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Film Study: Arkansas State Red Wolves

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The UW offense comes alive with the help of three healthy wideouts.

Arkansas State v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Notes on Arkansas State:

  • UW played some really good offensive football. There was rhythm. There was execution.

  • The defense played a solid game, but Arkansas State did not pose the challenge in the running game that the Huskies are vulnerable to.

  • The opponent, overall, was clearly worse than Montana (at least on this day).

  • Jalen McMillan, Terrell Bynum & Taj Davis make a nice WR trio. Big questions beyond those three, but the Huskies are possibly getting Rome Odunze back soon, too. The timing is clearly better with the first-line WRs.

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Just how good was the UW offense last weekend?

To the film:

3rd and 4:

Before diving into the offensive plays that we want to discuss, we wanted take a quick moment to recognize the every-down playmaking of Trent McDuffie. There’s a lot to be said about how great his coverage is, but this is a play that exemplifies what sets the best Husky DBs apart from the rest.

Arkansas State had just one drive (their second possession) longer than 22 yards during the first 2+ quarters, and this was the play that ended it and forced the (missed) FG.

Here we get the Red Wolves in 11 personnel in a 2x2 set on 3rd & 4. We’re countering with 2-4-5 personnel aligned in one of our exotic 3rd down fronts. At the snap we are aligned in a Cover 1 look with press man coverage on the perimeter and in the slot with Bookie. We have 3 likely rushers at the snap but 4 other guys in the box, off the ball, who could be a pass rusher or an underneath zone defender. Arkansas State, knowing that we’re probably in man coverage in this look and in this down and distance, calls a man-beater Mesh concept to get crossers open against man, and they also use short motion from their field side #1 WR (#10), opposite of McDuffie, to get a clean release at the line. This play call is perfect for the Red Wolves because if we end up bringing 3, then he has all day to let the crossers get open against man coverage. If we bring one or two of the extra defenders not playing deep or in man coverage, then the crossers in Mesh should be able to get open quickly over the middle.

Heimuli and Sirmon end up lurking in the hook curl zone underneath/playing spy, creating traffic in the middle, thus gumming up the quick crosser throws, but everything here is set up for the offense to open up #10 in the flat on the far side of the formation. The same traffic that takes away the quick throws also creates natural “picks” for #10 to get separation. Here’s where McDuffie’s instincts, play recognition, open field tackling, and athleticism are on full display.

He immediately recognizes that Arkansas State is likely to run Mesh based on their down and distance tendencies, and he knows his receiver is one of the crossers at the snap based on the short motion (tight alignment is a tip because it shortens the distance the WR needs to run to get to the far side flat), so he gets depth and an inside alignment as he tries to follow the short motion.

Just before the snap, McDuffie gets depth to run over the top of the traffic, and he does this because his awareness and proficiency in the defense alerts him to the fact that the crosser will be covered by the underneath zone defenders until the far side flat (thus letting him run over the top of the traffic without worrying about his assignment). His early play recognition also helps him identify that he has to run to the far side flat immediately off the snap (thus eliminating unnecessary movement). If McDuffie didn’t run straight to the flat, then he wouldn’t be able to make the play short of the line to gain (even with his athleticism). Finally, his physical open field tackling gets the WR on the ground immediately on contact. An excellent individual play because of McDuffie’s preparedness and attention to the details.

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2nd and 5:

We wanted to drill down on this offensive series (the third possession) as an example of what our offense should like like from a play calling perspective, and what good game planning looks like. Oh, and welcome back Mr. Jalen McMillan; it helps to have playmakers.

We’ll start on the third play of the possession here on the third play on 2nd & 5 (the first two were a scramble and a semi-questionable RPO throw). As mentioned in this week’s Coach’s Corner, Arkansas State’s core defense is based on Pat Narduzzi Press Quarters defense. Quarters (aka Cover 4) plays similarly to man coverage because its zone rules put both CBs and both safeties in man-to-man coverage on vertical route. Safeties in Quarters are line up pretty shallow (10-12 yards deep) in order to more seamlessly pick up the vertical routes from the underneath zones, but they also play shallow because the Quarters defense incorporate every-down run responsibilities for safeties (another major benefit of playing Quarters is getting 2 extra quasi-box defenders in the safeties). The Narduzzi-style Press Quarters defense leans into the aggressive man coverage aspects of the Quarters defense by asking the CBs to essentially play on an island in press man coverage in order to eliminate the Quarter defense’ vulnerabilities in the flats.

