The Huskies have a chance to turn a very good 2017 season into an exceptional one with a win in the Fiesta Bowl. Standing in their way, though, is a Penn State team that will field the best offense and the best defense the Huskies have faced this year. While most Husky fans will assume the defense is up to the task, Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkely are both dynamic playmakers that fuel both the running and passing attacks for the Nittany Lions. On the other side of the ball, it remains to be seen how the offense fairs, especially with so many health-related concerns in the passing game.
McSorley is a dynamic QB with great feet and some sneaky speed. His accuracy comes and goes, but he is not gun-shy in the least and has some nice size in his receiving corps.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions have some hard hitting players, and we can expect to see Jake Browning put under some pressure, as Penn State loves to bring a 5th man in the pass rush often.
Let’s look at some film:
1st and 10:
Penn State uses a little misdirection in the form of a shovel pass to slow down a very fast defense on this play. It’s very much akin to a fast-developing running back middle screen.
At the snap, quarterback Trace McSorley is looking to sell the quick sprint-out action to his left - the three-receiver formation at the top of the screen. To the secondary, this looks like a smoke screen to the inside slot receiver, as the other two receivers are blocking.
The left guard, center, and right tackle all block “down” (to their right). The right guard is pulling to his left (like on a power run). The left tackle intentionally leaves the man over him unblocked, in an attempt to suck Ohio State’s rush end up the field. It works. The left tackle releases to the inside linebackers.
Saquan Barkley’s first action is to show that he’s pass blocking, but really, his goal is to get lost in the wash of the pass rush, so the defense loses track of him. After a pause, he releases in the same direction as McSorley’s mock roll out. McSorley flips the ball inside (much like an option pitch, but forward) and Barkley makes a strong first down gain before slipping and allowing the secondary to get him.
How the Huskies Defend This Play: In much the same way. Washington State uses the shovel pass as misdirection once or twice per game, so the Huskies are familiar with this. As you can see, Ohio State’s right inside linebacker (toward the trips side) starts to move with the initial wide receiver screen action. With better discipline, he would’ve stayed closer to the middle of the field and may have slowed down the play. Ohio State is in a fairly “basic” Cover Two defense here - they have two high safeties, and aren’t really playing the line of scrimmage very aggressively. The extra bodies is the back end keep this gain from being much more than it could’ve been.
3rd and 10:
While the packaging is a little different, the concept here is very similar to the play above. This is a true running back screen, but the idea of taking advantage of the speed of the defense and getting the ball to a playmaker (Barkley) in space with blocking makes the idea the same.
The other thing this play shows is the difference in how the defense makes a huge difference in a play like this. Ohio State is showing blitz, with five men at the line at the snap. They’re playing man-under in the secondary, with a single high safety. That means the receivers can “run their defenders” out of the play instead of having to block them, since the defensive backs don’t have the same ability to see the ball that they do in a zone coverage. After the ball makes it past the line of scrimmage, there’s a lot of open field.
There’s a little bit of luck for the Nittany Lions on this play, as Ohio State’s front blitzes from its right, away from the play (note the rush angle of the middle linebacker, #35). The blocking from PSU’s offensive line isn’t anything spectacular, but the center (#66) makes just enough contact with the MLB to slow his pursuit of the play from the back side. After that, it comes down to the awareness of the secondary to realize no pass is coming, and get back to the play to make a tackle. That’s 10 yards down the field, though.
How the Huskies Defend This Play: It has to start with better awareness up front. It’s completely counterintuitive for a defensive lineman to see a free run at the quarterback and not take it, but that’s exactly what needs to happen here. Instead, the second they realize they’re unblocked, they need to stop and start looking for the potential screen receiver. Vita Vea and Greg Gaines have shown great ability to do this. Next is the read from the linebackers: Saquan Barkley is faster than Keishawn Bierria or Ben Burr-Kirven, but #35 (Chris Worley) from OSU doesn’t end up blitzing, and doesn’t make a great read on this play. He has the last, best chance to make a quick stop, but doesn’t see what happens.
