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Washington-Utah Defensive Replay

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Big plays by the UW defense set up a second half comeback for the ages

NCAA Football: Utah at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

As part of our summer coverage, we’re looking back at the extremely limited schedule UW was able to play in the 2020 season. Today, we’re rewinding the defense’s performance in the comeback win over Utah.

The Huskies gave up some big plays to Utah in the running game, and had a couple lapses with the pass defense. But FOUR takeaways and a key 4th-down stop were enough to turn the tide and allow the comeback win.

First Quarter

The UW defense plays the opening Utah possession pretty well. It takes a one-handed catch against the tight coverage of Keith Taylor for a 33 yard Utah gain, and a 3rd down QB scramble by Jake Bentley where Jackson Sirmon whifs on a sack (and Asa Turner comes flying in out of control) to get the Utes inside the Husky 25.

Faatui Tuitele makes two splash plays in a row, getting into Bentley’s face to force an errant throw, then getting in the backfield to allow Elijah Molden to make the tackle for a 5-yard loss.

Then the Huskies strike: They have Utah in long yardage, and during the 2020 season that meant ZTF and company going into attack mode. Not just getting pressure, but getting to the QB, ripping at the throwing arm, and getting the football out. UW only rushes three, but ZTF blows by Utah’s left tackle gets the ball loose, and Sirmon hustles to the sideline to get on the ball before it goes out of bounds.

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Key Utah drive:

7:48, from UW 44 (UW 0, Utah 0)

After an INT by Dylan Morris, Utah starts this drive in UW territory.

The Huskies almost get the 3 and out, but with 4th and 4 and Utah just outside of field goal range, the Utes go for it. Sav’ell Smalls and ZTF get pressure and Bentley takes off immediately. Jackson Sirmon appears to get too deep in coverage, and is slow to come up and make the play before Bentley gets the first down.

After a nice 3rd down conversion to the TE by Utah, the Utes run a jet sweep with Ty Jordan. Smalls is unblocked, but Jordan gets past him, and manages to drag Sirmon for another 5 yards down to the 7-yard line, where this happens:

Josiah Bronson didn’t play a ton on the edge for the Huskies, and it shows here. He has the edge contained nicely, until he sees the handoff... you know, the one that never happened.

Molden seems to read Bronson and gets a bit lost, and Turner and Edefuan Ulofoshio get too deep in the endzone and are playing the pass way too long here. Hopefully this season Turner is thinking less and playing the game faster. Utah takes a 7-0 lead.

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2nd Quarter

After one Utah first down, the Huskies get the Utes off the field quickly as Smalls and Molden make good plays in the run game setting up 3rd and 7. The Dawgs run a four-man stunt up front to flush Bentley off his mark, who’s short pass fails to get the first down, and the Huskies force the punt.

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Key Utah drive:

10:15, from UW 44 (Utah 7, UW 0)

On 1st down Utah runs an end around with TE Brant Kuithe that picks up 9 yards as Cooper McDonald fails at containing the edge.

Then Ty Jordan hits a huge run for Utah that brings them all the way down to the 4-yard line.

There is all kinds of sloppiness below, but notice how the left side of Utah’s line is able to move the Husky defense back. They are outnumbered, and get little help from the linebackers who are very slow to react to the run, therefore causing a domino effect:

Watch below — from the Utah game two years ago— where the Husky LBs are also slow to react, but Levi Onwuzurike beats the double team and stuffs the play. This is what we have gotten used to with Onwuzurike and Vita Vea winning regularly, despite being outnumbered. UW just did not have a player like this last season, at least not consistently.

Onwuzurike first takes on the left guard, and is then chipped by the lumbering left tackle who then lumbers toward ILB #13 Brandon Wellington. Onwuzurike is then able to split the double without losing any of his position, and still meet the running back in the hole. Levi was one of the best Huskies ever, but doesn’t always get the credit.

