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Film Study: Nice gameplan by Sun Devils, but Huskies too much

We’ll look at some plays from Saturday night that did not involve a double pass into triple coverage.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of high school band members got to stay up way past their bedtimes to watch a game between the Huskies and the Arizona State Sun Devils last Saturday. It wasn’t always pretty, especially if you just look at the final score. But the Huskies won a game they controlled almost from the outset because the strength of the team (the defense) slowed ASU’s offense to a crawl, and the most-maligned part of the team (the offensive line for some, the QB for others) showed just how well it’s capable of playing.

Pick whatever adjective you like for the game, they probably all apply. At least a little. In the end, the most critical objective was met. And a solid piece of the foundation was laid.

To the film, to see what the east coast slept through:

1st and 10:

This is a well designed power toss sweep on first down that leads to, well, first down again.

The Huskies are in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), with both tight ends standing up but tight to the formation on the offense’s right. The play is very similar to the power run between the tackles that’s been featured here several times the last few seasons, but because this is a wide run, the quarterback-running back ball exchange is done with a pitch instead of a handoff, and instead of pulling the guard from the back side of the play (he obviously wouldn’t be able to run far enough, fast enough to block), the onside guard (Jaxson Kirkland, #51) pulls as the lead blocker.

The Sun Devils’ base defense is a 3-3-5, and it looks very much like the old-school 5-2 front that was common in “days of yore.” The two outside linebackers are on the line as defensive ends, and a safety has cheated up into the box as an inside linebacker.

A late shift by ASU’s front puts an outside linebacker right over the face of Drew Sample, the outside tight end and last man on the line for Washington. Sample gets to his outside shoulder and manages to pin him to the inside, taking him out of the play. The slot tight end is Cade Otton, who heads to the inside linebacker on the play side, and blocks him in. Center Nick Harris is also there, but then turns and takes the inside linebacker (actually, a safety) on the back side out. Right tackle Kaleb McGary blocks down on the defensive tackle lined up over him, and manages to turn him back inside and out of the play.

Chico McClatcher comes from the bottom of the screen to block a safety, and luckily for Washington, gets away with a hold as he doesn’t exactly get squared up on his man. His action, fortunately, holds the cornerback over the top of him just long enough for the ASU defender to react poorly. You can see #5 take a bad angle on the play, and largely run himself out of any chance to make a tackle.

On the back side of the play, ASU is running a stunt with the nose guard and the lineman over left tackle Jared Hilbers. The nose tackle works to his right, to his disadvantage, and left guard Luke Wattenberg is able to drive him to the ground. The other lineman (#99) starts to cross behind, but reads the play and pursues laterally through the mosh pit at the line of scrimmage and then down field, eventually helping push Gaskin out of bounds. That’s pretty good hustle and athleticism.

Kirkland does a nice job of getting in front of the play, and he’s got himself the chance for a hero block against a safety. At the last minute, though, Kirkland slows his feet instead of keeping them moving. He gets just enough of #16 on the block to keep the defender from making the early tackle, but just barely. Luckily, Myles Gaskin is fast enough to read the situation, get around the defender, and up the field. This play began at the hash mark on the opposite side of the field, so there was a lot of space for Gaskin to set up the blocks, and then read where he need to go to make the most of his opportunity.

1st and 10:

A textbook run/pass option play, and a great job by Jake Browning to use his eyes to freeze a defender.

The Huskies are in 11 personnel (one back and one tight end, which means they have three receivers). The action on the line is zone blocking. In the backfield, Jake Browning is showing read-option action while looking at the inside linebacker that would potentially drop back into the short zone in pass coverage.

ASU runs stunts on both sides of the defensive line. The inside players push to the outside, and the outside players then loop behind and come hard up the middle. On the right side, the line handles the stunt fairly easily. On the left side, there’s a definite lack of recognition of who to block, and Jared Hilbers is left dancing around and getting no one.

As was said, the read is the linebacker. Browning is holding the ball for Gaskin and reading what he does. If he drops into coverage, the decision is to hand the ball off for an inside zone run. And Gaskin probably would’ve had to do a lot of it himself. Instead, the linebacker floats in no man’s land, and leaves that shallow middle wide open for an easy slant throw to Aaron Fuller working from the slot receiver spot on the offense’s left. Great job by Browning to make sure he gets the ball over the two leaping linebackers, the only players in position to disrupt this easy throw and catch.

3rd and 6:

The Huskies run their own twist on this play on the defense’s left side, but don’t quite get to the quarterback in time to make a play. Instead, they give him time and room to move, and the secondary gets beat by a simple slow release from a running back.

First, the line. Jaylen Johnson is set up as a three-technique tackle left, with Ariel Ngata the outside linebacker. Johnson works upfield toward the right tackle, bringing the attention of the right guard as well. Ngata works upfield even wider, then tries to loop back to the middle. Ngata crosses inside a bit early, though, and QB Manny Wilkins has a lot of time to react. And because Johnson is thrown a bit off-balance, he’s unable to keep Wilkins from escaping wide and out of the pocket.

