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Film Study: BYU can’t keep up, or slow UW down.

The Washington Huskies were put on upset alert, and weren’t going to let an inferior team sneak up on them

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

BYU came into Husky Stadium Saturday evening with a #20 national ranking, a big win over a top 10 Wisconsin team, and the notion that they were a tough, physical team that wasn’t going to easily be pushed around by the Washington Huskies. The Cougars had averaged more than 175 yards per game on the ground in their first four games, and although they lacked flash, likely didn’t expect to be bullied, either.

Then the game kicked off.

The difference in team speed was palpable at the outset, and Washington was dominant up front on both sides of the ball. BYU’s rushing attack was held to only 11 yards in the first quarter, and prior to two drives against Washington’s deep reserves in the final four minutes of game action, netted one single yard rushing in the second, third, and bulk of the fourth quarters.


On offense, the Huskies ran around BYU’s large but slow defensive front, and made their medium-sized-but-also-slow linebackers play chase on a series of wide runs. The offensive line gave Jake Browning just over seven Mississippis to throw (on average), and Browning was at his surgical best as a passer; only a drop in the end zone on his final pass attempt kept him from setting an NCAA record for pass completion percentage. Oh well, there’s always next game.

To the film:

3rd and 4:

This third down play midway through the first quarter is instructive for a number of reasons.

First, it’s a prime example of Nick Harris’ (#56, C) low and slow shotgun snaps. Not only does Jake Browning have to reach down around his ankles to catch the ball, but it takes an awfully long time to get there. The likely culprit is that Harris lifts his head too soon; that causes his whole body to come up and takes some oomph off the snap.

Second there was an effective little wrinkle in pass protection against BYU. When the Cougars were in an even front (four down linemen)—meaning Harris didn’t have a man over him—instead of Harris forming the pocket and not having anyone to block, he dropped back immediately after the snap and played the role of personal protector for the quarterback. He helped out wherever it was needed. This play was blocked pretty well, but Harris ends up taking a shot on Luke Wattenberg’s (#76, LG) man for good measure. That help from Harris in the back (plus the fact that BYU doesn’t blitz or stunt too much up front) might’ve made the coaches a little more comfortable sending the running backs out into the pattern instead of staying in to block. Myles Gaskin, Salvon Ahmed, and Sean McGrew were out in the flats more on Saturday than they had been in any previous game. You can see Gaskin down the sideline on a wheel route on this play, before turning into a blocker.

Third, this simple little crossing route puts an awful lot of pressure on BYU’s linebackers in coverage. The Huskies get the look they want at the snap; BYU has a linebacker over Aaron Fuller in the slot at the bottom of the screen, and Drew Sample is uncovered as the in-line tight end on the other side of the formation (offense’s left). Those two each run shallow crossing routes, and pass each other in the middle of the field almost shoulder-to-shoulder. BYU’s outside linebacker (the one over Fuller) and middle linebacker “trade” men at the mesh point. What makes this play work so well is that Gaskin is picked up by the outside linebacker (#2) on that side of the field. The middle linebacker has to pick up Fuller, who has a head of steam and is faster to begin with, and there’s no chance. Easy throw, easy catch, and a nice little run after to pick up the first down and a horse-collar tackle at the end moves the ball even closer to the end zone.

If BYU had left the outside linebacker #2 in flat coverage, Fuller obviously wouldn’t have been open. But Gaskin would have, on the wheel route that worked well at times over the last few seasons. You can see that the deep safety on that side of the field is in no position to help on that sideline route.

2nd and 11:

A shovel pass feels like cheating. It’s the king of the Green Weenie plays, like an offensive linemen getting a late block on a defender standing near a pile with his back turned, or a defensive linemen that tries to “block” the opposing team’s quarterback during an interception or fumble return.

It’s a really effective play at times, especially when it catches the defense off guard like it does here, with a little bit of counter action thrown in to make things extra cheaty.

BYU sells a quick throw to their right, and you can see Tevis Bartlett (#17, ILB) sprint out in coverage. The QB then rolls back to his left, and you can see the pocket of offensive linemen slide with him. The running back (#4) steps forward at the snap like he’s looking for someone to block. Washington’s defensive front is stunting to its right, and...

