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Film Study: “You wanna shift left? We’ll help you get there” Edition

The Huskies won practically every battle in the 110th Apple Cup

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

For the the fourth straight year, Chris Petersen and the Washington Huskies treated the Apple Cup like a scrimmage between the varsity and the JV, with the Cuogs playing the role of the hapless scout team. It wasn’t quite Georgia Tech vs Cumberland (the final score of that one was 222-0), but the only real intrigue for the non-Husky fan in a matchup where WSU once again held its own destiny with regards to a berth in the Pac 12 Championship Game ended after the first offensive series for each team. The Huskies methodically, easily, moved down the field for a touchdown, only to be one-upped by their own defense which allowed -2 yards and forcing the Cuogs to go three-and-out.

The story of the game defensively was the dominance of the Husky defensive line, which consistently pressured Luke Falk with a three-man rush, and the variety of coverages the back end of the defense used to keep the WSU receivers missing in action all night. When Falk wasn’t under enormous pressure from the Huskies’ minimalist rush, and when he wasn’t completely flummoxed by the ever-changing man-to zone-to man/zone hybrid defenses he was seeing, he probably thought the officials were letting the Huskies play with 17 defenders.

On the other side of the ball, WSU entered the game with a legitimately good defense, but the UW offensive line played its best game of the season, and used the shifting, stunting, and speed of the Cuog defense against itself, and spent all evening looking like the dominant unit while paving the way to more than 300 rushing yards for the good guys (stat of the game: the Huskies ran for 328 yards, which was 352 yards more than WSU had; for the math-impaired, WSU netted -24 yards on the ground for the day). WSU’s rushing total was an Apple Cup record of ignominy.

Film is fun after a game like this.

2nd and 4:

Anyone that has watched much Cougar football this season has seen this tendency from the defensive front: the line will stem (shift in unison) right before the snap to the strength of the offense (in this case, to the offense’s right, the side with two tight ends), and then slant back to the weak side. The Husky offense made them pay overandoverandoverandover on Saturday for this.

This is a zone run with a little bit of a delay look (note center Coleman Shelton, who briefly shows a pass look to hold the pursuit of the defense before releasing to the inside linebacker), and when things look this easy, it’s hard to fathom how WSU had nine wins coming in to the game and the Huskies aren’t prohibitive favorites to win the national championship. When you have a defense that’s predicated on speed and creating confusion up front going against an offense with talent, this sometimes happens. Sometimes, it happens a lot.

There’s nothing fancy to this play. The offensive line simply uses the action of the defensive line against it; the defense steps to their right, so every single lineman (and tight end) keeps pushing them in that direction. At that point, it’s up to Myles Gaskin to read the play and find the right opening, which he obviously does, and then beating the lone defensive back (#3) on that side of the field. Which he obviously does.

Jake Browning is in the pistol, and Gaskin is 8 yards behind the line; that extra depth gives him just an extra fraction of a second to read the play. Because Gaskin is afforded the chance to be decisive here, he’s able to hit the hole nearing top speed, and make this quick-hitter a big play.

Success all the way around, but particular credit here to Will Dissly, who spends a brief moment making sure the defensive tackle on the play side (#50) doesn’t make a hero read, and then getting to the inside linebacker on the play side to drive him out.

1st and 10:

The Huskies have two tight ends and a fullback; this is power football. It sucks the entire defense in tight, and makes it look like the Cuogs are stacking the box when in fact they’re just matching up to the Huskies’ alignment and personnel. The only opponent the Huskies have faced that actually “stacked the box” was Utah last week.

Once again the WSU defensive front slants away from the strength of the formation at the snap (the strength this time is to the offense’s left, with Brayden Lenius split slightly, and the fullback Jusstis Warren offset in that direction as well). This is a “counter lead” play; Gaskin’s first steps are to his right to get the defense moving that way, but the play is designed to go back to the left, behind the block of Warren (of course, Gaskin has the freedom to pretty much do what he wants, but we’re talking about design here). Unlike the first play, this one is a bit slower-developing, and shows the value of WSU’s speed in pursuit.

The offensive line and tight ends block well. In the mass of humanity, the line and linebackers are all covered and not in position to make a play. Warren neutralizes his man. The WSU defender that has the first chance to make a play is a safety (#2), who has made a good read and come up hard to attack the run. He slows the play down, and the linebackers are able to disengage and pursue - but all that really means that is they’re part of a Myles Gaskin highlight reel as Gaskin’s nanotechnology lets him cut in and out of the Cougar defense to the soundtrack of ESPN’s Kenny Mayne making that used-to-be-funny-but-now-it’s-just-annoying “whoop!” noise he always makes on plays like this.

If you’re not Myles Gaskin, this is one (or five, or eleven) cut(s) too many; at some point the back needs to get upfield and just take what’s available, perhaps utilizing that excellent block on two men by Brayden Lenius. When you are Myles Gaskin, the rest of us sit back and watch in amazement (even if it means listening to Kenny Mayne make that “whoop!” noise).

