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Film Study: Penn State dominates on both sides of the ball

The better team won, it’s as simple as that.

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Penn State v Washington Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

The Washington Huskies capped off the 2017 season with a trip to the Fiesta Bowl to take on a deep and dangerous Penn State team. The Nittany Lions’ offense got most of the publicity all season long, but its underappreciated defense was every bit as good. This was by far the toughest test the Huskies faced all year. Unlike the games against ASU and Stanford that UW could win easily if they played them again, this one would likely have the same result of PSU dominance over and over, especially with the Dawgs’ limited healthy offensive pieces.

Still, it was only a one touchdown margin. Let’s see if the film makes the game appear as close as the final score suggested:

2nd and 10:

A play that’s been featured here many times over the course of the season - the power to the offense’s right.

Two things doom this play. First, watch Penn State’s linebackers. After a moderate blitz feint, all three are stacked behind the defensive line and ready for a play exactly like this.

Second, Andrew Kirkland simply doesn’t have the mobility to make this play as the pulling guard. Contrast this to one of the many clean, kick-step-and-pull plays we’ve featured here with Nick Harris pulling, and you can clearly see the athleticism in small spaces required to make this block. Kirkland can’t get there cleanly, and his pull block is mostly useless.

What we’ve seen on this play when it goes for big yards is the double team at the point of attack between the right guard and right tackle, or the right guard and center, or the right tackle and one of the tight ends, and then one of the double teamers releasing to the linebackers at the second level. In this case, you can see the double team between Kaleb McGary and Nick Harris. However, McGary isn’t really afforded the opportunity to release, or Harris would’ve been beaten.

At the top of the line of scrimmage, left tackle Luke Wattenberg makes a lunging block attempt on the defensive end on the back side of the play (which the end easily defeats). That’s pretty poor footwork by Wattenberg.

Trying to find the one positive on this play? Look no further than Will Dissly, the tight end on the play side. He takes on Penn State’s strong-side defensive end, and erases him from the play. Dissly had the one big catch to spark Washington’s first scoring drive, but even beyond that, was probably the team’s most consistent blocker all day. He was an unsung hero in Washington’s rushing attack in 2017.

2nd and 10:

The defense put on a graduate-level seminar in “How to Get Schooled by the Zone Read,” with guest lecturers Benning Potoa’e and D.J. Beavers on this play.

This is always going to be a tough play to defend for any defense. But a couple of big things go wrong, making this Trace McSorley run far too easy.

There looks to be at least one (major) blown assignment (Beavers), and then simply some really bad execution (Potoa’e) here. Typically on this play, the quarterback is “reading” the defensive end to determine whether to keep the ball or hand off to the running back. Potoa’e has crashed down hard (at least sort of), like he’s going straight at the running back, so McSorley keeps the ball. Defenses often times “switch” assignments on this play with what’s known as a “linebacker scrape exchange,” where Beavers - who would normally have the running back on this play - leaves the back to the defensive end and “scrapes” down the line to contain the quarterback keep. Unfortunately, Beavers is basically caught in no-man’s-land, halfway between guessing and freelancing, and all the way out of the play.

If this is the scrape exchange, then Potoa’e still doesn’t do a good job of being aware; he frequently seems to get caught up in his own personal one-on-one wrestling match and loses the ability to affect a play. You can see that he’s pretty well set on mauling and fighting, not making a play.

Penn State adds an extra layer of difficulty to this play by keeping alive a late pass option to WR #5. Myles Bryant plays assignment sound for Washington, and has this covered. But hard-charging Taylor Rapp doesn’t see this; near the end of the play, Rapp comes into the screen and is totally fooled by McSorley’s fake pitch. Rapp ends up running himself out of the play. If he stays home, the Huskies hold this to a fairly minimal gain and Rapp likely lays a big hit on the Penn State QB.

1st and 10:

The Huskies run a toss sweep lead play with a fullback, but very little goes right for the Dawgs.

The first no-no comes from Jusstis Warren, who’s playing fullback. Warren stops his feet and lunges on this block, halfway between attempting to cut and drive block the end. He ends up doing neither. The Huskies lose at the point of attack, and everything after serves to highlight the rest of the breakdowns here.