(Okay, before moving on, we should clear something up. In this defense right now, Jaylen Johnson, all 280+ pounds of him, is an outside linebacker. He’s not a defensive lineman, at least not really. He mostly plays a defensive end technique, but he’s the field-side outside linebacker, the role that was held by Psalm Wooching in 2016 and Benning Potoa’e and Ryan Bowman last year. There are some other defensive looks the team uses (most notably their dime package, the one where Taylor Rapp rushes the passer), and Johnson will rotate to a defensive tackle spot as guys come in and out to catch their breath. But in the base nickel that we’ve seen from Washington the last few years, the one the D is running on this play, Johnson is an outside linebacker. Weird, huh?)

...Jaylen Johnson (#92, OLB) is dropping into flat coverage, leaving a three-man rush. Johnson and the remaining inside linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven (#25) flow with the play. After feinting the block, BYU’s running back then cuts back counter to the flow of the play, and the QB gives a little underhand flip of the ball to him. The right side of BYU’s offensive line, away from the sliding pocket, has released downfield almost like this is a middle screen. Because Bartlett had vacated the middle of the field on the early pass fake, and Burr-Kirven had flowed with the rolling pocket, the middle of the field is fairly open, and 2nd and long becomes 1st and 10.

2nd and 5:

BYU ran the fly sweep a lot on Saturday, and on this one, they were either hoping Benning Potoa’e was asleep, or they just forgot to block him. Regardless, plays like this are fun for guys like Potoa’e—a free run at a guy with no chance to get away.

On the play, Potoa’e is outside over BYU’s tight end. At the snap, the tight end ignores Potoa’e and heads down field to block a linebacker, which happens to be the same linebacker the receiver is heading over to block. That, of course, leaves Byron Murphy free to come up on the play had Potoa’e actually been asleep. Which he obviously wasn’t (just ask BYU’s slot receiver).

There’s a mistake or series of mistakes by the Cougars here, and it’s noteworthy that BYU had lost its starting tight end to injury the series before. The tight end probably should’ve blocked Potoa’e, but given the action of the right side of BYU’s offensive line (all blocking down), it’s possible that someone was supposed to pull on a power play. It’s also possible (but not likely) that the play simply relied on the ball carrier outrunning Potoa’e to the edge.

Regardless, Husky fans will take it.

1st and 10:

There’s a lot going on here, and it’s difficult to tell if this is a real RPO, or if the action to the right side of the play is entirely window dressing, and this was a screen to Chico McClatcher all the way.

Jake Browning is in a pistol-depth shotgun. At the snap, he’s looking to his right, and the Huskies go to a lot of effort to sell a wide power run that direction. Center Nick Harris is pulling as the lead blocker. Browning doesn’t put a lot of effort into selling the run fake, so if this is an RPO, his decision to make the throw (instead of hand off) appears to be based on BYU’s alignment, not the post-snap actions of any players. This seems likely the case, because if you look at Washington’s formation, they have three receivers to their left, with two being tight ends and the third is Mr. McClatcher. We don’t get a good look before the snap, but BYU is pretty light over on that side, with only one defender tight to the line.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Otton, your son Cade doesn’t play nice with others, and has a tendency to bully the smaller children. We recommend finding a quiet hobby like playing the oboe before his aggression really gets out of control. —Signed, #19 from BYU.

Meanwhile, Drew Sample is down the field and sealing the sideline from inside pursuit. McClatcher takes the pass and is one man away from a touchdown before finally getting caught. Kudos to BYU’s linebacker Sione Takitaki (#16)—he played with a lot energy all night.

1st and 10:

Almost the exact same action as the previous play, but with short passes (a slant to Chico McClatcher in the slot, and a hitch to Aaron Fuller at the bottom of the screen) instead of the bubble screen.

Again, it’s tough to see prior to the snap, but BYU is light in the box on this play, with only six defenders (four linemen and two linebackers). The offense has six blockers (five linemen plus tight end Drew Sample). That’s a run read before the snap.

Jake Browning is at full shotgun depth, and it’s power read option look with Salvon Ahmed, but if Browning pulls the ball, he’s going to throw it instead of run it himself. He hands off, and Ahmed is heading wide. Nick Harris is again the pulling lead blocker.

This play is actually close to being a little more; Sample is in position to seal off the edge, but gets taken out by a little friendly fire (note right tackle Kaleb McGary fall on his leg) right before he makes his block. Harris ends up having to pick up this defender down the field. Had BYU’s #2 been erased by Sample, Harris would’ve been able to block one of the other defenders eventually involved with the tackle (most likely middle linebacker #16) and Ahmed would’ve been one-on-one with a safety for the end zone.

