Solid bounce back win from our Huskies.
1-2 is only one win off of where we might’ve been expecting to be heading into conference play, and although the team’s “reach” goals have probably been dashed since the first weekend of the season, our annual goal of winning the conference and playing for a Rose Bowl is still very much in play. After two putrid performances, it looks like the team and the staff has woken up on both sides of the ball with a few new and old faces rejuvenating their respective units.
Saying that the Montana and Michigan games lit a fire under the coaching staff might be a little too accurate. For those of you who frequent Husky Twitter, there were serious calls for heads to roll on the staff, and everyone remaining would be on the hot seat. Hearing the message loud and clear, major changes were finally made this week. Regardless of who put together the game plan, who was actually calling the plays, and who was determining rotations, substitutions, and playing time, the product that we saw looked both starkly different than what we’ve seen over the last two weeks, as well as strikingly similar to what we were starting to see towards the end of last season.
On the game plan, we saw a major focus on attacking an aggressive defense deep. Arkansas State, following a script that Montana and Michigan won with, dared us to pass with lots of press looks on the perimeter and shallow safeties ready to trigger downhill in run support. Knowing the strategy that they’d use, it was up to our staff to devise counters to their likely tactics. A-State DC Rob Harley is a Pat Narduzzi-disciple having worked under him for years at Michigan State and at Pitt. I was unsure how much they’d lean on Narduzzi’s Press Quarters defense given their challenges in coverage against Memphis, but the Red Wolves decided that playing the run and leaving their pass coverage vulnerable was a worthwhile gamble against our offense.
Anyways, the Press Quarters defense (Quarters being another term for Cover 4) uses a shallow 2-”high” shell (safeties 10-12 yards deep rather than 15+) and quasi-man coverage on the perimeter. This alignment allows on their safeties to add up to two extra quasi-box defenders to gain overwhelming numbers to handle the run instead of attacking the LOS and trying to disrupt the backfield like Montana did. Knowing that A-State’s CBs were vulnerable, we finally put an emphasis on passing the passing game. I think the media and Twitter narrative that we need to go to a “pass to set up the run” approach is a bit misleading, but in this particular game it is an accurate description. Having shown such a run-heavy play calling tendency last season and against Michigan and Montana, we had already lulled A-State into sticking with a vulnerable coverage scheme which set up our passing attack. My opinion is that the key to everything is balance, and we need to have running and passing plays at the ready every game to attack whatever the defense was trying to game plan for. For once, we had those counter plays in the passing game ready.
In the play calling department, it was all about how many different formations and concepts we used as tactics to execute our strategy of taking what the defense is giving us. From what I saw live and on the replay, we finally leaned into our run-heavy tendencies and used them as a means to get the passing game going. We did this via increased use of run action in the passing game. Per Sports Info Solutions, Morris passed after run action (play action or RPOs) on ~46% of plays against the Red Wolves compared to just ~19% against Montana and Michigan. Obviously there are limitations to play action and RPOs (i.e. protection against blitzes, downfield linemen, route combinations, etc.), but I am a huge fan of making run and pass plays look as similar as possible because it adds to the confusion and conflict that you want to impose on the defense. Play action also doesn’t need to be limited to deep shots. Against the Red Wolves, we used play action to manipulate the outside linebackers to open passing lanes for quick slants and arrow routes into the flats. Morris has shown himself to be a good passer over the middle when routes can be schemed open, so it made a lot of sense for the offensive staff to lean into those routes when designing these RPO looks.
Change in play calling didn’t stop at the passing game. We also mixed things up in the run game via a renewed focus on mixing up inside and outside runs. My biggest gripes with our run game has been our over reliance on a small number of run concepts and our lack of pulling plays for our athletic OL. Both of these were addressed this week with the incorporation of a few jet sweeps, power (out of wildcat of all formations), and toss sweeps out of tight bunch mixed in with more inside zone concepts run out of 5-man blocking fronts, 6-man blocking fronts (OL + attached TE), and even 7-man blocking fronts. The addition of the toss and power plays were refreshing to see because I had begun to see this as one of the biggest disconnects between our personnel and our scheme. In going through my offseason recruiting breakdowns, I constantly find myself making note of how pulling is one of the skills that Huff always looks for in his OL. However, we started to see a decline in pulling linemen in favor of inside zone runs under Donovan. Effective zone and gap blocking schemes don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and some of the most effective run schemes pair zone and counter concepts to always have favorable angles and defensive alignments in run situations. Going back to some of these concepts that we ran last year is a smart move that takes advantage of the full play book.
