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Film Study: Arizona State

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His numbers looked good at the end, but Jake Browning and his receivers struggled in parts of the game.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get this out of the way first. Jake Browning’s stat line on Saturday was 27-44 for 338 yards, with two TDs and two INTs. He completed 61.4% of his passes for an average of 7.7 yards per attempt. He ran the ball three times for a net positive 19 yards. His passer rating was 131.8, and his adjusted Quarterback Rating was 42.5 (50 is “average”). These are the raw numbers causing Husky fans so much heartache. This is Jake Browning’s bad game.

That’s not to say that everything was sunshine and roses by any stretch. Browning wasn’t particularly sharp on Saturday, especially early, when he started the game 4-12 for about 35 yards and both his interceptions (more on those later). He struggled some with accuracy, although it’s not entirely clear how much blame lay at the feet of his receivers. He locked on to his first read all too often, and missed touchdowns and big plays. But over the last three quarters, Browning was 23-32 for about 300 yards, with two touchdowns. He wasn’t flawless, but he looked much more “normal” than at start. And that “normal” that Husky fans expect is part of the issue here: Jake Browning is a victim of his own success. And that’s fair, and is the same level of play he expects from himself.

Let’s take a look at the film of Jake Browning’s “poor” night.

3rd and 15:

This play is sort of the epitome of Browning’s night. Arizona State is only rushing four people, eschewing the blitz. One of those rushers, on the defense’s left side (#4), is lined up in a wide nine-technique as the end. He’s selling speed rush. Right tackle Kaleb McGary doesn’t get deep enough with his first step, and as a result, isn’t able to get much of a block. Browning feels the pressure and does a nice job of stepping up. At the snap, John Ross is running a shallow crossing route. He’s a decoy on the play, and at the very end, you can see the deep safety on the defense’s right coming up in coverage.

Here’s what went wrong. As Browning steps forward and looks to set himself, you can almost hear the solid ker-THUNK as he lands on his heels. He doesn’t get his weight forward, thus he doesn’t have much of his body into the throw (you can see that he never really gets over the top of his plant leg). That small mechanical issue frequently causes an off-target pass, and usually behind a receiver. Like this one. Browning reads the safety closing in on Ross as closing in on Dante Pettis in the middle of the field (which isn’t the case), and it appears he thinks he has a smaller window to make the throw than he actually does. Had he waited a half-beat, he would’ve had the entire middle of the field to throw to Pettis. And he had the time, as the protection was excellent once Browning stepped forward. Last, Browning misses a wide-open Darrell Daniels at the top of the screen; after Daniels defeats the jam of the safety over him, he has an inside release and the entire middle of the field to work with. But Browning’s eyes are locked on Pettis virtually the entire play.

3rd and 6:

Browning’s first interception was pretty clearly the case of a good pass going through a receiver’s hands. While this second one looks like a poor pass, it’s also possible that it might be a case of the receiver not running the right route based on the defense’s drops after the snap.

Dante Pettis has motioned out of the backfield prior to the start of this gif, creating a trips formation to the offense’s right. He’s not visible at the top of the screen. At the snap, the inside receiver (Daniels) releases deep. Aaron Fuller is running a shallow crossing route at five yards deep, and is occupying the attention of ASU’s outside linebacker (#28). Dante Pettis is seen late coming into the screen running a matching short underneath route, and the ball sails over his head.

A digression: pass routes aren’t necessarily “called” with a given play. Think of it more like a route concept; the receiver and quarterback are expected to simultaneously know how to adjust a play at the line of scrimmage based on the defender’s alignment (whether he’s playing tight man or zone; whether he’s playing outside leverage or inside, etc.). Further, routes can be adjusted after the snap based on how the defense drops in coverage. Again, the receiver and quarterback are expected to read these things on the fly and adjust accordingly. This isn’t always the case, but frequently, these real-time adjustments are part of the pass offense. End digression.

The simplest explanation is that Browning threw a bad ball on a relatively easy pass to a mostly stationary receiver. But Pettis is sort of drifting in to the coverage of the outside linebacker on the play. With the cornerback so far off Pettis, the most open area is actually a slant in front of the cornerback and over the top of the outside linebacker. Browning’s hesitation in making the throw, and then his conversation with receivers coach Bush Hamdan after the play, suggest that Browning was expecting his receiver to do something different than what he did. That could certainly be reading too much into the situation, but that pass is so far off target (very atypical of Browning, when he does miss) that it just doesn’t appear the whole team was on the same page.

Once again, though, Darrell Daniels is open in the deep middle. Like, wide open. (Count the numbers of defenders on the screen, plus add one for the guy over Pettis. ASU has two deep safeties, one of whom is over Ross. The linebackers all stay shallow, and you can see the deep safety over Daniels drop at the snap, and not be anywhere in the picture; had Browning led Daniels to the middle at about 15-18 yards, it was there.)

For such a short route and such a long throw, Browning is really late getting the ball out. If Pettis was supposed to keep moving, though...

3rd and Goal:

80% of the time, Browning has to read this play as being a touchdown before the ball is snapped, simply based on the defense’s alignment. And it’s to John Ross, on the slant.

The cornerback over Ross is playing him head-up, meaning that he’s not working to take away the fade or the slant based on his alignment. But he’s 2 12 yards off Ross, which is way too deep, as he has no realistic chance to get a jam on Ross at the snap. A hard throw to Ross’ knees is taking candy from a baby. Ross deserves some criticism here as well; he has to see that there’s no way his defender can hit him simply based on the depth of his alignment. There’s no need to “set the cornerback up” with the juke step Ross gives at the snap (to sell the fade/slant alternate). He should’ve immediately released inside of him on a dead sprint.

