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Film Study: Bye Week trip back to Tucson

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If the Husky defense is so great, what happened at Arizona?

NCAA Football: Washington at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Huskies are absolutely rolling right now, having throttled all but one of their opponents. The week 4 game at Arizona was a thriller, much more so then it should have been in the eyes of Husky fans. If not for that game, we would probably all have even more grandiose expectations for this team as they begin the second half of the season. As it is, UW showed that they are in fact human and can be beaten if they are not playing with the precision we have come to expect from Chris Petersen’s squad. That game seems to have created some angst among Husky fans about the Dawgs’ ability to handle the run.

So, what happened in that Arizona game? We know there were some offensive stalls, some penalties, and one hell of a lucky Hail Mary that coincided with the poorest vertical jump Budda Baker has produced since the 2nd grade. But in the first half, Arizona was running the ball very effectively. In our bye-week edition of Film Study, we revisit some defensive plays against the Wildcats.

2nd and 7:

This play shows the stress that Arizona’s offense can put on a defense, and why Rich Rodriguez’s offense is dangerous when the Wildcats have any semblance of health.

Arizona’s center and right tackle both release down field at the snap, pulling up at that magical spot three yards down the field. Because they don’t actually commit to run blocking (which taking another step would do), the defense has to play both the threat of a running back carry, the quarterback pulling the ball out and keeping it, and the added dimension of the quarterback throwing the ball. Simply put, that’s a lot to keep track of, in the real-time action of the play.

The quarterback (Brandon Dawkins) is reading Jojo Mathis on this play; it’s Mathis’ actions that determine if Dawkins hands the ball off on a run up the middle with the running back (J.J. Taylor) or keeps it himself off tackle to the right. Mathis stays home, so the decision is to hand the ball off.

Elijah Qualls loses gap integrity here. As a two-gap defensive lineman, he needs to be able to attack a ball carrier in both the “A” (center/guard) and “B” (guard/tackle) gaps. He overcommits to his right side, and there’s no way he’s able to work all the way back through the defender to his left to make a play or even slow the ball carrier down. Mathis is hesitant on reading who actually has the ball (and the deception of the zone-read can make that very difficult), and can’t pinch down in time to meet the back at the line of scrimmage. But it’s that run/pass option action by the center and right tackle that really freezes the linebackers that turns what would probably be a two-yard gain into five yards. Both Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria have to respect the pass option, and can’t attack near as quickly as they normally would.

2nd and 1:

Arizona runs the “inside zone split” on this play. The running back has three reads to make, and where he goes depends on the blocking up front. The play is designed to go left, and since the offensive line seals off this side fairly well, that’s what he does. But there is also an inside cut back toward the middle of the field available if the line can’t quite contain the defense’s right side, and lastly, there’s a seal block all the way back to the right from the H-back that creates a cut back all the way across the field. We saw this play from the Huskies in a previous film study from the Idaho game.

On this play, Greg Gaines fights to maintain control over both of his gaps, and in doing so, doesn’t see the ball carrier run past him. Psalm Wooching “takes on” the right tackle’s block, instead of working to defeat it, but in fairness, wasn’t going to be able to make the play without a superhuman effort. Once the H-back releases from the offense’s right side, Kevin King doesn’t have a coverage responsibility other than the running back. He’s effectively become an outside linebacker. If there was a “great” defensive play to be made here, it probably would’ve come from him, closer to the line of scrimmage. Again, you’ll notice the run/pass option respect that Azeem Victor shows on this play. Even with a lineman releasing down the field at him, Victor has to be cognizant of the threat of a pass. It would’ve been an extremely fast read on his part, but he could’ve been more aggressive in closing down on this play.

1st and 10:

This play is known as a “power read” from Arizona. It combines the option element of the zone read, with a pulling guard “power” block the Huskies have used so effectively this year. One of the things that’s (typically) a little different with the zone read and the power read is that both the QB run (if he keeps) and the handoff are to the same side of the play; on a typically zone-read, the QB run and handoff options are to opposite sides of the play.

A couple of things happens here, some good and some bad. And the Huskies actually catch a bit of a break as well. First, Keishawn Bierria makes a late adjustment to a run blitz. He had initially shown coverage on the slot receiver to the defense’s right. He comes hard to the mesh point, forcing Dawkins to keep the ball. Next, Damion Turpin breaks free, but has also commited to the running back. He’s not in position to affect the cut back to the defense’s left side; he needs to break down, and probably not get so far up field. Azeem Victor is reading the play to his right, and is abandoning the middle of the field. What Turpin effectively does is turn this into schoolyard football by “giving” Dawkins the cutback away from the play side. Psalm Wooching is clearly reading the play going to his right, and is getting ready to pursue down the field. He’s not in position to handle the cut back. Luckily for the Huskies, Dawkins runs into his own man. Had he not, Wooching likely misses the tackle and Dawkins is off and running.