Personnel and rotations were also a major storyline this past weekend. The return of Jalen McMillan might not have been the spark for the passing attack (it was probably the play calling emphasis), but his return felt like pouring kerosene on a smoldering campfire. After flashing as an inconsistent but talented deep threat last year, McMillan looks like a WR1 option against the Red Wolves with 10 catches, 175 yards, and 1 TD. Drops and chemistry with Morris were the primary issues last year, but it looks like both have been remedied with a number of McMillan’s catches being tough timing jump balls and beautiful drop in the basket, over the shoulder passes. I’ll split the credit between Morris and McMillan on this leap in deep perimeter passing production because Morris looked phenomenal on a number of passes outside of the numbers, but McMillan flashed game breaking potential that we had been looking for since the John Ross days. Adding Odunze to McMillan and Bynum could turbo charge this passing attack.
McMillan wasn’t the only personnel change that had a substantial impact on Saturday. Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant both returned to the RB rotation to solid results. Both backs reminded us why they shouldered so much of the rushing load last season, but its tough to tell if it was their personal contributions or if it was a combination of altered play calling and passing threat that led to the improved rushing attack. Regardless, I’d expect them to be fixtures in the rotation moving forward.
On defense, we finally faced a strength-vs-strength match up between the high flying Red Wolves passing attack and our own passing defense. Unsurprisingly, our talent and scheme advantages won the day handily, but while DBs like Bookie, McDuffie, and Gordon stole the show, ILBs Daniel Heimuli, Jackson Sirmon, and Carson Bruener stepped up with Eddie Ulofoshio on a short snap count. Bruener surprised me the most as a sneakily productive LB with the second most tackles on the team in a reserve role later in the second half. While Bruener and Heimuli’s overall play wasn’t spectacular (58.1 and 45.3 respectively according to PFF), both showed potential as physical, rangy, and instinctive tacklers at the second level who have sideline-to-sideline potential. Their feel for coverage needs work, but that’s pretty common for younger LBs, and against a more balanced opposing offense, both would’ve posted better performances.
Bears Bring the First Conference Test
Cal is our conference opener, and their defense will be a tough test to see if our rebounding offense can keep up with better talent. Leading into the season, I thought Cal could be one of our tougher defensive match ups and had this to say:
This year, Cal’s defense will be the team in the conference that will be most defined by experience. 6 of the 11 projected defensive starters will be at least 4th year players (Kuony Deng & Cameron Goode are 6-year players and Luc Bequette is going into his 7TH!) and Cal will have 10 defensive players overall who are 5th year players. That depth of experience is unmatched, and with Cal’s reputation for development of underrated players, there should be a very high floor for this defense.
The young players that find the field should be strong up-and-comers who I am very familar with. Sophomores Mo Iosefa (ILB, 6-3, 235) and Stanley McKenzie (NT, 6-2, 340) are two studs out of Hawaii who both project to Cal’s starting line up and could be their most physically talented players on defense. McKenzie in particular could be a star in the making as he is the type of trench player that Cal doesn’t always have on the LOS. He lacked prototypical height coming out of HS, but he fits what Cal wants to do in the middle of the defense and can be the sort of anchor that elevates the LB play behind him. How quickly these younger players can find the field will determine Cal’s ceiling in the conference and how well Cal can match up against our massive line and bruising running game.
My preseason predictions about Cal’s defense might have been a bit optimistic. In three games this season, the Bears’ defense has been uncharacteristically porous against both the run and pass. Nevada’s potential NFL QB Carson Strong posted a 300+ yard passing performance in an upset, TCU dropped 200 yards on the ground and in the air in a tight match up, and even Sacramento State dropped 400+ in the air. Contrary to my prediction, the floor for this defense has been uncharacteristically low despite having loads of experience with all three opponents posting a multiple explosive plays. Injuries haven’t been kind to the Bears either with stud LB Kuony Deng likely being out with a foot injury and WR Kawika Crawford also likely to miss time.
Barring some sort of resurgent defensive performance, the often-defense led Bears team will need to rely on Chase Garbers and their offense to win the day. Fast starts and slow adjustments have been a theme in their two losses this season, so weathering their initial surge and not ceding the Bears a lead that their rushing attack can sit on will be important for our Huskies. This might be a closer game than we’d like, but our talent should still win out.