Our game plan recognized that we may get favorable 1v1 looks on the perimeter against this defense, and even against the Red Wolves’ Cover 0 change up blitz looks, the 1v1s would be there if we could block up front. Something else that the offense picked up on in the first couple series is that Cade Otton was the focus of the defense’s game plan in the passing game. Rather than playing normal Quarters rules where safeties would focus on the #1 WRs (the outer most eligible receiver on both sides of the field) and provide inside bracket coverage if there’s no vertical threat from the #2 WRs (the second receiver counted from the perimeter on both sides of the field), Arkansas State often had the safety over Otton’s side double team him. To help with this adjustment, Arkansas State had their CBs play press with an inside leverage, which lets them squeeze the #1 WRs into the sideline away from the wide open middle of the field.

Knowing this coverage tendency, our staff called passing concepts with vertical routes on the perimeter if at all possible. In this case, we called a Slot Outs concept out of 11 personnel in a 2x2 shotgun formation with a 6-man protection where both #2 WRs run speed outs, and the #1 WRs run fades. Morris has a half field read since its a mirrored passing concept, and he just has to pick what half he wants to read. He choses to read the boundary side since Otton is there to draw safety attention, and Jalen McMillan is drawing a favorable match up. Morris’ read is all about the safety.

Plays are designed to read deep to shallow, and the safety is the key read here on McMillan’s fade since any drift to undercut the fade is likely a pick. The CB’s press alignment from an inside shade gives an easy outside release to McMillan where a jump ball or over the shoulder pass is a gimme throw when the CB’s back is turned, so the safety’s immediate drive on Otton’s speed out is an easy read for Morris. Pitch and catch. Easy 30 yards.

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1st and 10:

This should have been a touchdown.

Hustling to the line after the big play, we want to press the reeling defense with a completely different look without swapping personnel (true to the “pro-style” philosophy). Sticking with 11 personnel to avoid substitution stoppages, we line up in our tight bunch under center look and run a toss crack play that we haven’t seen since last year.

We’re facing a really generic 4-3 stack front with both safeties in the Quarters alignment and the playside CB a little off the LOS. Our toss sweep concept out of bunch pivots on the ability for the auxiliary blockers in the bunch formation to create favorable blocking angles and allow pullers (like Kirkland in this play) to get favorable blocking match ups. The key blocks are the down block from Otton at the point on the bunch sealing the DE, Taj Davis sealing the SAM LB, and Terrell Bynum’s kick out block on the CB to open the lane for Kirkland to lead Newton through. Much like how power uses the favorable blocking angles and pulling linemen to create favorable match ups, this toss play uses the same principles to get Kirkland as a fearsome lead blocker in space.

This is a well drawn up play against this basic of a defensive front, and we even saw Wattenberg reach the MIKE LB, which is a really tough block that often is the difference between a 10 yard run and a 30 yard run on a toss play. However, there was just one block that just wasn’t quite good enough that stopped the play for a short gain. Bynum on the kick out block made a decent block that would’ve been enough to spring Newton on a faster developing play, but he isn’t a physical blocker on the perimeter. Despite blocking his man, Bynum doesn’t block through the whistle, and the CB is able to make a shoe string tackle through the block to stop Newton for a gain of 3.

Tempo, mixing in different perimeter run concepts, formational variety within the same personnel, and pulling linemen are all things that we were looking for from the offense through the first two weeks, and the staff mixed in all of them just in this one play.

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2nd and 7:

Following up the short gain on the toss, we come right back with the same 11 personnel in our favored 2x2 shotgun look. Arkansas State continues to stick with their base 4-3 stack look, so we start to get creative in how we can manipulate their anticipated responses. The defense is still on their heels, and the have become predictable; exactly what you want to run your RPO package.

RPOs are deadly against Quarters defenses because of the fundamental run/pass conflicts that they create for the safeties. Quarters defenses reached the height of their popularity about 10 years ago when the Spread Option offenses were torching the football world because Quarters coverage let defenses get a +2 advantage in the box with both of the safeties IF the safeties read run at the snap and charged downhill. That works in a run-vs-pass world where its a quick and easy read, but in an RPO world, this is a fundamental conflict. Quarters defenses, like Arkansas State, have attempted to adjust for RPOs by teaching their safeties to go to Cover 0 man-to-man rules at the first sight of an RPO read (sort of the opposite of the previous Quarters defense run read rules), and the LBs are to crash the LOS in run support without worrying about any coverage responsibilities.