1st and 10:

Some of this is a bit tough to see as receivers come in and out of the picture on this gif, but it gives a great picture of the beautiful design of the Huskies’ coverage scheme, and the Helen of Troy-esque execution on Saturday. We’ll do our best to explain it to you.

WSU is in a 3 x 1 formation (a single receiver left on the screen, and trips to the right, with the running back to the weak side of the formation). Here’s what the offense does: On the trips side, the inside slot receiver runs a corner route. He’s trying to “clear out” the defense. The outside slot receiver runs a shallow speed crossing route, about five yards down the field. The outside receiver attempts to break down his defender at the snap, and then also runs a shallow crossing route at about five yards (he’s visible right at the snap, and can then be seen coming back into the picture near the end of the play from the right side of the screen). On the single receiver side, the outside receiver runs a (somewhat lazy) post, and the running back leaks out and runs a wheel route up the sideline.

Here’s how the Huskies play it: we can’t see the entire defense, but from counting up numbers, we know the Huskies are in a two-deep zone (we can see Jojo McIntosh clearly, but surmise the other deep safety is somewhere over the trips side of the field and off the screen). The coverage is a combination of man and zone, as the two outside defensive backs (Byron Murphy over the single receiver, while the other over the outside receiver on the trips side can’t be determined but is most likely Austin Joyner or Myles Bryant - probably Joyner). Murphy plays the post with outside-in leverage (first taking away the outside, then “recovering” to the middle) since he has safety help to the middle of the field. The other corner leaves the screen for a period, but you can see him come back into view late in great position. The inside slot receiver running the corner route is presumably picked up by the deep safety. The outside slot receiver running the speed cross is first picked up by the nickel corner, but is then “passed off” to the inside linebacker (Ben Burr-Kirven) as he moves into the middle of the field, and the nickel corner stays in the shallow outside zone to the right of the screen. The “big play” for the offense comes in the form of no one really picking up the running back leaking out of the backfield and up the sideline, but Connor O’Brien reads the play well, and realizes that he has to play the deep route by the back in man coverage, but with safety help from McIntosh. Keishawn Bierria first drops back to help Murphy on a deep crossing route (if that’s what the receiver had run), then is ready to help on the crossing route of the outside slot receiver as he passes through Burr-Kirven’s zone and into Bierria’s.

The coverage is simply excellent. Other than brief fractions of seconds, no WSU receiver is open. And the combination of man and zone coverage means that the brief open windows that normally exist as receivers either sit down between zone defenders, or move from one zone to the next, simply don’t exist.

Lastly, watch Levi Onwuzurike, who eventually gets the sack. His initial rush is thwarted, but as the Cuogs’ right guard leaves the double team with the right tackle to go help, Onwuzurike throws the tackle out of the way as if he simply doesn’t exist, and takes the opportunity to introduce himself to Luke Falk and give the career leader in passing yards in the Pac 12 a free ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl.

2nd and 2:

This gif starts after Falk has already scrambled right and is now backtracking and scrambling left attempting to pick up the first down. Keishawn Bierria sees what Falk is trying to do and is practically shot out of a cannon. He’s on the opposite side of the field, and starting 10 yards deep. That’s pure hustle and desire, with the athleticism to make it pay off.

Maybe just as importantly, look at the number of other Huskies in position to make the play. Vita Vea probably wouldn’t quite have been able to prevent the first down on his own, but that doesn’t keep the big man from trying. Austin Joyner is there (and eventually recovers the fumble), and could’ve made the tackle. Ben Burr-Kirven is ready to take a shot. So is Myles Bryant. The defense simply came to play.

1st and 10:

Just like the first play, but with a great angle to really see the how and why it works.

The Huskies are loaded up strong to their left, with both Will Dissly and Drew Sample over there. The formation is a little different here, though. Dissly is tight to the left tackle, but off the line like an H-back. Sample is on the line, but split out four yards. Aaron Fuller is playing a deep flanker position (about four yards off the ball, but outside Sample).

Once the play starts, though, not much of that matters. The defensive front slants to their left, and the offensive line helps them meet their goal of running themselves out of the play. Sample and Dissly do a great job at the point of attack. The key block is Mr. Fuller, who gets all the way back to the inside of his defender, and then does enough to keep him from pinching down on the play. Gaskin takes the handoff from his oh-so-deep alignment, hits the hole hard, and then just runs away from people before geometry finally works in the Cuogs’ favor.

1st and 10:

Built into the design of the Air Raid is the goal of completing short passes and trying to make a few of them into long gains with yards after the catch. These next two plays show why this offense has failed four years in a row against the Huskies.