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After the long run by Jordan, Utah goes hurry up and on three short runs are able to punch it in. Touchdown Utah 14-0.

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Utah looks like they may be content to run out the clock on their last drive of the half, but a slant turns into a big play and picks up an extra 20 yards to get into Washington territory.

ZTF destroys Utah’s right tackle and sacks Bentley, forcing a fumble recovered by Utah’s OL. But, ZTF gets his arm near Bentley’s head and gets a 15-yard penalty. Utah is now just outside the UW 20, rather than a 2nd and forever around midfield.

Bentley scrambles for 14 yards as multiple Huskies miss tackle opportunities. Then Utah runs a slot fade that burns Alex Cook as Bryan Thompson beats Cook badly to the back corner of the endzone. Utah 21, UW 0

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3rd Quarter

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Key Utah drive:

12:01, from Utah 25 (Utah 21, UW 7)

After the Huksies open the 2nd half with a long touchdown drive, Utah runs for 11 yards on 1st down as the Utes use seven at the point of attack to block down on the Husky 4-man front. The Utah line also gets quickly off their double teams to make blocks at the 2nd level on Sirmon and Ulofoshio.

Then Ulofoshio shoots the gap to make a stop for no gain. On another run up the middle, Smalls makes the play to bring up a 3rd down, as Utah elects to block him with a TE (and triple team Tuitele).

Sets up 3rd and long(ish). This is what UW wants:

UW checks into their usual 1-4-6 rush dime personnel. Instead of the typical alignment with one of the OLBs playing on the interior and Ulofoshio on the edge, they play a wide 3-man front with the ILBs showing inside pressure.

The Huskies only rush the 3 down linemen. The ILBs back off against the underneath check down and as spies on Bentley. ZTF and Smalls beat their blockers and flush Bentley out of the pocket. He floats one that is off-target and Molden makes the play.

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On 1st play of the next drive, the Utes attack with seven blockers —including pulling the RT and RG— but Ulofoshio gets a hold of Jordan Wilmore’s leg, and Cam Williams makes the stop for a six yard gain.

Utah tries Keith Taylor deep down the left side again, but this time Taylor has even better coverage, and the throw is a little flat.

3rd and 4 the Huskies show a 5-man front then back out their inside linebackers, rushing 3. Smalls can’t beat the double-team, and ZTF loses his shoe (and the battle with the RT). Sirmon eventually attacks the pocket, but he whiffs despite Bentley not seeing him. Turner loses Jordan leaking out of the backfield, and while Bentley is jittery, he has the time to find his wide open tailback, and it turns into a gain of 19.

Molden and Cam Williams combine for the first down stop on a toss play for no gain, then Bentley keeps on the read option, as Smalls is sucked inside. But Cam Williams is there to force the play outside, where Molden is in place. Smalls hustles here to get back in the play, and those three combine to keep it to a 5-yard gain.

3rd and 5, Gordon gets into the backfield, but can’t hang on to the runner and a spinning run up the middle sets up 4th and 1. Utah goes for it, and Bentley poorly executes the QB sneak, tying to force himself behind is center, who is being pushed back by Tuli Letuligasenoa and Sam Taimani. A great play from UW’s defensive tackles, as things closed in on Bentley immediately, and really no one on the Husky defense loses on this play.

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4th Quarter

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Key Utah drive:

2:30 left in 3rd Quarter, from Utah 25 (Utah 21, UW 7)

Molden blitzes, but Utah has the right play called as Bentley dumps to one of the two TEs they had running short routes to the side Molden came from. It turns into an 11-yard gain as Cam Williams comes up too fast and doesn’t break down to make the tackle.

Ty Jordan takes it up the middle for a leisurely 35 yard run where Smalls contains the outside and almost dives back inside to make the play. But Sirmon gets wiped out after engaging the RT, and again it’s Utah’s 7 blockers getting good initial blocks on the UW line, and getting to the 2nd level to block Ulofoshio. Also, Turner takes WAY too long to recognize this is a run, and gets totally lost.

