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Film Study: Pac-12 Championship Game

The Dawgs used a stellar running game and smothering defense to win a conference championship

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Colorado vs Washington Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Before we dive into Alabama film over the next couple weeks, let’s reflect on the the Huskies’ 12th win of the season.

Pac-12 champs! Maybe not quite the way we were expecting it; we’ve been mulling this game over in our heads for a week, now, and we can’t quite decide what to make of it. Defense, good—but against a really poor offense, compromised by a hurt quarterback. Offense, okay—but completely ineffective passing. Run blocking, good. Pass protection, not good.

What would have happened if the Dawgs had put forward this performance not against Colorado, but against, say... Alabama? It needs to be better. A lot better. But let’s not go there yet. Let’s spend a few minutes savoring what has happened before we go down that road. A Pac-12 championship! Did you see that coming? We certainly didn’t.

The uneven performance highlights something. The Dawgs are generally winning by playing good football at every position. Team defense, balanced offense. If you’re not quite there, if you lose a lot of one-on-one battles by a little bit, you lose a lot of games (see, e.g., 7-6). But if you win most of the battles most of the time, you win a lot of games. And you win them by a lot. The Huskies cleaned up against inferior teams, and they made a few teams that are only a little worse, such as Stanford and Wazzu, look pretty terrible. This is becoming a program, moving beyond dependence upon a few stars to carry the day. The point is, when one part of your game isn’t functioning (see: passing game), you can still win the game by letting other parts carry more of the load.

Let’s take a look at a few details:

1st and 10:

Remember after the non-conference schedule how we were asking each other, What’s the matter with the run game? Why can’t the Dawgs run? Well, they can.

When All-Pac-12 honorable mention tight end Drew Sample (88) shifts over, the Buffaloes don’t quite adjust. The outside linebacker on the offense’s left (98) takes a half step up to help with the run, but he still feels like a pass defender. That gives the Dawgs good numbers on that side, which as it happens, is where the play is going.

All-Pac-12 left tackle Adams blocks down on the defensive end, who is aligned in the no-man’s-land flex position Arizona used to use to give up lots of rushing yards. All-Pac-12 left guard Eldrenkamp and All-Pac-12 center Shelton double-team the nose, and Eldrenkamp does a good job of getting to the second level. reaching the away-side linebacker. The outside linebacker (38) does a spectacular job of avoiding all contact with the tight end, taking himself completely out of the play. (That guy is also All-Pac-12, Jimmie Gilbert, but you’d never know it from that play.)

That’s everybody. What? What’s that? We missed somebody? Ah, yes, the play-side linebacker. Watch below as future All-Pac-12 guard Nick Harris pulls around from the right and stuffs him. The poor guy does about what most of us would do in his situation: curl up in a fetal position and go mentally to a happy place. It’s actually not a terrible play by him. He filled the hole, so to speak. But when you consider that the next guy to the outside is practically out of the picture (below), it doesn’t really matter that much.

Nobody touches Coleman until he’s nearly 20 yards downfield. Darin’s niece is four, and she uses the same technique to mount up for piggyback as the Colorado corner used to bring down Coleman. She reacts quicker, though, so Darin rarely gets so far before she catches him.

2nd and 8:

Probably the play of the game. This one made it basically impossible for Colorado to win. It looks like a blitz, with the linebacker (15, Beavers) coming through the A-gap. But watch the left end (8, Potoa’e). He drops into coverage. This is a zone blitz, because even though the defense is sending a linebacker, they are still playing zone against the pass. Against Colorado, it means there’s still a strong second level in case the quarterback runs. Keishawn Bierria also drops into coverage when he sees the play fake and his presence takes away where Liufau wanted to throw the football.

Watch from behind. While Beavers comes up the middle, All-Pac-12 honorable mention Greg Freaking Gaines (99) works hard to the outside. The left defensive end, All-Pac-12 honorable mention Wooching (28), hesitates, then loops back to the middle for the sack. The Dawgs have used this stunt quite a lot, with good effect.

Watch Beavers when he gets into the backfield. Notice how he moves back to his left against the running back who is picking him up? That opens up a huge lane for Wooching. We’re not 100% sure that’s on purpose, but its nice to think it is.

Colorado’s center looks to his left first. That’s because he knows the running back is aligned right. Let’s take stock. We have:

Three guys blocking All-Pac-12 tackle Elijah Qualls (11),

Two guys blocking GFG (that makes five),

A running back blocking Beavers (six total), and

Nobody blocking Wooching.

Sack. Hurt QB. Advantage Huskies.

Is there a reason Greg Freaking Gaines didn’t make the first or second team All-Pac-12? That guy is a force.

2nd and 5:

This run really just looks like a mess that Gaskin somehow emerges through. But let’s watch from behind:

The defense is slanting to its right, to the play side, which seems good for them. The tight end (88, Sample) blocks down on the defensive end. The guard (52, Eldrenkamp) pulls around to the play-side linebacker, who set up way too far outside. The center (79, Shelton) does a good job of occupying the nose, who lined up slightly to his left and then moved further that direction at the snap. This is a tough block for Shelton. Then the right guard (56, Harris) pulls all the way around to get the away-side linebacker at the hole.

