Mike Merrell’s Three-and-Out
After a rousing win over the Idaho Vandals this past weekend, our purple friends of the north moved up two places in the Coaches Poll to the # 9 slot, while maintaining the # 8 position in the AP Poll.
Oregon continues to get mixed, minced, sliced, diced and chewed for imperfections, but the pollsters just keep a blind eye glued to the wonder dogs.
With a generous buffet of early season cupcakes going down easy, it’s still early to know for sure who has what. Both Washington and Oregon have substituted freely during second halves against the have-nots of college football, so both teams could have had greater scoring margins and better stats than what two weekends of history have shown.
The Ducks obviously have some things to figure out on defense. If they don’t, it’s going to be a matter of how many teams they can outscore. Based on what we saw Saturday night, that could be quite a few, even with a defense that seems to think that “Three-and-Out” is nothing but the name of a FishDuck.com editorial.
But though nobody is talking about it, the Washington Huskies have their own problems to work out, and those problems are the subject of this week’s Three-and-Out.
1. 40 + 59 = 8? After downing two cupcakes, the Huskies have the nation’s # 40 defense and # 59 offense. Against Rutgers and Idaho. And that somehow translates into the # 8 team in the country.
As mentioned above, the Huskies have substituted freely after establishing early leads in their first two games of the young football season. But they’ve also played two sincerely bad teams.
If you think Oregon has a geographical recruiting challenge, try recruiting to Moscow, Idaho or anywhere in New Jersey. Never setting foot in New Jersey is one of the few things I hope to accomplish before I die. And Moscow is a cow town even for Idaho. I should know. I was born in Idaho and have lived here most of my life. Maybe “cow town” is too generous. The Moscow area was originally named “Hog Heaven.” And I am not making this up.
On top of that, the Idaho Vandals play their home games in a (slightly) oversized Quonset hut. But I digress.
By any means, the Huskies have the easiest schedule in the Pac-12, and you would expect them to shine against the Idaho’s and New Jersey’s of the football world. The scoreboard that the pollsters spend nearly five minutes carefully viewing from all angles certainly suggests that they did just that.
But there are a few chinks in the doggy armor, which are apparently not as interesting to pollsters as the fact that Oregon is starting a former FCS quarterback, which obviously never works.
Besides running up some mediocre total offense and total defense stats, the Huskies have converted only 36.4 % of the time on third down. That’s # 87 in the country. Against Rutgers and Idaho. Sorry, I guess I already mentioned that.
Why is it that a team that ESPN said has some of the best offensive skill players in the Pac-12, second only to Washington State (0-2, oops) can’t convert on third down against … you know, Idaho and Rutgers? The answer has something to do with …
2. The Running Game. Everybody — and I mean EVERYBODY, even Charles Fischer, FishDuck himself — is all over Oregon’s shabby run defense. Oregon’s run defense stands at # 71 in the country at 3.9 yards per carry. You would certainly hope for better against Cal Davis and Virginia.
But Washington’s run offense sits tied for # 106 with Florida Atlantic at a meager 108.5 yards per game. Against … never mind.
You can make all the “liberal substitution” arguments you like, but the truth is that the dogs are grinding it out at an average of 3.6 yards per carry against a couple of pretty bad teams.
Leading rusher Myles Gaskin — who has gotten stuffed fairly regularly — has run 27 times for 124 yards, once breaking loose for all of an 18 yard gain. That’s an average of 4.6 yards per carry. And that’s the best the Huskies have. Against … you know who.
Note: Oregon, as a team, is averaging 6.8 yards per carry. With a so-far anemic running game, Washington has been bailed out by special teams and its …
3. Passing Game. On the surface, Washington’s passing game looks sound. QB Jake Browning has the second-highest QB rating in the country after two games. (Oregon’s Dakota Prukop sits all the way back at 11th, living proof of the perils of bringing in an FCS transfer.)
But we already knew that Browning could complete passes against weak defenses. Last year he had 13 touchdowns and only one interception against Utah State, Sacramento State, Oregon State and an Arizona team that gave up 49 points per game in six Pac-12 losses. Against everybody else, Browning had 3 touchdown passes and 9 interceptions.
And there are reasons for this. First, Browning isn’t exactly the most mobile quarterback out there. Last year he galloped for 35 yards on 65 carries. So far this year, he’s minus-9 against Rutgers and minus-1 against Idaho. So if there’s any change, it’s not for the better if you’re fond of furry animals that like snow and howl at the moon.
Second, Browning’s passes have a bit of a loft to them. It’s a nice soft ball that a receiver will probably come down with if the defense is bad enough. But if the defense is a little quicker, the pass is more likely to end up an interception than a touchdown. Based on last year, about three times more likely. And in the Huskies’ first two games, we’ve seen that ball thrown a lot.
Two years ago, USC’s Cody Kessler fit the same mold. We were told that the next year would be different. It wasn’t. Kessler actually went backwards from 2014 to 2015.
Browning in 2016 is a different quarterback in a different year, so maybe things will be different. But to me it looks like he’s throwing the same ball. And if he’s going to make his 35 yards rushing for the year, he’s got 45 of them left to go — against competition that is only going to get tougher.
Oregon has work to do and much to prove. Getting gashed up the middle by Cal Davis and Virginia has to feel uncomfortable to everybody, especially with a tough road trip to Nebraska coming up, followed by the rigorous Pac-12 schedule.
But the Ducks aren’t hiding from their problems, and nobody is telling them they’re great just the way they are. Not to mention any names, but I would be more nervous if the Ducks couldn’t run the ball or convert third down against patsies, and were still ranked in the top 10.
Top photo by John Sperry