The Washington Husky offense was not to be stopped on a chilly night in Pullman, racking up yardage and making it look easy. While the first half was even on the scoreboard, the Huskies were getting their points and yards out of design, while the Cougs made a lot of their big plays out of chaos.
In the second half, it was more easy sailing for Michael Penix, Jr. and the UW offense, thanks in big part to a phenomenal game from the Husky offensive line. However, the image below shows the O-Line may not have been working alone:
Defensively, the chaos from Cam Ward and the WSU offense was met with better fundamentals and execution in the second half. This UW defense has definitely improved. Overall, another solid team win.
To the Film:
4th and 1
Kicking off the final Film Study of the regular season, we wanted to take a look at WSU’s fake punt late in the 1st quarter. Early in the game, it felt like this year’s Apple Cup was going to be a slug fest between evenly matched opponents and that each team was going to need to empty their bag of tricks to gain an advantage.
Finding themselves in a 4th & short situation on their own 34-yard line, its clear that we were expecting a punt with our standard punt unit still on the field. Without having watched every Wazzu special teams snap this season, we can’t say with complete confidence if we should’ve anticipated a potential fake punt in this situation, but WSU HC Jake Dickert does not have a reputation for being this aggressive or tricky in 4th down situations. Being a defensive-minded HC, you’d expect him to play things conservatively and give his defense the best opportunity to get another stop outside of scoring field position. However, that element of surprise was the key to this play’s success.
Setting this play up, Wazzu lines up in their usual Shield Punt formation with their gunners out wide but their blockers at the center of the formation are lined up with extra wide splits. This is a common formation at the college level, but is illegal at the NFL level. The advantage of the Shield Punt is that it forces the return team to match with their own wide splits, thereby forcing the most dangerous edge rushers to take wider angles to the punter. It also allows for easier chip block releases for the front line blockers as the simply need to slow down the rush before heading down field in punt coverage.
Anyway, prior to the snap, Wazzu shifts from a standard Shield Punt into an unbalanced fake punt set with 4 players bunched outside the field hashmark and the boundary gunner flexed off of the LOS. The subtle shift from the boundary gunner is a critical piece of the play. This is because only players in the backfield or the outside most players on the LOS are eligible receivers. In non-punt situations, normal formational and eligible receiver rules still apply, so in their post-shift formation, WSU actually only has 4 eligible receivers. These receivers are the solo gunner to the boundary, Henley in the LT spot, the WR behind the LOS in the bunch to the field side, and the outside most player on the LOS in the bunch. Amidst the scramble to account for the shift, ZTF doesn’t realize that the boundary gunner is now off of the LOS and that Henley is an eligible receiver, so he gives him a free release downfield. The punter makes a quick read and has an easy pitch and catch with Henley for the 1st down.
1st and 10
Jumping over to the offense, we wanted to take a look at the play that basically said game over for the Cougs. Heading into halftime with only a 1 point lead, it was still anyone’s game. Halftime adjustments are typically the turning point in most of these types of close games, so the first few possessions of the second half are of the utmost importance. Coming out of halftime with a killer deep shot was all we had to see to know we weren’t going to get bogged down by any defensive adjustments.
On 1st & 10 on our own 25 yard line, we start out in a trey wing nub formation with McMillan out wide to the field, Ja’lynn Polk at the #2 spot, Quentin Moore at the field wing, and Devin Culp at the boundary nub spot. Prior to the snap we motion McMillan inside to the #2 spot between Polk and Moore to give a more condensed formational look. The defense lines up in a tilted 2-high shell with the boundary safety just 8 yards off the LOS, indicating a post-snap rotation towards the boundary into a 1-high shell. They adjust to the motion by bailing their field CB into a deep alignment, tipping a Cover 3 look.
Regardless of the actual post-snap coverage, Penix had an answer because Grubb had dialed up a Dagger & Smash concept. Polk & McMillan are running the 1-high beating Dagger concept on the field side with McMillan bending his seam route into a post/deep crosser given the 1-high look. On the boundary side, Culp is running a corner route with Wayne running the play action fake into a swing route to give the high-low stretch to the boundary on the Smash concept that can punish a 2-high shell. We have no idea what the boundary safety was supposed to be doing on the play, but his aggressive first step downhill and the field safety’s rotation into the center of the field signaled to Penix that he should be looking to the Dagger.
