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Film Study: Portland State

Quick review of the Dawgs final tune-up game

NCAA Football: Portland St. at Washington Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

Two games in, and the read on the Washington Huskies is that they have handled the warmup, but what now?

Fans are excited about the look of the offense, and this week we will find out if Michael Penix Jr has the same mastery of this unit against upper Power 5 competition. If he does, it means he is getting his protection, and his receivers are winning like they have been.

Defense is a concern. Soft spots in our rotations against motion and some difficulty handling modern spread offense have been some underlying themes so far. Opposing offenses continue to manipulate our safeties using pre-snap motion to draw rotations and get isolated match ups or number advantages.

We have yet to figure out our preferred approach against dual threat QBs in spread offenses without losing our coverage integrity.

To the Film:


3rd and 10

Starting things off this week we get a great example of the Mesh Rail concept that is at the center of Grubb’s passing attack.

Mesh Rail is a version of the base Mesh concept that incorporates a rail/wheel route from the RB. What makes Mesh such a great concept is that it has answers to both man and zone coverage, it creates easy progression reads for the QB once he identifies the coverage, and in the Mesh Rail version, it leverages passing game match up advantages for the RB.

Facing a 3rd & 10 situation deep in the red zone, our offense sets up in a condensed 2x2 shotgun look with 11 personnel. As usual, Grubb incorporates some pre-snap movement and shifts into a 3x1 condensed bunch set that flips Jack Westover into the point of the bunch on the field side and moves Will Nixon into the boundary side of the backfield. Portland State reacts to this by travelling their safety to match Westover and bumping their MLB over to match Nixon’s new alignment. Everything so far indicates man coverage.

Anticipating man coverage, Penix’s eyes first go to Nixon. As one of our better receiving backs, Nixon will typically be an advantageous match up when facing man coverage from a MLB, but with #0 playing 7 yards off the ball, the angles just aren’t there for Penix. Next in his progression is Ja’lynn Polk coming on a drag route from the field side. This is actually where Penix goes with the ball for an easy pitch and catch for the TD, but its how Polk’s route interacts with the other three routes that really sets him up for success.

On the play, Westover looks to be running some sort of seam route from the tip of the bunch, but understanding that the defense is probably in man coverage, he doesn’t try all that hard to actually separate from his defender. Instead, he fights through press coverage and maintains tight inside leverage on his defender while carrying him up the seam to shield Polk’s developing route underneath. Same thing goes for Jalen McMillan and Giles Jackson. Running the typical zone beater hook-curl/sit route, McMillan knows he isn’t likely to get the ball against man coverage, so instead he works to get Polk separation on the drag by winning inside leverage on his defender and screening him off with his back.

Jackson knows that he needs to clear out the boundary flat defender. He turns on the jets to sell his drag route, but he also runs tight up against Polk and in the midst of the traffic he’s actually able to eliminate two defenders at once. This is where guys get often called for offensive PI or a “pick play.” Jackson sells some contact causing him to be bumped off his route and ends up clearing everything out.

Smart route running and coverage identification by all of the skill positions contributed to this quick developing play for the TD, and it’s a testament to how much more in-sync the offense looks under Grubb and Shephard.


2nd and 10

This play didn’t count because of a motion penalty on PSU, but we think you will understand why we are showing it anyway.

Some pretty bad reads from Asa and Cook jump out, but there’s a lot schematically wrong here.

