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Film Study: Stanford wins the battle of efficiency

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In a game ultimately decided by a single score, 3rd down conversions were the key.

Washington v Stanford Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Husky defense was on shaky footing at best all game long, as Stanford’s offense had a convincing win in that matchup. The Husky special teams made several mistakes (most notably the kickoff return unit) that gave the offense long fields. The offense made a few plays, but they were largely due to superlative individual efforts or Stanford breakdowns, not efficient execution.

Let’s go to the tape:

2nd and 3:

This run/pass option on the Huskies’ first drive turns into a nice 11-yard gain on the bubble screen to Aaron Fuller out of a trips formation to the offense’s left.

The short lateral passing game is frequently referred to as an extension of the running game, and because of the action of the line, this particular version is effectively a counter play.

The run option is a power play to the offense’s right. Both center Coleman Shelton and left tackle Luke Wattenberg pull as lead blockers. The Huskies used this combination (center and backside tackle) fairly frequently against Stanford, with fairly good success (see Myles Gaskin’s second touchdown as an example, with Shelton and right tackle Kaleb McGary leading the way). Shelton wipes out the unblocked defensive end, and Wattenberg is in solid position to take out the inside linebacker right before the camera moves away. By every indication, the running play would’ve picked up good yardage.

That run action also serves to suck in the backside inside linebacker and the backside defensive end; neither are in position to do anything but give futile chase (but credit to the end #34 for hustling back into the play).

Dante Pettis is the middle receiver on the trips side, and you can see him soundly win his battle as a blocker. Andre Baccellia comes in and out of the screen, and does just enough. It’s eventually the free safety that makes the tackle.

One thing to note on this play is that by formation, Dante Pettis isn’t actually an eligible receiver. Both he and Baccellia are on the line of scrimmage, and only the farthest out (“last man”) on the line is eligible. This pass is thrown behind the line of scrimmage, so there’s no risk of Pettis being called as an ineligible man downfield. But if Stanford was more aware, they would’ve been able to treat Pettis differently, and not have to respect any potential route he might run.

4th and 1:

The Huskies utilized this two-back pistol formation several times against Stanford. Lavon Coleman and Myles Gaskin both spent time at each of the running back positions in this formation.

The Huskies run a play that’s a lot like the inside zone split we’ve seen here several times this year, but everything is a little sped-up. Drew Sample isn’t at customary H-back width; he’s over the guard, shortening the distance he runs to seal the back side of the play. Jake Browning is at pistol depth (as is Gaskin) instead of shotgun depth, which decreases the time lapse between the snap and the handoff.

The primary hole on this play is to the left of center Coleman Shelton. Gaskin heads that way, but after seeing a little congestion, is hesitant to hit the hole. He eventually cuts back to his right, the side where Stanford has a numbers advantage (there’s no possible way for the Huskies to block both #5 and #52 just based on numbers; Sample does the smart thing and takes the first man that shows). If Gaskin had stayed left (and hit the hole with a little more authority), he had a crease he could’ve exploited to get the necessary yard, and also could have easily dived low either between the center and left guard, or between the left guard and left tackle, and gotten the two feet he needed for a first down.

The design of this play doesn’t seem ideal; having Jake Browning under center and Gaskin taking the handoff while moving to the hole may’ve made the difference. But the Huskies had ran very well up to this point using this new look.

Sometimes momentum-turning plays are obvious in real time, and sometimes they only become evident with the benefit of hindsight. This was much more the latter; after this play the Husky offense went to sleep for two full quarters, and Stanford scored on five straight drives (discounting an end-of-half clock-killer).

1st and 10:

This play was right after the Vea facemask on third down.

Stanford has two tight ends to the offense’s right. The Huskies have a big lineup, with Vita Vea, Greg Gaines, and Jaylen Johnson along the line of scrimmage, with Tevis Bartlett and Benning Potoa’e at end/outside linbacker. Jojo McIntosh is far to the defense’s right, ostensibly double-teaming the receiver at the top of the screen. But this alignment also means that McIntosh will have little ability to impact a run to the bottom of the screen.

