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Putting the sled before the Dawgs
Is the offense slipping away under Willingham?
Malamute, 19 February 2007

Grumbling about the state of the offensive line is getting to be a habit for me in February. Then in April, I complain about the anemic offense I saw in the spring game. In September, the Huskies canít seem to run the ball, unless a whiz kid like Isaiah Stanback does the legging. 

Truth be told, the UW hasnít had a decent running game since its Rose Bowl team of 2001. That team averaged over 200 yards on the ground per game thanks to its offensive line and all-purpose quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo.

Over that last six years (2001 - 2006 seasons), the UW has averaged a woeful 115.25 rushing yards per game, with an average rank of 7.3 in the conference.

Before last season began, Coach Willingham said the play of the offensive line would be the most important ingredient in his quest to win a bowl game. Five wins didn't get him to a bowl, and he can thank gifted QB Isaiah Stanback for four of them.

UW loses two of its best offensive linemen from a line that, for the most part, played together all season long. By the time the Stanford game rolled around in early November -- each of the 5 offensive linemen being worn to a nub like a veritable lead pencil with tooth marks -- the offense barely moved the ball.  Throw out the 5 big plays in the Apple Cup the very next week, and the offensive numbers looked same-old-same-old, vis-ŗ-vis the Tree.

Without four-star-plus reinforcements, the offensive line play at Washington could be its Achilles heel in future battles. 

For example, in his 2003 recruiting class, Rick Neuheisel signed 7 wide receivers and 3 offensive linemen. In his 2007 recruiting class, Tyrone Willingham signed 5 running backs (6, in effect, with Michael Houston) and brought in 3 offensive linemen, two of them sleepers.

Assuming Houston doesnít transfer (and counting J. R. Hasty, Matt Mosley, and Louis Rankin), the Huskies will have nine running backs on board in 2007, with only 16 offensive linemen, none of the latter carrying four or more stars at the time of their recruitment.  When you consider attrition and talent, there doesnít seem to be enough high profilers for entrenchment on the front line.

Worse yet, over half of the 16 offensive linemen listed on scout.com are labeled NR (for not rated); that is, they flew under the radar during their recruiting season and were given a commensurate two stars by default.

As far as depth goes, Bob Condotta (*) quotes offensive coordinator Tim Lappano as saying, "But it's still an area of concern just as far as making sure we have enough numbers." Reference Condotta's blog for more on the offensive line, "Coach speak, volume four." (#)

Iím not criticizing the 2007 class, since I donít know diddlysquat about recruiting, but the parallel between it and the one in 2003 seems quite similar, in that the offensive line seems to have been short changed this year, just as it was in 2003. 

Did Tyrone put the cart before the horse or, in this case, put the sled before the Dawgs?

Iíll ask him that when I see him in the desert next month. ;-)

Lappano claims that UW has addressed the numbers problem with the past few recruiting classes, including this one, but he seems contradictory on that issue. (See the blog entry.)

To post four or more wins this next season, the play of the OL will be even more critical than it was last year.

Last season (2006), statistically speaking, Washington finished in the bottom half of the conference in Scoring Offense, Total Offense, Pass Offense, Rush Offense, and Pass Efficiency Offense.  UW finished fifth in Red Zone Offense.
Four key offensive categories worsened from the previous year.

Category 2006 Conf. 2005 Conf
Scoring Offense 21.8 8 21.6 10
Pass Offense 193.8 8 222.8 9
Rush Offense 127.9 7 135.18 6
Total Offense 321.8 8 358.0 8
Pass Efficiency 108.6 9 123.3 8
R. Z.  Offense 84.8% 5 80% 5

The offensive stats began slipping starting with the seventh game of the season, in a game against Oregon State, in which Stanback sustained a season-ending foot sprain, and they continued to slide for the next four games, seemingly headed back to where they were in 2004, a 1-10 season. See the table below and the "The whole kit and caboodle is back."

Stat 2004 Penultimate 5 games of 2006 First 6 games of 2006
Pass efficiency 78.7 82.04 134.53
Total offense 311 254.2 367.6
Points scored 14 16.2 24.3
Rushing offense 120.2 84.8 167

Stanback and the relatively fresh offensive line made the difference in the first part of the season. The Huskies got off to a 4-1 start (5-7 overall) under Isaiah's senior leadership. In the UCLA game, for example, Stanback took charge in the second half, leading the Huskies to victory, when, in the first half, the game looked hopelessly lost.

The spring scrimmages should have a lot to say about the offensive line and its upcoming fandango with the conference teams.

Isaiah leaves a quarterbacking crew whose future breeds uncertainty; the expected starter is recovering from injury and the other two, in effect, are freshmen. Coach needed to bring in one more scholarship quarterback for insurance purposes.

If Houston leaves, there goes our power running back, and one so badly needed.

Putting more points on the board than last year could be at a premium next season. Scoring 21 points per game just won't cut in the Pac-10, nor will it with the fans.

The offensive line empowers the offense. The guys up front, on both sides of the ball for that matter, will influence the outcome of next season more than any other group of players on the team.

As Frasier or Niles would say, "Willingham must find a way to cut the Gordian knot that has become the offensive line."


(*) Bob Condotta is a sportswriter for the Seattle Times.

(#) Lappano goes on to say, "I think we've got the makings of a good front out there. I love the attitude of the guys. They are all workers, they all want to be good, studying film and all that, and that's half the battle. I think they are in pretty good shape."

Comment: I guess I had better buy a new digital camera for Picture Day 2007. Some of those big guys haven't looked exactly chiseled to me in the past photos I've taken. A thought: They need to stand up and hold their waists in. Maybe, I should get one of the cheerleaders to take the pictures of the offensive linemen for me.

Malamute can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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