Facing 2nd & 10, PSU comes out in an empty 3x2 shotgun set. We match their 11 personnel with our 4-1-6 dime package and a 2-high shell. With Dom Hampton and Kamren Fabiculanan lining up on opposite sides of the field against a 3x2 look, the conservative 2-high shell is an interesting call. Unless we were purposely disguising our coverage, our 2-high call is breaking the first rule of modern spread defense; always maintain the numerical advantage in space. We are playing 3v3 to the field in our initial alignment with one of the 3 DBs being Turner covering the #3 receiver to the field from 9 yards deep. Even prior to the motion, the even numbers and deep alignment from Turner is begging for a simple bubble screen to the field since its essentially a low-risk quick hitter that puts your receiver in a 1v1 situation in space. Alternatively, PSU could’ve feigned perimeter screens on both sides and ran a QB draw up the middle against a 5-man box with 5 blockers and a dual-threat QB (6-man box if Cook was playing the shallower alignment for quarters coverage). Long story short, we’re not fans of this alignment look against a dual-threat QB, but there aren’t a ton of choices for a defense facing a dual-threat QB in a spread attack.

But wait, it gets worse. Prior to the snap, PSU brings #13 in motion, which by now we should all know forces our defensive backfield to rotate to match. Then, they run a double pass play that first goes to the motion man on a bubble then to #8 who feigns a block on the perimeter before releasing downfield. The pass wasn’t perfect, but it was wide open for a big play. A couple things go wrong here. First, even with the rotation, Turner doesn’t tighten up his coverage alignment on the #3 receiver. This might be something that he was taught (better to play from depth than try to walk down then get run past maybe?), but it did leave the defense outnumbered 2v3 at the LOS on the perimeter and would’ve left a 5 yard gain on the table if the offense bailed on the double pass. Second, because we were never aligned to maintain the numbers advantage to the field, when Cook rotated over to the field safety alignment, he immediately had to come downhill to account for the bubble receiver. What’s the point of playing a 2-high shell if your safety has to break on anything that even resembles a quick screen? That puts KamFab in a bad position as the only deep safety while playing from an alignment on the short hash.

Again, there aren’t that many good answers against a dual-threat QB in a spread offense, and we were in a tough spot coverage-wise because we needed to keep Moll inside as a QB spy. However, we need to figure out how to isolate our schematic soft spots by being consistent in how we’re asking our DBs to play and not let one weak spot morph into multiple.


1st and 10

On a much more positive note, on this play we have an excellent TD play from Jalen McMillan for one of the most explosive plays we’ve seen in years.

In a 1st & 10 situation, we have McMillan lined up as the #2 receiver to the field in a condensed 3x1 wing trips set that also has Culp in the backfield as a wing/H-back. Portland matches all of this with a 1-high shell. Prior to the snap we motion Will Nixon out of the backfield to the #1 receiver spot to the field to create a 4x1 quads type of look, and PSU bumps out their field side defenders to match. This indicates some sort of zone coverage, but there’s some confusion in the coverage as their MLB #0 bumps out to cover McMillan while their safety frantically tries to figure out who he’s supposed to cover. We snap the ball while they are still sorting this out and run what looks like a 4 Verts concept with a switch release between Polk and McMillan. The switch further confuses the PSU defenders and McMillan is off to the races.

This is more of a coverage bust than anything else, but it’s still a good example of how good execution, light window dressing, and talented athletes can lead to big plays. Given how important motions are to Grubb’s offense, he must’ve known how PSU was going to react, and he was looking for that particular match up. Even if the MLB immediately chased McMillan, there was no way he was going to keep up, not to mention have no shot at slowing him down at the LOS due to the switch release.

Great call by Grubb.


1st and 10

Facing a 2-minute drill late in the 1st half we get to see another great play out of the Mesh Rail concept we discussed earlier. Running the concept out of a more spread out 2x2 shotgun formation, we again see Nixon run the rail route out of the backfield. However, this time we see McMillan on the drag to the boundary (the 2nd option after Nixon), Giles Jackson on the hook-curl/sit route (3rd option), and Culp on the drag to the field. The Defense is sitting in a 2-high shell that ends up being a soft spot-drop Cover 2 zone post-snap.

