On a windy night in Seattle where OSU quarterback Ben Gulbranson could hardly complete anything, Michael Penix Jr. came within two yards of another 300 yard game. He was far from perfect in this one, but he was prolific and effective. His arm is unquestioned at this point. Those footballs were cutting through the breeze and arriving on target more often than not.
On the other side of the ball, the Dawgs made some adjustments in their run defense to limit the OSU ground attack. There were some defensive calls early on that didn’t make a ton of sense against a team that wasn’t going to be able to throw effectively on this night.
To the Film:
1st and 10:
First play up this week we wanted to take a look at our run defense that really struggled early in the game. Not only was OSU’s OL able to get consistent push at the LOS with a few double teams, but they also caught us in poor play calls that didn’t make a ton of sense against their offensive identity.
Here on a 1st & 10 play, OSU comes out in a 11 personnel singleback under center formation with the TE in a wing alignment. Our defense should have been reading this as a run-heavy formation given their play calling tendencies and the down and distance situation, and although we drop Turner into the box to get the +1 advantage in the run front, we are not aligned properly up front to stymie OSU’s zone-heavy rushing attack. Upfront, Tuli and Tuitele are in heads up or very slightly shaded alignments over the guards, which are good against more static downhill rushing attacks or in a passing situation where you can stack and shed blockers or have a 2-way go on slants, but a heads up alignment is a much easier reach block for the OL than if they were wider in the gap. This alignment also prevents the DTs from forcing a double team because they are immediately covered by an OL, and it allows the center to get a free release to the second level. A good zone run game doesn’t need the OL to win 1v1s. Forcing stalemates and keeping the RB clean to find the crease is all they need.
To make things worse, at the snap, it also seem to be calling a cross fire blitz that is usually intended for passing situations. Bright is aligned behind Tuli, but fires downhill as if he were blitzing into the strongside A-gap, taking himself away from the point of attack in OSU’s weakside zone run. Tuputala, the other half of the cross fire blitz, loops around Bright and is able to see the blocking front flow in the direction of his stunt, but the free release of the center allows OSU to neutralize him and spring the RB for 4 extra yards.
Shading the DTs alignment in either direction and minimizing LB stunts against a run-heavy offense in an early down situation would’ve set us up for success far better than hunting for a big play against an unlikely pass on this play.
3rd and 16:
On a more positive note, on offense we were able to capitalize on a handful of very nifty play designs to manufacture big plays that bailed us out of a number of tough 3rd & long situations throughout the game. This one might be one of our favorites. Sometimes a defense thinks they know what you are going to do, and when they guess wrong, end up out of position and looking foolish.
Here on 3rd & 16 deep in our own territory, Grubb dials up a slot tunnel screen to Rome Odunze for a gain of 27 and a first down. The coolest part of this call is how we use formations and self-scouting to set up this play for success. One of our favorite calls in long passing situations is getting Rome isolated in 1v1 coverage against a safety on a deep out. This is usually set up formationally with him in the slot. Lining up with him in the boundary slot in an empty formation, OSU is banking on this being the call, so they try to bait that particular throw. OSU’s defense is known for exotic zone blitzes and confusing alignments to generate pressure, and we are trying to bait them into calling a blitz against our screen. With the empty formation and a pocket passing QB, OSU is going to try to get greedy and hunt for the sack with a pressure look. Anticipating the deep out to Rome, they are showing a Cover 0 blitz alignment pre-snap with all of their box players on the LOS, and they are trying to show the 1v1 for Rome. However, they are actually running a zone blitz that brings their LBs on the blitz and their EDGE defenders dropping into the flats to undercut the deep out.
This is the perfect call if we were actually running Rome on the deep out, but Grubb is one step ahead of them. With the LBs blitzing and the EDGEs dropping wide into the flat, the entire middle of the defense is wide open for Rome’s screen.
The screen concept itself isn’t very innovative, but its the timing of the call and setting the trap by playing into our tendencies that really made this play effective.