This first one is actually a little wide receiver screen. The idea here is that the outside reciever “sells” a downfield route enough to get the man over him (Austin Joyner) to turn and run, and the slot receiver can then come back and block the corner, who in theory is out of position. The offensive linemen have all released down the field to block. Unfortunately, the Cuogs’ lumbering left tackle simply has no chance of getting to Myles Bryant (in coverage over the slot receiver), and Bryant makes an excellent tackle.

There are three other things worth noting on this play. First, watch how easily and decisively Joyner defeats the attempted block of the slot receiver. One of those tackling bags that teams use in practices could’ve made a better block. Second, a huuuuuge part of this play is the disruption in timing due to a high pass. The reason the pass is high is Ryan Bowman, who reads the screen from his defensive end spot, and instead of continuing a fruitless rush, puts himself in the passing lane and forces Falk to throw over him. Third, this play is illegal. For the offensive linemen to be able to release downfield the way they do, the receiver has to get all the way back behind the line of scrimmage after his downfield feint. He doesn’t, clearly catching the ball two yards beyond the blue line of scrimmage marker. The offensive line all should’ve been called for “ineligible man downfield” penalties.

2nd and 8:

With a four man rush, the Huskies’ coverage is playing very safe on a 2nd down play that has WSU well behind the chains. This shallow crossing route is a staple of Mike Leach’s attack, and the defense is mostly fine to keep it in front of them.

Luke Falk makes the easy throw to the receiver moving from right to left, but his hesitation in making the throw (note the two or three “hops” he makes after dropping back but before throwing) put the receiver too close to the sideline to immediately turn upfield and make a couple of additional yards. Instead, all he’s really able to do is brace for the impending impact from the hard-closing duo of Keishawn Bierria and Jojo McIntosh.

3rd and 1:

Welcome back, Byron Murphy.

Murphy showed the rust of a seven-game layoff last week against Utah at times, but it’s plays like this that show why the future of the UW secondary is in such great hands.

This play is very reminiscent of the work that Sidney Jones did on the outside of the Husky defense last season. While the tackle looks like the best part of this play, it’s actually the little things Murphy does prior to it that really make the difference.

The first thing is that while Murphy doesn’t really make a “jam” on the receiver, he gets his hands on him. That straight arm he has out prevents the receiver from making any sort of block (not that we see any sort of effort), but Murphy is also able to propel himself around the receiver because he’s figuratively and literally holding him at arm’s length.

The second is the amazing recognition on the play. Murphy reads the screen almost immediately as the inside slot receiver bubbles out wide.

Last is the tackle. Murphy isn’t a big guy, but when he’s been healthy, he’s shown that he’s willing and far more than merely capable of making sure tackles.

Simply great play from a cornerback.

2nd and 1:

Drew Sample needs to buy Jake Browning dinner after this one.

It’s the wildcat, which the Huskies have actually used fairly effectively the second half of the season. It looks like a lead run, with Kamari Pleasant blocking for Myles Gaskin around end. Instead, Gaskin flips the ball back to Jake Browning on the reverse, and Browning is looking to throw.

Drew Sample simply misses his block on this play; it’s sort of a sliding pocket used to help sell the wide run. Sample stops his feet, and the WSU end is able to slip inside him to get pressure. And it’s too bad, because this play was a touchdown. The receiver split out with Browning (possibly Fuller?) sells a block on the safety before releasing down the field. And he’s WIDE OPEN, by about five yards. Will Dissly has also released after showing a lead block for the Gaskin run, but he’s only open by three yards (but also for a TD).

Instead, Browning has pressure right after receiving the pitch from Sample’s man, but makes a great move to avoid the sack. That first disruption allows the next wave of defenders to get in to clean up the mess. On his way to the ground, Browning sees Pleasant, and fortunately, Pleasant also sees the impending disaster. Browning flips the ball forward just a few yards, and Pleasant is then able to turn what should’ve been a broken-play disaster into a 20-yard gain.

Great job by Browning to stay alive on this one.

Sometimes it’s just fun to watch great athletes make remarkable plays. The best thing about this angle is that you can see Gaskin actually make eye contact with the defender before breaking his ankles. It must be great to have been born with a cheat code for life.

Vita Vea was credited with one tackle, but might very well have been the player of the game for the Husky defense. He was a disruptive force in the WSU passing game all night with his constant pressure on Falk, and the attention he commanded from the WSU offensive line. Levi Onwuzurike played his best game of the year. The secondary was indomitable. Offensively, only the mercy of the coaching staff kept Myles Gaskin from eclipsing 200 rushing yards for the second time this season, but nothing could keep him from four relatively easy strolls into the end zone. The receivers blocked exceptionally well (including a great one by Brayden Lenius in which he took out two men on a big gainer from Andre Baccellia, but was erroneously called for holding). The offensive line dominated. Cougar fans in attendance left early, quietly, and without the bravado they managed to smuggle in to Husky Stadium.

It’s a great time to be a Husky.