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Film Study: Rutgers Part 1 (The Bad)

When the world tells us that the Huskies should dominate, anything else feels like a loss

NCAA Football: Washington at Rutgers Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

So I suppose a lot of folks figure that players generally read what the media says, and that Rutgers was going to individually bow to each UW player and coach, then lay down and let the Huskies roll all over them from the opening snap. Then, of course, crown them on their way out of Piscataway.

This was a game between two Power 5 schools, and while Rutgers may be lousy again this year, it’s not going to be because they are 100% void of talent and coaching. A few injuries to this Scarlet Knights team could be devastating with their lack of depth, but as of Friday night, they were healthy and Chris Ash had a very well thought out “Don’t get clobbered in front of the home crowd” game plan.

That said, UW was hardly sharp in this one. Let’s dive into some of the problems we saw on both sides of the ball:

Offense

1st and 10:

The first offensive snap of the 2017 season, and the running game starts with the same whimper it did in 2016. And 2015. And 2014....

First things first: Credit is due to Rutgers’ defensive line. They, objectively, weren’t good in 2016, and they were perceived to be probably the biggest unknown for the Scarlet Knights heading into this season. They came to play Friday night. #95 Jon Bateky in particular stood out, as an active disrupting force that gave various players on the Huskies’ offensive line fits much of the game.

But Washington did its part to aid in this perception, as the offensive line was a step slow, a step “off”, and lacking in technical acumen much of the first half. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the fix is simpler and closer than it looked on Friday, and isn’t “a few more years in the weight room” like Husky fans have heard too often in the past.

The Huskies come out with two tight ends, and both receivers lined up on the offense’s right. They’re running an inside zone, with the “sure” yards coming straight up the middle, and the potential for even more if the running back can hit the hole and look to cut back to his left - the weak side of the defense. Whether to confuse the Huskies, or through their own confusion (and it looks like at least a little of both), Rutgers’ defensive line is jumping around a lot before the snap.

The first failure here is left guard Jesse Sosebee. If you look carefully, you can see that he doesn’t look particularly quick off the snap, and it’s largely due to the fact that his first move is to stand up instead of fire forward. This puts him in position to “accept” a blow from the defensive lineman instead of deliver one, and his feet aren’t moving. This is particularly bad because Sosebee is at the point of attack. His man doesn’t ultimately make the tackle, but he clogs the hole and takes away the initial running lane.

Right tackle Kaleb McGary and h-back Will Dissly are double teaming the defensive end on the offense’s right (the back side of the play). Once the block is secured, McGary is supposed to release to the second level linebackers. When people talk about offensive line communication, this is a prime example: McGary needs to stay with the block until it’s secure, then release his man to Dissly before heading upfield. In this case, Dissly has a long way to come to the block (as the h-back, instead of being on the line as a tight end, and the angle he has to take to secure the block). McGary needs to hold the initial block a beat longer and make sure it’s accomplished before releasing.

Last, Myles Gaskin is a great back because of his ability to scoot and slide in traffic, but there’s a fine line between that and “dancing” before hitting the hole. In his defense, there’s a lot of traffic to read in the way (Sosebee losing his battle, and center Coleman Shelton not quite earning a stalemate), so he’s having a tough time seeing. But Gaskin also hits the line of scrimmage at a near standstill. This one might be a little too close to “dancing.”

The end result is no bueno for the Huskies.

2nd and 8:

The Huskies are running a wide zone, or “stretch”, to the wide side of the field out of a balanced formation. Note the way the offensive line is attempting to move in unison laterally down the line. Rutgers is a very aggressive 3-4 alignment that’s really more of a 5-2 Oklahoma defense, with outside linebackers jamming the tight ends, and the inside linebackers playing the middle heavy of the defense. Semantics aside, it’s always going to be tough to run a slow-developing outside run against a defense attacking the line of scrimmage this hard. It could be argued that Browning should’ve gotten the Huskies out of this play and into something else, but it’s worth noting that this was the fifth offensive snap of the game for the Huskies, still within the 15 first scripted plays.

(A digression: Mike Holmgren and Hugh Millen were discussing this topic one day on KJR. Holmgren stated that when he called plays, he was loath to deviate from his script regardless of down and distance, and didn’t want his quarterback to audible. His reasoning was the amount of work that he put into compiling those plays, and the time and effort the team had spent practicing them. Besides his rocket launcher right arm (amirite, Husky57?), one thing Husky fans have grown to depend on from Jake Browning is his ability to get the offense in to the best play possible. But we can’t entirely discount the possibility that Chris Petersen and Jonathan Smith wanted this play run - because they thought it would work, because they wanted it on film, etc. - no matter what.)

