Optimists, Pessimists, And The Washington Huskies

Washington rose from 0-12 to bowl victory in just two seasons. Can they keep up their momentum in a post-Jake Locker world?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

In reviewing teams from worst to first (according to Four-Year F/+ averages) in this Summer Vacation series, it's been interesting to see certain themes emerge.  One theme is the one-time power who, after a bad hire or two, has lost its way and started over.  Colorado, Syracuse, Minnesota and Washington (and to a lesser extent, Kansas State) all fit this description; though the Buffs and Gophers are in Year One of their respective reclamation projects, Syracuse and Washington got head starts.  Both are in Year Three, and both achieved a level of success that was, from a statistical point of view, a bit unexpected in Year Two.

Oh, how far Washington had fallen. Syracuse and Colorado both hit 2-10 at their respective nadirs, Minnesota 1-11.  But Ty Willingham's Huskies pulled off the goose egg, 0-12, in 2008; that season, they fielded the fourth-worst BCS conference team of the last six years, ahead of just 2005 Duke, 2008 Washington State (who beat them in the Apple Cup) and 2009 Washington State.  For their level of recruiting (only once between 2002-08 did the Huskies' recruiting class rank outside the Rivals.com Top 40), this was completely inexplicable and, in the case of Willingham's employment, unforgivable.

Though they probably weren't quite as good as their record indicated in 2010, the Huskies have made major strides in two years under Steve Sarkisian.  That they were playing in a bowl game just two years after 0-12 was impressive enough; that they humbled Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl was even more gratifying.

What happens now that the face of their program -- the one Washington player everybody in the country could name -- is now preparing for life as a Tennessee Titan (assuming there's a National Football League ever again)?  After the expected blip in 2009, recruiting has once again picked up steam under Sarkisian; plus, some interesting skill position players return.  But with quite a bit of youth on display in 2011, can Washington keep pushing forward without at least a temporary misstep?

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 4-9 | Final F/+ Rk**: 51
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep at BYU 17-23 L 28.0 - 30.0 L
11-Sep Syracuse 41-20 W 44.4 - 22.3 W
18-Sep Nebraska 21-56 L 26.9 - 40.0 L
2-Oct at USC 32-31 W 37.2 - 39.1 L
9-Oct Arizona State 14-24 L 28.3 - 29.9 L
16-Oct Oregon State 35-34 W 29.3 - 30.7 L
23-Oct at Arizona 14-44 L 24.9 - 36.3 L
30-Oct Stanford 0-41 L 6.7 - 28.4 L
6-Nov at Oregon 16-53 L 14.8 - 28.3 L
13-Nov UCLA 24-7 W 21.5 - 5.0 W
27-Nov at California 16-13 W 26.3 - 14.5 W
4-Dec at Washington State 35-28 W 30.8 - 37.6 L
30-Dec vs Nebraska 19-7 W 33.8 - (-5.8) W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 21.8 96 29.3 80
Adj. Points Per Game 27.1 66 25.9 48


I've said many times that improvement is not typically linear.  It typically comes in the form of two steps forward, one step back.  Tell that to a Washington offense that took a good, solid five consecutive steps forward to finish the 2010 season after a four-game bottoming-out process.  The Huskies stood at 3-6 after losing three consecutive games by a combined 138-30 score, but they rallied, whipping UCLA at home and beating California and Washington State on the road to reach bowl eligibility.

It's easy, however, to see why stats may be a bit wary of the Huskies -- their seven wins came by an average of 8.9 points, while their six losses came by an average of 26.5.  Though they sneaked by USC and Oregon State in early-October, they only played well enough to beat an average opponent (with an average number of turnovers and bounces) once in the first nine games of the year.  That said, their late-season improvement was steady and impressive, and we have learned that such improvement could indeed be a sign of good things to come.  A great bowl game performance -- like what Washington unleashed on Nebraska -- is not, in and of itself, an indicator of anything positive, but a multi-game hot streak is a different story.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 25 31 16
RUSHING 29 48 25 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 18 29 13 49
Standard Downs 32 55 25 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 49 40 46 44
Redzone 43 54 47
Q1 Rk 25 1st Down Rk 31
Q2 Rk 38 2nd Down Rk 22
Q3 Rk 55 3rd Down Rk 86
Q4 Rk 50


Thanks, basically, to Todd McShay overrating him this time last year, Jake Locker was very effective for what he was: a low-efficiency, big-play quarterback who lacked consistency but could unleash two or three drives of perfection every game.  You see his effect in the tables above -- aside from passing downs, Washington's explosiveness (PPP+) ratings were higher than their efficiency (Success Rate+) ratings almost across the board.  Locker completed just 55 percent of his passes for a humble 6.8 yards per pass, but Washington did still rank in the top 30 in both Rushing and Passing S&P+, and he did still get selected eighth overall in April's NFL Draft.

So now Locker's gone.  He's been around so long that it's hard to imagine Washington's offense in his absence.  Will new quarterback Keith Price (who held off redshirt freshman Nick "Yes, That Montana" Montana this spring) change the offense's personality (high-volume passing on standard downs, high-volume rushing on passing downs, medium pace, high variability) much, or does this footprint accurately depict Sarkisian's modus operandi?

