The Huskies are running a pass-first offense this year, with 65% of 1st downs going to designed passing plays, and about same ratio on all meaningful downs. Starter #10 QB Penix has a strong and fairly accurate arm from the pocket, though I think his mechanics are somewhat unorthodox and several past injuries keep him from scrambling or contributing much in the designed run game. He’s got a couple of excellent wideouts to throw to, #11 WR McMillan and #1 WR Odunze, who combine for about half of all receiving yards prior to garbage time.
I would describe this as a volume passing offense, in the sense that they simply want to pass in just about every situation other than short yardage, and they don’t take deep shots all that often but rather focus on screens, short passes, and intermediate routes. It’s not an Air Raid route structure, but this offense shares a general philosophy of controlling the ball through passing and marching down the field methodically.
Their per-play passing efficiency and yardage numbers come in a bit above average for a Power-5 team, in my experience. Excluding garbage time, against all FBS opponents they have 167 successful designed passing plays vs 145 failed ones given the down & distance, or 53.5%, and they’re producing about 7.9 adjusted YPA. However, they’re achieving a nearly championship-caliber rate of generating 15+ yard gains on designed passing plays, about 19.5%.
These numbers reflect the fact that the vast majority of completed passes are in the 10-20 yard range, pulled down by a greater than usual number of throwaways (Penix is fairly savvy in getting rid of the ball instead of taking sacks, but both his offensive tackles, new starters this year, grade out relatively poorly on my tally sheet in pass protection). Here’s a representative sample of successful passing plays:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 – The pocket is collapsing and the back gets taken out by the TE getting rocked back so badly, but typical of Penix he keeps his eyes downfield and just rolls a bit to buy time to make a strong-armed throw to McMillan, who’s run away from coverage.
- :20 – Former walk-on #37 TE Westover has been almost 3 yards per catch more productive on these types of intermediate throws than former 4-star #83 TE Culp.
- :33 – This route structure is pretty typical, and the drag route against zone coverage is one of Penix’s favorite throws.
- :48 – The RT is giving up pressure to the DB on the blitz so this throw has to be a quick one, but Odunze running up on the man coverage’s toes then beating him outside was arguably the quintessential throw of this game.
The biggest change I’ve observed in the Huskies’ pass-catchers compared to previous years is how much the targets have tilted away from tight ends, which were essential to their success – particularly on 3rd downs – over the last several seasons. Formationally, this offense always has either one or two tight ends on the field (it’s a 71% pass rate with 11-pers, 49% pass rate with 12-pers), but relatively few targets go their way and I think there’s a general talent falloff here compared to past TEs like Will Dissly, Drew Sample, and Cade Otton.
I’m also a bit surprised that not very many passes go to some other pretty talented receivers like #2 WR Polk, #3 WR T. Davis, and #0 WR G. Jackson (though Jackson’s raw pass numbers on the official record are inflated; he’s used as the sweep man and they do that little push pass on them but in reality many of his touches are runs). It strikes me that the progression is mainly McMillan/Odunze, then a checkdown to the back, then a throwaway.
While the passing offense is very productive in total yards, I would still characterize Penix as a somewhat impatient passer – subjectively, I think he wants to make any pass that looks like it’s there whether it’s a good idea or not. His total number of interceptions isn’t too bad, but I see him put his receivers in jeopardy with throws into heavy coverage or otherwise get unnecessarily quick completions instead of waiting for something more productive to come open.
Here’s a representative sample of failed passing plays:
- :00 – This throw against this coverage needs to be hyper accurate and I wouldn’t quite describe Penix’s arm that way, and at any rate it’s asking for Odunze to get clobbered. It’s unnecessary too, the post to Polk is breaking open and there’s no pressure coming. I think a more patient quarterback would have moved off a favorite target farther down the progression.
- :10 – McMillan is coming from the opposite side of the field here on this extremely long-developing play, way more time than is necessary for a pretty good CB to fall off Culp in zone and get the PBU.
- :32 – It’s 3rd & 10 on the Cal 35, this should have been a touchdown drive but the throw is a short checkdown because the twist is getting home and Penix isn’t going to spin out to the wide side of the field and make a play.
- :41 – Cover-1 blitz on this play, not being picked up very well, but it’s obviously man coverage so Penix should be throwing the crosser as a man-beater and let McMillan turn downfield and run away from coverage, rather than this in-breaking route to Odunze where the DB has inside leverage and can break it up.
The Huskies’ rush numbers are somewhat perplexing, and I spent some time discussing this with BT on the podcast. Overall, it grades out as an above-average efficiency rushing attack, with 105 successful designed runs vs 77 failures, or about 57.5%. However, their per-play yardage and explosiveness figures are below average, at 4.7 adjusted YPC and 12% of designed rushes gaining 10+ yards. Typically, this kind of statistical profile means a rush offense that gets just enough yards, maybe 4-5 each time, but seldom any more than that. Some examples:
- :00 – I think this is why #21 RB Taulapapa is getting about half the carries despite there being some more on-paper talented backs in the unit – the blocking by the C and RG is letting their defenders lean into the lane, but he hits the scrum hard and knocks them off.
