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Film Study: Husky offense stymied in the desert

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Who is to blame? We found out that it was pretty much everyone

NCAA Football: Washington at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Washington’s offense struggled against Arizona State, particularly in the first half, in a way it hasn’t since the Stanford game in 2015, when starting QB Jake Browning was injured. That includes the game against Alabama in last season’s Peach Bowl. The offense managed to run only 20 plays, and netted just 42 yards. Considering that Lavon Coleman had a 20-yard run and a 24-yard reception in the half (each play resulting in one of the two first downs the team managed in the first), the other 18 plays accounted for -2 yards.

ASU’s defense deserves and immense amount of credit. They had a great game plan, and they played inspired football the whole night when their lack of size and depth suggested they should’ve worn down far began they showed signs of succumbing. They tackled, they covered well, and the defensive front set up camp in the Husky backfield.

The Husky offense deserves blame at the same rate. It starts with the coaching staff, who failed to get performance from any unit on the field. That’s their most important role on game days. It didn’t happen.

To see the extent of the offense’s failings, one need watch the game again, paying particular attention to the offensive line. Since we can’t break down each play, consider these to be entirely representative of the efforts of the team on Saturday - the “Great Epitomizers,” if you will.

3rd and 5:

We’re going to start with the defense, on the first drive of the game when ASU marched right down the field on 16 well-executed plays that covered 63 yards.

This play sort of sums up Kieshawn Bierria’s evening in the desert. Bierria had failed to record a single statistic in the previous two games (no tackles, no assists, no pass break-ups, no nothin’), and three of the past four. He hasn’t necessarily been bad as much as he’s been a non-entity for the Huskies. He finished with only two tackles on Saturday, bringing his total for the last three games to, well, two. And only 9 tackles in the past five. He spent much of the second half of the game standing on the sideline.

On this play, Bierria is showing blitz through the A-gap on the defense’s right side. Outside linebacker Connor O’Brien (defensive left) reads pass and drops into coverage. The H-back on his side stays in to block, which typically means that O’Brien should’ve adjusted and become a rusher (or contain man), but that’s an assumption. But with O’Brien’s drop into coverage, the Huskies are only rushing four and Bierria isn’t actually “blitzing.”

The rollout is away from the strength of the defensive front, so time and space have basically eliminated Ryan Bowman from the play. Tackles Jaylen Johnson and Levi Onwuzurike, and the “blitzing” Bierria, read the moving pocket and attempt to work laterally, to their left. All three have a long way to go to contain the edge on a run, though, and an outside linebacker not actually doing much in coverage would’ve been useful on this play......

As Bierria is working down the line, he loses track of the play. He has no idea where the ball is, and simply runs himself out of bounds. He made a poor read, and then compounded it by a lack of hustle to get back into the play.

It’s tough to tell what Azeem Victor is doing. He appears to be sliding to his left in coverage, but sees O’Brien and continues to drop well out of the screen until he’s 20 yards deep. Maybe his play is correct, and maybe it was an on-the-fly reaction to a mistake by a teammate, but either way, he’s in no position to help in run support.

Great effort by Jaylen Johnson here. He runs an awfully long way to become the first defender to lay a hand on Manny Wilkins. Not great effort by Connor O’Brien to try and make a tackle.

2nd and 5:

This is a power sweep designed to get wide (note center Coleman Shelton pulling on the play), and there is poor execution aplenty.

The first mistake belongs to right guard Nick Harris. Cut blocking is great, but as an offensive lineman, if you leave your feet, you absolutely must succeed. Harris is going up against a smallish, active defensive tackle in Tashon Smallwood, and fails to make the block when he lunges at Smallwood instead of keeping his feet moving and taking up the space between the two.

On the left side of the offensive line, guard Jesse Sosebee is simply defeated. He fails to get outside his man to set an edge between he and left tackle Andrew Kirkland, and compounds that by allowing himself to be driven backward. Note how tall Sosebee allows himself to get at the snap - every bit of his 6’ 5” frame. He’s beaten by poor technique and “want to” - his man wants to win more than Sosebee did, and Sosebee’s position strings the play out far too wide; Shelton can’t get around him to create a running lane.

Last, Lavon Coleman just loses patience. The timing of the play is certainly off, but Coleman isn’t actually in danger. If he’d stayed wide, the lane was going to open up - eventually - and there was no defender that he couldn’t outrun closing in. Instead, Coleman chooses to cut upfield, inside his blocking. That takes him right into the teeth of ASU’s pursuing defense, and the result is a loss of one.

3rd and 6:

This is simply a complete failure of the offensive line to execute against the most basic rush - three men - in all of football. It isn’t a result of creativity or confusion from a defense showing blitz and then backing out, or any type of exotic stunt from the line.

