This Lake show looking like a tragedy

The firing of offensive coordinator John Donovan is just the start of the soul-searching that needs to happen for the University of Washington's football program.

I love the University of Washington.

The affection I feel for the place and the four years I spent there are both huge parts of why college football is the sport closest to my heart, and in spite of the outcome of Saturday’s game against Oregon and everything that preceded it, I really did enjoy being at Husky Stadium, shouting myself hoarse and having that feeling in the first quarter that this was in fact going to be a day where the Huskies pulled an upset out of their keister. Carson Bruener’s first-quarter interception. Jackson Sirmon’s tackle for a loss that resulted in a safety. Hell, the effort Washington’s entire defense put up for the first two quarters was downright admirable. It was a team that deserved better coaching than it got. The dismissal of offensive coordinator John Donovan, which was announced Sunday, is just the start of what should be a period of intense soul searching for that school’s athletic department. It was more than just the offensive playcalling that was unacceptable.

Will Jimmy Lake be back next season? I think that’s highly likely, but the reason I think that is because of the finances involved. Whether he should be back is another question with multiple layers to it, and in the interest of peeling that back I think it’s worth counting down the problems that were evident on Sunday in order of increasing severity.

4) The offense stunk. Again. This was not a surprise. It has been terrible all year. Worse than anything I’ve seen in 30 years. The loss to the Ducks was the third time this season in which Washington lost a game where the opponent could have won without throwing a pass. In fact, Oregon might have been better off had it not attempted a single pass given that Washington’s only touchdown in the first three quarters was scored after Bruener’s first-quarter interception set Washington up at the Oregon 6.

The Huskies had three first downs in the first three quarters. They finished the game with just seven. This comes after games against Arizona and Stanford where the Huskies refused to throw the ball until forced to at knifepoint. Well, against Oregon, Washington kept trying to get the ball to the perimeter with wide-receiver screens and quick passes despite repeated evidence that Oregon’s defense was entirely too quick for this approach to work. Those quick slants to Jalen McMillan that keyed the comeback against Stanford? Nonexistent against Oregon. The Huskies never looked to Rome Odunze down the sideline outside the numbers, either. And the next time Washington goes for it on fourth-and-1, I’m going to request a swift kick in the groin instead. It will hurt less than watching another quarterback sneak or wildcat with Sean McGrew.

It was evident after the season-opener against Montana that Washington had a pop-gun for an offense. Why Donovan remained in the position during the bye and up through Saturday’s loss is an absolute mystery. His offense was cheeks, and has been since Week 1 this year.

3) Jimmy Lake’s remedial attempt to talk trash. I don’t mind the fact that he insulted Oregon’s academics. I don’t even really care about the factual basis for those insults or more accurately the utter lack thereof. I don’t think it was a particularly smart time for Lake to cast those sort of aspersions given the gap between the two institutions, but if Lake wanted to hang himself out there – butt exposed – I actually kind of respect the swagger.

As for the actual content of the trash talk, Lake needs to outsource the writing AND the grammar. It wasn’t the most academically prowess of insults, and ripping off the directional reference from the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry is just pathetic. But mostly, the problem is that Lakechose to harp on the academic gap between Washington and the school that has beaten it 14 of the past 16 meetings. Well, now 15 of the past 17, and in doing so he robbed me of any ability to complain about the things Mario Cristobal said in Oregon’s locker room after the game. A video stream from one of Oregon’s players captured Cristobal saying of the Huskies, “they represent everything that’s wrong with football.” I think it’s a terrible message to send in amateur athletics, demonizing your opponent in that way, and his reference to Washington “backing out” of last year’s game because of illness during a pandemic is small-minded caveman talk. Yet I can’t really get my dander up to complain about it because Lake set the tone for the week by talking about the quality of education at Oregon.

2) Kicking himself. Punting down 8 with less than 2 minutes left is one of the stupidest decisions I’ve ever seen from a football coach. I don’t care that Washington was at its own 10. I don’t care how unlikely a first-down conversion wasgiven Washington hadn’t gained an inch with two drops in three plays to start the possession. Lake decided that punting, getting three stops and then driving 70 to 80 yards in less than a minute with no timeouts would be easier for his team than gaining those 10 yards on one play. That’s utterly moronic, and I realize we’re now debating what was less likely of two unlikely scenarios, but still, the decision was too dumb for me to just chalk it up as an accounting exercise.

There was 1:57 left. Washington had just two timeouts. If the Huskies had gotten the ball back, they were going to have no more than a minute to go the length of the field. They were going to need multiple plays gaining 10 or more yards with just as little room for error. If the argument was that you’re hoping for a turnover on the punt, well, it’s not like a turnover was more likely there than it would have been on one of the offensive plays Oregon ran after a turnover on downs. The worst rationale I heard offered up was that Lake didn’t want to give Oregon the ball at the 10, thereby giving Cristobal an easy opportunity to add a final twist of the knife. If that’s the case, he put pride above a chance to tie the game, which Washington did still have at that point.

1)      Hands-on coaching. The single most alarming thing was Lake racing to confront one of his players in the first half after a tackle on the UW sideline.

It seems pretty clear Lake made contact with his player’s helmet. After the player turned around, it looked like Lake shoved him in the back. Touching a player to admonish him is utterly wrong. I don’t think even Lake would disagree with that. What is unclear is how hard the contact was. Was it forceful or incidental? In my mind, that’s the difference between something that can be addressed with a written reprimand or small punishment and something that would require a suspension or potential termination.

People have compared this to Woody Hayes, the former Ohio State coach, and that’s not accurate. Hayes came onto the field and hit an opponent during a bowl game. Lake was trying to reel in a player he felt had crossed the line with his aggression toward opponents. I think Lake’s intentions were in the right place, but the way he did it – pushing one of his assistants and then the referee out of the way to then make contact with his player – is absolutely, scarlet-letter wrong. I’m just not how serious it is.

Put it all together and it’s a pretty damning portrait of Lake’s status at the helm of the program, and the questions aren’t going to be answered with the firing of Donovan, and as costly as it might be for Washington to start over with a new head coach, given the way things are headed, I’m not sure if the Huskies can afford not to.

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