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University of Washington Huskies Football
Sports >  UW football

Analysis: Why the Husky offense’s first-half struggles against Michigan were far from a fluke

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 16, 2021

Washington quarterback Dylan Morris prepares to pass in the first quarter of Saturday’s nonconference game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. Morris completed 20 of 37 passes for 293 yards as Michigan won 31-10.  (Associated Press)
Washington quarterback Dylan Morris prepares to pass in the first quarter of Saturday’s nonconference game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. Morris completed 20 of 37 passes for 293 yards as Michigan won 31-10. (Associated Press)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Washington’s first offensive play against Michigan was a delay-of-game penalty.

It was also a metaphor.

Granted, the Huskies had not played a road game in 658 days – the longest FBS drought since at least 1980, according to a UW spokesperson – which makes it unsurprising that 108,345 Michigan fans affected their offensive execution. But two days later, Husky head coach Jimmy Lake called the game-opening gaffe “unacceptable.”

“That starts with us as coaches,” he said. “It starts with me. I’ll take that one. One of our keys to the game was to operate on the road, and we did not do that, and that’s on me.”

Regardless of who claims blame, the blunders were just beginning. In the first half of an eventual 31-10 loss, UW’s offense managed zero points and 126 total yards, while rushing for 15 yards and 0.8 yards per carry. They punted five times and went 2 for 9 on third down.

On national television, in front of recruits and parents and pompom-pumping fans, the Huskies lacked energy and execution and offensive innovation. They turtled … and that’s a trend.

“We came out really flat today,” said wide receiver Terrell Bynum, one of the UW offense’s few bright spots, who caught five passes for 115 yards and a touchdown. “If we play like how we did in the second half, in the first half, we’d have a better shot. But with what we did in the first half, I don’t think we’re going to be able to win many games like that.”

The proof is in the past. In their past four games, the Huskies have scored 10 first-half points – while averaging 139.5 total yards, 3.0 yards per carry, 8.8 first downs and 99.8 passing yards on 61.8% completions, with three interceptions and zero passing scores.

In their three games against FBS opponents, the consistency of their incompetence was even more remarkable – yielding 127 total yards in the first half against Utah, and 126 apiece against Stanford and Michigan.

In the second half, the Huskies marginally improved – managing an average of 14.25 points with 201.8 total yards, 161.5 passing yards and 11 first downs, while rushing for only 2.69 yards per carry. UW didn’t abandon the run in those games, and quarterback Dylan Morris’ second-half completion percentage dipped to 56.6%, but the Huskies found more success in the vertical passing game. Still, it must be noted that they did so against opponents playing more preventative defenses to protect significant leads (21-0 against Utah, 24-3 against Stanford, 17-0 against Michigan).

Point being, the Huskies’ second-half offenses have not set the world on fire.

But they had to get better, because they couldn’t get worse.

“Again, it comes back to coaching. It always comes back to coaching,” said Lake, when asked to address his offense’s first-half struggles. “We’re at fault, and we need to put our players in better positions to start off fast and make plays and move the football and convert third downs and score points.

“So it comes back to us as coaches, starting with me. We have a bunch of talent. We have good depth. We need to start fast and we need to score more points.”

They could do that, conceivably, by placing more first-half faith in the vertical passing game. But when asked if UW scripts its opening drives – as many teams do – Lake said: “Sometimes there’s a plan to do that. Sometimes there’s not. That’s something I wouldn’t want to just yell out there: ‘Hey, we have the first 12 plays scripted, or the first 15 scripted.’

“There’s definitely games where we have a certain number of plays scripted, but there’s also defenses you go against where you can’t really do that because you don’t know what you’re going to see. All of a sudden you script these 12 beautiful plays, but they give you something completely different (on defense), which can completely wreck what you’re trying to do. But that is a part of a function that we can do and that we have done.”

Regardless, it’s clear UW – including offensive coordinator John Donovan – needs to do something different, with the intention of creating explosive plays earlier in the game.

Otherwise, they’ll continue to dig frustratingly consistent holes out of which they can’t climb.

“It’s tough starting out a game three-and-out in the first quarter a couple times,” UW left tackle Jaxson Kirkland said. “But I really think we need those big plays to happen early. I think momentum in college football is everything. That’s how I see it. When a team starts putting points up, it usually keeps heading their way and translates over to the defense, not just the offensive side.

“Momentum’s the name of the game, so I think we need to strike people early and get after people early and put points up, and you’ll see the landscape of the game change.”

Arkansas State – which meets Washington at 1:15 p.m. Saturday – has certainly been susceptible to early offensive outbursts, as Memphis scored touchdowns in its first three drives in a 55-50 win last weekend. The week prior, the Red Wolves surrendered a touchdown to Central Arkansas on its second offensive drive as well. So there will be no excuses on Saturday.

All things considered, the delay-of-game penalty against Michigan was a metaphor for an offense that has often been delayed.

“Maybe it’s the (lack of) energy,” UW running back Richard Newton said, when asked why that is. “Maybe we’re just starting too slow, but we are working on that. We will get that fixed.”

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