Kalen Deboer and company had an outstanding game plan, and the execution by the players shows that they are getting it done in practice every day. The use of auxiliary blockers on pass plays was really impressive. Michael Penix is the real deal. This really looks like a well coached football team, where opponent’s fans say (sadly) “We got outcoached.”
Let’s nit-pick: We would love to see a better 8-minute offense. Chris Petersen was the master of shortening the game by using the whole play clock and making sure all the plays have a high percentage of keeping the clock moving. DeBoer’s “semi-hurry-up-but-stand-there-for-20-seconds” approach seemed to take the offense out of rhythm, so why not just do a pseudo huddle and break for the LOS with 20 seconds on the clock, and snap it with 5. The four incompletions on three drives also cost them 40 seconds a pop. From the 10-minute mark of the 4th quarter, we’d estimate DeBoer gave MSU close to 4 minutes that Petersen would have evaporated.
The incompletions are probably less playcalling and more a bad choice by Penix, but there are safer throws to make. Penix may also need a lesson on how to recognize when the speed option is not going to work. Probably also should have checked out of the QB sneak on the second 4th and goal.
However, Penix’s coverage IDs and timing/footwork/mechanics etc. are elite right now.
To the Film:
4th and Goal
First up this week we have one of the Huskies’ failed goal line plays. For as explosive as we were on offense throughout the game, we weren’t able to hunker down and make all the plays we would hope to in short yardage situations.
Facing a 4th & goal from the 1.5-yardline, we line up in a strong Power I formation as if we were going to line up and attempt to outmuscle the defense at the LOS. Instead of a straight run play, we dialed up a weakside speed option look that we debuted last week against Portland State. As we broke down last week, the speed option concept is a good play in certain short yardage situations because it utilizes the QB option threat to gain a numbers advantage at the point of attack, and specifically in a flanking action away from where the defense might be focused.
There are a couple of key areas where this play went sideways. First, there are a couple of ways that you can block a speed option. You can have the OL down block (washing the defense away from the point of attack), or you can have them reach block (moving towards the point of attack to seal off defenders. On this play, we are trying to reach block the down DL to set up #10 as the read man on the speed option. For as good as Troy Fautanu was in pass protection all night, he totally whiffs his reach block on the DE. For whatever reason, he looks like he was anticipating that the DE was going to play him head up rather than crash inside. The danger with running the speed option from under center is that it makes the QB more susceptible to any penetration through the line than if he were running it from shotgun or pistol where there are a few yards of cushion. Since the DE crashes inside and gets penetration through the OL, he totally blows up this play.
Second, even with advantage of an option concept getting an “extra blocker”, Michigan State has more defenders at the pre-snap point of attack. Regardless of how the blocking turned out, the Spartans would’ve had enough defenders on the edge to account for both Penix and Davis.
The offense should’ve never run this play, and with 15 seconds left on the play clock, they had more than enough to time to make a check. This sort of goal line/red zone game planning will need to be a focus moving forward.
1st and 10
While the offense couldn’t execute on the goal line, we sure were fortunate that the defense could. Right after turning the ball over on downs, the defense was able to secure a massive momentum-shifting safety. This play early in the game was huge in setting the tone and announcing to everyone watching that this was not the same UW defense that got pushed around last year.
Backed up on their own 2-yard line, Michigan State lines up in an under center tight bunch formation with heavy personnel. All indications pre-snap are that MSU is going to run the ball, so we match with our heavy 3-4 personnel package. Schematically we’re showing a tilted 2-high shell with Kamren Fabiculanan playing from a shallower depth towards the field. One would think that playing a 2-high shell is taking bodies away from the run fit, but it's all about how you configure the coverage to support the run, and it's not always obvious pre-snap. KamFab is playing a shallower depth because he’s actually playing underneath coverage over the field side of the offensive formation, and that allows Julius Irvin to play as the force defender from his shallow depth. This has a ripple effect by allowing the rest of the defensive front to crash hard on the inside run and make a play in a few 1v1 situations.
The key 1v1 turned out to be Tuli Letuligasenoa. Tuli —in his more aggressive role in the new defensive scheme— is able to put the right guard on skates and blow up the play without ever touching the RB. Tuli pushes his man three-yards back, and right into the RB who is trying to make his cut; a cut he is forced to make two-yards deep into his own end zone because of the push generated by Tuli, Trice, and Ale. This is the most obvious example of how our new defense creates opportunities for the defensive front to play disruptively, and it is a good reminder that our talent at the LOS is much better than the previous scheme showed them to be.
1st and 10
Up next we are finally able to breakdown some of the offensive fireworks were this game’s notable takeaway, and we are also able to breakdown one of the key matchups that decided the game.