On the left side, left tackle Luke Wattenberg reaches and grabs the defensive end after his initial brush block doesn’t affect the upfield penetration (although it probably wouldn’t have mattered; Gaskin would most likely have outrun the end’s pursuit - but still). Andrew Kirkland is theoretically in the right place, but isn’t actually doing any blocking. Brayden Lenius (or was it Dickey at this point?) cracks back on a hard-charging safety, but after a decent initial block, the Huskies were lucky to avoid a holding call. Good job by center Coleman Shelton. Right guard Nick Harris and tackle Kaleb McGary are seen chasing down Penn State’s defenders yelling, “Hey! When I set up to seal you off on the back side of a play, you’re supposed to run into me, not around me like I’m not even there! Come back here!” Bad, guys.

Most of it wouldn’t have mattered, if the Huskies had made that first block.

3rd and 8:

The Huskies have a great call against a Penn State blitz on 3rd and long. It’s a running back screen to the sideline, away from the blitz. But some pretty poor execution up front causes this play to look disjointed and bumbling, and keeps it well short of the first down.

The first disruption comes in the timing. Nick Harris gets tied up with his defender, and can’t release down the field. The defender that’s on Myles Gaskin as soon as he catches the ball - that’s Harris’s man. If Harris had been able to get off his first block a half-second earlier, Gaskin can turn upfield with a head of steam and probably gets the first down no matter what else goes wrong. But that stumble-dance right on the catch slows him down.

Next, a contrast in hustle (and athletic ability): Watch center Coleman Shelton and left guard Andrew Kirkland make the same initial pass block and then release down the field.

Great hustle (and speed) by Shelton. However, he runs right to the one guy in the middle of the field that’s being blocked and double teams him instead of picking up a different defender (like seeing #47 pursuing from behind). Shelton was likely doing his job correctly, so there’s no real blame for him. But he had a chance to make the really heady play.

Kirkland again shows that he just can’t move too well. Maybe he’s not hustling. And maybe that’s all he’s got in the open field. Either way, it’s just not enough to affect the play (except for knocking his own teammates off their block).

2nd and 9:

If there were any doubts about the defense’s performance against Penn State, this play laid them all to rest. The Huskies had the Nittany Lions backed up, and had a good stop on 1st down.

There’s nothing really fancy about this play, it’s a pretty basic zone read from the offense. If you watch a little more of this play than you see on this gif, there might’ve been some confusion getting the call in (you can see Ben Burr-Kirven looking toward the sideline as the ball is snapped). That might’ve had some effect on things, but even if it did, it was really mostly a matter of some bad technique by a couple of guys that doomed the defense.

The Huskies are blitzing here, and as mentioned, there might be some confusion on the call. Watch defensive tackle Jaylen Johnson on the right side of the interior defensive line. He loops to his right. Burr-Kirven then comes up the middle, creating a five-man front. This is a run blitz. It’s possible that someone doesn’t do his job correctly, but difficult to tell who or what goes wrong if it happened.

The first thing that goes wrong comes from Tevis Bartlett, the outside linebacker on the defense’s right. He gets too far upfield, and gives up his outside containment. This creates the running lane Saquon Barkley takes. Next, and just as bad, is inside linebacker Keishawn Bierria. Bierria just doesn’t do anything but run himself into a block on this play. The Huskies needed better from their fifth-year senior, and didn’t get it.

After that, it’s a foot race, and the Huskies were going to lose it to one of the true superstars in college football.

2nd and 10:

The most efficient and effective Husky offensive drive of the game came on their first possession of the second half, when the Huskies ran at tempo when the opportunity presented itself.

Whether this play was an adjustment of the power to the right shown above, or simply run as a “power lead” with tight end Will Dissly as an H-back and Drew Sample motioning into the backfield as a fullback, the net result is that the Huskies overwhelm Penn State at the point of attack by bringing two blockers across the formation in addition to the tight end in the hole. Andrew Kirkland’s pull block is mostly “clean up” double-team of a block that Sample mostly has on his own, and Dissly leads the running back through the hole.

This is an extremely well-designed play; it’s equal parts counter lead (with a pulling guard) and double trap (with the H-back as the second puller instead of the left tackle). If Brayden Lenius (Dickey) had made a better block, this could’ve gone for even more.

3rd and 7:

Same drive, and another very well-designed play on 3rd and long.

