Washington traveled east to take on the Auburn Tigers in what should have been the first game in a home-and-home series between the two teams. Instead, it was a one-off game at “neutral site” for the best matchup of the opening weekend of the 2018 college football season.
Both teams will lament mistakes and missed opportunities, and the game had some sloppy aspects to it as matchups like this early in the season frequently do. Auburn ended up winning a very close, low-scoring game that was just waiting to be seized by either team from the beginning of the second quarter on.
How did the Dawgs stack up against an SEC giant? We go to the film.
1st and 10:
This is Auburn’s first offensive snap, and it’s a middle screen to a slot receiver off of a run/pass option. Sort of a broken tunnel screen.
The first thing to note here is Washington’s base defensive personnel. They’ve got three true defensive linemen in the game, with Greg Gaines, Shane Bowman, and Jaylen Johnson all starting. Benning Potoa’e is the outside linebacker on the boundary side. DJ Beavers and Ben Burr-Kirven are the linebackers inside. Somewhat conspicuous in his absence is Tevis Bartlett, who started on the outside last season before spending all spring and fall running with the first unit inside.
We can’t see the entire secondary, but they’re in a hybrid coverage scheme; at the top of the screen we get a brief glimpse of Byron Murphy well off the ball (and dropping at the snap) with Jojo McIntosh rolling up into flat coverage. We can’t see Taylor Rapp’s alignment, but he appears to be in the middle of the field, leaving Myles Bryant and Jordan Miller in man coverage at the bottom of the screen with little help.
The line follows the run action when the left guard pulls, and the linebackers respect the run fake before dropping in coverage. The receiver starts toward the sideline at the snap before reversing direction and heading back to the ball. You can also see the bulk of Auburn’s offensive line beginning to release downfield and start to form the “screen.” Myles Bryant is shadowing the receiver’s initial move to the boundary, and starts to commit up the field; at this point, he’s in trouble and finds himself in chase mode. Once the catch is made, if the receiver had followed the play design, he would’ve run himself back into trouble from the backside pursuit of Washington’s defensive line. Instead, he cuts back outside.
Once Bryant got himself marginally out of position, the Huskies were in some trouble here. The inside linebackers have a lot of ground to cover to get over to the sideline to help on the play, and would’ve had to negotiate the blocking of the offensive linemen down the field. Jordan Miller has to maintain the sideline, but he’s blocked a bit too easily. Taylor Rapp eventually flies up to make the play, but not before a pickup of about a dozen yards for the Tigers.
A play like this gives you an idea of the individual margin of error of each player against modern offenses - it’s basically zero. That one step too far up the field by Bryant starts a cascade of problems.
1st and 10:
Washington blitzed from its secondary a lot on Saturday. Like, a ton. It’s a high-risk proposition, and it’s tough to point to many big plays by the defense that suggest it was worth it. That’s not to say that the Huskies should simply abandon the attempt, just that they need to be ready to live with the consequences.
On this play, the Huskies blitz two from the secondary, as Taylor Rapp and Austin Joyner come. Joyner is cheating up at the snap, but Rapp’s blitz is entirely hidden. Where is a blitzing defense the weakest? The spot vacated by the blitzers. In this case, Auburn is running a bubble screen to the trips side of the field, the same side that both blitzers have just left. Washington is completely outnumbered; both defenders on that side are blocked, leaving the ball carrier free.
Sometimes teams just get lucky. A slower-developing pass play probably results in a sack here. At least a QB pressure. A quick pass play to the other side of the field is probably harmless. Instead, Auburn simply has the perfect play called. The only way Washington could’ve avoided this was not to blitz. And given the results on Saturday, hopefully the coaches consider not blitzing so much.
1st and 10:
This was a really effective audible by Jake Browning.
I’m not sure I recall seeing this particular formation last season - the Huskies are in a balanced ace with a tight end off the ball and a receiver on the line on each side. The play itself is one that we’ve featured here numerous times the last couple of years - a simple zone run right at the left tackle. Salvon Ahmed hits the hole like he’s shot out of a cannon, plants his left foot to cut back toward the middle, and is just...gone. This is a combination of a good play call, good blocking, and a really decisive run all coming together on one play.
