Following practice on Wednesday, offensive coordinator Nick Charlton walked into the defensive backs meeting room. Fresh on his mind was the loss of QB Ta’Quan Roberson, the plays the unit could done better and how coming close and losing, was just not good enough. Throughout the conversation, it was clear, from an internal perspective, the Huskies staff is not going to accept losing.
“It’s great to hear how [the game] was different [for the fans] and all those things,” Charlton said. “Well, we weren’t here for all that. When we were in the huddle in that fourth quarter, they were all looking at me, Coach, the guys in there and each other; [our intent was] we were going to win that game. That’s all we really care about, we just want to win.”
Making that goal more difficult was the loss of Roberson, the Huskies starting quarterback, on just the 10th offensive play of the game. Roberson was seemingly in command of the unit, both on the field and on the sideline prior, as he instilled an aura of confidence into the group that translated into an opening drive touchdown.
“I’ve lost some quarterbacks mid-game, I don’t know ever 10-plays in, that was a new one to me,” Charlton said. “We are all just really hoping and talking with Ta’Quan every day, that he has a speedy recovery because that was very difficult.”
In football, changes on the dime and being prepared is something coaches preach to players every week, prepare because you are just one play away. Despite game planning all week for what suits Roberson against a defense like Utah State, the Huskies had to change on the fly. Both players are very similar at the quarterback position, but also different in various areas. True freshman Zion Turner is better at certain throws, while Roberson is at others. Roberson is very mobile and electric with his legs, while Turner, who can run, is a great mover in the pocket.
“The approach doesn’t deviate too much with Zion,” Charlton confirmed this week. “In terms of what he knows and feels comfortable with, that’s more what you go with. There are some plays he will say he doesn’t like, didn’t get that rep [during the week], whatever it was and then some plays that you just run because he feels like he knows it even though he didn’t rep it during the week. It’s all about what he likes.”
“We did change a little bit, especially on third down,” he continued. “We call the game as it flows. This question came up prior [in training camp], how am I as a play caller? I always want to be aggressive, but sometimes you need to understand the flow of the game too. It was a different situation, wasn’t what the plan was heading in, but we need to find a way to win the game; we were down 4-points in the fourth quarter and had a shot. We need to finish that ballgame.”
With a full week of preparation, expect Zion Turner to look like the player he did throughout training camp, which caused a heap of praise to be thrown his way from both coaches and media alike. Turner has been through the spotlight at St. Thomas Acquinas throughout his high school career. He led arguably one of the best high school programs to a national championship and three state titles as a three-year starter. He knows what to do in pressure situations, but college certainly is a different level that requires proper preparation each week.
“We gave [Zion] a good amount of the two reps last week,” Charlton said. “I’ve had this experience before where my quarterback has gone down in the middle of a game, a few times the last couple years. Obviously not getting the one’s reps matters because you then have to go through what he does well, what he knows well and those types of things. Zion is very smart, very cerebral, he fixes mistakes pretty quick. In game, that’s a tough spot to be in. Obviously, it was an up and down performance, but I thought he handled the operation really, really well and kept us in the game.”
“He’s played in big-time games, with great players and against great competition, people always leave that part out,” he continued. “He’s very, very coachable, knows the mistakes that he makes as he’s making them or right after them and then corrects them. He reminds me of some of the better quarterbacks that I’ve ever been around in terms of how he goes about his business and works. He wants to get better. With a lot of the things we want to do on offense, he’s able to process that information. We’ve had two days of practice this week and he’s been able to come out and put in really strong days of practice, just by getting the reps now. There are moving parts, but he understands them because he studies and he can react to situations.”
Turner’s ability to bounce back from mistakes was on full display in Utah. After throwing an interception on his very first throw, he bounced back immediately with the touchdown pass on his second.
“Ironically that was a rep he had actually taken during the week,” Charlton said. “It was there, a play action concept to Keelan. We were a little late on it because of something off the edge and just in general, being late in play action as a quarterback is usually a bad thing. It was a physical mistake. He needs to just throw that thing away, even though it was there early.”
“But he reacted fine and the guys around them, they were good, understood it was a physical mistake. Being around him for so long now and recruiting him before that, I never doubted that he would come back. Obviously a couple plays later, he throws a touchdown. He’s a resilient young man. You don’t want to see that in the moment, but at the same time, you know what he’s about and how he’s going to react to those things.”
