew (but not the injured Richard Newton) behind an experienced offensive line. It means involving two of the best tight ends in the conference, Hunter Bryant and Cade Otton. It means allowing junior quarterback Jacob Eason to deliver throws on time in play-action.

“I always think the pass game, it’s an 11-man job, and it’s never one position (that’s to blame),” said Hamdan, when asked about UW’s inconsistent wide receivers. “It could be a lot of things. But overall, we’ve got to play to our strengths. That’s the biggest thing. Whatever we got to do to win football games, that’s what we’re going to do.

“We’ve got to rely on what we can do up front, and our tight end play and those guys and the ability to run it and create explosives on the outside. We have to stay balanced, and we know that. We’re going to do whatever it takes to win football games, and right now that’s playing to our strengths.”

When asked to define Washington’s offensive identity on Wednesday, Eason said that “we’re trying to be an attacking offense. We want to attack, and I just think we have to be a little bit more consistent in our play. We’re trying to attack and score points, and obviously last week that didn’t happen.”

Likewise, Ahmed added, “I think we’re a very explosive team. I know last week (in the 23-13 loss to Stanford) it wasn’t the best showing of being explosive. It was a weird game. But I think we’re an explosive team that can go out there and make plays. We’ve got one of the best O-lines in the country. We’ve got one of the best quarterbacks in the country. We’ve got one of the best running back groups in the country and one of the best receiving groups in the country.”

Now, the numbers may not support all of those assertions. But it’s clear Washington wants to attack. It wants to be explosive.

But if play-calling, in-game adjustments or execution is hindering the Huskies, would the offensive coordinator ultimately be to blame?

“I would love for you guys to sit in a meeting … but you’re not going to,” Petersen said, when asked to evaluate Hamdan’s strengths in his second season. “Because if you see the detail that (he brings) to it and the football knowledge, I mean, we’ve just got to execute. That’s on us as coaches, to get that message across and then go out and replicate it.

“But (he’s got) unbelievable energy, worker, knows the game, all those type of things. I think you guys think you have all the answers here, and that’s your job – to sit there and second-guess. We score 13 points (against Stanford), and that’s what you’re going to do. I get that. But we’ll keep grinding and keep improving.”

The Huskies hope that improvement will arrive on Saturday night against 4-1 Arizona. If it can effectively play to its strengths, Washington might just escape with its second Pac-12 win.

“That was just a weird game for us (against Stanford),” said Ahmed, who received just six carries last week after rushing for 153 yards in the win over USC. “But we’ve got a good game plan this week, and we’ve got to attack it.”

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