Here on the play, we call a pretty simple slant-flat RPO tag on the backside of inside zone to the weakside. This is set up to look like most of our other inside zone runs where we tend to run to the weakside. Otton has an arrow route into the boundary flats, and McMillan is running a “clear out” slant/skinny post. The triangle read is made by the SAM LB over Otton, the boundary CB, and the safety, but in practice its a primary read on the LB. Game preparation should tell Morris to expect locked up man coverage on McMillan because that’s the perimeter coverage 90% of the time, run or pass, so the RPO becomes a read on if the LB pursues his gap or stays in his zone. Otton has outside leverage and a match up advantage on his arrow route if the LB does anything but immediately chase him in the flat, so hesitation or attacking the LOS is a pretty good look to pass to Otton.

Any hesitation by the CB AND the LB, or hard pursuit of Otton like its man coverage is an auto give read to the RB. Hypothetically, the DE could crash and pursue from the backside of the line, but the hand off is always the read if there’s any uncertainty in the pass read. Hesitation by the LB in stuffing the run could also be an acceptable hand off read, but its also unnecessarily conservative. This sounds a lot more complicated than it really is once you get into a rhythm and know what defensive reactions you can expect.

Anyways, as discussed earlier, the LB attacks the LOS like he’s been taught to do at the first run read, so Otton is wide open for the first down because the safety has to come all the way down from his depth to make the tackle. Easy pitch and catch.

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2nd and 4:

Following up the first down catch and run by Otton, we continue to stick with the same 11 personnel, but now we come out in a 3x1 shotgun trey look. There’s nothing fancy with this weakside inside zone run play, and we’re not even sure if this has an RPO tagged onto it (doesn’t look like a great run look if it were an RPO), but we do have some window dressing that helps this run get into the end zone that we want to focus on.

On the field side, we have our WRs run routes instead of just block to give the semblance of a RPO. As we discussed earlier, at the first defensive read of an RPO, the LB crashes the LOS, and the safety will go into man coverage and not trigger downhill. Because we were able to bait them into reading RPO and not a pure run, we were able to prevent the Red Wolves getting both of their safeties involved in the run game like their defense is designed to do.

Replay:

From there, McGrew makes the crashing SAM LB miss in the hole, and he’s into the end zone. Simple as that. The two Red Wolves’ defenders nearly shake hands as McGrew makes them both grab air.

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2nd and 10:

To give another example of RPO reads, we picked this play where we ran the exact same slant-flat RPO tagged onto inside zone that we ran earlier in the game, but this time we see a different read from Morris.

At the snap, Morris knows from the previous RPOs that its a fast read from LB to safety/CB because the LB is going to crash, so reading a more aggressive reaction out of the safety in pursuit of Otton does open up the passing lane to McMillan on the slant/skinny post. Morris probably could’ve hit Otton for a couple yards on 2nd & 10, but the gunslinger in him took the tougher big-gain pass. This play is all about Morris’ comfort with the play being called, his comfort with the read, and his confidence in this rhythm throw to his favorite big play threat. Any hesitancy or confusion on this and Morris wouldn’t have been pulling the trigger on the skinny post. Great play.

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2nd and 15:

This one is a play Morris wishes he had back, and it’s a good example of how we have to live with the good and the bad of the gunslinger mentality.

Coming out in 11 personnel, we continue to mix in different formations to probe how the defense will try to match. Here we’re in an empty set with Otton flexed to the trips side and Kamari Pleasant out wide as the #1 WR to the twins side. Arkansas state lines up in a 2-high shell pre-snap, suggesting that they’re running their usual Quarters coverage.

We are running some sort of Dagger concept to the trips side with Otton running a seam and Sawyer Racanelli running the 12-yard dig from his #1 WR spot (Jackson is just running a checkdown route on the trips side). On the backside we’re running a smoke hitch with Pleasant and a drag crosser with Davis. The primary read here is the Dagger high to low, and against Quarters or Cover 2, Otton would be clearing out the safeties for the dig to be hit in the intermediate zone behind the LBs. However, right at the snap, the safeties rotate into a Cover 3 Sky look (both CBs take deep thirds & 1 safety rotates to the middle deep third). It looks like Morris was caught off guard by the rotation and panics a little. Instead of looking for a check down to Jackson in the flat (a soft spot of the Cover 3 Sky), Morris kept with his initial progression on the Dagger and tried to squeeze the ball between the rotating safety and the CB.

Morris is confident, and Coach B likes that about him. He’s not always smart, and John hates that about him. He wants the deep ball, and he wants to go for the end zone, but it means he’ll take a few unnecessary risks. This is one of them, but we are learning that with Morris, it comes with the territory.

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Overall, this is what should be expected in a game like this. Arkansas State forced the Huskies to throw the football, and UW did it with great success.

Tougher sledding next week with Justin Wilcox and Cal coming to Seattle. You can bet there will be a solid game plan in place to exploit the weaknesses of this Husky football team.

How much have Lake and the Dawgs cleaned things up? We’ll find out on Saturday.

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