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University of Washington Huskies Football
Sports >  UW football

Commentary: Huskies have struggled in all areas, but there are plenty of questions for offensive coordinator John Donovan

Washington quarterback Dylan Morris (9) scrambles with the ball in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. Michigan won 31-10.   (Tony Ding)
Washington quarterback Dylan Morris (9) scrambles with the ball in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. Michigan won 31-10.  (Tony Ding)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

It wouldn’t be fair to place the blame on one man for this train wreck of a start.

There are few areas where the Washington Huskies have shined or given fans any reason for optimism.

The run defense was atrocious in Saturday’s 31-10 loss to Michigan. The heralded offensive line has been virtually nonexistent. And though injuries have been an impediment, they don’t come close to excusing the pair of humiliating defeats Washington has suffered this month.

But it’s hard not to look at the offensive coordinator and wonder what exactly is going on. It’s hard not to wonder if John Donovan — a surprising hire in January of 2020 — is in over his head.

Proving doubters wrong is one of the most satisfying feats competitors can achieve, and Donovan doing so would be more than welcome in Seattle. But let’s be honest: There are a whole lot of doubters right now.

Let me start with a caveat: Blaming the OC for scoring woes can be a little too easy sometimes. I thought Darrell Bevell caught unnecessary flak for several years when he was in that role with the Seahawks. Teams need horses, not just strong play-calling, to move the ball and through two games it’s fair to question whether Washington has the former. But there were also times Saturday when the calls were about as imaginative as a stick figure.

The most notable sequence came midway through the second quarter, when the Huskies had it on third-and-five from the Michigan 32. First, a run play up the middle in which the Wolverines stuffed Richard Newton. Then, on fourth-and-four, another run to Newton, which resulted in him being hammered behind the line of scrimmage before fumbling the football.

Maybe Donovan figured Michigan was thinking pass on both plays and that he could fool the defense. But it looked awful, and it ruined any chance of the Huskies pulling to within one score by halftime.

To be fair, these weren’t Donovan’s first two games as the Huskies’ OC. He coached four games last season, when Washington averaged 30.2 points per game and never scored fewer than 24. And there was some life in the second half against Michigan, particularly through the air, as UW quarterback Dylan Morris racked up 293 yards on 20 of 37 passing. Still, this is a team that has amassed 17 points in two games and went nearly six quarters without scoring at all.

Adding to the Donovan scrutiny is the fact he was a questionable hire in the first place. His last job was assistant running-backs coach for the Jaguars, who initially hired him as their offensive quality-control coach.

Is a sexy résumé obligatory for success? No. And Donovan was the OC at Vanderbilt and Penn State in the early part of last decade. But when fans go “huh?” after a hire, they’re going to be all the more critical if they don’t get results.

Again, there is plenty of blame to go around, and head coach Jimmy Lake has been upstanding in putting these losses on himself. We’ve seen dumb penalties. We’ve seen a successful fake punt. We’ve seen defensive collapses and the Huskies getting bullied in the trenches on both sides of the ball. But for most of the game Saturday — just like the Saturday before — the primary question was “can these guys score???”

After the loss to Michigan, Lake was asked if the team needed to go back to the drawing board with its offensive strategy.

“Yeah, it’s definitely unacceptable. We need to coach better, and we need to make more plays,” he said. “I mean, it’s not good enough. It’s not good enough at all. I go back, we did have some success and scored some points in 2020. And so we know it’s there to be made. And we know we have players and talent and schemes to get it done.”

Next up for the Huskies is Arkansas State, which would have seemed like a gimme two weeks ago. It’s not anymore. Washington may still rally and have a successful season, but a free fall is just as likely.

There’s a whole lot to clean up, but the offense has looked particularly putrid. For now, that’s where the attention will be, starting with the man in charge of it.

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