Price threw for 164 yards in one start and mop-up time as a redshirt freshman last season; the staff kept things simple and conservative in his thrown-into-the-deep-end start against Oregon -- he completed 14 of 28 passes (four completions to running backs for six yards) at 4.5 yards per pass.  This probably doesn't drop too many hints as to how the offense will look when molded around him, but I do expect the Huskies to be perhaps a bit more conservative, at least early in the year.  Two decent rushing-and-receiving threats in second-team all-conference back Chris Polk (1,415 rushing yards, 5.4 per carry, -0.8 Adj. POE, 9 TD; 180 receiving yards) and Jesse Callier (433 yards, 5.6 per carry, -1.7 Adj. POE; 98 receiving yards) should be leaned on in the opening games. Price certainly looked strong in the spring game (20-for-28 passing for 212 yards, 7.6 yards/pass, 3 TD, 0 INT), but ... that was the spring game.

Other tidbits:

  • Receiver Jermaine Kearse was a perfect all-or-nothing target (1,005 yards, 16.0 per catch, 54% catch, 12 TD) for a quarterback like Locker.  I would expect him to play a bit closer to the line of scrimmage this year, meaning higher catch rates and lower per-catch totals.  The same goes for Devin Aguilar (352 yards, 12.6/catch, 53% catch), who probably didn't have a high enough catch rate to go with his slightly lower per-catch averages.  The tight end position could play a larger role this season (big things are expected of freshman Austin Seferian-Jenkins), but it's not guaranteed
  • The offensive line was a hair above average last year, but it still dragged U-Dub's overall rankings down a bit.  Three starters return (including senior left tackle Senio Kelemete), though the end-of-spring depth chart still shows two sophomores and a redshirt freshman in the starting lineup.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 67 71 66
RUSHING 82 82 82 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 58 61 57 36
Standard Downs 58 71 55 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 60 55 62 41
Redzone 98 96 98
Q1 Rk 52 1st Down Rk 47
Q2 Rk 79 2nd Down Rk 76
Q3 Rk 66 3rd Down Rk 48
Q4 Rk 14


Here's where stats can confuse you and generalizations can backfire.  Washington's defensive line ranked 36th in Adj. Line Yards, so their overall Rushing S&P+ rank of 82nd suggests an iffy-at-best linebacking corps.  Plus, Washington's Need For Blitzes figure was relatively low, suggesting the defensive line was generating a good portion of the Huskies' pass rush. Except ... outside linebackers Victor Aiyewa and Mason Foster combined for 203.0 tackles, a monstrous 35.0 TFL/sacks, and six forced fumbles.  Nobody on the line had more than 8.0 TFL/sacks.

Generalizations are just that -- generalizations -- but no matter who was responsible, Washington's strengths and weaknesses were obvious: they were okay against the pass but couldn't stop the run.  Opponents knew it, rushing quite a bit more than average on standard downs, and while the pass defense was far from spectacular, the Run D was still quite a bit worse.  The Huskies also couldn't stop anybody in the redzone, but that wouldn't have been too much of a problem if a sieve of a run defense didn't let so many teams into the redzone at times.

For 2011, Washington's strengths could get stronger and their weaknesses weaker.  Both Foster and Aiyewa are gone, leaving a gap in the front seven's play-making potential, but the secondary returns three of four starters, including a pair of interesting cornerbacks, Desmond Trufant (41.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 4 PBU) and Quinton Richardson (33.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 1 FF, 8 PBU).

(By the way, how in the world did Aiyewa only end up honorable-mention all-conference?  The dude had 22.5 TFL/sacks!)

Other tidbits:

  • The front seven isn't completely bereft of play-makers at this point.  Ends Hau'oli Jamora and Everrette Thompson combined for 13.0 TFL/sacks, tackle Alameda Ta'amu earned honorable mention all-conference honors last year, and inside linebacker Cort Dennison (8.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT) was certainly solid.  Though the 4-3 typically doesn't give linebackers as many opportunities to attack as a 3-4 would, Washington's statistical profile comes across more like that of a 3-4, with quite a few linemen and (especially) linebackers racking up disruptive stats despite only average overall ratings.
  • Sign of either depth or lack thereof: six players are listed at OLB on the post-spring depth chart -- junior Jordan Wallace, sophomores Princeton Fuimaono, Cooper Pelluer, and Garret Gilliland, redshirt freshman Jamaal Kearse and freshman John Timu -- all of them as co-starters.  Either the line for replacing Aiyewa and Foster is extremely long or nonexistent.

Washington's 2010 Season Set to Music

Because of their Holiday Bowl greatness, and because I'm pretty sure I somehow haven't passed along a My Morning Jacket song yet, how about we set that Huskies highlight video up with some "One Big Holiday"?

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors


Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's
Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 69
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 31
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +2 / +7
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (6, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +3.5


It's time for another game of Are You An Optimist Or A Pessimist?

What pessimists see: a team that has risen a bit too quickly in two years and had very little margin for error in terms of reaching a bowl last season.  The Huskies were outscored by almost 100 points last year, and they lose both the face of their offense and perhaps their three best defensive play-makers in Aiyewa, Foster and safety Nate Williams. Plus, there are a ton of freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep.

What optimists see: a team whose YPP margin suggests the blowouts were somewhat fluky, a team whose turnover margin was dinged significantly by an unlucky number of fumble recoveries, and a team with downright solid recruiting rankings (those freshmen and sophomores are on the depth chart for a reason -- they're good).

People will be paying a lot of attention to the travails of Nick Price in replacing Jake Locker, but Washington's 2011 fate will likely be decided by the Huskies' overall youth.  If Seferian-Jenkins, Price, and a host of young offensive linemen, receivers and outside linebackers can be trusted enough to run what Washington coaches want to run, then the ceiling is pretty high.  But the best odds are on Washington hovering around .500 in 2011 while putting together serious potential for 2012 and beyond.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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