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Film Study: Utah

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Britain Covey is a tough dude, but this game was for mature audiences only.

NCAA Football: Washington at Utah Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Britain Covey’s night in pad-crackin’ detail...

It wasn’t just Covey, as the Husky defense spent all game delivering shots all over the field. Utah’s receivers (especially Covey) are going to want to have a talk with their quarterback Tyler Huntley this week. Huntley delivered about a dozen “hospital throws,” so named because they lead the receiver right into the shots that we see above. The Huskies’ secondary sat in zone coverage with the cornerback rolled up to cover the flat, and Huntley simply led his receivers right into danger time and again Saturday. The Utah QB is an excellent example of why there is so much that goes into being an “accurate” quarterback. He can throw the ball from Point A to Point B with accuracy, but he has no feel for where defenders are in relation to his receiver that he sees as “open.”

Several Huskies got shots on Covey, but Byron Murphy definitely had the most. Not just the textbook shot above, either. Murphy has shown his elite athleticism as a Husky already, but on Saturday, he showed physical play that we really hadn’t seen before. He and Jordan Miller are playing themselves into the conversation of “best cornerback tandem in Husky history” right now.

We can all applaud Covey’s toughness even as we question his sanity. I’m certain he was fairly sore when he woke up on Sunday morning. To the film:

3rd and 2:

The power lead play from an unbalanced formation. You only get a brief glimpse at the beginning of this gif, but note that left tackle Jared Hilbers is over on the right side of the line, outside of right tackle Kaleb McGary. That’s Drew (not James) Sample lined up in the spot normally filled by the left tackle.

The subterfuge of the unbalanced line actually begins in the huddle prior to the start of this play. Watch any Husky huddle, and you’ll see the guys always stand in the same spots, it’s not a random grouping. The offensive linemen are each in the spot closest to where they’ll go when the huddle breaks. That means Hilbers is on Jake Browning’s right side, since Browning has his back to the line of scrimmage. But watch this play as it begins in this link:

This is almost undoubtedly a scripted play, and the offense knew it was coming at this point; there’s some subtle pointing and talking among the players on the field as the new personnel (Salvon Ahmed and Jusstis Warren) join the huddle. You can see Hilbers is lined up next to McGary, so that he doesn’t have to “cross” the huddle as it breaks and potentially tip off Utah to the fact the Huskies are going to be unbalanced. They line up in an incredibly tight formation, with ten guys within five yards of the ball. If you watch the play in the link, you’ll see that Utah is a little unsettled at the snap, and that the Huskies have snapped the ball quickly to create this confusion and then take advantage of it.

A couple things you’ll notice at the snap. First, the mass of humanity that is the right side of Washington’s offensive line as it caves in Utah’s front. Jusstis Warren is lined up halfway between the traditional fullback and H-back spots, and he takes on the outside linebacker. He wins the block, but just barely because he’s a bit too tall at contact. Luke Wattenberg pulls from the left side of the line. Only at the very last moment does he see his man, the play-side inside linebacker that’s coming up hard. Wattenberg turns and has himself some pancakes.

There’s a safety (#13) that appears to read the play well and almost have a shot in the backfield. What he’s actually done is run himself out of position by following Ahmed’s fly action at the snap; he’s created a natural running lane for Myles Gaskin.

If things had worked perfectly, Gaskin was going to follow Wattenberg up between the tackles. You can see the hole start to open between the blocks of Warren and Wattenberg. Utah’s backside inside linebacker (#30) has read the play and is hawking the ball. Gaskin sees this and bounces just outside of him and down the sideline. Hat tip to Quinten Pounds for an excellent block.

Geometry catches up to Gaskin right before the goal line, but he isn’t going to be denied. He leaps at the four yard-line as he’s being pushed out of bounds, and a fantastic bit of body control and supreme effort allows him to keep the ball inside the pylon as he crosses the goal line.

Touchdown, Washington.

3rd and 6:

All sorts of great from the Husky defense on this play. It’s a bubble screen, or at least that’s the thought.