This also give you an idea of what the UW offensive line had to deal with on Saturday. After all of the shifting around, Auburn’s line ends up with one defensive tackle directly over left tackle Jared Hilbers, and the other over center Nick Harris. Both of the Huskies get the win on this play but watch (1) The violence Nick Harris absorbs - that doesn’t look like much fun, and (2) The lineman over Hilbers shoves him back and looks to make a play, while only using one hand. The other was kept free to grab at the ball.
That was as strong a front seven as the Huskies are going to see this season.
1st and 10:
This was the only other 20+ yard rush the Huskies had on Saturday. It comes courtesy of the outstanding vision of Myles Gaskin.
This is an inside zone run - the double team between Nick Harris and Jaxson Kirkland is the point of attack, on the right side. There’s some congestion (there always is in the middle), but the blocking is actually fairly decent. You’d maybe hope Nick Harris can get off the double team a beat sooner to get to the linebacker, but that’s picking nits.
Instead of following the blocking, though, Gaskin reads a nice alley all the way off tackle back to the left, and makes a decisive cut that direction. Cade Otton makes the one block that matters, keeping the outside linebacker from closing down on the backside of the play. Gaskin is into the secondary before he’s even touched, then does what Gaskin does: breaks tackles and propels himself further downfield.
2nd and 9:
Two things on this play:
First, and most important, helluva game, Mr. Aaron Fuller. Seven catches for 135 yards, a couple of really nice grabs (this was probably the best one), and enough chemistry with the quarterback to inspire the offense to make throws like this one. Fuller earned playing time immediately as a true freshman on a team that had John Ross and Dante Pettis, so it was obvious the coaching staff like him. He finished 2017 strong, particularly in the Fiesta Bowl. Saturday, he made good on all of the offseason reports that he had become Jake Browning’s favorite target. He was on Saturday, and for good reason. There were four players on the Husky offense that really stood up and answered the bell; none more so than Fuller.
(the others, in our opinion: Jaxson Kirkland and Jared Hilbers on the line, and Ty Jones along with Fuller at receiver)
Two, this is considered one of the most difficult routes to cover man-to-man in all of football - the back shoulder fade. This looks like a fantastic catch (it is) on a bad throw, but it’s actually a great throw. This is a very common route concept to see: an in-breaking route from the outside receiver with the fade from the slot. Fuller releases wide at the snap and keeps moving down the field and away from the coverage while looking over his inside shoulder. He finds the ball and at the last minute turns his head around over his back shoulder to make the catch (Fuller actually does a pirouette, which adds to the degree of difficulty). Fuller could’ve turned his head and maybe made a less awkward adjustment on the ball. But turning his whole body allows him to maintain eye contact throughout the catch. To MAY toe, To MAH toe, he catches the ball, and that’s what’s really important.
A typical fade is thrown to a spot, and the receiver runs underneath it. On the back shoulder version, the QB has to “stick” the ball on the receiver. That’s part of the reason that this throw looks a bit off target and the throw and catch don’t look as “pretty” as one might like to see.
Auburn committed a lot of resources to stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. The passing game took advantage many times, hitting some big plays and drawing penalties. It just wasn’t enough.
2nd and Goal:
A fly sweep to Chico McClatcher at the goal line, and a text book example of missing blocks.
The first thing to note here is that the Huskies intentionally don’t block the two defenders on the left side of the defense. The idea being that McClatcher is deep enough in the backfield when he gets the ball, and fast enough, that he’s going to run around them and they have no chance to impact the play. So Hilbers released past the defenders at the line and toward the play-side inside linebacker. Unfortunately, he isn’t fast enough to get there.