2nd and 2:
Unfortunately, not all offensive plays were as smooth sailing as Rome’s screen. On this play late in the 1st half, Penix throws a pick-6 that thankfully didn’t spoil the game for us. Seeing this live, it was tough to understand what Penix was thinking in a 2nd & 2 2-minute drill situation, but the replay angle makes the decision making a little more palatable.
Working from a split back shotgun alignment with 11 personnel, we’re running McMillan over the middle on a deep 12-yard dig over the middle from his slot alignment to work the middle of the field underneath a single-high shell. As you can see on the replay angle, Taulapapa’s arrow rout into the field-side flat is supposed to draw the SAM away from the middle of the field and open up space for McMillan to run into once he clears the MIKE (#55). However, while we correctly anticipate that OSU was going to be in zone, we were not ready for the zone blitz that brought their slot CB on the boundary side and dropped their field EDGE into underneath zone coverage over the middle to replace the SAM. That’s what really threw off the play.
With the boundary safety (#28) covering over the top, the MIKE could aggressively undercut any route inside from McMillan. If the play design had worked as intended, McMillan would’ve been able to accelerate out of his break and gain separation from the MIKE. However, since #6 was dropping into the middle underneath zone, McMillan had to throttle down. Penix saw the dropping EDGE as well, but still saw the window for him to squeeze a pass in to McMillan. Instead of being able to lead McMillan, Penix overcompensated and threw behind him for the interception.
It was a poor throw, but the decision making wasn’t as bad as it looked on the live angle since it was either this pass into an open (albeit tight) window or a throw out of bounds. Part of what makes Penix special is his willingness to see a window and throw the pass. He usually makes more accurate throws, but this is the types of looks that we will continue to see against good zone coverage defenses.
3rd and Goal:
To wrap things up on a lighter note this week, we have this TD play to tie up the game in the 3rd quarter. While the last play showed the value of well-executed zone defense, this one shows the danger of undisciplined zone coverage.
Facing 3rd & Goal from the 24 yard line after a couple of penalties, most Husky fans watching the game were just hoping to get into closer FG range, but Penix had other plans in mind. Prior to the snap, we shift our 11 personnel from a singleback shotgun set into one of our 3x2 empty sets with Cam Davis as the #1 WR to the boundary and Jack Westover as the #1 WR to the field. OSU adjusts to the shift by bumping out their CBs out to cover Davis and Westover, and this puts our WRs (now in the slot) in favorable match ups against LBs and safeties.
As you can see on the All-22 angle, we’re running a spacing concept with our WRs over the middle, and we have Davis & Westover running clear out fades down the sidelines. Vertical routes on the boundary with our auxiliary receivers (RBs, TEs, non-WRs) in empty formations is a pretty common play design mechanism in Grubb’s offense because (in theory) they have to be accounted for while not requiring much route running nuance and saving our better WRs for better match ups in the concept.
Back to the play, this unfolded much like Wayne’s touchdown reception against Michigan State when he scored on a similar play as the 4th or 5th option. Penix dropped back looking for Rome on the hitch, but the outside CB over Westover bit on the route, leaving Westover wide open in the endzone. Hard to tell, but we’re guessing Penix gave a long stare in the direction of Odunze, sucking up the overzealous corner.
This is the danger of zone coverage. While Rome was rightfully considered the more dangerous receiving threat, in OSU’s Cover 3, drop 8 zone call on this play, the CB absolutely cannot let Westover get past him, and he especially can’t let Westover get open that quickly with only a 3-man rush where Penix has some time to see Westover.
This play also highlights Penix’s strengths as a QB. He has a mature and fully developed understanding of the position, and he can read the defense quickly to see what is being given to him. Despite some interior pressure, he maintains his poise and rifles the pass to his open man without any hesitation despite the pressure and having already thrown an interception against a zone coverage look that he wasn’t anticipating.