The Huskies lost the turnover battle in the game three-to-two. There were the bad calls by the officials; missed illegal touchdown on the first Utah State drive on 3rd and 6 as well as the pass interference call on Kaleb Anthony on their final scoring drive, also a 3rd and long. However, don’t turn the ball over and those penalties don’t matter so much.
“We can’t turn the ball over because if you look at that game, we hit so many of our goals,” Charlton said. “We obviously were not explosive and efficient in the pass game, we all know that, but we hit all these other goals. We turned the ball over. Ultimately having three turnovers was the story of the game. If we don’t turn that ball over, we are talking about a very, very different game.”
The Huskies were without arguably their top three receivers after the 1st quarter in the opener. Cam Ross is out for the season, Nigel Fitzgerald sat, hoping to be back from a nagging hamstring injury this week, while Keelan Marion was lost to a broken collarbone, which he suffered on the touchdown. His competitiveness and fight to hold on to the ball, despite the break speaks to his toughness.
“Losing Keelan, it matters, I’d be remiss to not say that, but at the same time, these players need to step up,” Charlton said. “They know that and Coach Allen has been very honest with him. Cam is down and now Keelan is down, where are we at? We need to make plays, be able to separate when it’s man [coverage] and understand where the zones are and where to fit them in our pass game.”
Charlton also called on Cale Millen early, which led to a 23-yard run to set up the Huskies only other touchdown drive after Roberson went down. Huskies fan should expect to see him, however, not on a regular basis during a game.
“There is a package for him,” Charlton said. “We always look at what do guys do well and getting your best eleven guys out there. For Cale, it’s not only running, there are some things he does really well in the pass game too. You want to use your best players. I don’t love the idea of playing multiple quarterbacks all throughout and switching them in and out. To me, we’ve always had packages to get our best players on the field and that’s no different than any other skill player, be it a wideout, running back, anyone else that we want to get out there. So Cale has some things that he does really well, so we should be using him in that capacity and it’s not just in the run game. We’ll continue going down that route. They’ll be some things we do for him.”
Success offensively going forward will also depend on how the offensive line builds off their strong performance in the opener. They were very effective in the run game, but need to clean up a few mistakes in pass protection.
“I echo what coach said,” Charlton said of the line. “It was what we expected. To be honest with you and Coach Sammis would be the first to tell you, we thought we left a couple out there too. That’s not just them, that’s everybody. To me, I thought we were going to run the ball well. That’s a very good front that doesn’t get a lot of credit because they have a very good offense, but they play very well, are coached well and it’s a very good defense that plays aggressive. We did a good job overall with the main schemes we want to run. It’s about players, not plays and those guys did a good job. We need to keep it going, but it’s only one week. It’s definitely a confidence builder, but we lost the game.”
Having a guys like Nate Carter, who ran for 190-yards will certainly help.
“Nate is awesome,” Charlton said. “He’s a very serious young man. He takes a lot of pride in his work; he’s a worker. Those guys are very easy to coach, he’ll just go until whenever you need to take him out. He had been kind of banged up throughout training camp, so he didn’t get a million reps. That was really the first time he had gone truly live for that amount of time. It was obviously very encouraging to see. He showed balance and the ability to break tackles, they missed a number of tackles because he was able to make people miss, that was really, really encouraging. He’s one of those joy to work with type guys. You love to be around those types because he works, he’s a leader and he doesn’t say a lot all the time, but the guys follow him because of his work ethic and how he is as a young man.”
Despite the injuries, the goal in the pass game is to be efficient and explosive. The staff has worked all week to implement a gameplan to help put their available players in the best position to be successful. Look for them to take advantage of the versatility the roster presents.
“You never want to have skill players that all have the same skillset because then you can only do one thing, whatever that is,” he said. “We have multiple guys that do different things really, really well and it’s on us as a staff to move them around, do different things with them, make sure they are getting the ball, or put them at the point of attack when we need to. Right now, a lot of guys present a lot of value, so they are going to play. It’s why we played a lot last game, we’re going to continue with that and that’s how we need to evaluate, play our best players.”
Saturday at noon will be the chance to put the corrections on display and ensure a close first-week loss was a learning experience that translates to wins moving forward.