First, this play gives a little lesson in selling a fake. Huntley is supposed to hold the ball in the belly of his running back to freeze the defense a little. There’s virtually no fake, and you can see Benning Potoa’e immediately read the pass. He’s no part of the play, but it’s a good job by him nonetheless.

Lots of Husky defenders are part of the play, though. First, the little voices in the secondary’s heads are all screaming “SCREEN!!!!!!” based on formation, since two of the receivers in the bunch set are tight ends. The poor run fake confirms it’s a pass. The immediate blocking posture of the two front receivers is the icing on the cake that Myles Bryant and Byron Murphy need in order to jump the play.

Bryant crashes from the slot corner position, and probably affects the angle of the pass at least a little. Murphy is sneaking in from the outside. He beats the blocker over him cleanly with quickness, and then is given a little assistance from the blocker in the form of being pushed into the receiver prior to the ball arriving—“sanctioned interference,” if you will.

Loss of four, and a punt.

3rd and 5:

There’s all sorts of unique on this play.

First, the Huskies are in a dime defense: six defensive backs. Austin Joyner is the dime back, and you can see him come in on the rush from the right side of the screen.

Second, Benning Potoa’e is playing a 5-technique end. That’s fairly normal. But so is Greg Gaines, on the other side of the formation. He’s a pin-your-ears-back pass rusher, and it’s pretty fun to watch him bull his way into the backfield on this play. But those are the only two guys on the line with their hands down.

Third, that’s Ariel Ngata in the middle of the field. You can see Ben Burr-Kirven next to him peel out to cover the running back, leaving the backfield empty. Ngata isn’t in coverage, and he isn’t rushing. Instead, he’s “spying” on QB Tyler Huntley. Only after Huntley tucks the ball and starts to move does Ngata come up and attempt to make a play...

Cool stuff from Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski.

As mentioned, Gaines is making like a juvenile rhinoceros into the left tackle. That draws the attention of the left guard, who is otherwise unoccupied. Taylor Rapp is rushing wide, outside of Gaines. After his initial upfield push, he loops back inside. Utah’s right tackle looks at Potoa’e, then looks at Austin Joyner...big man, little man, big man, little man, which one to block? The tackle makes the decision to go after the little guy, leaving Potoa’e a free path to the quarterback. Huntley steps forward, right into the waiting arms of Rapp.

1st and 10:

The looks a little bit like a screen, sort of like a broken play, and exactly like a lot of work that needs to be done, particularly from the offensive line.

Washington has two tight ends and a receiver to the right. Utah shows pressure all over the line. In the end, they back out of it from the offense’s left, and roll their coverage back to the three-receiver side. The blitz comes from the offense’s right.

On the left side of the line, Jared Hilbers is definitely blocking for a screen pass. Myles Gaskin is either expecting a screen or is slow-releasing as a safety valve (most likely the former). Luke Wattenberg picks up the outside rusher that Hilbers would’ve had, which is also suggesting a screen. Wattenberg’s man is reading the screen and releases to cover Gaskin, but also effectively contains Browning from rolling that direction.

It just gets ugly from there. Nick Harris slides to his left; Jaxson Kirkland does as well. But he fails to recognize the numbers that Utah had on the offense’s right, and that the blitz from that side is tipped right before the snap. Kirkland needed to stay right and pick up the inside blitz. Not doing so left Kaleb McGary with two men on the right side of the play. McGary compounds the mistake by appearing confused as to whom to block, and instead blocking no one.

Watching the clock, Browning has about a second and a half from the time the ball is snapped until he has to start dealing with the rush. The rush is coming from the middle and his right, and a roll to his left is contained. He makes the wrong decision by holding the ball, but he’s also put in an extremely difficult spot by the offensive line. The play is clearly broken almost as soon as he receives the snap, and there’s nothing positive to be made outside of a miracle. A screen pass makes dumping the ball out of bounds difficult, because there are linemen downfield; if the ball crosses the line of scrimmage, it’s a penalty for an “ineligible man downfield.” If it doesn’t, as it didn’t, it’s grounding. Smartest play here is to skip the ball on the ground two yards in front of Myles Gaskin, and live to fight another day.