At the snap, the right guard and right tackle cross; this effectively eliminates Vea, who is pinching toward the middle. The guard then comes through in what almost looks like power action to the playside inside linebacker (Ben Burr-Kirven). Burr-Kirven elects to dive at the guard’s legs, which washes Burr-Kirven out of the play. Keishawn Bierria avoids the block of the center (who has first chipped Greg Gaines before releasing - more on this later) before attempting to get Bierria. After avoiding the block, though, Bierria takes an exceedingly poor angle toward the ball, coming way too far upfield even though the ballcarrier is clearly heading off tackle. All Bierria really does is run into Potoa’e, who is hustling from the back side of the play (but appears to be losing his balance, and probably not in position to make a great tackle).

Tevis Bartlett is taking on both tight ends, and isn’t able to do anything but get driven back five yards. He has a tough job as the main man at the point of attack, but he can do better to split the double. Cornerback Austin Joyner is taking on a much bigger man in Stanford’s fullback, but this isn’t the effort the need on this play; Joyner gets in the way, but mostly just becomes an obstacle instead of a player as he goes into a modified bear crawl position. Play side safety Taylor Rapp makes the smart play once he sees Bartlett is in no position to affect the play, and goes outside to contain the edge. But by doing so, he needs help from teammates back to the middle of the field. At the top of the screen, you can see the other safety McIntosh hesitate for several steps; if the Huskies were playing a team that hadn’t spend much of the first half torching the defense’s man coverage with a substantial size mismatch, he likely would’ve been 1) aligned more toward the middle of the field, 2) coming down field toward the ball carrier like a heat-seeking missile, or 3) both.

Instead, the Huskies don’t play assignment-sound football, and compound that by not executing well. Bryce Love is a great running back, but this wasn’t the Huskies’ “A” rush defense by any stretch. From anyone.

Stanford could very well have been called for a chop block on this play. The left side of the offensive line is cut blocking away from the play. Stanford’s center makes contact with Greg Gaines, and then releases toward the back side inside linebacker. The left guard then attempts to cut Gaines. Blocking low is perfectly legal, but by rule, an offensive player cannot block low on a defender engaged with another player. Gaines is still in contact with the center when the guard dives at his knees - by rule, a penalty. It doesn’t affect the play, but it’s a player safety issue.

3rd and 5:

This play is the epitome of Jake Browning’s overreaction to pressure, something that’s plagued him throughout the 2017 season.

The protection is very good, including the stunt pickup by Myles Gaskin and Nick Harris. Luke Wattenberg is doing an outstanding job against Stanford’s best defensive lineman (#66). The receivers might all be covered (we don’t know either way), and Browning sees a red jersey flash, but there is simply no reason for him to leave the pocket on this play. None. By running, all he does is create pressure, since the defensive linemen can “unstick” themselves from Husky blockers when he moves.

To compound matters, Browning rolls to his right, to the one-receiver side of the field and away from the three receivers to his left. He eventually reverses course, but winds up 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Throwing while running left is more difficult than running right for every right-handed quarterback, and in this instance, Browning actually has time to set his feet and make a stronger throw. It might mean taking a hit, but he has the opportunity to significantly increase the odds of making this throw.

3rd and 3:

One commentor in the game prediction thread (HuskyFanPodcast) said that this game would come down to the Huskies’ smallish cornerbacks’ ability to cover Stanford’s large receivers on the outside. Given that Bryce Love plays for Stanford, and khaki pants think David Shaw is bland, it didn’t seem the odds favored Stanford making the game about big plays through the air. But that was what happened. Of all the teams the Huskies have faced since injuries besieged the cornerback position, it took Stanford to finally make the Huskies pay. Raise your hand if you saw that one coming.