Somebody is missing again. Who is it? Oh, the play-side edge defender. Go back to the side view above and watch what #25 does. At first he looks like he’s going to crash to the backfield, but 309 pounds of Trey Adams (72) changes his mind. A quick look at the Colorado roster reveals that number 25 is actually a defensive back. He’s blitzing, not playing edge contain. So who’s got the edge? We have no idea.

Notice how Colorado lined up. Three down linemen, a stand-up end to the weak side (offense’s right), two linebackers shifted to the strong side. Nobody is over the tight end. In fact, nobody’s particularly close to the tight end. This is strange. First, the tight end has a free release. Second, there isn’t enough beef on that side to stop the run. Fortunately for Colorado, the Huskies aren’t really a running team...oh wait...

3rd and Goal:

Oh, John Ross. Come on, man. You gotta catch this.

Colorado blitzes a safety, and the corner has All-Pac-12 receiver John Ross man-to-man. He lines up deep because it’s third and goal. Ross runs a good route, leaves his man three yards behind. The offensive line gives All-Pac-12 quarterback Jake Browning time. The pass is not perfect; Browning could have thrown it better. But it’s mostly away from the defender and in a nice place where Ross simply should have caught it.

Not sure we love Colorado’s blitz scheme, here. It’s third and goal from the seven, so this is a passing down for sure. On the defense’s right, the defensive end engages the tackle and the defensive tackle engages the center. That leaves the guard (52, Eldrenkamp) free to block the blitzing safety. He doesn’t exactly nail him, but he does enough to prevent the sack or even force Browning to move.

This view highlights perhaps a tactical error by the corner. Although Ross is in the backfield, so technically the tackle (72, Adams) is eligible, Ross is the only receiver on that side. The corner (23, Witherspoon) is also All-Pac-12, by the way. Anyway, he lines up inside Ross to take away the slant. However, Ross isn’t that far outside, and there is help from the linebacker to the inside; you can see him come into the picture in the end-zone view. This leaves Ross with a) good position for an outside route, and b) lots of room for it. That’s what happens. The corner bites hard on the slant, and Ross is wide open.

Now, as far as the technical mistake in (not) catching the ball: see how Ross is leaning with his upper body, but his lower half stays perpendicular to the ground? He needs fall to the outside just a tad (a la Doug Baldwin), and easily cradle that ball to the turf.

Regardless, we’re becoming less and less impressed with Colorado’s defense.

1st and Goal:

Speaking of defense, how about some goal line defense? Three big nasties down, two defensive ends, and two linebackers. Colorado coach MacIntyre took a call from Stanford coach David Shaw, who suggested this formation: three tight ends, two running backs: 2-3 personnel. If you’re Stanford, your linemen block the defense. If you’re Stanford, your tight ends are a threat to catch a pass. But if you’re Colorado, playing against Washington, what happens is that the defense collapses your line in on itself until it reaches the critical density of a black hole. Even a running back traveling at the speed of light could not escape. Colorado’s running back runs substantially less than light speed, so this is a loss of two, because physics.

Watch the play with your eye on the blue line of scrimmage. Count how many purple jerseys cross that line. We count roughly 17. There is only one thing that could have been better: the play-side defensive end (8, Potoa’e) is double-teamed and driven waaaay back. His job in that situation is to hold his ground. That might mean simply sitting down—but he can’t allow himself to be driven back like that. Fortunately, neither of the linemen blocking him manage to get off that block and hit the play-side linebacker, so there’s not much harm done in this case. Still, something to work on.

Washington would hold the Buffs to a field goal on that possession, and add one of their own after another Liufau interception. The lead was 34-10 (three possessions), but there was still almost a quarter to play. That’s when UW got the ball at their own 35-yard line with 13:09 remaining. Colorado knew the Huskies would run and still couldn’t stop them. Shown below are the thirteen consecutive runs that drained the clock near the four-minute mark. Game over.

It’s the second week in a row we’ve seen the Dawgs successfully drain the clock after getting a big lead. Last week it was on defense in the Apple Cup. This week it was on offense in the Pac-12 championship game.

That’s good stuff, but it’s a good bet we won’t be running out the clock against Alabama. The Tide is a very, very solid team. They won’t make mistakes on defense like Colorado did. They won’t avoid blocks. They’ll beat blocks. We’re going to have to get our win three yards at a time, or perhaps fewer. Browning will absolutely have to play better, and so will the offensive line, especially in terms of pass protection. We’ve all gotten a little nervous when Browning faces pressure, and you can bet he’s going to get a lot of it against Alabama.

Alabama right now is one of the best teams ever. They’re 2001 Miami. They’re 1995 Nebraska. They’re...1991 Washington. It’s going to take a great effort against a truly great team to beat them. Something the Huskies haven’t put together yet. Can they do it? Absolutely. Go Dawgs!