Kim Griniolds/Dawgman.com

Lack of Run Game a Road Killer

There were so many narratives and storylines heading into Friday night’s Washington-Boise State game, it seemed an impossible task to track each one for their proper due. But in the end, the Road Dawgs’ 16-13 loss at a jam-packed Albertsons Stadium had nothing to do with Chris Petersen going back to Boise and much less to do with Washington starting a true freshman quarterback for the first time in a season opener since records have been kept of such things. 

It’s cliche to say that football is a game of inches, and it would be incredibly easy to pin the result of this particular game on the six inches or so between Cameron Van Winkle's 46-yard field goal attempt being inside or outside the right upright. But, as it is in a game with 137 total offensive plays in it, it’s never going to boil down to just one thing. 

The loss came back to the same few things football losses always come back to; balance, execution, and momentum. In short, Washington didn’t have any offensive balance, couldn’t execute their game plan until the second half, and the momentum generated from outscoring Boise State 13-0 in the final 30 minutes wasn’t enough to overcome a first half characterized by confusion and fundamental failures. 

What is ultimately the most frustrating part of the Huskies’ road loss is that it was so winnable. Typically if you win two of the three phases in a game of football, you win the game. Obviously it’s debatable whether or not Washington won the overall defensive battle, but by the time the game was over there was no confusion as to who had the momentum. In the second half the Huskies’ stingy D forced four three-and-outs, six punts, and recovered a fumble. They gave up only 98 total yards in eight Bronco possessions the final 30 minutes.

Sophomore middle linebacker Azeem Victor was everywhere; on the blue turf, in the stands, selling concessions, running security. His 14 tackles, most coming via bone-jarring hits, announced his presence onto the FBS stage with authority. It was Victor's time to shine and he took up all the spotlight, and then some. 

And there’s no question Washington won the special teams battle. Dante Pettis' 76-yard punt return down the UW sidelines for six punctuated a fine evening for the Huskies in that key third phase. Jaydon Mickens blocked a punt; Budda Baker a PAT. Korey Durkee's punting was very spotty on the night, but the Broncos never really made Washington pay for that.

So how did the Huskies lose this one? There’s plenty to chew on after the fact. For instance, Washington’s vaunted tight ends group was completely nullified in the pass game, with only two catches for 18 yards the net result. Was it because Washington Offensive Coordinator Jonathan Smith didn’t call their numbers? Was it because Washington true frosh quarterback Jake Browning wasn’t quick enough on the trigger to find them open? Was it because the tight ends weren’t able to gain separation? Was it in Boise State’s game plan to scheme the tight ends out of the game, forcing Browning to focus on other targets instead?

And what was with putting K.J. Carta-Samuels out there every once in a while? Jeff Lindquist has shown he can bull ahead and use the zone read with effectiveness from time to time, but throwing the redshirt freshman out there with basically the same mandate seemed very strange and ill-advised. It broke up Browning’s rhythm and offered nothing to Washington’s attack. With Lindquist unavailable, it almost made more sense to use one of the running backs in the Wildcat, like Boise State did with Jeremy McNichols.

Maybe we will get Petersen’s take on all that Monday after he has time to review the tape - but at this point it’s academic. From the outside looking in we either have to assume the defensive game plan for Boise State was to try and turn Washington into a one-dimensional attack, to force Browning to win the game for the Huskies instead of relying on his playmakers. It make sense for the Broncos to heap as much pressure on Browning’s shoulders as they could.  

It worked, especially at the end when Browning got a little rattled and clocked the ball with 21 seconds to go instead of looking at the Washington sidelines, where the coaches were frantically gesturing to slow down and let the clock die down before the final kick was taken. And the true frosh took a couple of key sacks in the waning moments after driving as far as the Bronco 19-yard line to push Van Winkle into a much longer kick than was necessary.  

But if you had to finger one culprit that was at the heart of Washington’s failures, it starts with the running game. The Huskies finished the game with only 22 run plays and 57 plays overall. Some up-tempo teams will likely double that number of turns this weekend. Washington was out-possessed by nearly five minutes, another statistic that can be telling for a team that isn’t trying to play at warp speed.  

No run game meant no offensive balance. And that meant Boise State could pin their ears back on defense and rush without fear of being gashed by a Washington running back, because it never happened. There was never a threat of Dwayne Washington hitting the open field and never looking back. Most of the time he barely got past the line of scrimmage. 

It was also noteworthy that Myles Gaskin, the true freshman from O’Dea, was favored as the running back coming off the bench instead of Lavon Coleman. Clearly Smith wanted to utilize Washington’s speed to stay away from one of Boise State’s strengths, their defensive line.

It didn’t work very well. Early on it was because everything was out of sync and jumbled, like a big puzzle that’s just been spilled onto a table. No one seemed sure of their roles, and no doubt the madhouse that is Albertsons Stadium played a helping hand. The 36,836 fans there made a racket that could rival Husky Stadium on most game days. 

As Smith began to reveal the mystery quarterback plan, it was hard to tell where the actual mystery lay. In fact, things looked awfully similar to the same game plans run all of last year. There was a lot of horizontal pass game that acted as long handoffs, some tunnel screens that never went anywhere, and absolutely no downfield pass game to get excited about at all. 

Browning’s long completion on the night was 19 yards, and he never attempted one deep pass. 

Browning’s strength as a quarterback comes from his ability as a pocket passer. That’s the one true talent he possesses over both Lindquist and Carta-Samuels, yet Smith never let Browning off the chain. Perhaps Browning’s second-quarter interception gave Smith room to pause; it was telegraphed right into the arms of BSU defensive back Darian Thompson deep in Husky territory. 

All we can do at this point is speculate and extrapolate. How much of the playbook did Browning truly have? And was it still too much? When will Smith trust Browning to the point where he cuts him loose and allows him to do the things he does well - namely sling the rock around? Because it became painfully clear after the first half Smith wasn't about to let Browning out of first gear, despite Browning's history of being able to go from 0 to 60 in however long it takes to throw a touchdown pass. 

Browning does have to trust his receivers, something that comes with time. And the receivers need to build that catalog of routes to the point where Browning knows exactly which blade of field turf they’ll be on at the precise moment he throws the ball. These things are learned over the course of a season and definitely not perfected after week one. 

But one thing is for certain; Smith can call the greatest game in the history of college football and it will still be difficult for Washington to win a game like they were in Friday without a run game. Any run game. You can’t effectively play-action without it, and for a player like Jake Browning right now, not having play-action in your arsenal is a killer. 


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