The offensive coaching staff had their best game of the season. Insert “that’s not saying much” quip if you like, but we’ll give them credit for finding run schemes that worked from start to finish, and not letting things get too stale or predictable while sticking with those run schemes. There was some creativity in the play designs that we hadn’t seen before.
Overall though, this was still not a great offensive performance. Our passing game execution was lacking (largely because of how hot and cold Morris is), but it was covered most of the game by the marked improvement up front by the OL.
Defensively, new personnel not only flashed, but made the plays to win the game.
To the film:
3rd & 4:
First up, we have one of our early 3rd down conversion attempts where Morris’ inconsistent play rears its ugly head. Here we’re operating out of 11 personnel lined up in a pre-snap shotgun trey formation with numbers into the boundary. Right before the snap, we motion Terrell Bynum across the formation to the field on 3rd & 4 to create a balanced 2x2 look. One obvious thing that jumps out on this play is that Otton is open for a much easier completion. If Morris were the kind of QB who took a little wider survey of defense, he would notice the MLB sprinting to vacate the middle, and think “wow, Cade must be wide open at the sticks.” But that’s not Dylan Morris.
Here, it looks like Morris is keying in on Bynum’s out route the whole way in a one-read, matchup-based concept, and he nearly completes the pass. On such a quick developing play, Morris has a 3-step drop with a hitch, and he fires the pass off on-time to the breaking Bynum who is going to work on a CB in off-coverage. Working out-breaking routes to the field side is all about timing and accuracy because of how long the ball is hanging out in the air. On such long passes, an aggressive defender could easily break on a misplaced pass, and Morris nearly gets caught in trouble here because of his inaccuracy. Despite locking in on Bynum, and having a clean pocket to step into the pass, Morris sort of lets the ball sail on him. The ball is well above Bynum’s head, and he’s forced to climb the ladder to make a play, which then leaves him wide open to get popped by the Stanford defender, which then dislodges the ball for the incomplete. This was a simple case of poor execution spoiling a relatively straight forward play.
1st & 10:
On a more positive note, we have the kind of great looking chunk-yardage run play that we’ve been missing all season. Coming out in 21 personnel aligned in the good ol’ I-formation, Donovan dials up a weakside counter play towards the boundary. It was really encouraging to see us pop this run off because this was a defensive look we had run into all season with poor results. Stanford here was lined up in their base 3-4 defense with a single-high shell that brought their strong safety into the box towards the strong side of the formation to create an 8-man box. As with most of our standard down plays this year, we are outnumbered 7v8 in our blocking scheme, but the backfield eye candy and pulling action of the counter play evens things out when executed properly.
An often missed detail when examining highly effective gap run teams is the footwork of the backs, and their footwork is a key element in setting up their blockers. This is especially true when running out of under center formations. On this play, the downhill FB and RB action prior to the cutback to follow the pulling OL draws the LBs towards the strong side B-gap and commits them to the wrong side of the formation. Savvier LBs might not have been fooled by this backfield action, and they might’ve instead followed the pulling OL. However, they didn’t, and the strong side ILB and the safety both ran themselves out of the play, turning this into a 7v6 matchup. All of those I-formation dives that we saw last season didn’t take advantage of these little nuances, and we think it took some time for our RBs to get full acclimated to their role on these plays.
From there, Bainivalu and TE/FB Javon Forward threw the key blocks that sprung Davis for the big gain. Bainivalu continues to find success in the run game as our best pulling guard, and Forward has stepped up well in-place of Westover as a solid lead-blocking FB. We would’ve hoped for a little more push from the Ale-Wattenberg double team on the NT, but that’s just nit-picking at this point. Solid play all-around.
3rd & 2:
Right back to the anxiety-ridden roller coaster that is the Husky offense, we have a botched, albeit creative wrinkle to our run game on 3rd & short. With just 2 yards to gain and facing a more obvious rushing situation than the previous play we broke down, Donovan decides against dialing up one of our usual short yardage plays (like Wildcat, or QB sneak). Instead, he dips into the bag of tricks and calls this riff on the classic Speed Option play.
Right off the bat, Coach B love’s the play call in this situation against this look because its a natural counter to our tendencies, and its designed to get our athletes out in space quickly. Having been focusing on pounding the rock behind gap schemes, Stanford is being lulled into stacking the box and keying in on pulling linemen. As such, Stanford rolls with a single-high shell to get the +1 defender in the box and puts 5 players on the LOS at the snap. This in turn only leaves 2 second level defenders to flow with the play, one of whom is a safety who is too far to the backside of the play to be a factor. One of the two keys to a successful Speed Option play is sealing the defensive flow, and the fewer tough cut-off blocks that the OL needs to make on the LBs, the better. With only 1 off-ball LB really in play to make the tackle, we are getting a pretty favorable look to run a Speed Option.
Trying to build on our tendencies even more, the staff have drawn this option action to run behind a long-trap blocking scheme up front to the strong side. Ale pulls across the formation towards the backside of the play hoping to draw the LBs away from the action point of attack, and the rest of the 5 blockers have a 5v4 assignment on the 2 DTs and the 2 ILBs. This differs from a conventional Speed Option where the OL would simply try to reach block across the board. The hope is that the pulling action encourages the defense to flow with the puller and set up easier reach blocks. However, it only partially works, and its where the wheels fall off the wagon.