The camera angle widens at the snap, and you can see that the secondary is playing Cover 3, and that on the defense’s left, they’re in “cloud coverage,” meaning that the cornerback and the safety have communicated that the cornerback is going to drop into the deep coverage, leaving the safety to pick up the flat. The opposite of this is “sky coverage,” meaning the safety plays deep and the cornerback covers the flat.

At the snap, ASU’s running back steps up to help block, but there’s no one there. He leaks out through the middle of the line and sneaks into the flat. The Huskies’ shallow coverage - the two inside linebackers and safety Jojo McIntosh - are occupied with the shallow crossing receiver in front of them and reading the quarterback. McIntosh, who has the flat coverage on the play side, doesn’t see the running back until it’s too late. It’s an easy completion for a first down, and the defense continues what seems like a years-long trend of not getting off the field even when the other team is way behind the chains. This delayed release route has hurt the Huskies a handful of times already this season, notably here and on Auburn’s last scoring drive late in the game in week one.

3rd and 8:

It looks like the Huskies either see something that wasn’t obvious with ASU’s defense (and still isn’t, to tell the truth), or they’re in that no man’s land that makes this four down territory, because this power run doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense on 3rd and long from the ASU 33.

But hey, nobody here is going to complain with the result. Maybe they should, though....

This play actually has touchdown potential, and frankly, Myles Gaskin doesn’t make the greatest read. ASU has six men on the line of scrimmage, showing blitz. They have man coverage on both of the outside receivers. The play here as designed is a power run right at the left tackle. It’s actually well-blocked all the way across the line up front, and Jaxson Kirkland is pulling to clean up the defensive end on the line of scrimmage. Gaskin should step right inside that block with a head of steam, and thanks to the block from Ty Jones on the inside linebacker, find himself in a footrace to the end zone with a safety coming all the way across the field.

Instead, Gaskin jukes and heads wide. The defensive end is then able to feather Gaskin toward the sideline, and to the cornerback that had been following Jones to the middle of the field. Gaskin is faster than the end, and the corner is just a poor tackler, so Gaskin gets the sideline and up the field for the first down. Barely. Luckily. But there were big things brewing if Gaskin had just hit the hole as designed. We’ve featured the results here of this power play against similar defenses numerous times, including a special edition film study of Gaskin’s late TD run at Colorado last season that was this exact play against the same type of blitz.

1st and Goal:

A little bit later in the same drive, with the same play to the other side of the field. The Huskies have a fullback in an “I” formation, making this play a power lead (power run + lead blocker).

There’s a lot of congestion, which is actually sort of by design when you line up with 10 men within five yards of the ball. And the blocking is at the very least “good enough” on this play; there are no fatal errors that doom it. The right side of the line (including the tight end) does a great job of all blocking down and caving in the left side of ASU’s front. Left tackle Henry Roberts seals the back side of the play very well. Excellent block by Justiss Warren at fullback. Even though left guard Luke Wattenberg trips as he’s pulling, he manages to extend his fall right into the feet of the man he should be blocking, and screens him from the play.

Instead of hitting that open crease, though, Myles Gaskin freelances away from his blocking and compounds that mistake by leaving his feet, succeeding only in jumping in to the waiting arms of ASU’s defender. Had he kept angling toward the corner, he’s probably celebrating with his teammates.

2nd and 10:

Husky fans, we promise that we aren’t intending to pick on Myles Gaskin.

This was the lone sack that Jake Browning suffered Saturday evening, and this gives a good view of what happened, and what should’ve happened.

It sure looks like the Huskies are setting something up here. At the snap, the offensive line is sliding to their right, and Jake Browning is looking that direction. There’s a lot of movement invested in drawing the defense’s attention that way. Browning is coming back to his right awfully quickly though, and you can see the lone receiver on the left side of the screen maintaining contact with his defender, as if he’s keeping himself in position to block. ....It’s possible this was going to be a throwback to Gaskin, back to the left.

Things go wrong pretty quickly, though. Gaskin is chip blocking, maybe before releasing for a pass. But he blocks the wrong man. He needs to chip the free-rushing edge defender, not the man occupied by Jared Hilbers. Gaskin is lucky to not get called for a chop block on this play.

Browning feels the pressure and tries to step forward, but it’s too late and his one-step drop doesn’t give him much room to move up. In the end, he makes the smart play, tucking the ball away and riding out the storm.