A screen like this against a heavy front is dangerous, and teams have made plays similar to this against the Huskies this year. Don’t be surprised if the Huskies allow a gain like this to a great back and a very good offense in the Fiesta Bowl. The key is to not allow them repeatedly, and at critical times. Easier said than done, of course.
1st and 10:
This is the very same inside zone split (with zone-read action from the quarterback) the Huskies run, that we’ve featured here throughout the season. The offensive line is blocking an inside zone to their right, and the H-back comes across the formation to seal off penetration from the back side. This gives Saquon Barkley basically the entire field to read, and the potential for a big play on the cutback.
Ohio State has a very good defensive line, but this play is exceptionally well-blocked, especially at the point of attack. The right side of the offensive line snuffs out the defense, and the center and left tackle are each able to neutralize an inside linebacker. The left defensive end is closing extremely hard on the play from the back side, and the H-back gets just enough of a block to allow Barkley to get through. At that point, Barkley sees the cutback, takes it, and is untouched into the end zone. Good hustle by the QB to get down the field and make that last, critical block.
How the Huskies Defend This: Ohio State’s defensive front appears to be slanting to its left, with the linebackers then filling up the field to their right. The single most obvious mistake here comes from the inside linebacker on the right side, who attacks the line too aggressively and runs himself out of the play. That’s what really opens up the cutback here. The other thing is simply something of a mismatch that personnels affords. Ohio State has an outside linebacker (#33) in coverage over the slot receiver on the defense’s right. He also over-penetrates while setting the edge, and then doesn’t really have the speed or quickness to affect the play. With Washington, that’s most likely Myles Bryant in that position. Bryant doesn’t have near the size, but he’s a much more effective player in pursuit. He may or may not make that tackle, but he’s more likely to at least be in a position to recover and at least have an opportunity.
3rd and 11:
Penn State doesn’t actually do anything well on this play, but still manages to turn 3rd and 11 into a first down. A little luck and a lot of athleticism go a long way.
Ohio State shows blitz pre-snap, but drops back out of it (you can see the linebacker sprinting back into coverage at the snap). Pretty much across the board, the offensive line is beaten by the rush, which includes an end-tackle twist on the left side of the defense. Part of the luck comes from Ohio State losing containment on its rush, leaving a gaping hole - on their right side, which isn’t where Trace McSorley ends up taking the ball. Massive luck comes from the officials missing a hold of the egregious variety from the right guard (#70). That’s quite a takedown right there. McSorley feels the pressure and runs right into the teeth of the rush, and only the mass of bodies tripping over one another really allows him to get clear. From there, he’s simply fast enough to get to the edge and turn what should’ve been a sack or a penalty into a heart-breaking gain.
How the Huskies Defend This: Like Ohio State, the Huskies play a lot of man-to-man coverage, and are at least somewhat prone to giving up a broken play like this. The hope is first that the defensive line can finish the play in the backfield, or that the penalty is called. After that, it’s down to the pursuit of the inside linebacker that feinted blitz at the snap (#39). His angle is poor, and his pursuit is disjointed. Hopefully, the Husky in that position (whoever it may be) can finish this play enough before it gets to the sticks.
2nd and 10:
This is a designed quarterback draw all the way.
Penn State has trips to its right, and then brings Saquon Barkley that direction like he’s going to receive a screen. Watch the defense, and you can see virtually everyone flow toward that action. Most critically, it takes the inside linebacker on the trips side out of the middle of the field into coverage, leaving Trace McSorley with only one man to beat. Fortunately for Penn State, that man (the other inside linebacker) has also vacated his position and is flowing toward the action toward the trips side, and McSorley is able to easily cut to his right and pick up almost 25 yards.
