clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What to watch for if you’re really, really hoping Washington upsets Alabama

Chris Petersen long ago earned the reputation of a master underdog. Here’s how his Huskies might slay college football’s ultimate giant.

NCAA Football: Washington at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama is probably going to beat Washington in Saturday’s Peach Bowl and advance to the College Football Playoff final. We should start there.

Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide are two-touchdown favorites over former Boise State giant-killer Chris Petersen’s Huskies; S&P+ gives them a 71 percent chance of advancing and a nearly 50 percent chance of winning the national title. There are plenty of scenarios, and a majority of them result in Bama winning in Atlanta.

An Alabama win would take shape in a familiar way. The Tide would render the Huskies one-dimensional — teams barely even try to run against their ridiculous front — and then tee off on quarterback Jake Browning with a killer pass rush. Meanwhile, despite Washington’s elite pass defense, the Bama run game will eventually find some creases, giving the Tide a chance to ease ahead.

Once Washington is rendered a little desperate, Bama forces a couple of turnovers and, knowing this defense, probably returns one for a touchdown. And there you go: a trademarked 14- to 21-point (or maybe more, depending on just how much momentum the avalanche builds) Alabama win. The Crimson Tide have faced four teams in the S&P+ top 15 so far this year and have won by an average of 33-7. It’s a pretty reliable formula.

But what about the other formula? What about the one that leads to a Washington upset?

Alabama is not without its weaknesses. Or at least, the Tide have a few only minor strengths.

They rank just 27th in Passing S&P+, 45th in passing success rate, and 44th in Adj. Sack Rate. Against the four best defenses Jalen Hurts faced in conference play (Florida, Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M), the freshman quarterback completed just 20 of 42 passes on passing downs with three interceptions.

The Tide are also more mediocre than you would expect in scoring opportunities; they rank just 68th in points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent's 40). And they allow a lot of negative plays; they're 86th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line).

Granted, most of these issues come on offense, and even if Washington is able to slow the Tide, the Huskies still have to figure out how to score. But that shows us how the upset script takes shape.

Step 1: Force second-and-long

NCAA Football: Chattanooga at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 Alabama offense completed an evolution. As offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin prepares to become FAU’s head coach, he also presides over an offense without a bell cow. Over the years, Kiffin has proved adept at identifying his best couple of ball-carrying options and leaning heavily on them.

  • In 2011 at USC, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee combined for 184 receptions. In 2012, they combined for 194.
  • In 2014 at Alabama, Amari Cooper caught 124 passes, while Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon carried the ball 366 times.
  • In 2015, Henry carried 395 times, and Calvin Ridley caught 89 passes.

Kiffin's offense has long been a meritocracy. In 2016, it was more of a democracy. Ridley leads with just 66 catches, and three running backs have each carried between 83 and 133 times.

Combined, the trio of sophomores Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough and freshman Joshua Jacobs will finish with fewer carries than Henry had in 2015, but wow, have they made the most of them. They have combined to average 24 carries per game and 6.8 yards per carry. Hurts is contributing 11 more rushes (not including sacks) and 6.4 yards per carry. There are more weapons to account for than ever.

But you can occasionally invade the backfield. One of every five carries is stuffed at or behind the line.

Run stops are not a Washington strength; they rank 80th in stuff rate, and among front-seven defenders, only two (linebacker Tevis Bartlett and tackle Greg Gaines) have recorded at least four non-sack tackles for loss.

Still, the Huskies rank seventh in Rushing S&P+. Colorado's Phillip Lindsay managed just 53 yards in 19 carries. USC's Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis rushed 28 times for 97 yards. Stanford's Christian McCaffrey: 12 carries, 49 yards. The Huskies have allowed just seven rushes of 20-plus yards all year, second-fewest in the country (behind, naturally, Alabama).

Even if second-and-11 isn't an option, a few second-and-8s could go a long way. A few third-and-7s would go even further. That’s where turnovers and eventual punts come from.

Washington is allowing just a 97.6 passer rating on third downs and ranks fifth in Adj. Sack Rate. The advantage turns sharply in the Huskies' favor if Alabama's run game isn't thriving.

Step 2: At worst, break even in field position

One of Alabama's bigger advantages is very SEC: punting, and the field position that results from it.

Washington ranks just 99th in punt success rate, and Alabama ranks 15th. Bama's JK Scott has averaged eight more yards per kick than Tristan Vizcaino. Both teams have all-or-nothing punt returners — Bama's Trevon Diggs, UW's Dante Pettis.

