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Film Study: Huskies, Utah put on defensive clinic in Pac-12 Championship Game

If you like great defensive play, this was must-see TV

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Conference Championship-Utah vs Washington Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of fans probably didn’t enjoy the incredibly low-scoring Pac-12 championship game. After all, there wasn’t a single offensive touchdown scored in the entire game. Savvy fans, however, know that they saw an incredible display of defensive explosiveness from both teams. No one is going to mistake either the Utes or Huskies for the Bill Walsh-era San Francisco 49ers, but this was absolutely not a case of offensive mistakes, inefficiencies, or, well, offensiveness—this was pad-cracking defensive play, after play, after play. This was a clinic in defensive line execution and form tackling, plus mixing coverages and knocking receivers off their routes. For some, it was ugly and boring. For the Pac-12 Champion Washington Huskies and the UWDP film study geeks, it was scripted beauty.

To the film:

2nd and 9:

Britain Covey’s “Not Really Having Fun in 2018 Against the Washington Huskies” tour continued in Santa Clara.

Utah telegraphs the end-around to Covey here with a fake read to the running back prior to pitching back to him. Washington’s defense is in the perfect play here, as Jordan Miller (CB #23) is blitzing right into the path of the fly motion. This isn’t just a great read by Miller, you can see that he’s freed up from coverage responsibility on this play as JoJo McIntosh (S #14) slides over in coverage.

Utah brings its H-back across the play almost like a pulling guard, to clean up Washington’s outside linebacker on the play side (looks like Joe Tryon, #9?), who is left unblocked. With the blitz, though, Tryon isn’t containing the end of the line of scrimmage and is attacking upfield prior to running into congestion created by Greg Gaines’s incredible penetration.

Miller sees the H-back coming first, and is ready to take him on. However, he quickly sees Covey coming with the ball, and heads up to make the play. Covey is moving pretty quickly, but Miller keeps his leverage and makes the sure tackle well behind the line of scrimmage.

Great call, great execution. Before this gif switches to the tight shot of Miller’s tackle, you can see that the inside linebacker (Beavers or Wellington) on the play side has also read the play and is coming up; even if Miller hadn’t made the sensational play, this wasn’t going anywhere.

1st and 10:

Utah is running a counter read here, and once again, it’s defensive domination from the Huskies’ front seven.

This is a fairly clever play, but it might be a little too cute. The tight end and H-back on the right side of Utah’s offense are releasing downfield to seal off the edge of the Husky defense. They’ve left Tevis Bartlett (OLB #17, who makes the tackle) free on this play; he’s the defender the QB is reading. Meanwhile, Utah’s right guard and right tackle are both pulling back to the left to lead the QB back that direction if he pulls the ball; this is the “counter” action to the play.

The QB reads correctly that Bartlett has stayed home, so he pulls the ball out to run. Great job by Bartlett. What makes the play, though, is that both interior defensive tackles (#99 Greg Gaines on the left, and it looks like #96 Shane Bowman?) are containing the squashed the middle of the play, and OLB #55 Ryan Bowman takes on the pulling guard while not giving up an inch, and actually slows the tackle a little too. The QB sees nothing but congestion and hesitates, then tries to reverse field, only to be dragged down by Bartlett.

The QB should’ve followed his block; the play wasn’t going to gain much, but he still has one lead blocker left on the play (the tackle) and R. Bowman isn’t really in position to actually make a tackle (even though he’s done his job wonderfully). But the appearance of congestion and guys in purple shirts all over the place is enough a lot of the time to make opponents panic, as it is here. Ben Burr-Kirven probably stops this for no gain, but that’s better than a loss of four.

Great defense. Fantastic. Phenomenal.

2nd and 10:

Utah comes out in a 3-receiver package, which puts the Husky defense in perfect position for this blitz from nickelback Myles Bryant (#5). And even though this is a blitz, it’s still only a four-man rush, as the Huskies drop OLB #17 Bartlett back into coverage to stay coverage-sound.

Before we get to Bryant, there are a few other nice things here. First, Shane Bowman (DT #96) gets a great rush in. He works out to the left tackle and simply bulls his way straight through him. The QB definitely feels his presence. Next, Greg Gaines (DT #99) does the same thing to the middle of the pocket (and Mr. Referee, can you please watch the holding there, sir, if it’s not too much trouble?). Last is Bryant, who runs in like a screaming banshee before making the right tackle look a bit clumsy and foolish, before finishing off the play.

A conservatively daring call befitting a daringly conservative coaching staff.

3rd and 7:

Defensively, this looks an awful lot like the play that Alabama used to get an interception returned for a TD right at the close of the first half in the Peach Bowl in 2016; in that one, the Tide ran a “peel blitz” where the defensive end would rush the passer in every situation but the running back heading out to the flat on his side. Lavon Coleman ran to the flat, the end followed in coverage, Browning made a poor need to revisit the rest.