Austin Joyner has played some very good football this season, but Friday night was not his best game. Stanford exploited size mismatches against him a number of times. Joyner wasn’t alone - Myles Bryant was beaten as well, and true freshman Elijah Molden struggled in significant snaps at safety and nickel back. In general, the Husky coverage didn’t play well, making fundamental mistakes that were out of character for a team that simply covers well. It’s especially damning because too often, the Huskies gave up big plays to two and three receiver routes, while playing seven and even eight in coverage (usually out of a Cover 3, with either four or five men underneath).

On this one, we don’t have the best view due to the camera angle and the score graphic (and none of the replays showed it either), but if you watch the beginning of the play, you can see Joyner get caught completely flat-footed on a good-but-not-great release into a slant, then recover poorly, and then fail to make the tackle. On third down.

Here is a link to the play, with a couple of replays following it.

J.J. Arcega-Whiteside is a good receiver, but he’s not quicker than Austin Joyner. Joyner is just a step slow to react, misses his opportunity to make contact and redirect the receiver, and then gambles (and misses) on the throw.

3rd and 6:

After throwing the ball on several third down plays, including handful of third-and-short (typical) running situations, Stanford gets back into character on third and medium, and the mediocre (or worse) execution of the Husky defense plagued them once again.

Stanford pulls both guards against the very light Husky defensive box (only five men). Defensive end Jaylen Johnson does an excellent job of fighting through the down block of Stanford’s right tackle, but at the key moment, seemingly turns into velcro and can’t get off to either force the play wider or potentially make the play (although he can’t really be faulted for the latter). Keishawn Bierria makes a lightning-quick read to flow with the play, and fights through the first block of Stanford’s guard, but is thrown off-balance by first contact (and a well-executed left-handed hold) and can’t make the tackle. Taylor Rapp is containing the outside, but doesn’t do a good job of closing off the play. Austin Joyner again assumes the modified bear crawl and isn’t able to do much more than create a traffic jam for the hard-closing Ezekiel Turner, tripping him up.

Every single Husky on the play side is taken out on this play. That’s not something that happens very often - effort, execution, and dumb luck all played a part in that. The backside pursuit men, Ben Burr-Kirven and Elijah Molden, end up making the tackle, but not before Stanford converts yet another 3rd down—with a 20-yard run.

2nd and 10:

UWDP Film Study always gives credit to opposing players when they make a great play. Harrison Phillips (#66) is a really good player, but this is not a great play by him; rather, it is a failure by Andrew Kirkland to execute a very simple down block on a power play involving Coleman Shelton and Kaleb McGary. Phillips doesn’t get a great jump off the line nor does he make a quick or strong move. He simply waltzes past Kirkland as Kirkland fails to move his feet and “lunges” at Phillips (a textbook “no-no” that isn’t going to look good in the real film room).

What makes this miss all the worse is looking at the rest of the field - this is the same play as in the first gif of this article. The Huskies are running a bubble screen at the trips formation to the bottom of the screen (and once again, Dante Pettis is ineligible). The free safety is following the screen action. If Kirkland makes the initial, easy block, the Huskies have the left side of the play sealed off. This is a huge gain, with Lavon Coleman in a foot race for the end zone.

2nd and 10:

This block could not have been any more well executed by Kaleb McGary. Instead of 1st and 10 near midfield, this bogus call put the Dawgs in 2nd and 20 from the 19 with just over two minutes remaining.

Would they have scored? Maybe.

Would they have made the two point conversion? Maybe

Would they have won in OT? Maybe.

The Huskies did not win, and it wasn’t all because of one bad call on the final drive.

But this was a bad call. It hurt.

The playoffs won’t include Washington, and for the first time in the last 20 regular season games, the Huskies won’t take the field in control of their own destiny for the Pac-12 North title when they meet Utah on Saturday. The fact that this news is a major a letdown is a testament to how high this team has climbed the last two seasons.

Go Dawgs. Beat Utah. (and go Cal......)