There is still a lot of room for improvement, of course, but compared to where this team was in Willingham's first season, I see major upgrades in terms of speed, talent, and just having good football players out on the field competing. You can have talented athletes but that doesn't always translate into good football players – I see more and more guys on this team that are good football players. Donald Butler, Nate Williams, and Dan Howell are exhibits A, B, and C.
We have yet to really see what the young tailbacks can do, but in the limited glimpses of Brandon Johnson we've gotten, I have been impressed. He is quick and has a wiggle to him that shows good instincts. Curtis Shaw has to put the fumble from last week behind him, because he has the type of speed that can help this team as well.
The offensive line has been good at times and at others it has struggled. When Offensive Coordinator Tim Lappano had the "explode" package in, the one with all of the motion and realignments, Ohio State wasn't sure how to counter it. They were off balance and not able to predict tendencies. However Washington wasn't quite ready to run it and often times confused themselves, leading to a time crunch to get plays snapped on time. So they had to scrap the extra motion and play it more straight up. This offensive line isn't athletic enough to play a defensive line like Ohio State's straight up yet.
But the explode package may very well be ready by this weekend. The UCLA defense looked extremely vulnerable to the big play on Saturday against Utah. I believe that the Husky offensive line will match up better with the Bruins than they did against Ohio State.
It also is time that someone besides Anthony Russo show themselves to be a dependable target for Jake Locker. Russo doesn't have blinding speed but does the best with what he has, and is proving to be a very solid receiver with good hands. He is filling the Sonny Shackelford role nicely. Marcel Reece now needs to put his drops behind him and use his size (and weight) to break off the line and create space for Jake to throw to. He can be a very difficult receiver to cover at nearly 250 pounds, it's time to throw that around and make some big plays. He is capable and has shown that he can make the tough catch. Now it's time to show that he can make the routine one, the one that moves the chains in a tough spot. The guy that could really get defenses to respect the deep threat or the underneath slash is D'Andre Goodwin. That kid is so fast, but he is still learning how to run crisp routes and may be a year away from being able to play at his full speed and not slow down in cuts. Hopefully he can come around sooner rather than later, as he could be an immediate contributor to this offense with his 4.3+ speed.
I did get a kick out of some of the comments about the coordinators this week. Kent Baer gets throttled for allowing his receivers to play their 12-15 yard cushion in their zone, and then gets chastised when he pulls his guys out of the zone to a more aggressive scheme that got burned deep. That play should've illustrated to Husky fans what all other Pac-10 coordinators already know – Washington is not very deep or fast in the secondary and Vonzell McDowell is not 5' 9" tall as he is listed. Thus you have to play underneath to keep teams from doing what Ohio State did on the 68-yard pitch and catch for a backbreaking score. That is why you have defensive schemes – to abate your weaknesses, and hopefully confuse the opposing team's quarterback. And for this team, the defensive weakness is what everybody already knew – the secondary.
The other way to alleviate a thin secondary would be to create bigger pass rush. Ohio State was able to keep the Husky defensive line at bay all day. Against UCLA, the trench guys really need to turn it up a few notches. Greyson Gunheim, Caesar Rayford, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Wilson Afoa, and Jordan Reffett really need to help their defensive backs out by taking away Ben Olson's second and third options. The only way to do that is to rush him into taking his first option by collapsing the pocket. Olson won't be confused with Jake Locker anytime soon –he is very pedestrian and sackable. But he is also fully capable of picking apart a defense if given time to look downfield for long periods of time.
Louis Rankin is a wonderful back if the hole is there, but over the past two weeks the holes have not been there and he has a difficult time figuring out where to run if it's not obvious. He has gotten much better at being patient and picking his spots, but sometimes the spots he's chosen have not been the correct ones. That boils down to instinct. He has wonderful moves and in the open field he can make anyone miss, but now it's time to go get three yards when they are there. Only get creative on outs and plays that ask that he create space. On the tosses or the gut plays, it's time to put the pads down and go get the yards that are there. That is easier said than done against a defensive line like Ohio State, guys that were able to muscle our guys up front. Boise State did a nice job of moving the line of scrimmage and filling the gaps with linebackers so Rankin would have to decide where to run instead of having it mapped out for him. It's time for Louis to have a big game now that the Pac-10 season is upon us. I still have faith that he can do it.
Which brings us to the tight end position. What happened? Johnie Kirton had so much promise when he arrived, but he has not made a dent into any game this year. A tight end can do so much to help stretch a defense up the middle, and of course to seal the corner for a running back to get around the end. Kirton, Gottlieb, and/or Lewis need to become more productive. It would do wonders to keep linebackers honest and if they are watching Jake too much, could lead to big gains right up the gut with the short passing game. Kirton's time is now.
Two field goal attempts and two blocks. That dawg just won't hunt. If it happens again, it's time for a special teams shake up, because confidence in the placekicking unit will only get worse. You have to be able to count on getting three points if a drive stalls – otherwise that is yet more pressure you are going to put on Locker to make too many things happen inside the 20.
Given all that went wrong last weekend, a lot went right. A blown official call, two picks that weren't, a blocked field goal, and a missed defensive assignment cost the Huskies dearly against a more talented team. All of those things are fixable.
Washington enters Pac-10 play at 2-1, and with a team that is much improved over last year and the year before. That is fine with me. And if they can come out of the USC weekend with a 3-2 mark (1-1 in conference), that would be more than fine.
I see speed in the LB corps that I haven't seen in years, I see defensive backs in next year's recruiting class that are talented, I see depth coming on both lines, and I see one of the most exciting quarterbacks in school history.
Credit to Tyrone Willingham and staff. This team is getting closer than it has been in quite some time. Keep the faith Husky fans.
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