What's the Plan for the Talent on Hand?

SEATTLE - The fog engulfed the northwest corner of the field at Husky Stadium; it rolled in thick and fast. And it kept coming. And coming. It was the pre-game fog piped in to create a dramatic entrance for the Washington Huskies - but where were those Dawgs? They were stuck behind the fog, unsure when to run.

And when they were finally unleashed they bumped into cameramen, into themselves. An apt metaphor for Washington Football, as the 6-4 Huskies rumbled, bumbled, and stumbled their way to a 44-30 loss to UCLA Saturday night.

It wasn't any simpler than that. The Bruins were prepared, they came in the better team, the ranked team, the more talented team, and they played like it. Washington came out with fog in their eyes. You could argue with evidence they haven't started fast in any Pac-12 game so far this season, scoring 30 total points during the opening quarter in six (2-4) games.

The main narrative going into the game was that of Marcus Peters and his dismissal. Clearly it had an impact, but that impact was felt only on the field. Unwisely, I felt like the Peters fiasco could have been exploited by the Washington coaches as a rallying cry to bring the team together to take down a ranked opponent at home. I was dead wrong.

The only exploitation going on was by the ranked team against a home team deficient in talent and a home coaching staff running around in a hot mess, clearly unsure of how to use the talent they do have. The Bruins didn't have to break a sweat, and didn't have to get past page one in their playbook.

To wit: Other than UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley finding Kenneth Walker over the top for a 57-yard score, the Bruins' longest pass play on the night was 19 yards. Of Hundley's 29 completions on the night, 20 of them were for 10 yards or less. Twenty.

That means the Bruins spent a majority of the night running a pass game where receivers found all the soft spots in the UW zones time and time again, and Hundley got the ball to them quickly and easily.

So do we have to admit, as those that follow the Washington Huskies and write about their current lack of exploits, that their offense can't connect on passes less than 10 yards downfield? Are we led to believe that Jonathan Smith can't call those plays, or can't devise route trees capable of completing the same passes UCLA completed time and time again? And if he does call those plays, are we led to believe that the receivers can't create enough separation and can't find those zone busters? And let's say Smith calls those plays and the receivers run those routes - are we led to believe that Cyler Miles can't get the ball quickly and accurately to the receivers that are open?

“It’s painful right now, no doubt about it," UW Head Coach Chris Petersen said. "But it’s not just one guy. It’s got to start with us as coaches and everybody’s involved. It’s hard."

That would be fine if we were still talking about Hawaii. But we're talking about UCLA, six games into the Pac-12 season and 10 games into the 2014 season. It's very difficult to tell if lessons have been learned or progress has been made. One thing is very clear, however; the Huskies are painfully thin on game-breaking talent.

When Hauoli Kikaha sacked Hundley in the first series of the game, it felt like business as usual for the senior defensive end. But when it was later revealed that Kikaha had suffered a stinger on that play, Joe Mathis and Jarett Finau were asked to take his place and finish the game out. Mathis had some solid rush from time to time, but Finau was basically a passenger as the Hundley Express took UW for a ride that cost 476 yards and 44 points.

It's been obvious since the beginning of the year that the Huskies had four playmakers on defense: Kikaha, Peters, Danny Shelton, and Shaq Thompson. After the first series of the game, all that was left was Shelton. With that defensive 'Core Four' diminished by three, Shelton was on an island, constantly double and triple-teamed. And when those four players are either out or severely compromised, Washington has no other playmakers. None. Andrew Hudson has had a great senior campaigned, but the majority of his work has been a result of one-on-ones generated by the attention focused on Kikaha and Shelton. His four tackles, including one for loss, were hard-earned.

Without a defensive line able to wreak havoc like they've been to all year long, it honestly wouldn't have mattered what the rest of Washington's defense did. When they've been at their best, they have been able to severely impair a quarterback's ability to perform. But Saturday night, Hundley could have snapped the ball, sat back, scanned the field, checked out the scores on the ticker, yawned, stepped up through the pocket and rifled the ball to all parts of the field.

And in fact, that's what he did.

Thompson had migrated to the offensive side of the ball when the Huskies lost their two running backs. In the two games where he's been asked to be the main rush threat, Shaq has been terrific; in only 61 carries, he's already Washington's leading rusher on the season, averaging a whopping 7.5 yards per rush.

The UW coaches could argue that part of the reason for Shaq's production is because he's been getting all reps on offense during the week, essentially being able to assimilate all the information to play the position well.