The offensive coaches guess correctly that Penn State will be content to play coverage, and at the snap, the middle linebacker is deep, indicating he’s going to drop into a Tampa 2 and try to cover the deep middle, almost like a 3-deep zone (Cover 3). The Huskies run what’s known as a “switch release,” where H-back Hunter Bryant, who’s lined up as the middle receiver and the guy most likely to work the middle of the field (at least by alignment) instead releases to the outside of the field, toward the defensive backs. Slot receiver Aaron Fuller runs right down the seam, meaning the linebacker has to drop deep and pick up Fuller in coverage. This is a mismatch all the way. Jake Browning sees it pretty much immediately, and throws a very nice ball over the top of the linebacker for a touchdown, before either of the deep safeties can work back to the middle to help.

When it looks this easy, you can’t help but wonder why this sort of thing wasn’t there all game.

2nd and 8:

There’s a lot of movement pre-snap from the defense on this play, trying to confuse the offensive line as to who’s rushing and from where. But when all of the eye candy is done, the idea from the Huskies is for the two defensive tackles (Vita Vea and Greg Gaines) to rush wide up the field, and leave the middle open for outside linebacker Tevis Bartlett coming on an inside stunt.

It almost works. Bartlett’s rush is disguised, and it takes a very heads-up block from Saquon Barkley to pick him up - and make no mistake, it’s a very good play from Barkley first to even identify the rush, and then to get to him and knock Bartlett off his line. But after that initial push, the middle of the line is very wide open for QB Trace McSorley.

At the snap, you can see Ben Burr-Kirven drop into coverage. He “feels” the tight end (#88) coming across the middle, but doesn’t realize that one of the safeties has picked him up. Burr-Kirven runs himself out of the play, and can’t help on the QB run. Had Burr-Kirven stayed in his zone (the short zone to the defense’s right), he likely keeps this to a minimal gain, or even forces McSorley to look to throw instead of run.

3rd and 4:

First thing, Vita Vea is blocked by just one man and he does not destroy the play. Translation: Holding #66 offense.

There’s no disputing the fact that Penn State had a huge size advantage with their receivers against Washington’s smaller secondary, but the overwhelming majority of the time, the big plays in the passing game came from those receivers simply beating the Huskies’ coverage, and the size mismatch wasn’t really a factor.

This is such a case. Penn State has three receivers to the offense’s left against the Huskies’ man coverage with a single high safety. Myles Bryant is so worried about establishing his outside-in leverage at the snap that he lets the receiver entirely work across him; Bryant’s feet stop moving, and he’s beaten basically right away. The receiver simply runs past him, and Bryant can’t catch up.

McSorley is looking to his left the entire way. With three receivers to that side, the lone safety (Jojo McIntosh) should’ve been looking to help in that direction. McIntosh is deep enough, but he’s nowhere near the play. Whether it was Cover 1 or Cover 2, and whether we’re talking about McIntosh, Taylor Rapp or Ezekiel Turner, the Husky safeties did not do a good job in coverage all game long.

2nd and 8:

This play actually came from the Penn State sideline before the snap. The Nittany Lions ran three or four versions of this shovel pass against Washington, and none worked.

Penn State was in “milk the clock” mode, so the Washington defense was most concerned with stopping the run. As such, Myles Bryant is leaving coverage and walking up to blitz. All of the offense’s motion is to their left, looking for the screen to Saquon Barkley. Bryant adjusts to take away Barkley, leaving both inside linebackers free to pursue the inside pass.

The effort here by Benning Potoa’e is fantastic; he extends his arms and is able to play both the inside and outside gaps. Once the tight end has the ball and commits to his route, Potoa’e is able to shuck off the left tackle and make a play on the ball. He may or may not have made the tackle on his own, but inside linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven is free (since Bryant has covered the running back, and since Burr-Kirven sees that the slot receiver #5 is positioning himself to block and not catch a pass) to clean up.

The Huskies didn’t play their best game in any way in the Fiesta Bowl, but the fact that Penn State was the better team on both sides of the ball was biggest factor in that. Washington’s defense couldn’t contain a team that was equally as threatening on the ground as it was through the air, and the offense simply didn’t have the weapons to attack Penn State with any sort of consistency. Instead, the Huskies were in the ring with a boxer, and their only hope was to connect with enough wild haymakers. They landed a few which helped keep this from being a blowout, but not enough.

The result is disappointing because it shows once again that the Huskies aren’t “there” yet. If you just listened to the announcers during the game, it’s possible to come away believing that Penn State had some sort of schematic advantage that was the difference in the game. Without sound, though, Washington was thoroughly beaten in the trenches on both sides of the ball. That was the difference in the game.