ASU shows a four-man front at the snap, then the right defensive end drops into coverage. That leaves Andrew Kirkland with no one to block. Fine. The defensive tackle (#90, Smallwood) stems late to his left, but that’s still covered without a protection adjustment (in theory). The other tackle shifts a smaller amount, and he’s taken out by the double team of Jesse Sosebee and Coleman Shelton. Nick Harris is also uncovered, and looks for a blitzing linebacker that never comes before offering a half-hearted triple team on the lone defender in the middle of the field.

Kaleb McGary has played a lot of good football for Washington, and he almost undoubtedly will again in the future. But no part of this game is going to make any personal highlight reel for him. This play is representative of his evening in Tempe - a complete failure to make any sort of block of any kind. He doesn’t respond to the late stem from Smallwood, and in fact moves inside with his first steps at the snap. He doesn’t get his hands on the defender. He doesn’t offer any meaningful resistance of any kind.

Myles Gaskin has a difficult assignment on this play, as he’s expected to block an outside linebacker outweighing him by 50 pounds. And Alani Latu (#44) played a phenomenal game for ASU on Saturday. But Gaskin has done better than this many times as a Husky. He runs himself out of position, and then lunges at the defender’s legs. And misses.

Jake Browning doesn’t have a lot of time on this play. Watching his eyes, he starts all the way to his right. He comes back to his left, to Aaron Fuller. In between, he misses Will Dissly sitting down between the linebackers. It most likely wouldn’t have resulted in a first down, but that’s the throw that should’ve been made.

1st and 10:

This is a well-designed play that the Huskies used twice in the second half to gain positive yardage - this one good for 12 on the Huskies’ first possession of the second half.

It’s a play-action pass that comes out of a staple of the running game - the inside zone split that’s been featured here a number of times. The offensive line shows zone blocking to its left. The zone-read action between between Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin serves to freeze ASU’s defensive end (#44) on the left side of the line. Will Dissly is coming across the formation, looking like he’s going to seal the back side of the play - you can see him staring down #44, the man he would normally block. At the last second, Dissly avoids contact and runs past the defender into the flat. Browning takes a mini-roll to his left, almost like a naked bootleg, and almost immediately hits Dissly with the easy completion. The inside linebacker (#2, who eventually makes the tackle) responsible to cover Dissly is frozen by the run look, and can’t get over to the play in time to do much but make a tackle down the field.

1st and 10:

Once again, failures on the offensive design doom a play that was actually in position to gain good yardage.

This is setting up to be a middle screen to running back Myles Gaskin. The Huskies have blockers in space, and if one of three blocks had been made, this play probably works.

Starting with the “solid.” Nick Harris isn’t going to have the option to release down the field due to the defender over him in the middle. Harris doesn’t dominate, but does enough to win his matchup. Coleman Shelton and Jesse Sosebee are both uncovered and release down the field to block; neither really has a chance to positively impact the play, but neither is part of its downfall, so they can mostly feel okay.

Andrew Kirkland commits the cardinal sin of missing a cut block. Credit to ASU’s defensive end (#1, who also had a good game) for using his hands well, but the issue here is that Kirkland is too far away from the defender and not reading his action well; he ends up lunging and missing. This isn’t a block that should’ve been too big a deal, but other events made it so....

Kaleb McGary commits two mistakes on this play. First, he has to actually deliver a blow to the defender over him before releasing down the field. He doesn’t do that; he’s back on his heels (instead of keeping his weight forward) which takes all of the force out of his attempted push on Smallwood. This ended up being crucial only because McGary then heads down field and completely misses the inside linebacker (#2).

#2 has read the screen, and is coming up to cover Gaskin. Browning is under pressure, but that’s the design of any running back screen. He reads the coverage and doesn’t make the initial throw to Gaskin. He steps up inside the rush from the defense’s left (McGary’s man), but is feeling heat from the right side as well (Kirkland’s man). The play ultimately ends up with a short sack.

Browning probably made the correct read in not throwing to Gaskin initially, but the process that got him to that decision meant he had already decided that McGary was going to fail to make the block on the linebacker. If Browning had thrown the ball right away to Gaskin to the outside, it would’ve lead the linebacker right into McGary’s block. Then, Browning has fully committed to the run as he steps forward; had he not done so, he still could’ve gotten the ball to Gaskin late. It wouldn’t have been a big play, but Myles Gaskin is a much better runner than is Jake Browning. Browning was going to take a hit either way, so getting the ball into the hands of a playmaker is always the best idea. Another option - simply throwing the ball away, at Gaskin’s feet - is also viable, and probably better.

If any one of the three blocks (one by Kirkland, two by McGary), Browning likely has enough time to make the play. There was the opportunity for Browning to still make a relatively “great” play by resetting to throw instead of committing to run, but it likely wasn’t going to be much more than “a little better” than the sack Browning took.