Browning definitely deserves to be criticized on this play. So does the offensive line, nearly to a man.

2nd and 26:

A simple little move by Utah’s defensive line confuses the pants out of the Huskies’ offense, and Jake Browning is left with a multitude of rushers in his face almost right at the snap. On the very next play.

Utah has three down linemen, all shifted lined up to the strong side of the offense. This is an “over” front. At the snap, the offensive line is all preparing to slide to their right to block one gap down in the pocket. At the snap, all three d-linemen slant to their left and upfield. Jaxson Kirkland and Nick Harris both fail to pick up the nose tackle, who is then afforded a free rush straight up the field. To make matters worse, Utah is blitzing behind the slant, bringing two extra rushers from the offense’s left. Both Jared Hilbers and Myles Gaskin fail to make meaningful contact with either blitzer, leaving two men coming from the left side.

If you look, you can see that tight end Drew Sample starts from the offense’s left and is running a shallow crossing route. He should be the hot read. Utah combats this by “exchanging” the defensive end away from the tight end with the inside linebacker that blitzes. The end that was over McGary drops into coverage in the middle of the field, taking away that throwing lane.

The middle rush means two big things here: There’s no opportunity for Browning to step forward in the pocket to evade the end closing in from his left, and more importantly, it’s going to be on with the quickness since the rusher has such a short distance to fill.

Browning could’ve stepped forward and to his right, but he’s not that kind of quarterback, really. He was lucky to get the ball away safely, without drawing a grounding flag or throwing an interception. He would’ve been castigated for taking the sack. Again, driving the ball into the ground right in front of Gaskin was probably the safest, smartest play, but it’s asking an awful lot given how quickly the rush was on top of him, right in his face. The offensive line has to be able to communicate and handle a play like this better.

3rd and 26:

And now third down...

As everyone knows, a screen pass to the running back is designed to bait the pass rush to the quarterback by letting them in. Everyone on the offense fakes pass blocking, including the running back, before releasing down the field and out into the route.

That cannot mean what we see here, though.

Luke Wattenberg stands up and barely puts his hands on Utah’s defensive lineman before letting him come free. He offers zero resistance, and doesn’t even slow the rusher in the slightest. Wattenberg has to do more than he did, it’s fundamental to a play like this. Browning has pressure from the middle coming at his right as his hands touch the ball from the snap (and on another note, while Nick Harris’s snaps are on target when Browning is in the shotgun, they sure don’t get back there with much velocity). Jaxson Kirkland gets away with a fairly significant hold in the middle of the field. To make matters worse, Jared Hilbers is beaten, soundly, by Utah’s defensive end. This does two things: first, it adds another rusher in Browning’s face. Second, and more importantly, it disrupts Gaskin’s route. He has to run deeper to get around Hilbers and the defender, which gets him in position too late to receive the pass. Browning has to wait a half beat longer to make the throw, and has to then get the throw over the top of Hilbers and the defender, but still deliver a short, catchable pass. He does that, but it isn’t a good thing.

On the other side of the line, Kaleb McGary is soundly defeated. His man wasn’t likely to affect the play, but it’s worth pointing out just how thoroughly every member of the offensive line was beaten on this play. The best case here is Browning either throws a pass “to” Gaskin that’s over his head and incomplete, or Gaskin recognizes the likelihood of the play failing given how disjointed things are, and just drops the ball intentionally.

On all three of these downs, the mistakes start up front and right at the snap. They aren’t a matter of the line being defeated physically; they’re mental breakdowns that suggest a lack of communication or recognition. There are both good and bad aspects to that.

The Huskies got a win against a pretty good team in a very tough environment. That’s the good news, and ultimately, it’s the most important thing to take from Saturday evening’s game. The defense played well against an offense that isn’t very dangerous right now, and was further limited by injury. Washington’s own offense made just enough big plays to score, but struggled to stay out of its own way too often. There are some significant corrections to be made after three games, and two upcoming games that looked very winnable in the offseason now look much tougher.