1st and 10:

This is another inside zone-read play. Jojo Mathis is again the man being “optioned” on this play. He does a good job of staying home and taking away the quarterback run.

On the other side of the field, though, both Elijah Qualls and Psalm Wooching have gotten too far up field, and they’ve created a natural running lane by doing so. The Huskies are blitzing a safety on this play (Jojo McIntosh, from the defense’s left), so Wooching absolutely has to maintain containment. More importantly, Qualls entirely gives up the “A” gap, and the center is able to use Qualls’ momentum against him. Azeem Victor attempts to slice through the oncoming double team; if the defensive line had slowed the ball carrier down remotely, he might’ve been able to make a play. Because the running back is at near full speed, though, Victor’s attempt creates an alley up the middle of the field.

Zone blocking doesn’t necessarily mean pancaking a defender or driving him out of a play. Lots of times, it simply means using the defender’s momentum against him. As you can see here, Wooching and Qualls have penetrated too far on this play. Arizona’s offensive line simply uses that to their advantage, and neither is able to be a factor in the play.

1st and 10:

This is the same power read as above, but with far more disastrous results.

Psalm Wooching is the man being “read” on this play. He doesn’t recognize this, and instead takes a full run at the mesh point instead of staying home and playing contain. (in the previous look at this play, recall that Bierria was blitzing, which is why he “should” attack the mesh). If Wooching had stayed home, he would’ve been swallowed up the by the pulling guard, but that would’ve meant a teammate would’ve been free to attack the ball. Wooching compounds this mistake with a poor tackle attempt; he needs to break down and hit the ball carrier at his hips, not shoulders.

Ben Burr-Kirven also made a poor attempt on this snap. He starts to flow with the play, but for some reason (likely to avoid the pulling guard), stops and attempts to get up field on the inside of what is an obviously wide-developing play. Burr-Kirven has to know he has help coming from the weak side, and absolutely has to take on the block of the lineman coming at him. Give some credit to J.J. Taylor, who after not getting the hand off from Dawkins has the wits to get down field and get just enough of Budda Baker to keep Baker from making a play. The rest of the secondary simply got caught flat-footed by a really fast quarterback.

This play looks like an absolute defensive meltdown, but it was really just a matter of two guys not doing their jobs, and the giant snowball started rolling down hill.

Second Half

2nd and 10:

THIS IS HOW A DEFENSIVE LINE TWO-GAPS!!!

Greg Gaines and Elijah Qualls look like they’re being beaten on this play, but what is really happening is that they’re maintaining their ability to work to either side of the man in front of him. Gaines reads the play this time, and after delivering his initial blow, is able to use his hands to make a tackle. Qualls actually fights through a double team to make the assist. Even though he’s not a part of the tackle, Jojo Mathis gives a great example of attacking a blocker, and then getting leverage to work to either side as necessary, instead of simply engaging a blocker and not really being in a position to do anything but push back.

1st and 10:

Here’s that same power read, and it’s going straight up the middle.

There are a few things that make this play interesting. The Huskies are in their “big nickel” look, with Elijah Qualls, Vita Vea, and Damion Turpin all in the game at the same time. Qualls is playing the end position usually manned by Psalm Wooching on this play. The Huskies are running a “scrape exchange” with Qualls and Ben Burr-Kirven, as you can see Qualls’ initial move is up the field toward the mesh point, and Burr-Kirven is first coming up to fill Qualls’ spot. But this isn’t a typical zone read, and after Qualls swims through the poorly attempted block from the tight end, he’s in position to force the QB to hand off instead of keep, and to pinch down on the inside run.

For whatever reason, Arizona’s pulling guard completely ignores Qualls. Maybe he didn’t see him? Qualls is in great position to make this play.

Also, watch Vita Vea. He’s getting a double team from the center and left guard. Those two players manage to push Vea back about a single step, before Vea throws them to the side and helps clean up on the tackle.

The concern over the big rushing numbers given up by the Husky D to the Wildcats and Ducks is understandable. But it’s important to remember two things from those games: One, they’re actually good offenses (even though Arizona is so banged up at QB and running back that nobody else is likely to see it again this season). Royce Freeman is one of the best backs in college football, and Oregon has depth behind him. Two, the “big” plays the Huskies gave up are correctable; in most cases, it was a matter of one player not doing his job correctly. Against Arizona, it was frequently a matter of the defensive line getting too far up the field and creating running lanes and cut back opportunities. The Huskies’ defense thrives on discipline, and it’s not actually designed to “break” offenses as much as it allows offenses to break themselves.