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Film Study: Husky Execution Dooms the Buffaloes

Not a perfect night by any means, but the Dawgs strung together enough positive plays to seize momentum and run away to victory.

NCAA Football: Washington at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

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A season ago the Husky offense was disparaged for its sluggish running game during the non-conference schedule. While those games utilized primarily zone running plays, the Pac-12 opener at Arizona saw Chris Petersen and Jonathan Smith unleash UW’s bread and butter; something we call “Power.”

It’s smashmouth, man-on-man blocking with four linemen blocking down (pushing their man laterally) one way while a pulling guard leads the running back through the hole the other way. There were plenty of nice zone runs as well on Saturday, but it’s the unleashing of the full playbook —coupled with the improvement in execution and consistency— that makes the Husky running game tick. You could see Colorado on their heels in the second half when the UW offensive line got into a groove.

The first quarter wasn’t great for Washington, but after the initial Colorado TD drive and a few first downs on their second possession, the tide began to turn thanks to nice plays in all three phases.

Let’s look at some bad and a lot more good from Saturday night’s 37-10 win:

3rd and 1:

We’ve seen this defensive formation a number of times from the Huskies this season. There are five men on the line of scrimmage, but out of a nickel package. To accomplish this, Buck Ryan Bowman is playing as a down lineman, and inside linebacker Azeem Victor is playing a rush position on the defense’s left, leaving only Keishawn Bierria in the middle of the field. It’s effectively the Huskies’ “base nickel” defense, with a telegraphed outside blitz from Victor. Colorado pulled out their trusty Ginsu knife set and gave this look the slice-and-dice treatment multiple times on Saturday night, and with this play in particular at least a couple of times.

If you watch the Colorado offensive line, they’re in pass protection the entire way, so the fly sweep action is completely window dressing. But it’s very effective here. Safety Taylor Rapp responds to the pre-snap action by rolling toward the middle of the field. At the snap, Bierria pursues aggressively toward the motion, dismissing the possibility of a pass. Victor is reading both the ball and running back Phillip Lindsay, and finds himself in a bit of a no-man’s land between rushing the passer as Steven Montez rolls back away from the run fake on a naked semi-bootleg, and disrupting Lindsay’s release. Colorado’s two receivers at the top of the screen do a good job of occupying their defenders by releasing downfield, and then are in position to block.

Montez has receivers at two levels dragging across the field on this route; Lindsay and the tight end who started on the strong side of the formation before releasing cleanly across the totally vacant middle of the field. Montez could’ve thrown to either, but by hitting Lindsay, the tight end effectively becomes a lead blocker. Myles Bryant submarines the tight end, and Lindsay is unable to negotiate the traffic. If he had been able to get to the sideline, there was a lot of room. As it was, it was an easy first down.

The three main culprits here are Bierria, Rapp, and Victor. Bierria bites hard on the sweep action, and pays no attention to the release of the tight end. He runs himself out of the play and is in no position to provide any coverage in the middle of the field. Rapp is rolling toward the high safety position after starting out as a strong safety over the top of the trips formation on the defense’s left (you can see him “replacing” Jojo McIntosh, and McIntosh rolling up with the fly motion that changes the strength of the offense to the defense’s right). At the snap, Rapp continues to drop and also fades to his right, away from the play. He’s slow to diagnose the play. Victor is in a really tough spot here. After the fake to the fly sweep man, if he rushes, he has to leave Lindsay free. If he covers Lindsay, he leaves Ryan Bowman, who’s lined up between the guard and tackle, as the only person who can potentially contain a Montez run. It seems like the “best” thing for him to have done here was to hit Lindsay and disrupt his release, and then to play containment on Montez while hoping there was coverage behind him. There has to be a wrong read on this play from someone, and Victor is the only person that has any chance of influencing the running back on counter action as on this play.

2nd and 10:

This play is designed to isolate Dante Pettis in space with a linebacker in coverage, with the thought that there isn’t a linebacker in the country that’s going to be able to keep up with him. It’s a play that has some similar concepts to the one Colorado ran in the play above. The Huskies sell the play action to the offense’s left, and Browning is rolling back “naked” to his right. Pettis comes behind the offensive line at the snap, in hopes that he’ll be lost in the commotion. Colorado’s defensive end away from the run action (defensive left) does a great job of staying at home, and mostly by happenstance keeps Pettis from releasing at full speed (which allows Colorado’s inside linebacker covering Pettis to catch up to the play).

Looking at the defensive formation, the two Husky receivers on the right side of formation (Chico McClatcher in the slot, Quinten Pounds outside), have man coverage. Both receivers head downfield to take their men out of the play, and provide space for Pettis. A good ball fake to Myles Gaskin and good blocking by the line mean Jake Browning has plenty of time.

Browning sees Pettis is off his route and well-covered. He also knows he has man coverage, and sees the defensive back covering McClatcher’s wheel route is actually a step ahead of McClatcher, and not in great position to turn and see the ball. Without even setting his feet, Browning delivers a perfect back-shoulder throw to McClatcher. This play is Browning at his best - a quick read before moving to his second receiver, and delivering a strike in a small window to “throw his man open.” The bomb to Pounds will get the glory for all the right reasons, but from a “technical football” perspective, this is a much better throw.

2nd and 2:

This is another new look the defensive coaching staff dialed up. We’ve seen the three-man defensive line before, but with the Buck (Benning Potoa’e in this case) in a four-point stance and playing a three technique (lined up between the guard and tackle) or four technique (lined up straight over the offensive tackle) defensive end. In this case, Potoa’e is playing his standard seven technique stand-up end role, with the two defensive tackles.