1st and 10:

This is a stretch zone play (a very wide zone run), and the Huskies simply abused BYU with this all night. BYU didn’t have the speed to pursue these types of plays, the offensive line blocked well, and last but certainly not least, Washington’s tight ends did an exceptional job of sealing the edge all game long.

This play is a good example, although anyone rewatching the game will see several that are even better.

Drew Sample is on the line of scrimmage to the offense’s left, and Cade Otton comes in motion to that side as the H-back. At the snap, Otton chips on the outside linebacker that has walked up to the line of scrimmage (more of a saunter, actually), which gives Sample enough time to work all the way to the outside of him (it’s #16 for BYU again), and then seal him back to the inside, creating a wide running lane.

Credit to BYU’s defensive end #55 (defensive right, over left tackle Henry Roberts #59). Roberts makes contact and is moving along, but #55 does a nice job of disengaging the block and shows fantastic hustle in pursuit of the ball.

After chipping, Otton hustles down field to get a piece of a safety. Gaskin turns on the burners, but is eventually hemmed in. Rather than going down easy, Gaskin lowers his shoulder (and not his head, which is targeting by rule and needs to be called on running backs to keep things equitable!) and delivers a blow. He takes out a safety and falls forward a few more yards.

3rd and 6:

Let’s see how many defensive backs we can find on this play...

I see Jordan Miller (#23) in bump-and-run at the bottom of the screen. #5 Myles Bryant is lined up as a linebacker, and takes away the hook zone from BYU’s tight end. #14 Jojo McIntosh is next to him and runs to the flat to his right to cover the running back. #7 Taylor Rapp is rushing the passer at the line of scrimmage. #3 Elijah Molden is in coverage over the slot receiver to the offense’s right. We can’t see the cornerback at the top of the screen, but that’s the spot normally occupied by #1 Byron Murphy. Probably him. About 20 yards off the ball is one last free safety that disappears right at the snap. No idea who it is, but it’s probably a defensive back and not someone like Levi Onwuzurike.

Seven DBs. Plus Greg Gaines, Ben Burr-Kirven, Ariel Ngata and Benning Potoa’e. This is sometimes called a “quarter” (after five DBs being the nickel, and six being the dime). It’s usually an uber-pass prevent defense, not one that teams use to get pursuit on the QB on third and medium. The Huskies blitz with Rapp, bringing five rushers, but still have six defensive backs in coverage. This isn’t a front that generates a lot of power, but oh, that speed.

What happens here is that Rapp loops around Gaines and Burr-Kirven both; that’s too much ground to ask any offensive lineman to cover, and BYU’s center proves he’s not up to the task. Burr-Kirven’s initial rush makes the QB pull the ball down and move, and Rapp is there to register the sack.

3rd and 4:

There’s a couple of things to note about this play.

First, while Ben Burr-Kirven is blitzing, the Huskies still only end up rushing four men because Ariel Ngata (#52) drops from the left end of the defensive line back into the zone that Burr-Kirven vacated with his rush. This zone blitz allows the Huskies to get some pressure by confusing the offense and overloading a certain rush gap (Burr-Kirven and Ryan Bowman #55 both end up coming at the same offensive lineman, who can obviously only block one of them), but still take away a hot read—frequently a tight end in the middle of the field. Most teams use this zone blitz (sometimes called fire zone blitz) with a five man rush, which means they can still play a Cover 3 defense in the secondary, with a three man shell at the intermediate level. In this case, with only four rushers, the Huskies are able to play their preferred man coverage to the outside with the middle zone, and maintain a deep Cover One safety (not shown on the screen on this play).

The other thing: just great football by Myles Bryant. He follows his man all the way across the field. He reads the flats throw, and just closes like a missile. Super solid form tackle, taking away the receiver’s legs. You simply can’t play this any better than Bryant does here.

The Huskies came out on a Saturday evening and flat-out took care of business. UW took it to BYU from the beginning of the game until the Cougars finally managed to find the end zone against Washington’s deep reserves with under a minute to play in the game. The Huskies were dominant without having to be spectacular. They just played smart, clean football all game long. On to UCLA, where we hope to see more of the same.