At the snap, Browning is looking at Ross. Even with Ross’ unnecessary steps, he’s still open, and Browning absolutely has to make this throw. Instead, he works back to the opposite side of the field, but doesn’t make it as far to his right as Darrell Daniels, who is again poorly covered. Instead, Browning is looking toward Drew Sample and Dante Pettis settling in the middle of the field. Both are well-covered, and neither makes any real adjustment.

Arizona State is running a delayed blitz, and Jake Browning reads it. While the pocket compresses, the offensive line has actually given Browning more time than he realizes. Had Browning stayed in the pocket, it’s possible that the coverage would’ve broken down as it did, giving Browning an open look. That sort of patience is tough to ask, but Browning also needs to develop that trust in his line.

The mistake here, though, was at the snap. This play should have been six.

2nd and 4:

Unfortunately for Jake, he’s going to have to own this one all by himself.

Arizona State only rushes four people, and the protection here is phenomenal. Browning has five full seconds before the first defender even gets close to him. This play looks to be what’s known as a running back throwback; every receiver is working toward the offense’s right, with only Lavon Coleman leaking back to the left.

There are a couple of problems on this play. First, Andre Baccellia (at the top of the screen) is supposed to be running a “rub route” on the inside linebacker responsible to cover Coleman. But Baccellia doesn’t do a very good job, as the linebacker isn’t impeded in any meaningful way. Second, Coleman doesn’t make much of an effort. He’s not a receiver, so he really isn’t used to doing much to get open. But after realizing that he’s covered, Coleman pretty much gives up on the play. He has to make an effort to get open, even if it’s for naught. Third, Browning stays on the throwback waaaay too long. He needs to understand he isn’t dealing with a very sophisticated route runner, and to pull off that particular read the second it wasn’t wide open the way the play design set it up to be. As it was, he had an easy throw (which he should have seen) to Baccellia in the back of the end zone. Last, the other receivers on the play need to have a better feel for the timing of things; once they don’t see the throwback to Coleman occur in a reasonable timeframe, they need to work back into the play to provide an option for Browning. Drew Sample and Chico McClatcher sort of do this, but it’s way too late, and the effort is somewhat lacking.

3rd and 4:

And on the very next play, there are a number of breakdowns again...

There’s a route mistake here between Aaron Fuller and Andre Baccellia at the top of the screen; they both end up in the same place. Baccellia runs a fade with a cornerback in man slightly shading him outside. That’s not the right read under any circumstances. It looks like Fuller was running a quick out, and that he was going to rub Baccellia’s man off coverage. Baccellia should’ve been open on the slant for an easy score.

The blocking on this play is exceedingly poor, from the left tackle in to the center. Trey Adams is reading blitz, and steps inside, leaving Lavon Coleman to block a rather large defensive end. Instead of picking up the end and leaving the linebacker for Coleman, Adams instead blocks...nobody. Coleman gives a relatively poor effort on the end as well. Left guard Jake Eldrenkamp and center Coleman Shelton both manage to avoid putting any sort of block on the nose guard (both appear to expect someone else to take care of it), leaving him with an open rush as well.

Browning is looking hard to his left (expecting the rub route and an open receiver, most likely) and misses a wide open John Ross to his right. Browning was under duress from the middle of the defensive line, so he didn’t really have much to do other than leave the pocket. He simply didn’t have the opportunity to make it back to Ross.

4th and 6:

This is another play that looks like an exceedingly poor pass. But again, it’s also possible that Jake Browning and Dante Pettis just weren’t on the same page.

The cornerback over Dante Pettis at the top of the screen is playing inside-out technique. Dante Pettis runs a 10-yard hitch and turns back to the inside. Jake Browning either substantially overthrows this pass (which isn’t something he does on this sort of bread-and-butter throw), or he’s looking at the cornerback’s leverage and is expecting Pettis to turn to the outside on this play. Based on alignment, the more “correct” break by the receiver is to the outside on this play. But given the soft coverage, it’s possible that the default for the Huskies is to the inside, as it’s an easier route to run and throw to make.

It’s just not 100% clear.

How did the Huskies build their lead with the passing game struggling? These were Browning’s next 18 dropbacks after the second interception. The Huskies tallied 24 points thanks to this sequence:

The Husky coaching staff made the decision to put the offense in hurry-up mode, and Jake Browning reverted to the version that Husky fans were used to seeing. He was decisive and accurate, and took the easy 7-10 yard completions that the soft Sun Devil coverage was giving him. It’s very likely that many of these hitches and slants were read-pass option plays.

One note: on the pass to Pettis at about the :32 second mark, the pass isn’t near as underthrown as it appears. That deep comeback route should be run at 15 yards. Pettis pushes his route to 18 or so yards, and is then forced to work hard back to the ball. His added depth also throws off the timing of the play. The ball was slightly underthrown either way, but in this instance, it’s the depth of the route that’s the real issue here far more than the throw.

Nobody is going to confuse Browning’s game against Arizona State for his best performance of the year, but it wasn’t an empirically “bad” game by any stretch, either. Hopefully, the throws and reads he made in the montage above will give him confidence heading into the Apple Cup, as WSU’s defense is a significantly stiffer test.