The innate aggressiveness of Rutgers’ play call is further enhanced by the fact they’re running a tackle twist on the play side (note #99 shooting into the middle of the line of scrimmage, and #51 looping around him to the outside), making this play all the more difficult to run effectively.

Here are the only two things that go right: Right guard Nick Harris picks up the “imminent danger” player on the tackle twist (#99), and effectively negates him. And, while tight end Will Dissly isn’t able to get outside of the outside linebacker to seal the edge, he blocks his man to the ground, which is just as effective.

The one thing that goes half-right: Kaleb McGary ignores the twisting tackle (bad), but mostly seals the inside linebacker on the edge (good). That is, until a poor block attempt from wide receiver Andre Baccellia knocks him off his block...

Here’s what went wrong: A lot. First, left tackle Trey Adams attempts to cut-block his man to the ground. Fine in theory, but an offensive lineman that leaves his feet to make a block had better dat gum make that block. Second, center Coleman Shelton can’t get to the stunting defensive tackle in time, and the DT is able to disrupt the play and force Lavon Coleman to freelance behind the line of scrimmage. Third, even with all the commotion near the line of scrimmage, Jesse Sosebee just can’t seem to find anyone to block. And last, Andre Baccellia’s block attempt is half-hearted, and really only serves to free two Rutgers defenders to come help clean up on the tackle.

The play was dead from jump street. The only positive that came out of it is that it’s now a teaching moment. The coaches are going to have a LOT of teaching to do here.

3rd and 6:

Nothing like getting that first contact of a new season out of the way. Which Jake Browning manages to do. The best thing that happens here (other than an alert recovery by McGary) is that Browning’s head and shoulders hit the turf simultaneously, minimizing the head whip.

This one is on Browning. For whatever reason, he simply fails to identify the blitz. The worst part is that Rutgers isn’t actually doing all that much to disguise it. If you watch this play from the time the offense is breaking the huddle to the snap, wild, rampant speculation might suggest that with Rutgers’ late adjustment to the Huskies’ formation (note that the corner isn’t over the receiver on the offense’s right until just before the snap, the OLB that ultimately blitzes is sort of milling around, and after a cursory look to his right to count defensive numbers, Browning doesn’t really appear to look back that direction) keeps Browning from identifying the blitz properly (although it doesn’t take any real effort to move one’s eyes so this whole explanation sounds like malarkey) .

At the snap, Browning is reading the safety originally lined up on the left side of the screen at the 46 yard-line, and the deep safety (not in the picture). The Huskies are running a shallow crossing route in front of the linebackers with Drew Sample (offensive left, the lead on the trips group) and Dante Pettis from the other side. The outside receiver of the trips group (Brayden Lenius, maybe?) is crossing behind them, settling behind the defense. The idea is the shallow cross will occupy the short zone defense, and the deeper cross will be open. USC ran this play very effectively in 2016.

There are two ways to beat a blitz: More receivers in the pattern, or more blockers in protection. The Huskies mostly chose the latter in 2016. On this play, it’s the former as Lavon Coleman is effectively the hot read. But Browning is looking left the entire team, trying to influence the coverage with his eyes. He never sees the blitz. If he had, it’s an easy dump-off to Coleman for at least a few yards. Plus, he saves himself some pain. As it is, he gets to relive that hit over and over in film study and nightmares (and potentially in a dentist’s chair).

Defense

2nd and 4:

This isn’t exactly “bad” defense, but it shows a few things worth noting from Friday’s game.

The first is that the Husky defense blitzed the linebackers quite a bit, and didn’t have much to show for it. Ben Burr-Kirven comes on this play. He does a good job of forcing the running back to cut to the outside, even if Burr-Kirven is a little hesitant once he gets to the line of scrimmage.

Greg Gaines is both held and a victim of an illegal “hands to the face,” but even with that, he’s largely defeated by a single blocker. Keishawn Bierria is being held and taken to the ground even before getting tangled up in a pile. A pile, it should be noted, that’s created as Myles Bryant is being held and tackled to the ground....

There was holding on Friday night. It happens. It was pretty bad on occasion, like this play.