Utah has a 3rd and 1 at the 21 and uses their formula of seven blockers (against the UW 7 man box this time) and win pretty easily. Two deep safeties on short yardage for Washington on this play. It’s a 7-yard gain.

Then we have what was the play of the game (for the UW defense, anyway). Kyler Gordon makes the big hit, but credit Sirmon for reading the play, being in the right spot, and forcing the lead blocker to take him on instead of Gordon. Then it’s just a one-on-one play with perfect execution:

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The Huskies don’t turn this into points. In fact, they go 3 and out, but are able to use this play by the defense to flip the field and start Utah back on their own 20 yard line with 12:21 remaining.

ZTF nearly gets home on the first play of the next drive, but the Utah LT holds him off just enough, and since this is all right in front of Bentley, he is able to move in the pocket and hit his check down as Turner flies by out of control to miss a tackle attempt.

The Utes keep getting small chunks to quickly end up at midfield, using their numbers advantage up front to move the ball in the run game, and picking a nice time (on a Sirmon run blitz) to dump a quick screen pass outside.

On 2nd and 4, Ulofoshio and Sirmon get off their blocks quickly, and the entire defense holds their ground as Utah blocks down with their usual 7 men at the point of attack. This time for a gain of only 2. On 3rd and 2, Kyle Whittingham does Husky fans a favor, going shotgun with just five in to block, instead of loading up and getting the yards with a numbers advantage. Pressure gets in Bentley’s face on an Ulofoshio blitz, and he hurries a dump off pass that Molden and Cook both read, and the two combine for a nice hit on Jordan to force 4th down. Utah decides to punt instead of going for it on 4th and more than a yard.

After another Dylan Morris INT, Utah takes over at midfield and the UW defense makes a stop for two yards on first down. Instead of Utah’s line blocking down across the board, they pull the TE from the right to the left to seal off Bronson, but Ulofoshio knifes inside, and the Huskies do a good job holding the line in the 6 on 6 matchup in the trenches. On 2nd down, ZTF sees Bentley try to step up in the pocket, and gets off his block to make the play for no gain. On 3rd down, even more ZTF as UW shows blitz, but back off. ZTF splits a double team by the left tackle and left guard and takes down Bentley for a sack. Smalls uses a bull rush to beat Utah’s right tackle and meets ZTF at the QB. Utah Punts.

After Morris leads the Dawgs to the go-ahead touchdown, Utah has one more chance, needing to go about 40 yards in 36 seconds (with all three timeouts) to get in field goal range.

On first down, the Dawgs allow the underneath completion, and Sirmon does a terrific job of dragging down the ball carrier in bounds. Somehow, the ref fails to see what happened right in front of him and stops the clock. Not that big of a deal as Utah calls timeout anyway.

Another 3-man rush, and ZTF gets loose in the Utah backfield again, flushing Bentley and forcing him to make a throw on the run. Its a lousy pass that lands at his receiver's feet.

Third down, the Huskies again get pressure with only ZTF, Smalls & Bronson. Bentley gets happy feet, steps up and decides that he better chuck something down the field because time is not on his side. He throws it up for grabs, and Trent McDuffie wins the jump ball for the interception.

That’s the ball game.

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Overall, it was a good performance for the defense, especially when you consider the big plays turned in and the four turnovers EARNED.

The D-Line getting washed away by heavy run sets will continue to happen as long as the Husky DTs can’t win double teams, and the linebackers are slow to react. Will we see a scheme change if no Levi/Greg Gaines/Vita Vea emerges? Lake seems very high on his young run stuffers, so chances are we will see the same strategy employed this fall.

It would also be nice if Asa Turner becomes more than just a spectator out there. He is needed to make stops in the running game, and keep those 5-yard gains from becoming 15 yard runs. Ditto for Cam Williams and Alex Cook, but Turner just seemed to jump out as “playing slow” over and over on this Utah game tape.