In a more conventional Dagger concept, McMillan would be running straight up the seam against a 1-high shell in order to clear out the safety and make space for the deep dig underneath, and the seam would only get bent into a post if there’s a 2-high shell. However, Grubb blends the Smash and Dagger concepts by giving McMillan the option of breaking into a post if he thinks he can get across the safety’s face with a flatter angle that looks more like a crosser. By allowing McMillan to attack the cross-field deep third, McMillan, Culp, and Wayne create a 3-level vertical stretch (similar to a Sail concept) that still creates space for Polk’s deep dig.
This is a tough concept to block because of how long it takes for McMillan’s route to develop, so a lot of credit has to go to the protection. Up front, we have a play action protection that slides everyone to the boundary but pulls Luciano to the backside as a personal protector for Penix’s half-roll drop back. With an overhang defender to the field side of the box, keeping Moore in to block on the backside of the slide is a stroke of genius because if the overhang defender comes in on the blitz, the DE needs to cut inside of Moore where he has protection help and Luciano can earhole the poor blitzer coming off the edge. This sets up more advantageous blocking match ups, and the blocking action plays into the backfield play action to sell the run.
Here on the replay angle you can see just how much space Penix had to step up in the pocket if needed to. It’s excellent protection like this against a crafty defensive pressure package that is what helped our passing attack reach the heights that it has this year.
3rd and 3
Jumping over to the defensive side of the ball, we wanted to take a look at a couple of plays that show just how far this defense has come over the course of the year as they’ve gotten healthier, more accustomed to the scheme, and as the staff’s confidence has grown in the players. Despite the high score through the first three quarters, our defense was flying around and making the offense uncomfortable for most of the night, with the only significant gains coming on broken plays.
Here 3rd & 3, WSU comes out in a shotgun wide bunch set that we match with a 1-high shell. Unlike earlier in the season where we tried to play more passive match zone against bunch alignments to protect our depleted DBs, we are lined up in pure press-man coverage across the board. Now, nearly back to full strength, we aren’t going to hold anything back. We’re basically lining up and daring them to beat us man for man and letting our guys play fast and physical at the LOS without having to overthink any zone hand offs. Hampton and Perryman are both going to take on guys right at the LOS and let Turner take on any route that goes vertical.
With this aggressive coverage technique, its on the defensive front to generate quick pressure. At the snap we have our usual 6-man box against a 5-man blocking front, but instead of just bringing guys downhill, Inge & Morrell dial up a crossfire zone blitz to further confuse the offense. On this version of the crossfire blitz, both DTs are slanting across the OGs faces with the LBs blitzing up the middle against the center. In a man protection scheme like the one WSU is running here, if a DL crosses your face, that is your guy. This creates a wide open 2v1 situation in the middle of the line for the LBs. On crossfire, one LB (Tuputala here) is supposed to pin the center, and the other LB (Bright) loops around him into the open gap as a free rusher. The blitz gets executed to perfection and Bright is immediately in Ward’s face.
Now the second half of the zone blitz design is to eliminate any hot reads for the QB to dump off to against the free rusher over the middle. You can see that Ward recognizes the blitz immediately after the snap, but he has no where to go with the ball because we drop both EDGEs into the shallow zone as lurkers who only have to read the QBs eyes. They know they have man coverage on the back end, so they can play the ball/passing lanes aggressively without any specific coverage assignment. This wasn’t something that we did much early in the season, but it seems like the staff has much more confidence in big guys like Trice and Martin get involved in these tricky zone blitz packages.
Finally, while we have everything accounted for within the design of the play, Cam Ward is still a playmaker with his feet, but fortunately we are still ready for him when the play breaks down. Tuputala, as the LB with the pin assignment, doesn’t let his eyes drop off of Ward, and he plays with good technique by keeping the OL off of his body, thereby allowing him to disengage quickly after his job in the pressure is complete. He then acts as the QB spy, flowing to Ward’s scramble and tackling him short of the line to gain.