The linemen (and the backs and tight ends) did a much better job in pass protection on Saturday night, largely handling the stunts of ASU’s front, and picking up the blitzes with aplomb. Jake Browning showed that when he has time to throw the football, he’s a really good college quarterback. ASU’s defense is no great shakes, but they are more in line with what the Huskies are going to see the rest of the season. On the review, the offense was actually a lot closer than it appeared at first blush in blowing this game open. There were a few mistakes from guys that have played a lot of good football at Washington, and with ASU’s conservative game plan, Chris Petersen was willing to play equally as conservative, knowing he had the defense to back it all up. The 2018 Huskies aren’t going to establish new school scoring records, but they’ve established a few new big-play weapons that are going to team well with the old big play weapons pretty soon here. The offensive line showing Saturday, and the positive trickle-down effect it had on the quarterback and the rest of the passing game, should have Husky fans feeling very positively about the rest of the season.

3rd and 4:

It’s early in the fourth, and the Huskies could use a score to put the Sun Devils back at arm’s length.

Jake Browning is looking to his left at the snap, almost undoubtedly at Aaron Fuller. On the right side of the field, the offense is counting on the “fade to Ty Jones” and “short drag from tight end Cade Otton” to occupy the defense, while Fuller drags his way across the back of the end zone behind everyone.

It almost works, but you see pretty good recognition by ASU’s safety on that side of the field as he almost bites on Otton’s cross before thinking better and dropping into the intermediate zone. ASU is only rushing three, and the offensive line eats them up. Browning has all sorts of time, and isn’t actually forced to move. But, given that the ball was snapped at the five yard-line, the receivers have very little room to work with, even though they have lots of time. In this case, the zone defense is watching the quarterback, and when he moves, they move with him. As the defense relocates, it gives the receivers new holes to find and settle in.

It turns out the roll is only possibly helpful, and it’s the awareness of Otton that really makes the play. He sees that the defense has him covered and knows the open spot on the field. He drifts back and makes a nice big target for Browning. Browning’s rollout probably freezes the outside linebacker (#9) at least a little, and while Browning probably should’ve made the throw a bit earlier, getting all the way to the sideline gives him a little bit cleaner line of sight to make the throw.

3rd and 9:

Mister Sun Devil left tackle, that’s tripping and it’s a penalty. You did a good job of making it look accidental, but please, we aren’t dumb here.

On this play, inside linebacker Tevis Bartlett sees the late release from the running back and takes that option away. Bartlett has grown more and more comfortable playing inside as the season has progressed, and this was probably his best game.

Great coverage by the rest of the secondary that we can see, including Taylor Rapp eliminating the shallow crossing route. You can see Byron Murphy in man coverage with outside-in leverage, first taking away any out-breaking route and forcing the receivers to the inside, where his help is. On this intermediate hook route, he’s able to react quickly to an in-breaking route and get a hand in to deflect the ball away. Murphy has been able to do a lot of celebrating lately after his big plays, but in this case, it’s premature. Wait until the whistle blows, please. And Jojo, feel free to just catch the ball.

2nd and 7:

Maybe Jaxson Kirkland was still feeling the emotion of his father (All-American, All Conference) Dean Kirkland being the Husky Legend between the third and fourth quarters. But for whatever reason, between he and Nick Harris, the line simply failed to identify the blitz on this zone run. It’s a reasonably decent job disguising it, but it’s hardly an all-star effort. Kirkland and Harris double team the nose tackle, leaving the linebacker a free run at Myles Gaskin, and a heavy loss puts the offense in a 3rd and extra-long situation.

This wasn’t a physical failure, it was the same sort of mental issue that has plagued the team the first few weeks, the same way it did the 2016 and 2017 Huskies. Those teams managed to clean up the mental parts to large degree, especially in the running game. The ASU game was a huge step forward in that regard, even if this play doesn’t show it.

ASU came into the game with the will to keep things close and not make mistakes on offense. They were successful for the most part, but it required completely neglecting the best player on their offense (wide receiver N’Keal Harry). Once Washington got the lead, it was a game that felt like the Huskies controlled to a greater degree than was shown on the scoreboard. It was almost as if Chris Petersen et al was content to take zero chances if ASU wasn’t going to take any of their own.

Once again, the Husky secondary held a veteran Pac 12 quarterback to fewer than four yards per pass attempt. Watching the Sun Devil passing attack struggle the way it did....well, Manny Wilkins isn’t a great quarterback, but after a while, you start to think some of those errant passes and drops might be the influence of team that’s hounded and pounded and otherwise made life miserable for a few years now.

The game tipped off so late that it’s possibly not yet over on parts of the east coast, and poll voters that woke up to a final score of 27-20 probably feel justified dropping the Huskies a spot. It’s fine. It was a style-challenged, wearing-Dockers-to-El-Gaucho sort of game. It was also a lot closer to being a Husky blowout than it was an ASU win, and it represented a lot of progress for the offense. The style points are going to come, soon. This team is developing some pretty legitimate weapons.

As an aside - way aside - kudos to the student section for showing up in big numbers and staying as long as you did. It was great to have you be such a big part of the game.