Colorado is running a power play to their left, pulling the right guard around. The Huskies are blitzing nickel back Myles Bryant, which means that Potoa’e has help in outside containment, and can go straight toward the ball. He blows right through the tight end’s block, and causes the running back to hesitate. Bryant quickly reads the play (that it isn’t actually a handoff to the fly sweep man, who would’ve been taken by the hard-charging Taylor Rapp), and closes on the ball.

The havoc in the backfield, first by Potoa’e, is the real beauty of this play. While he won’t likely get any statistical credit, watch Vita Vea show simple, complete, physical domination here. The offensive guard attempts to block down on him; Vea drives him back first with his legs, and then simply presses him back another two yards with his arms. Had Myles Bryant not made the tackle, the helpless falling body of Colorado’s guard would have.

The importance of this 2-yard loss would be magnified on the next play, as it put CU in a passing 3rd down situation. That play just happened to be a game-changing pick-six by Bryant.

2nd and 5:

This is a great, athletic pass rush by a guy most Husky fans probably didn’t even know was on the roster prior to the first game this season. Ryan Bowman continues to show that he deserves to be on the field.

The Huskies only rush three on this play. Colorado (wisely) chooses to double-team Vita Vea and Greg Gaines (although one of the defenders on Gaines leaves to go triple-team Vea). That leaves Bowman one-on-one with the right tackle.

Bowman’s initial move is hard straight up the field, and the right tackle widens with him. Bowman then spins quickly to the middle, and very subtly, uses a hip check and his left arm to throw the tackle’s balance off before closing toward Steven Montez.

Greg Gaines’s decision to take this play off actually benefited the Huskies, as he ended up in a position to contain a Montez run, but by this point, Montez was broken. The eight (!) men the Huskies had in coverage probably looked like 15. He didn’t look to move on this play, even though he was at his best all night as things broke down in front of him. He ran very effectively. While the three interceptions look bad, only one was actually a bad pass (very bad, admittedly). One should’ve been a catch by his intended receiver. He had a couple of other passes simply dropped by his teammates. But for all the good things he did on Saturday, anyone out there would be hard pressed to come up with an example of a guy who looked like he had less fun on the football field than Steven Montez.

2nd and 6:

Ah, power run, how do I love thee. Let me count the ways.

Just like in 2016, the Huskies spent the first three games of the season mostly running zone looks, with middling success. And just like in 2016, the offense unleashed the power run package in the first conference game of the season on the road.

Everything with regards to the ground game worked much better on Saturday. The inside zone runs averaged about a yard or two more per carry than the first three games. There were several examples of the stretch play working for good yards.

But the power play was the workhorse of the 2016 (see: Coleman, Lavon v. Arizona, 2016; Gaskin, Myles v. Oregon, 2016), and its absence was conspicuous. No longer.

Colorado has five men along the line, so you don’t see the double team you normally would at the point of attack (in this case, the hole between the left guard and tight end). All of the linemen block down (to their right), and incredibly effectively. Right guard Nick Harris pulls behind the formation and kicks out Colorado’s outside linebacker (who doesn’t put in much effort).

Myles Gaskin gets the ball on this straight-ahead running play, and runs straight ahead. Literally. He gets the handoff about a yard from the top hashmark, and the entire play stays within about five yards of it. No cuts, no jukes, just 28 yards forward as fast as you can.

Nice to see you, power. We shall certainly meet again.

2nd and 6:

This play looks like a variation of the Inside Zone Split the Huskies used frequently in 2016.

The play is an inside zone to the offense’s right (note the movement in that direction of all of the linemen). Gaskin’s first steps are in that direction. But this play has a cutback designed in to it, in the form of a lead blocker that comes across the formation to seal the back side of the play. Last year, and prior to Drew Sample’s injury this year, that seal block would be done by (usually) by an H-back in a two-tight end formation starting on the offense’s right coming across to the left. In this case, the Huskies are in a two-back set, and it’s Kamari Pleasant coming across to cut out the defensive end and seal the back side of the play. Gaskin reads the congestion at the point of attack as well as seeing Pleasant’s (incredibly well-executed) block, and heads back across the play. In a perfect world, Pleasant’s block is further outside, and Gaskin is cutting inside of it (instead of having to go outside). But this is the real world, and Will Dissly’s nice block leaves Gaskin in a one-on-one situation he’s going to win eight times out of ten on his way to a nice gain and a first and goal.

Impressive block by Pleasant, who isn’t satisfied with the great cut block alone and quickly gets to his feet to get a piece of the nose tackle (#9) and help put him on the ground as well. Pleasant had some nice blocks from the two-back set in the absence of Lavon Coleman. Also, a good read and cut by Gaskin against a defense that was simply done at this point.

Colorado asserted itself at the beginning of the game on Saturday. While they were undone by some of their own mistakes, the tide of the game had turned before halftime even though it wasn’t completely evident by the scoreboard. The Huskies were beginning to assert their dominance on both sides of the line of scrimmage while trying to overcome some (mostly smaller) mistakes of their own that kept the score close. The Huskies hit big plays early on both sides of the ball in the third quarter, and Colorado’s confidence was shattered.

The injuries continue to mount, but the Huskies have also established more depth than they’ve had in two decades. Oregon State is reeling, but the Huskies can’t afford to take them lightly. There’s work to be done on both sides of the ball before this team can claim to have earned anything.