As we’ve been told by UW Head Coach Chris Petersen many times, football is hard. It takes a lot of practice to become even semi-proficient at the highest levels. In his words ‘it may take a minute’ for things to click, especially on offense.
Running an offense can be pretty tricky business. It involves communication, understanding, and precision. Defense can also be difficult, but when you get to run around like your hair is on fire and make jaw-dropping hits, it may look like there’s nothing to it. But there is.
Going back to last season, the Huskies currently hold the longest streak in FBS of scoring more than 40 points in a game. They are at five games, and counting.
During the Oregon State game, it all came together. They scored 65 seconds into the game and rolled from there. Overall they won 52-7, with 45 of those points coming in the first half. Everything UW Offensive Coordinator Jonathan Smith dialed up worked.
It’s been much the same since. During their last five games the Huskies have averaged 50 points a game. Washington has scored 40 or more points in a least a third of the games Petersen has coached since taking over the Washington program in 2014.
After scoring 24 first quarter points in their 2016 opener versus Rutgers, the Huskies again pounced on their opponent Saturday - the Idaho Vandals - with a first play strike after the Vandals fumbled the opening kickoff.
After getting the ball back at their own 15 to start their next series, things didn’t quite come as easily for the Huskies. Myles Gaskin ran okay, but didn’t break any expected big runs.
And then when Browning went back to pass, Idaho’s Kaden Elliss ran right back UW left tackle Trey Adams and nailed the sophomore quarterback’s blind side. Browning coughed up the football, and Idaho recovered.
Washington’s next series produced a punt after three rushes produced four yards.
Their next drive, which started in promising field position just inside Washington’s half, fizzled out after three Browning passes netted a loss of four yards.
The Huskies’ offensive prowess, which had been in full effect the last four games, was suddenly stalled out. They had no rhythm, no momentum. The run game was stagnant, and UW had no answers for Idaho Defensive Coordinator Mike Breske’s myriad of line pressures.
“The first game, (Idaho) didn’t show a whole bunch of blitzes that we know they had in their back pocket,” Petersen said. “Usually that’s the nature of (Breske). You only get so many reps during the week. So we had game one where they didn’t really show a lot of the stuff they were bringing here, but we had definitely worked on it because we thought it could happen. It took a minute to see some of those and figure out what exactly the blitzes that they are going to bring. Once we did that it helped us a little bit.”
Ah, the difficulty of playing football when things on the field don’t precisely match up to what was drawn up in the meeting room. In this case, the Vandals were making Washington look pretty ordinary. But then Smith made a quick call that changed everything.
He pushed the pace.
“I think there’s a comfort level with the group because those plays we do we practice a lot so they’re comfortable with that,” Smith said about increasing tempo. “I think it got Jake (Browning) in a little bit of a rhythm. When the quarterback is in some rhythm, you usually work out well.”
Once Washington got the ball back, their first drive of the second quarter, he went to the quick game and let the receivers go to work. The result? A six play, 85-yard drive capped off with a Chico McClatcher bob-and-weave for 30 yards off a quick middle screen that found him untouched for six.
Browning went 5-for-5 for 94 yards, all with him pushing tempo. At one point Browning would complete 13 passes in a row, eventually finishing his day 23-28 (.821) for 294 yards and five touchdowns. That completion percentage was good enough for fifth all-time in UW single-game history.
“(Idaho’s cornerbacks) were back a little but further so we figured that we probably couldn’t just run straight past them,” UW receiver Dante Pettis said. Pettis finished the day with six catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns, career highs for catches and touchdowns.
“So we had to take the underneath routes and basically just take what the defense gave us.”
In the first game of the season, Rutgers gave Washington one-on-one matchups on the outside, something the Huskies were able to exploit deep to great success. The Vandals weren’t looking to be that charitable. But they were apparently willing to die via many, many paper cuts, and once Smith saw they could run tempo and get Browning in a rhythm with the shorter routes, the whole offense went to town.
“It was a good idea to go fast,” Browning said. “I think that’s really what opened it up for us and let us get in a rhythm. That was a good call by (Smith).”
McClatcher's touchdown opened up the floodgates, as Washington used their pace to hang 21 more points on the Vandals before halftime, eventually leading 35-0 at the break.
The Vandals had been broken, the game well out of reach.
Tempo is a weapon Petersen and Smith have used to varying effectiveness over the last couple years. They like to have it at their disposal, but with a caveat: they don’t want it to be a constant. They like the unpredictability of whether they’ll go fast or not.
Some of that is to obviously try and keep defenses off-balance. But some of it is also based on overall game planning and not trying to hang the Husky defense out to dry.
“We are always paying attention to our defense and how many plays they are going to see,” Petersen said. “Sometimes when they get turnovers like that and score quickly, we didn’t run more plays, we didn’t hold the ball. Time of possession in the last two games they have held it more than us. But we are still very aware of how to help our defense, trying to not let them see as many plays as the other side does.”
In a bizarre quirk, Washington’s time of possession in their first two games of 2016 has been 26:45. Both games.
The Huskies have had 17 scoring drives in those two games. Six of those scoring ‘drives’ have been less than a minute. Six more have been less than two minutes. The two longest drives of the season lasted 5:11 and 3:50 each, and both ended with field goals.
But almost half the scoring drives also started in opposition territory. The longest scoring drive for the Huskies this season? Two drives of 85 yards. After that it’s 72 yards and then 65 yards.
So are the 2016 Washington Huskies the 2010 Oregon Ducks? No.
Petersen cares about time of possession. He doesn’t want the defense out there any longer than they have to be. But he’ll be more than happy to take the quick strikes when they are there. And if they aren’t they’ll push tempo, take the quick stuff and get their offensive playmakers in space.
It’s a formula that’s worked well for the Washington Huskies to date. Even if it took a minute to kick in on Saturday.