Benning Potoa’e is handled well, and easily. Rutgers used this formation quite a bit, with a trips group tight to the formation. The lead was the tight end (#88, a guy who had a very good game), blocking straight up on Potoa’e. Potoa’e was guilty of this type of play much of the game on Friday - attempting to defeat the block by muscling through it, instead of shucking the block off and keeping his outside arm free. Potoa’e is ultimately near the tackle, but is only a part of it because the blocker is drives him backward until time and space converge with the ball carrier, not because Potoa’e has in any sense “won” his battle.

1st and 10:

The good ole’ read option. Or, at least the look. Rutgers’ QB didn’t seem like much of a legitimate running threat, and instead of the offensive line working toward the second level at the running back’s point of attack, they’re double-teaming Greg Gaines to neutralize him. That’s suggesting the handoff was pre-determined.

Vita Vea does a great job of quickly realizing he’s the unblocked defender being optioned, and settles to force the handoff instead of following the instinct to attack upfield. Greg Gaines swallows the double team, and only gives up a single yard.

Benning Potoa’e attacks too far upfield, and compounds this mistake by turning perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. Once again, he’s fighting the blocker instead of shucking him off. Ben Burr-Kirven needs to step more aggressively toward the gap that’s opened by two linemen being occupied by Greg Gaines; had he done so, the tackle would’ve been made closer to the line of scrimmage. Keishawn Bierria also needs to “defeat” the blocker as opposed to engaging him.

3rd and 7:

This play is notable for several reasons.

The first is that the Huskies played with three down linemen quite a bit against Rutgers. Probably 10 snaps or so, including the two plays prior to this. Again, you can call it a 3-4, but it’s really most like a 5-2 Oklahoma. The Huskies were this close to picking up a safety on first down, and only a phenomenal effort by Rutgers’ running back got him out of the wrong end zone.

Second, the number of backups in the game. Up front, Greg Gaines and Tevis Bartlett are the only starters in the game, joined by inside linebackers Sean Constantine and Brandon Wellington, Ryan Bowman outside, and Jared Pulu on the line.

On the previous two plays, nickel back Myles Bryant was out of the game, and Jaylen Johnson was in as a true third lineman. While the defensive formation looks the same here, the Huskies are actually back in their nickel for third down. What’s happened is that Ryan Bowman has slid to a down lineman spot, Sean Constantine has moved to be an outside linebacker/end, and the third down lineman (Johnson) is back out, with the nickel back in the game. And there’s only one linebacker (Wellington) in the game. No matter what you want to call this defense, it’s effectively a 5-1 nickel.

Rutgers is running a power to their right, but instead of pulling their left guard (which is what the Huskies would do here), they pull their left tackle around to get to the OLB, Tevis Bartlett. The right side of the offensive line does a nice job of double-teaming Pulu. That double team, coupled with the center being occupied with Greg Gaines, should’ve created a wide-open alley for Brandon Wellington’s blitz. Wellington isn’t very aggressive coming up, and the guard is able to pull off the double team of Pulu and pick up what turns in to a poorly executed blitz.

This play won’t make any of Gaines’ highlight reels either. He’s attempting to bull/swim past the center, but loses his balance and takes himself out of the play.

Tevis Bartlett should’ve seen the double team and pinched down to close the end of the line of scrimmage, engaging the pulling tackle much earlier. Instead, he’s far too wide and unaggressive, which creates the cutback lane for Rutgers’ runner. This, and Wellington’s poor blitz, were the two main culprits on this play. Taylor Rapp deserves a dishonorable mention as well - with no pass routes by the receivers, and the only screen pass potential being to the outside on the offense’s right (see Jojo McIntosh in coverage), you’d like to see him playing a little more aggressively and flowing toward the play, instead of making the tackle a dozen yards down the field.

A road win, 1-0, no major injuries, etc...all good things. But the Huskies didn’t exactly come out in midseason form on Friday, on either side of the ball. There was enough good (Byron Murphy’s first two of what are hopefully many interceptions as a Husky, Myles Gaskin showing off great hands down the field, exceptional punting, and a as-dominant-as-it-mostly-needed-to-be second half). But there’s work to be done on both sides of the ball. The good news is that it’s mostly “refinement” (and maybe putting some of the experimentation - a somewhat normal thing for Petersen and Pete Kwiatkowski early in the season - to bed), not talent, or effort, or skill. Rutgers looks to be much better than it did in 2016, and they deserve credit for their effort on Friday.