In the Huskies’ past two games —wins over Arizona and Stanford— Washington didn’t play great football, but were better than their substandard opponent. Last Saturday, UW played inspired, solid football. The defense was outstanding, special teams were crisp, and the running game was clicking against a very good Duck front seven.
This one was there for the taking, but despite turning away Oregon’s offense early, earning great starting field position, and getting positive yardage on first down, Morris and co. could not move the sticks. Same story we have seen all season. This time it really gassed a defense that was playing well.
To the film:
2nd & 8:
Husky beat writer Christian Caple called this play a gift. We think he owes Carson Bruener an apology. Not quite as bad as RGIII on the telecast, who said that Anthony Brown couldn’t see Bruener because he lost him in the purple logo. What?!?
Oregon came out with 11 personnel in a trey open formation before motioning the TE across the formation into a wing stack formation. Out of this formation, the boundary receiver, TE, and RB running a zone beater curl-flat concept and the field receivers are running man beater slant-flat concept out of a wide-split stacked alignment. Now Oregon’s formation creates a lot of conflict on defense because of the wide split of the two field-side WRs. To match numbers, the DBs covering the wide split WRs are basically forced to play man coverage, which Oregon is ready for with the slant-flat concept.
Knowing that Oregon likes to use unique formations and alignments to simplify the passing game for Anthony Brown, the defensive staff prepared a good counter. What we did was we split the defense in two and played a hybrid coverage scheme. Over the field WRs we played man coverage with Bookie and McDuffie and played a more traditional Cover 3 look over the main formation. This set up simplifies coverage responsibilities for everyone and it positions our underneath zone defenders to play aggressively, Bruener in particular.
This is where Bruener’s instincts and preparedness make such a big difference. Pre-snap, you can see the he & Sirmon doing a good job of communicating their coverage checks in response to the motion, and most importantly, communicating that Bruener now owned the underneath zone to the field. He is also communicating with Bookie and McDuffie. Probably about the motion and how the safeties were going to rotate, and that he now has the outside-most underneath zone. Playing as the field side ILB, Bruener knew that there were no immediate threats to his underneath zone from the main formation once Oregon motioned the TE to the boundary side of the formation, and with only the wide-split WRs to the field, there were a limited number of concepts that they could run. The wide-split receivers were already locked up in man coverage, so Bruener has free reign to play as a robber underneath and under cut any crossing routes. Brown stared down the field side receivers the whole way, and Bruener was savvy enough to capitalize on his opportunity to play the ball aggressively.
1st & 10:
Keeping with the positive vibes out here, we got the second massive impact play from the defense to start the game. After a huge Race Porter punt pinned Oregon on their own 1 yard line, our defense came out with its ears pinned back.
Needing to find a little breathing room, Oregon again came out in the 11 personnel 2x2 wing stack formation that we broke down on Bruener’s interception play, and UW matched with the same 2-4-5 alignment with a single-high hybrid coverage call behind it. Sniffing out a clear run situation, we were cheating up at the snap, but we really didn’t sell out against the run. Instead, we just saw some of the dominant defensive front play that we hadn’t seen in some time.
Oregon called one of their staple counter plays, and we simply beat them (man is that a breath of fresh air). Pre-snap we had already cheated up a little, but we also shifted our DTs to the weakside of the formation anticipating the counter play. At the snap, both Taki and Tuli reset the LOS 1 or 2 yards into the end zone with Taki very nearly throwing the center into the RB and Tuli stoning the LG at the LOS making it hard for the pulling blockers to get clean shots at our hard flowing LBs. Bruener as the play side ILB on the play did a fantastic job of attacking the pulling RG, slipping the block, and getting first contact on Dye. Sirmon flowed from the backside and made the clean up tackle for the safety.
Its easy to play this aggressively when you know the run is coming, but its still proof that our defensive front can play really well without the stacked box. That is, for limited stretches of time; provided the Husky offense can keep them on the sideline more than 23 minutes of a 60 minute football game.
3rd & 3:
Now for the first of a few poorly executed plays that ultimately doomed us in this game.
On 3rd & 3 near midfield UW goes with 11 personnel in a trips nub formation with the RB lined up to the field side. Out of this formation we called our staple China concept with the 3 WRs to the field and called a 7-man protection against an Oregon blitz look.
Oregon comes out with 5 guys aligned on the LOS and 2 other potential rushers in the box. Thibodeaux is to the boundary and Sewell (one of the best blitzing ILBs in CFB) is aligned in the field side B-gap. Thibodeaux is pretty well neutralized by the combo of Otton and Kirkland, and Sewell ends up slow playing the rush, but we still weren’t able to win our match ups in pass protection. Ale gets completely overwhelmed by the DT’s bull rush, and Wattenberg whiffs his block on the other DT without any help from Bainivalu, who was anticipating the rush from Sewell. Feeling the heat up the middle, Morris panics a little and doesn’t see the lurking Sewell sitting and waiting to make a play on the ball.