Small failures lead to big negatives. And it allowed the announcers to continue with their narrative that “Jake Browning simply doesn’t have anyone open down the field,” even though they both missed the screen action and the Huskies would’ve been assessed a penalty for “ineligible receiver down field” if Browning had thrown to anyone beyond the line of scrimmage.

2nd and 11:

...and that narrative came to a head on this play. It’s obviously the reverse to Salvon Ahmed that was called back from a TD to a gain of 2 yards.

Here’s the lesson in this play:

Immediately after the referee called holding on Washington (without providing a number of the offender), one of the commenters launched into a explanation of the call, saying it was on Jesse Sosebee, and that it was “obvious.”

Watch Sosebee. He doesn’t hold. Then watch where the next play starts - the ASU 48. At this point, it should’ve been obvious to the announcers that there’s a mistake in their analysis. Do they correct their obvious error?

No. Instead, the continue to ramble on, and fans either miss out entirely on the mistake, or are left wondering what in the hell really happened.

When you watch a game on TV, with the limited angles the cameras provide (no coverage of the receivers running their routes, for example), fans are stuck with the story the announcers tell, whether it’s true or not. Saturday, you couldn’t be blamed if you believed that Jake Browning did everything he possibly could to avoid pressure, and there was just nobody EVER open. (They’d also have you believe Browning’s looping scrambles were smart, but no one likely believes this is the case.) The receivers don’t do an especially good job of adjusting as a play breaks down (as a general truth), but Browning owns some blame as well. Everybody does.

Just a general warning. Don’t believe everything you’re told when watching a game. There are some announcers that add positive analysis to a game, and some that just want to be slick storytellers who you’ll trust with impunity.

2nd and 5:

The offensive line does more than enough here, and the fault is entirely with Myles Gaskin on this one.

The Huskies are running a power play to their right, with left guard Jesse Sosebee pulling through. But Myles Gaskin takes the handoff, and cuts to his left. You might remember this same cut working out for Lavon Coleman in three of his four romps against Arizona last season. It’s a natural cutback afforded against a fast-flowing defense.

In this case, though, it’s not the right choice. The blocking to the play side isn’t perfect (in that there isn’t a wide-open hole paving a yellow brick road to the end zone), but it’s sufficient. Had Gaskin stayed to his right, he was going to pick up yards. At least a good chunk of them. Instead, Gaskin sees some congestion and cuts back toward two inside linebackers the offense simply can’t account for if he chooses that direction; if he’d stayed right, there was a chance they could be blocked or screened.

Myles Gaskin has great vision, and it’s one of his greatest strengths as a runner. In this case, though, he just made a mistake.

1st and Goal:

This is the exact same power play later in the drive that fails for different reasons.

First, if you switch the choices of Lavon Coleman on this play and Myles Gaskin on the last, the Huskies have a nice gain on the latter and a touchdown on the former. The left side of this play is WIDE OPEN, and Coleman is one-on-one with a cornerback for the end zone. Pretty good odds, if you’re a Husky fan. But you can’t really fault Coleman here; he’s following the play.

Second, this play actually fails because of a little friendly fire, and the offensive line and tight ends moving back to the reaching and lunging (instead of moving their feet) that plagued them throughout the game.

The friendly fire comes in the form of Nick Harris being destroyed at the snap; watch him get blown backward. The blow knocks the defender off balance as well, and as Kaleb McGary arrives for the requisite double team at the point of attack on a power run, McGary’s help knocks the defender down, and takes Coleman Shelton out of the play. Shelton is working on Tashon Smallwood, who appears to read the pulling action of Jesse Sosebee at the snap and begin to work laterally down the line. Shelton is in position to make the block, but as he’s falling down, the push he gives Smallwood serves only to propel the defender right into the play.

Next, the lunging....First, watch Nick Harris’ feet. They never move on this play. He makes no step toward his defender to deliver a blow, and instead relies solely on a “lunge.” He’s blown backward, which creates traffic that slows down Sosebee on his pull. Then watch H-back Drew Sample: he moves some to get into position to block, but at the crucial moment stops his feet and...lunges at the defender (for contrast, watch Will Dissly use textbook drive blocking to move his man toward Tucson). Sample is beaten by the defensive end, and Smallwood is in position to help as Coleman is wiped out.

Hopefully these few plays give you the general idea of what happened the first half last Saturday and at critical moments in the second. They’re entirely representative of the team’s efforts on offense (at least those that could be seen watching a game on TV). No part of the offense played well, with any sort of consistency. The coaching staff failed to get them to execute, or to figure out a way to change the momentum of the game. Every single person who has any association with the Husky offense failed to get his job done.