- :08 – While I’m pretty down on OL coach Huff’s development over the years, there’s no disputing he recruits size and raw talent, and that lets this line simply bowl over some of the smaller fronts in the league.
- :16 – The Huskies generally prefer strongside to weakside running, here Culp is washing the line down and Westover smartly turns and opens the gap against the box safety.
- :28 – Here’s the jumbo look they sometimes use on the goalline, note backup #56 OL Hatchett wearing #96 on this play as moonlighting TE (though they’ve never thrown him a pass). I’ve thought #22 RB C. Davis has been the Huskies’ best back for several years and his ability to bounce off tacklers and flip failed run plays into wins is a big part of why.
Diving deeper into the numbers resolves some questions about the Huskies’ rush offense but not others. For one thing, this offense only flips its preference to running in 2nd or 3rd & short (under four yards to go), and nearly half of all runs come on those down & distance situations. The Huskies’ tilt to passing except in short yardage persists even in the redzone, which in my opinion explains a lower redzone TD rate than is predicted by their total offensive efficiency. That down & distance skew drives up the rushing success rate since only getting a few yards still counts as a success in short yardage, without bumping the yards per play.
I also think the offensive line grades explain a lot – this is an improved run-blocking line compared to last year (they really had nowhere to go but up), but on my tally sheet in the run game they still come out pretty poorly compared to average Power-5 lines, and extremely poorly at the right guard spot. I like the primary running backs they’ve settled on, and think they’re generally able to push forward and get just enough yards, but I’m not really seeing the line create big holes to run through prior to contact. I think the line is also responsible for the fact that the majority of the Huskies’ failed runs are stuffs – tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage – rather than getting 2-3 yard gains that just aren’t quite enough, and that drags down the average. Some examples:
- :00 – Hard to find a block going well on this play. The LG, RG, and RT are all bending at the waist to lunge, while the LT and C are playing high. Either way they’ve got no power coming from their base and get blown past easily.
- :07 – Both the C and LT get help on these blocks but can’t anchor on their own, and the TE is just dismissed for an easy tackle when the back tries to bounce.
- :25 – Nobody on the left side of the line is getting their zone-blocking assignments right.
- :31 – The C is just plain losing here, but the RT doesn’t seem to know his man assignment is the ILB not the backside DB.
However there’s still another mystery that BT and I couldn’t resolve, which is that the Huskies’ rush success rate is at an incredible 70% in their three games against California schools — Stanford, UCLA, and Cal — but against their five other FBS opponents, it’s a mediocre 50%. The YPC and explosiveness figures don’t really change, and it doesn’t track with those opponents’ rush defense rates – they should have done much better against lousy rush defenses like Arizona, ASU, Kent St, and Michigan St; however, although the California schools don’t have great rush defenses on my tally sheet either, the Bruins and Bears are well above 30% so the Huskies overperformed against them.
I had the regression engine check every conceivable correlation and it came up with nothing statistically significant to explain this discrepancy, including ball carrier, field position, playcall balance, home/road, time of game, or score differential. It seems that Davis and Taulapapa just had great games against California schools and middling ones against everyone else, for reasons that may only be known to them.
The Huskies have been on a six-year slide in overall defensive performance on my tally sheet, losing about 2.7 percentage points in combined defensive success rate every year from their peak at championship-caliber 61% in 2016 down to 44.7% in 2022. They don’t enjoy the same bump in redzone defensive success rate that many teams do as the field compresses, which keeps their redzone TD allowed rate at 77th nationally.
On the podcast, BT and I agreed that this isn’t really about any schematic changes even though they’ve gone through four DCs in that time, but rather the general talent drain that’s accelerated over the final year before former head coach Chris Petersen retired and the disastrous tenure of his replacement, Jimmy Lake.
Other than doing away with the sky-high safeties, the structure of this year’s defense isn’t dramatically different from previous years’ in the sense that personnel from last season mapped pretty cleanly onto this one. It’s typically a 2-4-5 with two big interior linemen, two edge players, two ILBs, and a nickel secondary with a hybrid LB/S (though due to the roster they inherited that hybrid is pretty indistinguishable from a nickel safety, unlike the converted linebackers this staff was using at Fresno St). When the offense lines up with two or more tight ends, they pull a safety to put in a nose tackle and play a 3-4 bear front. It’s a fairly static defense in the sense that their substitution rules are rigid and there’s very little stemming or variety in defensive formations, although due to injuries and some experimentation they’ve churned through a lot of the roster over the season.