Bainivalu and Curne are put in tough situations by needing to block the NT and a blitzing LB who are 1.5 gaps over. The NT in particular gets the better of Bainivalu, who got no help from Wattenberg whatsoever, and the NT is able to put immediate pressure on Morris. This wouldn’t be a problem if Morris was offered a quick and easy read, but the unblocked Edge defender slow played the option. The second key to a successful Speed Option is drawing a decisive read from the unblocked Edge defender. You don’t need Cam Newton at QB to be able to successfully run the Speed Option, but realistically, unless you have a true dual-threat QB, you want to invite the unblocked Edge defender to crash hard to win your pitch man the edge rather than plow your QB into the LOS. Given how hard defenses had been crashing down on our runs, we can see why the staff didn’t encourage the crash more, but the slow read and the missed block on the NT kind of doomed the play.
Overall, we like the creativity on the play call, and hope to see more of these option wrinkles down the line. A few adjustments to this play that might help unlock this play include: a wider alignment for the RB (or at least less of an off set alignment), trapping the most difficult reach block rather than some arbitrary backside DL (ex. the NT in this play), and a false read option mesh step by the QB and the RB to encourage the Edge to crash on the RB. Coincidentally, we first saw the wrinkle get used by Browning and Gaskin against Stanford back in 2016.
The little false step, at a minimum, draws the DE to squeeze the backside C-gap and buys time for the RB to get break the contain. Ian Boyd did a good job of breaking down some of the nuances of this wrinkle here at SBNation, and Chris Brown has a pretty interesting read on the different ways gap/power blocking schemes are getting integrated into the spread option run game, where the next step in the evolution is basically this exact play but running the Speed Option towards the power blocking up front.
If Morris makes the pitch the way Jake Browning does (a little out in front, instead of into his facemask), that would have probably been enough for Williams to get to the edge. Details!!
1st & 10:
This week’s Film Study wouldn’t be complete without going through some plays from our most complete defensive performance to-date (ignoring Arkansas State). Our defense has been rounding into form throughout the season, but something clicked against Stanford where the interior run defense, edge setting, and pass rush all took a big step forward.
On this play, we get to focus on the interior run defense. On 1st & 10, Stanford dials up some sort of interior Duo play (to be honest we’re not really sure what it is), but they decide to double team Smalls, Taki, and Tunuufi and not Tuli playing NT here. On a Duo play, the key to the play is getting double teams at the point of attack, but with no double team on the NT, Tuli was able to easily stack and shed the center to clog up the middle and nearly wipe make the tackle for loss himself. However, Carson Bruener —the star of the defense last weekend— sniffed out the inside run as well, and he came flying downhill to make the tackle behind the line of scrimmage. These two were the keys to the play, but we’ll give credit to the rest of the DL for anchoring pretty well against all the double teams and keeping the LBs clean. The DL were scape goats last year and early this season for our porous run defense, but they’re showing noticeable improvements from week-to-week (especially our young guys).
2nd & 10:
On the very next play, we get to see our improved pass rush in action on a big strip sack fumble to swing some momentum back in our favor. Facing a 2nd & 10, Stanford knows it needs chunk yardage to keep its options open on 3rd down, so it goes to a 2x2 shotgun set that has screamed pass all day. Against this BG dials up a fire zone blitz (aka an NCAA blitz).
This blitz concept should be familiar to Husky fans after all of the issues Colorado gave us in 2019. The gist of this blitz is a 5-man field side blitz that brings 2 potential coverage defenders into the pass rush from the field (Bookie & Bruener), slants the DL to the boundary, and drops the boundary Edge defender into shallow zone coverage (Smalls). The idea here is to create maximum confusion in the protection by feigning pressure from one side and bringing it from the other, and to cover up the easy hot routes to buy time for the pressure to get home. There’s a couple of sight-adjustments that need to be made by the defense post-snap (like Bookie tapping the breaks to account for the field side swing route by the RB), but the key to the pressure is the twist/scrape action from the blitzing ILB (Bruener) and the field Edge defender (McDonald). Both come charging downhill and get the LT completely spun around in a 2v1 pass rush situation. Combine their rush with Bookie’s aforementioned sight coverage adjustment and Smalls looking like a natural in the boundary flat, and you got yourselves an explosive defensive momentum play.
3rd and 3:
Finally, we have a great example of Dom Hampton’s versatility and impact in the run game. Here we’re facing 3rd & 3 on our own 34 yard line up 12-10 midway through the 4th quarter. At the outside edge of field goal range, Stanford is likely in a run situation with the hope being that they can at least get a few yards to improve the FG distance even if they don’t get the first down, but they’re probably too far out to go with their trademark short yardage jumbo packages.
Stanford decides to roll with their shotgun jumbo 13 personnel formation (6 OL) that we saw previously, and they run a stretch play to the boundary against our defensive front that is totally selling out against the run. We are playing our base 3-4 personnel in a 4-down over front that puts both ZTF and McDonald to one side and Dom Hampton on the boundary Edge. Aligned in the D-gap, Hampton faces a quick double team from Stanford’s TE/DE Tucker Fisk (6-4, 285) and extra OL and Woodinville-native Levi Rogers (6-4, 306). Fisk ends up only getting a quick pop on Hampton, but the fact that Dom was able to anchor down and more or less neutralize the edge and string out the run for no gain against an OL that had 80 lbs is remarkable.
Hampton’s unique size (6-2, 220) makes him a credible box defender, and even a LOS player. We have yet to see teams pick on him in coverage, but the formational/match up versatility to play anywhere from OLB to FS is a valuable chess piece to deploy on defense. Many have pondered which one of our DBs would emerge as our next hybrid box safety, but we may have found him.
Best job by the staff this season. Somewhere in the B range +\-. You could retroactively knock them for keeping Dom Hampton and Bruener on the sideline for so long, but that’s not a totally fair assessment of them, since we have no idea how these guys have been practicing. The offensive play calling was fairly creative and effective, even if the execution wasn’t great. Defensively, not a whole lot different than previous games, other than the personnel swaps and just better play all around.
Can the Dawgs build on this?