Half Empty or Half Full?

As I exited Husky Stadium following Saturday's win over Arizona, I felt the undercurrent of a bizarre sentiment within my psyche.

Along with the excitement, bewilderment and strained vocal chords produced by the game, I couldn't help but wonder what the long-term interest for the program would've been if they had lost this game to Arizona.

In the wake of the 32-28 win, it is very easy to say that Washington still has that fourth quarter magic; that those Dawgs gutted out yet another 4th-quarter comeback. But this is not reality. Washington won the game based on two basic things: (1) Arizona's slow strong safety took the worst possible angle he could've at he worst possible time in trying to hold his over-under zone and help his cornerback late in the game, and (2) the great individual talents of Reggie Williams and Nate Robinson saved the Dawgs' bacon.

So Washington did manage to win this game. And it was great drama and a lot of fun to see them strike with 2:07 to play, over an annoyingly cocky Wildcat team. In eking out the victory, UW avoided the unthinkable-- starting off conference play at 0-2, and staring at an oncoming slew of ominous opponents on the horizon. Instead, we find ourselves in familiar territory, squeaking out a win, seeing the record improve to 1-1 in conference play, and outlining the things we need to improve on. However, with the victory secured, there is a sense of having done just enough. There is an ability to say, "We're on the right track, and we just have to get better at what we're doing." There is still a sense of accomplishment with a Pac-10 victory. A win is a win, as was the phrase repeated several times Saturday and Sunday.

But the same problems that plagued the Huskies last year are still officially a plague this year. The secondary is struggling mightily, and I believe that much of it is lack of understanding the schemes. I mean, no defense on earth can actually design 15-yard cushions against the best receiver in the Pac-10, can they?

Clearly the de-emphasizing of the run blocking is coming back to deeply haunt UW's offense now. Add also to the mix two more challenges, that of repeated turnovers and an ongoing struggle to convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns, and you've got yourself a mighty witch's brew there, son.

On Saturday, Washington was given credit from some for an improved running game against the Wildcats. Yet, the longest run from scrimmage was seven yards. The Dawgs tallied only 82 total rushing yards. This all coming against the league's worst run defense. True enough, we did see some plays where we got some push up front. But do you feel confident that this group could get a rushing first down and kill the clock when absolutely necessary?

On the other hand, if Washington had lost against Arizona, right now they would be 0-2 in conference play and 3-3 overall. A losing season would be suddenly a fathomable possibility. Fair or not, one wouldn't be able to see coach Neuheisel through all the index fingers pointed at him. And if things subsequently unraveled toward the end of the season, in the same manner as last year, then there would be a real jolt to the collective system of the Husky Nation. For Husky fans, players and coaches, the season would pass with all the enjoyment of a kidney stone. But it would be a real red flag that something is not right, and bring forth some actual soul-searching, instead of tweaking, in the off-season.

When UW plays against a Major Applewhite, Jonathan Smith, Kyle Boller or Jason Johnson, opposing school passing records seem to be dropping like dead flies. No quarterback should ever come into Husky Stadium and throw for 443 yards! When the other team has a third and four, it's disheartening to see the secondary give a 10-yard cushion. The two-yard out for a touchdown to Wade right in front of Derrick Johnson was a 40-yard across-both-hashmarks throw from a quarterback with an average arm. The clear message from Arizona was, ‘You guys are so bad, I'm going to throw the worst possible play at you and it's going to score.'

It did.

This is easy for me to sit here and say, when I am not out on the field. But isn't it clear that what is being attempted and tweaked at constantly is not working?

When Rick Neuheisel came to Washington in 1999, the Dawgs switched from the old 4-6 defense to a more reactive 4-3 base to keep big plays to a minimum and allow the Husky ground game to take the air out of the ball on offense. In the same manner that Jim Owens did not adapt quickly enough to two-platoon football, Jim Lambright had stuck with that aggressive style of defense for too long. Washington's defenses were torched for some horrific yardage totals in Lambo's last two years. Neuheisel wisely went to a bend-don't-break philosophy, as it was clear that Washington no longer had the defensive horses to be so strategically brazen, and that offensive coordinators had long since figured out the riddle of the attack front.

But now it is season four under Neuhesiel and his defense is surrendering far too much yardage. Defensive backs look tentative and tackle with an awkward lack of aggression that was again costly against Arizona. When the Huskies rush only three or four linemen, there is no pressure at all, which pretty much ensures that a receiver will find an opening in the soft zones.

It seems to me, that if you are giving up such gruesome yardage totals as it is, why not revert back to a more aggressive style of defense? Both Chris Fetters and Blaine Newnham recently made some comments to this effect, and they were right on the money. If you are going to go surrender points like that anyway, why not go down in a blaze of glory? It didn't cost Lambright his job until it was obvious that he and Barbara Hedges could no longer get along. I would bet Neuheisel has a much longer leash.

Why not consistently send guys on blitzes and crashes from various angles and directions? Sure the yardage against it would come in big chunks at times but quarterbacks would think a bit more as they were picking themselves off the turf. Why not give the young, raw talent of Nate Robinson the chance to use his great athletic prowess to cover guys in man-on-man press? There would be some tough lessons but perhaps they'd pay big dividends in the not-so-distant future.

Fans are fickle as Hell, but I'm naïve enough to believe that some could live with some big plays if the mistakes came out of aggression instead of confusion. I may be wrong here, as that was the main beef about Lambright and Hart's defenses in the mid to late 1990s, that they were too stubborn to play zone on ANY down.

But hey, I don't get paid $1.8 million to make those decisions. Neuheisel does, so he's the one that gets to decide if it's worth the risk.

It's been intimated by some that several times when the defensive coordinator called for a more aggressive scheme, he was overruled. I'm not sure that is happening, only the guys in the booth know, but I'd love to see more gambles on defense. Do they trust the talent back there? All of them are Neuheisel recruits.

Zone breakdowns, containment breakdowns, and not enough pressure are allowing defenses to convert far too many 3rd and longs. This in turn, depletes crowd enthusiasm, dampens the moral of the defense, and becomes repeatedly a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Husky players and coaches are good people who are working hard. This article is not some backhanded attempt asking for regime change. It is also somewhat absurd of me to suggest the possibility that an entire playbook be scrapped in mid-season, because that just isn't literally possible. But it is certainly possible to implement the more aggressive features of the current system in place, and let that set the tone for games.

Offensively, Washington will not be able to run at all against USC. Count on that. I would like to see us place great confidence on our O-line's ability to pass block, and several times go with a 5-receiver set. Roll Cody out when necessary, stretch the field, and go deep when the opportunity presents itself. That's what Cody loves to do best – throw the bomb.

If Washington is able to beat USC this week, it will be due to the Huskies' ability to strike with big plays. With the collegiate career of Reggie Williams now presumably half over, this will be his only chance to shine in the Los Angeles Coliseum as a Husky.
Derek Johnson can be reached at djohnson@Dawgman.com

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