I really like one of their defensive tackles, #91 DL Letuligasenoa, and three of their edge players in the rotation, #3 OLB Martin, #8 OLB Trice, and #58 OLB Tupuola-Fetui. Those four plus #42 ILB Bruener (curiously not a starter and in fact pretty deep in the rotation) are the only defenders to grade out above average on my tally sheet, with in my opinion pretty poor play from every other lineman, backer, and defensive back in the two-deep, some of whom look too small to be playing Power-5 football.
As a result, the Huskies’ rush defense comes out almost identically poorly to last year’s 4-8 squad, with only 79 successful defenses of designed rushes vs 111 failures, or 41.5% (it was 41.3% in 2021). I haven’t seen quite as much vulnerability to QB runs that this defensive structure had in 2020 and 2021 at Fresno St, though since they missed Utah and Arizona they’ve really only faced one running QB so far in 2022 (Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who was the Bruins’ second-leading rusher in that loss), so it’s still a possibility. Here’s a representative sample of rush defense failures:
- :00 – UCLA is in 11-pers on the goalline so this would be a good time to break typical substitution rules and go to a 3-DL front with their heavier ILBs, but instead they’ve got their worst two edge players against the run and a very lightweight ILB playside.
- :13 – Tupuola-Fetui is certainly quick off the snap but he’s generally a liability against the run; this is a poor angle to take on a zone-read play for either QB or RB. The rest of the front is easily blocked.
- :26 – I don’t understand why Martin is trying to go inside the guard here, it makes it very easy for the RT to climb to the scraping ILB. Nice penetration by Letuligasenoa though.
- :33 – Three different defenders are fooled by the fake endaround, which is the DB’s responsibility anyway. The DT is getting blocked four yards downfield. This was the first play of the game and the Huskies tried to get away with a 2-4; they quickly switched to their bear front after this.
However, the Huskies have gotten a bit better at preventing explosive rushing, giving up about 4.6 adjusted YPC and only allowing 12% of opponents’ designed runs to gain 10+ yards. Those are somewhat above-average numbers and an improvement over last year. I think some of this can be explained by a remarkably weak schedule of opposing offenses (their strength of schedule is ranked 86th by FPI), but I also think I’m seeing more competent coaching than last year’s catastrophe. Some examples:
- :00 – I’m not sure why Bruener isn’t starting, he has the build and the speed to be an effective ILB unlike everybody else they’ve been playing.
- :07 – Some really hard hits here, including to each other.
- :21 – The most effective rush defenses have looked like this one – gumming up the interior gaps and giving the DB time to come down for the actual tackle.
- :28 – I think the game ball last week should have gone to Letuligasenoa, he almost single-handedly kept Oregon St from scoring on four consecutive drives by winning plays virtually on his own.
Where the Huskies have suffered the worst falloff is in pass defense, which was probably inevitable given the loss of six bluechips (including two first-round draft picks at corner) over the last two seasons and having none come in to replace them, and instead starting walk-ons at several positions over the year.
They’ve successfully defended 111 designed passing plays vs 124 failures, or 47%, while giving up 8.3 adjusted YPA and allowing almost 17% of passing plays to gain 15+ yards. All of those are significantly below average numbers and way down from last year (10 percentage points worse efficiency, 5 points worse explosiveness, and 2.4 worse YPA than 2021). Some examples:
- :00 – The difference in quality between these two edge players is pretty clear on this play. The CB tries to get physical with a bigger and stronger WR and pays for it.
- :19 – Here’s the dime package, they like to play man and blitz out of it. The rub concept works well against it and the CB winds up on the turf, while the single high safety can’t outrun the receiver.
- :37 – Both ILBs and all three safeties get sucked down on this simple play-action, leaving an excellent wideout one-on-one with a CB who’s struggled with injuries this season.
- :51 – OSU’s film over the years makes very clear that a shotgun QB in this down & distance and field position is going to be a throw, but they’re in 12-pers so it’s the bear front and they’re short-handed in the back end without a lot of talent to make up for it.
In my opinion, the only reason the pass defense success rate isn’t worse than the rush defense rate is the quality players on the defensive front are generating a fairly effective pass rush. They generate a sack, scramble, or throwaway on more than 29% of opponent dropbacks for downfield passing, which is a pretty good pressure rate in my experience. Some examples:
- :00 – The DB’s beat pretty badly here, but Trice is beating the RT and forcing an inaccurate backfoot throw.
- :07 – Here’s an interesting twist, with Trice and Letuligasenoa flipped. It seems to distract the line and lets Martin split the guard and tackle.
- :21 – The corner is completely cooked and this would have been a touchdown since this safety hasn’t been productive in years, but fortunately their best interior and edge players have hurried the QB into an overthrow.
- :36 – Would have been nice to get a sack, but with a QB this immobile it more or less guarantees a throwaway.