3rd and 8
Sticking with the defense, we wanted to pivot a little to showcase a play that is more of a coverage sack than a pure pressure package sack. The set up on this play is similar to the last play, except for WSU motioning into the bunch set instead of just lining up in the formation. On defense, the set up is similar as well. Our DBs are lined up on the LOS in tight press-man coverage alignments with Fabiculanan traveling with the motion man in a clear indication of man coverage. Up front we are running with our pressure-oriented dime personnel package (1 DL, 3 EDGES, 1 LB, 6 DBs) lined up in a bear front.
With that much pass rush horsepower working against just a 6-man protection, the rush was going to find a way to generate pressure, but there wasn’t a scheme advantage or numbers advantage here. Even after we bring Cook on a delayed blitz/spy assignment after the snap, we were still at best 6v6. What really made the difference was the sticky downfield man coverage that took away all of Ward’s quick options. The only route that may have gotten somewhat open was #12’s slant against Fabiculanan, but even then, it was so late breaking, that Ward was already getting swallowed up by the rush. In a situation primed for WSU to make a quick pass conversion, our coverage held up and we snuffed out yet another WSU possession.
1st and 10
Finally this week, we wanted to show one more play that puts the spot light on how much better our offensive line has gotten since last year with the help of better play calling and good coaching. On this play we see Wayne get the final back-breaking TD of the game on a simple zone slice run. As we’ve mentioned in past Film Studies, this run concept is not something new or innovative. This was a base run concept that was leaned on heavily under John Donovan to poor results. However, unlike last year, this play was run to great effect because of a more potent mix of formations and motion tags that set up our OL to succeed, as well as a more cohesive blocking front.
All season, we’ve leaned on the weakside inside zone as our bread and butter run play, and often times we’ve used window dressing like jet motion as a means of holding the backside contain defender. We’ve also run stretch zone or toss plays to the strong side of the formation when we use 2 TEs to the same side. We know that they’ve seen these plays in their game planning, and we know that they’d have an answer for them. The beauty of this play is that we are leaning into our tendencies as a disguise for our curveball.
First, before the play even starts, we set up the play with our formation. On this play, we are lined up in an ace wing singleback under center formation that puts both Culp and Moore on the field side of the formation. On zone slice, we need an auxiliary blocker (like an wing/H-back) to be off the LOS so that they have free movement to pull behind the formation on the kick out block. Typically, a wing/H-back would tip off the defense that the zone slice was in play, but our usage of these double TE looks on strong outside zone and weakside zone gives cover for Culp flexed off the LOS.
Second, we bring Odunze across the formation in jet motion towards the strong side. This catches the attention of the defense and gets them all thinking that this is weakside inside zone. Our RBs like to keep these runs in the play side A-gap or bend it back behind the TEs, so WSU tries to counter this by slanting their front towards the strong side to pinch the backside cutback lane and use the overhang defender with a scrape exchange as a free hitter on the play side to funnel the run back inside. However, because we are running zone slice to the strongside, the WSU front’s slant is actually aiding the OL’s goal of washing them down the LOS to open up the cutback lane. The scrape exchange also plays into our hand because it draws the backside LB out of his position and leaves a wide open rushing lane once Wayne hits the second level.
Finally, our offensive front absolutely crushed this zone blocking play. One thing that might not have been apparent on the broadcast angle, but is more noticeable on the replay angle, is how much the blockers trust each other to get their individual jobs done. Similar could be said about Wayne as well. His confidence in the OL, getting in rhythm with his blockers, and trusting that the creases would form, have all gotten better as the season progressed.
At the snap, Rosengarten can see both #80 and #1 (WSU’s two most aggressive defenders) coming in as potential free hitters on the play. An inexperienced OL, or one that doesn’t trust the blockers around him, might’ve tried to get a chip on #80, even though the zone blocking rules dictated that he release to pick off the scraping LB who would be in position to plug the cutback lane. Any hesitancy at the lane, and Rosengarten would’ve clogged the lane himself and forced Wayne into Henley’s pursuit. However, this OL has been working together so well down the stretch, and Rosengarten releases upfield to get just enough of a block on the LB that once Culp comes across the formation to kick out the DE, Wayne is off to the races.
Great play design, great execution upfront, and great running from Wayne.