Here's the problem with that; even though Petersen says he doesn't really know what position is Shaq's best position is on the field - Shaq knows. He knows he's a defensive guy, he's said as much, and he's running the ball now because he's the anti-Marcus Peters.

That's great, but why is it - by the end of the game - you read the box score and Cyler Miles has more runs (17) than Shaq? He's spent basically the last two weeks drinking water through a firehose trying to understand the position, and the UW coaches have run him a total of 31 times?

Shaq Thompson is the best player the Huskies have, a fringe Heisman candidate. He was a sure-fire Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year nominee with a bullet before his move to offense. And he gets 33 total offensive touches since the move?

He should have had 33 touches Saturday night. If you're going to make the move, make the move. But if he's only targeted 16 times on offense, that must have been because his plate was full on defense - right?

Not really.

"We had a little plan to have Shaq in there maybe a little more than we had in the past, on defense," Petersen said. "But certainly when you take Hauoli out of the mix and Shaq out of the mix, that’s a lot of playmakers on one side of the ball. All of that makes it tough sledding to overcome.”

So while fans rack their brains trying to figure out the coaches' game plan for Shaq, let's add John Ross into the mix. Ross had already been getting some reps on defense before Peters got the boot, and that upped his importance on that side of the ball. But even after his electric 100-yard kickoff return for six (no flags!) there was little talk of using him on offense. And the one time where he was targeted at the end of the game, Miles threw it nowhere near him and it was picked off by the Bruins' Fabian Moreau to salt the game away.

"We’re trying to move guys around and figure out where to best use them," Petersen said of Ross. "He’s spending a lot of time on defense right now and thought we could do some things there - put him in a little bit (on offense) at the end, but just have to be careful with not being good at anything."

It's been a mystery of human chemistry why Ross hasn't been targeted on offense. Frankly, it makes zero sense. Removing Shaq from the offensive equation, the sophomore wideout is by far the most exciting talent the Huskies have on that side of the ball. Dante Pettis is emerging and Brayden Lenius had his first big catch of the year Saturday night, but UW can't rely on true frosh to handle the bulk of the receiving load.

With Ross to defense and Jaydon Mickens and Marvin Hall gone MIA, the Legion of Zoom has now become the Legion of Zoinks! They have all but disappeared into the tunnel fog.

So where has the talent gone? With three games left, the leaders of the team should have stepped forward already to be counted. At this point in time, it's clear the coaches see guys like Thompson and Ross as true three-way talents. With 180 minutes left in the regular season, it's probably time to see if they can just not leave the field. Ever.

Or, if guys like Dwayne Washington are back to health and can go back to handling the run load with Deontae Cooper, put Shaq back to defense full-time if the coaches aren't willing to stamp 'UW Mail' on his back. Same with Ross. Up to this point it feels like the talent has been quibbled via half-measures, band-aids and chicken wire, with game-plans that feel like the coaching staff is dipping their toes along the edges of Lake Washington, unsure how far they want to wade in.

They need to dive into this thing head-first. Until they tap out, use Thompson and Ross in every conceivable way possible. Do it with others too, if need be, to get them started. Maybe Mickens could get some turns on defense. Put Shelton or John Timu in as lead blockers in the red zone to pave a way for Shaq, who averaged six yards a carry. UCLA does it with a fair amount of success. Smith said they had to start mixing it up after running downhill, hence the side-to-side calls that managed jack squat inside the 20. If you turn the bulldozer on, let the bulldozer eat until it can't eat anymore. When he was Washington's offensive coordinator, Keith Gilbertson used to run plays over and over until the defense showed they were willing to stop it. Then he'd adjust.

Petersen is a smart, smart coach. He's also clearly frustrated, and the Peters saga Thursday simply added fuel to the dumpster fire. In the two steps forward, one step back world that Washington Football has seemingly become, Saturday's game felt like a moonwalk, the motions of a team stuck in neutral and not enjoying themselves. The sideline was devoid of emotion, and it filtered all the way through the fans.

“I think all these things are hard," he said. "This game’s so hard and there’s always drama in these kids’ lives anyway. That’s certainly something that doesn’t help us, without question. Those are always really hard things. They aren’t just words; they really are hard, hard on everybody. We’ve just got to be strong as we move forward and we’ve got to compete. We’ve got to play because we like to play the game. We’ve got to have fun with this thing and can’t make it life or death to these guys to where it turns into not a lot of fun.”

It's not fun for a half-filled Husky Stadium, and it's not fun for anyone associated with Husky Football right now. At 2-4 in conference and nary a meaningful win in sight, what's the plan?

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