Playing from close to midfield in a 1st & 10 situation, Grubb felt aggressive against a defense that had already given up 14 points early, so he dials up a 989 concept that we actually broke down last week in film study. 989 is a 3-verts concept with two Go-routes on the perimeter and a slot post that can be sight adjusted depending on the coverage. It’s a versatile concept that is often used to attack defenses that like Quarters coverage and Cover 3 (like MSU). It’s tough to tell from the broadcast angle, but MSU is in a shallow 2-high shell at the snap, but they rotate post-snap into a 1-high shell with the boundary safety (top of the screen) rotating down into robber coverage against the slot post/crosser. Penix sees the safety rotation away from Polk and tosses a beautiful pass all the way across the field for a big completion.
The key to this play was actually the pass protection. MSU’s pass rush came into this game with some notoriety after torching their early season opponents, and while UW’s OL had done well against Kent State and Portland State, the young linemen hadn’t really been tested yet. How they fared against the defensive front, as well as how the staff would try to help them, would determine how the passing game would fare against a porous secondary.
Prior to the snap, Penix motions in Devin Culp from his slot alignment to add to the protection, but given at 989 is a 3 route concept, this motion and the 7-man protection was likely a part of the play call. Knowing that MSU was pressure-heavy in the defensive play calling, the extra protection makes a lot of sense on a shot play. What’s interesting though is how the staff had installed their 7-man protection, and how our auxiliary blockers are incorporated.
As you can see on the replay, there aren’t any checks or adjustments, and the pass protection ends up being what looks like a Big-on-Big call. This is a man-blocking protection that tries to keep the OL matched up on the DL and lets the RB sift through to pick up any extra blitzers. MSU likes the double-mug cross fire blitz that brings both LBs through the A-gap in crisscrossing tracks that is intended to shake one free up the middle, so it’s important to have a quality pass protector in the backfield. On the play, the right side of our OL gets tied up with the DT and one of the blitzing LBs, so Wayne Taulapapa had to step in and stone the other blitzer right up the middle. Blocking was always an added dimension to Wayne’s game that separated him in the deep RB room, and this play was a perfect example of why. It’s also worth noting that the staff trusted Culp in 1v1 pass protection against Jacoby Windmon (MSU’s star pass rusher). Culp hasn’t been known for his blocking, but he has an excellent rep on this play, and it’s encouraging that he’s earned the staff’s trust.
As always, pass protection is key to any big pass play, and this is a great play to highlight that its not just the OL that needs to get credit for quality pass protection.
4th and 5
Here on our last offensive play in this week’s film study we wanted to take a look at another one of the small things that contributed to the excellent performance of the offense. We’ve already talked about the blocking from the skill positions, but there was also Penix’s execution within the offense to maintain a high level of efficiency.
Here on this play, were facing a 4th & 5 situation well into Spartan territory. Our run game hadn’t been particularly explosive through this point of the game, so it was an obvious passing situation. MSU shows a 1-high shell with a man-blitz pressure look. Penix, seeing the coverage look immediately identifies McMillan on a quick out as his preferred match up. He drops back, hits the back of his drop, and rifles the pass to the field side numbers for what looks to be a routine first down conversion at face value. However, its Penix’s mastery of his reads and timing within the play that make this seem routine. If he wasn’t as confident in his coverage identification, he wouldn’t have thrown the ball a full three steps before McMillan broke on his route. If his mechanics and footwork weren’t dialed in, his timing would again be off from the of his receivers routes which wouldn’t maximize their separation. However, because both of those were dialed in, Penix was able to throw a pass only McMillan could grab at the exact moment that he would have maximum separation. Without these high-efficiency plays, we wouldn’t have the opportunities to make the explosive plays.
1st and 10
On the last play of this week’s film study we have another play where the defense gets burned by a mobile QB. However, this week’s play was a little different than in the past few weeks because of the progress that the defense made in maintaining contain. While it might not be obvious on the play because of the big yardage that Thorne gained on the scramble, this does represent a step in the right direction for the defense.
On this play, instead of letting Thorne get outside of the tackle box, we funneled him back inside. ZTF maintained his outside leverage on the rush and got the pressure. In theory, forcing Thorne back into the pocket should let others help in mop up duty, but the aggressive reactions from our ILBs in response to the play action got them into poor positions to make the tackle. In past weeks, QBs were flushed out of the pocket into open space, and that’s why we had so many long passes completed against us against KSU.
While we would want to get the QB on the ground, this is something that can be addressed within the scheme. Putting a spy on the QB while maintaining contain is something that we can adjust in the future in the hopes of limiting the QB run. In this case, not only did UW not “spy” the QB, the inside linebackers (Moll #9 in particular) turn their heads completely away from the QB. Mostly because they are lost.
Another test for this staff will be handling this success, and being just as laser-focused for a Stanford game. It’s Stanford. It’s David Shaw. His teams can always pose a problem, off-year or not.