The block that dooms this play is actually one of the “lookout” variety by tight end Drew Sample. It just looks like Sample doesn’t see exactly who he’s supposed to block, and can only turn and yell “LOOKOUT!!” to McClatcher. Then, to double down on the poor play, lead blocker Kamari Pleasant also misses the chance to block the same guy, and instead stops his feet and mostly does...nothing.
McClatcher is doomed, and the Huskies are pushed back to 3rd and goal from the 12. That’s tough sledding due to a costly mistake. An easily avoidable costly mistake.
3rd and 9:
One of the most frustrating plays of the entire game.
Washington had all of the momentum at this point. The Huskies had the lead. The defense had slowed Auburn’s offense the whole second half to this point. The offense was moving the ball, and it felt like they only needed to stay out of their own way to finally break through. And on this drive, Washington quickly forced the Tigers into a 3rd and long.
The defense is playing pretty safe here. The initial pass rush is only two players (note Greg Gaines lined up as a defensive end on the bottom of the formation), with three linebackers waiting and reading right behind the line of scrimmage. Read the run, read coverage, read rush.
In the end, they pretty much do nothing. One (D.J. Beavers?) finally manages to get some reeeeeaaaaaalllly late pressure on Stidham. But they all manage to miss the running back sneaking out of the backfield after he initially showed that he was going to protect. He simply waltzed right between them and out into the route, and then made a falling backward, really ugly, first down reception that broke backs and hearts.
3rd and 7:
Yes, Gus Malzahn said he wanted to run the ball. But nothing up until this point said that a zone up the gut was a good call on 3rd and 7 at the 10. This was a “safe” call that was all about setting the Tigers up for the field goal while taking virtually no risk. Unfortunately for the Huskies, Greg Gaines had come off the field after the previous play, leaving precious little size in the middle of the defensive line, and the two remaining linemen picked a bad time to get stood up and stop moving their feet.
D.J. Beavers is the inside linebacker that’s closest to the middle of the field; his recognition of the play is “just okay,” but instead of attacking the ball carrier, he sits back and absorbs the block of the offensive lineman. The normally big-hitting Jojo McIntosh ends up taking more of the contact than he gives as the last line of defense, but the real problems came well before he misses.
Auburn’s offensive line won this play, decidedly. They dominated here. When it mattered. Congrats to them.
4th and 15:
The Huskies’ last offensive play.
Here’s the chain reaction of events that left Jake Browning with zero chance to even get the ball off:
Luke Wattenberg never gets out of his stance. Jared Hilbers sees this, and tries to offer some resistance while still picking up his man. As anyone would expect, he fails to get either one, and both come free. A third defender appears to be in the picture, but he’s actually blocked just enough that he’s unlikely to affect the play. Or, he’s taken out to the point that Browning could’ve easily moved around him if need be.
Fact is, if Wattenberg gets off the ball on time, the Huskies have this blocked. Not perfectly given how good Auburn’s front is, but they have seven blockers on seven defenders. They have man coverage in the secondary, and you can see the primary receiver (looks like Andre Baccellia?) breaking free toward the sideline on a whirlybird out route.
The Huskies had a play called that had a high chance to succeed against man coverage. They had the protection. Noise, nerves, dumb luck, whatever, they didn’t get a chance. The game ended on a missed snap count.
The Huskies didn’t start fast on Saturday, but they settled in on both sides of the ball and turned the game into the low-scoring defensive battle most people predicted. Much of the narrative of the game surrounds the red zone inefficiency of both teams’ offenses, and that Auburn converted the one that counted. That’s certainly true. As big a factor as that, though, was 3rd down in general - Auburn converted, and Washington didn’t. As frustrated as fans are that Washington missed another chance to make a statement, at some point you just have to tip your cap to the other team and move on. Auburn looks like a good team. So does Washington.
Auburn won a close, physical game not because they were dominant or the Huskies were physically outclassed (as they have been in games like this before), but because one team has to win and one team has to lose every football game. Losing sucks, but you have to play games like this in order to have a chance to win them. Going forward, we’re particularly encouraged by the play of the offensive line and the receivers—two of the biggest question marks heading into the season.