Through either punting or turnovers, Washington cannot cede the field position advantage. LSU was able to remain tied with Alabama into the fourth quarter because the Tigers forced passing downs, dominated on passing downs, and beat Alabama in field position by 3.3 yards per possession. Washington will have to replicate this and also generate more offense than LSU did.

Step 3: Uh, score some points

USC v Washington
John Ross
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Alabama has allowed 3.9 yards per play and 11.8 points per game in 2016. The Tide have allowed greater than 4.1 yards per play or 16 points just twice: against Ole Miss and Arkansas.

Were there any similarities between how Ole Miss and Arkansas piled up yards (6.3 per play between them) and points (73 of the 153 Bama allowed all year)?

A few.

Big pass plays.

Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly and Arkansas’ Austin Allen combined to average 16.1 yards per completion. The Rebels' Van Jefferson, Damore'ea Stringfellow, and A.J. Brown caught 12 passes for 226 yards; Arkansas' Jared Cornelius caught five for 146.

Three of these teams' seven offensive touchdowns against the Tide came on passes of at least 24 yards. Alabama allowed 40 passes of 20-plus yards this year, only 66th in FBS. They are at least a little bit vulnerable.

So great! Throw bombs! Easy, right? Well, it comes with obvious risk. Kelly and Allen also threw four interceptions and took eight sacks. Two of those sacks resulted in fumble return touchdowns. This is the epitome of a high-risk strategy. But you probably don’t have a choice.

Big-play passing isn’t Washington’s game. The Huskies completed 47 passes of 20-plus yards, only 40th in the country, though part of that is because they weren’t frequent passers — 10 of their 12 wins came by at least 24 points, so the offense was in safe mode for quite a few second halves. UW did rank 17th in Passing IsoPPP, a measure of the magnitude of successful plays.

UW’s top four receivers (John Ross, Dante Pettis, Chico McClatcher, and tight end Darrell Daniels) averaged a combined 16.3 yards per catch and 10.9 yards per target. If the Huskies can protect Browning, Washington’s receivers might get open deep.

That’s scary for Washington. The Husky offense ranks 74th in Adj. Sack Rate, and Alabama’s defense ranks seventh.

Another part of protection, however, is passing when the opponent has to mind the run.

Washington v USC Photo by Sean Haffey/Getty Images

Much of Ole Miss’ success came via early-down passing.

On passing downs, Kelly and Allen were just 9-of-27 passing for 134 yards and two picks, but on standard downs, they were 21-for-28 for 352.

Washington has long protected Browning with balanced play-calling. The Huskies run the ball just 54.5 percent of the time on standard downs, 93rd in the country, meaning many of his throws come when the defense is playing the run, not the pass.

As impressive as both Browning and running backs Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman (combined: 25.8 carries per game, 6.5 yards per carry) have been, the balance has been key to UW's success.

But with Alabama offering very little chance of rushing success, Browning will shoulder a heavier load. Can he? And even on standard downs, can the line that got eaten up by USC in UW's only loss stand up against an even better defensive front?

Not including sacks, Browning has rushed just 37 times for 162 yards in 13 games.

That's fewer than three carries per game. But against Ole Miss and Arkansas, Alabama allowed 17 QB rushes for 101 yards.

We know Washington can come up with cool little wrinkles to base college football plays. The Huskies might want to take whatever advantage they can from a few unexpected Browning runs.

Oh, and trick plays.

Opponents of a Chris Petersen team know they have to prepare for them, and Petersen teams are happy to take advantage of that. But it’s a way to create big plays, and Washington has to come up with them, one way or another.

In Wednesday’s Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody, we outlined the advantages Washington has and how an upset script might play out.

Alabama is really good at waiting you out. Saban’s squad doesn’t panic if things aren’t going right after one or two quarters, even with extreme youth in the offensive backfield. They were even with Michigan State into the second quarter in last year’s CFP semifinal. They were tied with LSU heading into the fourth quarter in Baton Rouge. Hell, they were losing to Ole Miss by 21 late in the second quarter, then went on a 45-6 run in about 25 minutes.

Still, this gives you a pretty good idea of what to watch for early in the Peach Bowl, if you’re trying to figure out whether the Huskies can keep up. Are Harris and the Bama backs gaining 3 yards or 5 yards on first down? Are Gaskin and Coleman gaining 1 yard or 3? Is Bama able to tilt the field with first downs and the punting game? When Browning is passing early in a set of downs, is he getting time? Is anyone getting open?

Petersen has done an incredible job in bringing Washington to the CFP in just his third year, and lord knows he earned his early “killer underdog” reputation. Now we get to find out just how much of a giant killer he really is.