The Huskies are basically running a one-blocker screen route to Myles Gaskin here (you can see a receiver blocking downfield prior to the pass—this was a screen to Gaskin all the way). All of the offensive lineman are in their normal play action pass blocking except Kaleb McGary (RT #58), who fakes a block and then releases to go block outside. The end sees Gaskin come across the backfield, and reads that he’s going out into the pattern. He follows Gaskin. McGary sees this, but isn’t in position to knock the end off of coverage of Gaskin.

Meanwhile, Utah is running a blitz and twist up front. LT #72 Trey Adams puts a ton of effort into blocking Utah’s end on that side. He succeeds, but it prevents him from being able to help LG #76 Luke Wattenberg, who finds himself both outmanned and out of position against the rush. That blitzing linebacker is the guy that Gaskin would usually block, when he’s not part of the pattern. Browning is under duress right at the get-go, and is lucky to get the ball off to avoid a sack.

Credit to Utah’s defense, especially the end for recognizing Gaskin’s route and effectively blowing up the play. Credit to Jake Browning for a proper throwaway.

2nd and 18:

The Huskies had made very little use of the lateral passing game in 2018. Sure, it showed up once or twice a game, but not like it had been used in 2016 and 2017. Prior to the Apple Cup and Pac-12 championship, that is.

This is far more true flanker screen than it is bubble screen, as the blocking down the field is mostly carried out by the offensive line instead of receivers. They all mostly get out and do a nice job, but the bulk of the credit on this one goes to a really nice effort play from Andre Baccellia, particularly over those last five yards.

That’s Sean McGrew coming with some window dressing motion. This is a really quick screen, so the offensive linemen are looking to deliver one quick shot to a defender over them, then get hustling downfield. Nick Harris (C #56) is uncovered, so he releases right away. The end over Trey Adams (LT #72) might deflect the pass, but he isn’t going to make a tackle, so Adams is out right away too. Consequently, those two get the first two key blocks, along with Aaron Fuller (WR #2) on the cornerback. Adams gets one more block, and then the best part of the play is watching the smallest guy on the field drag the largest for an extra few yards.

Up until the Apple Cup, Baccellia’s best play might’ve been a 37-yard run on an end-around against these same Utes back in September. He picked a great time to really step up, both in terms of creating big plays (like his 50-yarder against the Cuogs) and in the volume of plays like this one he’s had (13 catches for 154 yards the last two games).

3rd and 1:

This is 10-on-10 football in a phone booth. Each team has one man not in the frame. For Washington, it’s Jake Browning split out as a receiver. For Utah, it’s the corner in coverage on Browning.

Frankly, this is pretty fantastic blocking by Washington’s offensive line. It’s a simple power lead play, with Luke Wattenberg (#76) pulling from his left guard spot, and walk-on running back Malik Braxton (#36) acting as the lead-blocking fullback. As you all remember, on a power play, most of the line is blocking “down” or away from the hole. So, when you see a huge mass of bodies away from the play, as you do here to the left side of the screen, away from the hole on the right, you know Washington has dominated. In particular, Drew Sample (TE #88) and Kaleb McGary (RT #58) both move guys a long way. Nice job by Cade Otton (TE #87) on the play side. Braxton doesn’t exactly deliver a crushing blow, but he gets the job done as the fullback. Gaskin is easily through the hole. There’s one man that Washington can’t block on this play just based on the numbers; it’s the safety on the back side of the play, the one that makes the tackle (because tackles were not being missed in this game). Such is life. Five yards on 3rd and 1, every time? We’ll take it.

3rd and 6:

The Huskies almost—almost—brought six men on pressure on this play. They had them all there, but D.J. Beavers (LB #15) wisely found Utah’s running back leaking out into the route late, and followed him in coverage. Only five. But given the night Utah’s QB had had up until this point it probably looked like the Huskies were bringing all eleven at him.

Washington is in dime, and this might be a first from this personnel package: all five non-DBs in the game are on the line of scrimmage showing rush. If the alignment isn’t a first, the fact that all of them are coming up the field has to be. Add to that, Taylor Rapp (S #7) is playing a linebacker spot, and he comes on a blitz.

Utah’s offensive line actually has this picked up extremely well, even Rapp’s blitz. But it makes the QB move, and then reset. This slows the throw down just enough that it allows Greg Gaines and Joe Tryon to get free from their blockers and get in the QB’s face as he’s trying to release the ball.

Short of a perfect pass (made virtually impossible with the late pressure), none of it matters, because Byron Murphy was in coverage. With the run of really good coverage cornerbacks Husky fans have been able to enjoy the past decade, Murphy might very well be the best of them in terms of sheer ability to pass out more blankets than the Red Cross. Fantastic play, interception, and overall greatness again from the 11 Royal Warriors.

The Washington Huskies are Pac-12 Champions, something we didn’t think we’d be saying after the Halloween weekend loss at Cal. The Rose Bowl is next. Bring on the Buckeyes!