The boundary CB dropping into his zone immediately takes away the rail, so Penix moves on to McMillan. Culp’s drag doesn’t draw the boundary slot defender very far inside, and Penix knows that there’s room inside for Jackson. Giles does a good job of running his route up and over the boundary slot defender to get into his blind spot before sitting in the soft spot in the zone just past the line to gain. Penix rifles in the throw to Jackson for the first down, and Jackson shows off his short area shiftiness on the run after catch for an extra 10 yards.

The keys to this play were Penix moving quickly from his first read (boundary CB over Nixon) to his second (boundary slot defender), him getting the ball out on time and accurately to Jackson, and Jackson showing off his much improved route running and hands underneath to better showcase his obvious talent.


1st and Goal

Next up we get a chance to see a nice run game wrinkle that we hadn’t seen regularly since the Jake Browning days. Deep in the red zone on the 4-yard line, Grubb calls a speed option play to the boundary against PSU’s goal line defense for the TD. There’s nothing complicated or innovative about this particular play, but I love the call here in a short yardage situation after the defense has been drawn into selling out against the inside run.

Up until this point, we’ve been content with hammering the inside run game near the goal line with a power play sprinkled in earlier in the game. Those plays were reasonably effective, but PSU’s defense had been getting progressively more aggressive with their edge defenders against the run. Instead of setting a hard edge, they were attacking the backfield more, hunting for the TFL. Grubb, showing off his play calling flair and feel for the flow of the game, had the speed option counter punch ready.

The speed option is an option play that really doesn’t need a dynamic athlete to be effective in short yardage situations because in most cases its just an extended toss play that gets the RB the ball after winning the edge (the read defender on the play). If edge defender stays wide on the pitch, there will still be a nice crease for the QB to get the couple of yards needed. On this play, the OL blocks this up well with Fautanu and Kalepo executing a great double team on the DT up to the MLB that seals off the defense’ flow to the point of attack. Jackson also does a good job on the perimeter of selling the outside release and then converting it into a downfield block to let Nixon stroll into the endzone.


3rd and 8

On the last play for this week we have a play that looks ahead to our next opponent. Facing a 3rd & 8 passing situation we have a pretty standard offensive and defensive look that will likely be seen against Michigan State. PSU is in a split back 2x1 shotgun look with 20 personnel. Our defense matches with our base 4-2-5 personnel in a 2-high shell that feels prior to the snap like quarters coverage with a conservative safety alignment.

Portland state is running what’s popularly known as a “989” concept with max protection. 989 is a 3 receiver cousin to 4 Verts that pairs go routes on the perimeter with a post route from the slot (9-route, 8-route, 9-route). It’s a concept that’s made a comeback with the proliferation of Quarters defenses because it isolates the go route on the 2-receiver side in 1v1 coverage. In Quarters coverage, safeties are responsible for slot receivers when they go vertical, so the post route from the slot will draw the safety away from the boundary. On this play Turner is forced to drive on the post which leaves Irvin on an island against his WR.

The WR couldn’t stack Irvin, so Chachere throws the back shoulder hoping for a PI call at the minimum, but Irvin gets away with some physical coverage. Michigan state has a few big targets that they like to throw the back shoulder fade ball to, so our CBs will be tested next week. Coaches like Juice Brown likely already know this, and they’ve been preparing them for this look since the spring. In the coaches’ clinic, Brown discussed techniques that he learned and developed at Texas Tech to defend the back shoulder pass. TTU DBs faced a lot of back shoulder fades because of its popularity as a route adjustment in 4 Verts concepts that were a big part of the Big 12’s Air Raid offenses. It all starts with the eyes and how the DBs are taught to read the WRs’ stem. If the WR isn’t selling out to get vertical in their first couple of steps, then they aren’t going to beat a DB playing sound technique, even if they’re in a press alignment. Once the DB reads the stem, they can adjust how they play the DB’s hip pocket. He wasn’t able to run through every technique, but his approach to reading WR route stems and letting them determine how and when a DB opens his hips were all about eliminating the back shoulder pass.

Those techniques will get put to the test next week against the Spartans.