How the Huskies Defend This Play: Ohio State is again in a Cover 2, which leaves them a little thin in the short coverage (especially on the trips side). That really requires the inside linebacker to pick up the running back in coverage. The Huskies definitely play some Cover 2, but are still primarily a Cover 1 team, which affords an extra defender in the shallow pass defense (and keeps the inside linebacker that releases at the snap in coverage in the middle of the field instead of wide). When the Huskies do play Cover 2, they primarily do it with a three man defensive line, and the fourth man (typically outside linebacker Tevis Bartlett) out wide in coverage. That also allows the defense to keep the inside linebacker in the middle of the field to help defend a play like this. After that, it comes down to better execution, particularly from the inside linebacker who’s not in coverage. He cannot drift away from the middle of the field, and has to stay in position to make this tackle much sooner.
3rd and 13:
Penn State’s Mike Gesicki is one of the best receiving tight ends in college football, and sometimes, great players make great plays.
This is what’s known as a “smash route” on the left side of the offense (top of the screen). Since Ohio State is in man coverage, the outside receiver runs a shallow cross (if the defense was in zone, he would run a hitch). The slot receiver runs a corner or fade route (against a zone, this would most likely turn into a fade-curl or a deep out). The receiver has a big size advantage, so the quarterback throws the back shoulder fade, and allows the receiver to go up and make a play.
How the Huskies Defend This: Tip your cap to the offense and get ready to defend the next play. Maybe the coverage could’ve been a little tighter, but the Huskies certainly don’t have anyone that matches up any better size-wise on a play like this.
As good as the Nittany Lions are on offense, they’re equally adept defensively. They are nearly equally effective defending the run as the pass, and they don’t give up big plays. This will be the biggest test for the Husky offense by a significant margin.
3rd and 10:
Penn State is playing a fairly conservative man coverage on this 3rd and 10 play (note the cushion the cornerback is giving at the top of the screen). This is a fairly straight-forward four-man rush, with an “A” gap blitz from the middle linebacker. What makes the play is the defensive lineman that stunts back through that gap after the linebacker goes kamikaze to occupy the center - a reversal of the normal order of things.
How the Huskies Attack This: Most likely, you’ll never see a five-wide receiver look from Washington in the red zone. Almost undoubtedly, you’re going to see a tight end (maybe two) and a running back in position to help pick up the blitz.
After that, it comes down to awareness. While it’s easy to blame the quarterback on this play, he really doesn’t get any help from his receivers. Watch #14 at the bottom of the screen - he jukes, hesitates, stutters, etc. way too long before finally reading the defense and getting into a route. The inside slot receiver is so focused on his route, that he never looks back toward the ball. At the top of the screen, the offense has two receivers far too close together. The QB is very obviously focused on the rush as well. All in all, this was going to be a tough play to execute in such a compact space.
3rd and 4:
Ohio State runs a simple inside zone read, and win by dominating the line of scrimmage.
Both of Penn State’s inside linebacker shoot gaps on this play. Ohio State’s running back takes advantage in much the same way we hope to see Myles Gaskin do: finding the open cutback lane.
Plays like this, though, really start with the offensive line. To a man, the Huskies are going to have to execute at their highest level of the season, and be ready to take advantage of the few opportunities the defense will give them.
1st and 5:
Penn State brings six men on the blitz and force a bad decision and pass from the Buckeyes. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, Ohio State is bailed out by a pass interference call in the end zone.
It’s man coverage all the way across the field, with the receiver at the bottom of the screen running a fade route. If he’s healthy, Dante Pettis is going to be the first read for Jake Browning. If not, the Huskies are going to struggle on occasions Penn State brings this much pressure (which isn’t a ton). Ohio State was in desperation mode at this point, and they were lucky to get the outcome on this play they did.
Best way to attack this defense? Don’t get in this position by being down big late in the game.
The “next step” for the Washington program comes from winning a game like this. It’s going to be a tough task, but the opportunity is there.