Several things to unpack here. First, its hard to understand how Ale and all his heft could be thrown around like that, and how Wattenberg in his 6th year can whiff so badly on a block. Secondly, Morris absolutely cannot be slinging passes into non-existent passing lanes. Sewell is not a coverage linebacker, but he batted two passes during the game, and a better coverage linebacker might’ve picked those passes off. Finally, we have no idea why UW would run China into a man-blitz look (or run routes to only one side for that matter). Sewell could make a play on the ball so easily because he knew the whole time that Morris was only going to be looking to throw in that direction.
This play came in from the sideline, and Morris should have checked out of it. Or the sideline should have done a “check with me.” Morris needs more “check with me” calls (especially on key 3rd down plays like this one) if he is to continue at QB.
An “average” QB rating in college is 140-150. Morris is 99th in the nation at 124 on the season. On 3rd and 6 (or less), his rating is 93.
2nd & 8:
Another play with poor execution from a number of players (but also somewhat of a baffling play design). On 2nd & 8 we’re in a 2x2 formation running what looks like an all-hitches concept, but we have Otton and Bynum run speed outs as the inside receivers, directly into the hitches on the perimeter.
Oregon, sitting in Cover 3, continued to show blitz and mix up where their rushers were coming from. Despite showing a 5-man rush with 2 other potential blitzers in the box, Oregon only brought 4 and dropped two of their defenders who were on the LOS. Yet again, Ale struggled to identify the blitz and #33 was able to run straight past him. McGrew, in to block on the play, recognized the blitz, but he barely stepped into the block.
We’d blame Morris on this play for not getting rid of the ball on time if it weren’t for Sewell bailing hard at the snap to cover Otton and eliminate Morris’ passing window. Instead, we’ll just say that this play was DOA. Even then, it was still blocked poorly.
3rd & 1:
Don’t tell us that stacking the box is the obvious fix to our run defense.
Facing an obvious rushing situation on 3rd & short we come out ready for the run. Oregon rolls with 12 personnel with both TEs to the field side of the formation, and they dial up a zone slice play that we should all be familiar with. To counter, we go to our 3-4 personnel, put 5 guys on the LOS, rotate Hampton into the box, and bring Williams just 8 yards off the LOS. Not counting Williams, we have an 8-man box against a 7-man blocking front. You do have to deduct Hampton (who is being neutralized by Brown as the read man), but that puts us at 7v7 where a single shed block or a sound tackle by Williams should keep this to a minimal gain.
Where this play goes wrong is that we tried to guess the play with a blitz to the strong side. At the snap you can see our whole DL, as well as Bruener, slant towards the strong side of the formation rather than try to hold their gaps. This runs Bruener out of the play, and it allows Taki and Peihopa to get washed down the LOS far easier than we’d seen earlier in the game. We’re not really sure where Sirmon was going, but he also runs himself out of the play, only leaving Williams to clean up as the last line of defense. Unfortunately, our safeties have struggled to tackle in space, and Williams again gets exposed as Dye runs deep into our red zone.
This turned out to be the back breaker.
3rd & 4:
Another tough end to a drive near midfield while trying to cut the deficit. However, this time, its not on the OL. Working with a 3rd & medium, we had the run and pass available as options, and given the field position, we could’ve been in 4 down territory. We elect to pass, and we dial up a shot play to Odunze that is actually a pretty decent call.
Working out of a 2x2 formation and facing another likely blitz, we keep Davis and Otton in to block on a 7-man protection call to buy time for the shot play. With Bynum on the perimeter and Odunze working in the slot, we feign our favorite China concept (Dig + Corner), and then hit them with a Corner-Go double move. Its not a complicated shot play, but it plays to our tendencies.
Perhaps the best aspect of the whole play design was the protection. Facing 3 stand-up rushers to the field versus just an LB and DE to the boundary, the more dangerous blitz threat (higher potential for stunts, plus Thibodeaux) was to the field side. As mentioned before, we kept Davis and Otton in to block, and we called a 5-man slide protection to the field. Wattenberg & Bainivalu held up well in the middle, and Kirkland & Otton did a great job locking up the edges to buy time for Morris to deliver a pretty accurate pass. Morris placed the ball to Odunze’s outside shoulder away from the trailing defender, but it was also slightly short of where it needed to be. Odunze was accelerating past the DB right as the ball was arriving, and could’ve gotten 2 steps on his defender if Morris had waited just a beat longer. Instead, the pass slightly behind Odunze forced him to track the ball directly overhead, which is a very tricky catch, much like trying to catch a ball thrown from directly behind you. He still managed to get both hands on the ball and probably could’ve caught it, but an extra 5 yards down field and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
The team showed tremendous effort, and the execution was good for long stretches of the game from multiple position groups.
But this football team has not been able to build on momentum all season long, and the failed 3rd and 4th down conversions —the very manageable kind— have been impossible for the Huskies to figure out.
When you are not able to get everyone firing on all cylinders at the same time, against a talented opponent, that’s the difference between winning and losing.