The Washington Huskies got things going in 2022 with a spectacular offensive performance, scoring on their first six possessions, with five of those drives ending in touchdowns.
Kent State does not have a good defense, so we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. There are still questions about the running game. Also, we have seen what “Clean Pocket” Michael Penix, Jr. looks like, but there will be more pressure to deal with down the road.
Overall, you can’t help but get excited about Penix, and the offensive scheme in general. What stood out the most?
To the film:
4th and 1
First play up this week is from our first offensive possession. Grubb wanted to set the tone early with 3 consecutive runs by Wayne Taulapapa. Those runs netted us 9 yards, but the decent movement on the LOS showed enough promise to earn the offense the try at a 4th down conversion.
Coming out in a heavy 13 personnel pistol set, we get our first look at Grubb’s short yardage packages, as well as his approach to these situations. At TE we see Westover and Quentin Moore flanking the OL, and we have Devin Culp lined up at the H-back spot to the left of the formation. Odunze is lined up tight to the right of the formation, so pre-snap he has a number of ways he can be utilized to threaten the defense (ex. in & out breaking routes, work vertically, motion into the backfield, etc.). KSU matches this with a 5-man front and the remaining 6 defenders either in the box or aligned in tight overhang positions near the LOS.
Prior to the snap, we send Odunze in jet motion, and at the snap we can see that we’re running a heavy personnel version of the zone slice/split zone run concept with the OL zone blocking to the left and Culp coming across the formation to kick out the backside DE.
This play is a great example of how much better prepared the OL and TEs look this year, and how much better they are at adjusting to movement in the defensive front. As I mentioned, we sent Odunze in jet motion, which draws KSU’s safety (#24) across the formation to mirror the motion. KSU travels the safety instead of the CB to leave him in place as the overhang defender. However, right at the snap, #24 hunkers down in the middle of the field and we can see the play side OLB signal to the CB to his side to kick out to account for the motion and the OLB steps into the play side overhang defender alignment. Moore, who was rumored to have struggled with the new scheme during Spring Practices, identified this immediately, and he adjusted his blocking track to give a quick chip on the DE before kicking out the OLB as the new overhang defender. That chip block help from Moore helped Fautanu seal in the play side DE and open a gapping hole in the defensive front for Taulapapa to run through.
Theoretically, someone (probably #24) on the KSU defense should’ve replaced the OLB’s original gap assignment to prevent the long TD run, but Moore’s quick blocking adjustment ensured that there was at least enough room for Taulapapa to get the 1st down and possibly put a move on whoever was plugging the gap.
For what it’s worth, I love the use of the jet motion in one direction paired with the slice block from Culp working in the opposite direction. Even if it’s all just window dressing, it seems like the staff had prepared our players to look for specific reactions to the motion and taught them how to attack it. Something that seemed to be missing last year. I also like that Grubb dialed up a play that would test the DBs in their run fits. They usually don’t rep them as much as the front 6/7, and when you combine that with the jet motion curve ball, you can get a busted fit, like we see here, go for big yardage.
3rd and 9
On this play, we get to showcase more of the mental preparation strides from our OL, as well as some of the new pieces of our offense.
Facing a 3rd & 9 passing situation, we roll with our 11 personnel package in a 3x1 shotgun trips formation. From there, we motion Taulapapa out of the backfield out wide to the boundary side as the #1 receiver (first receiving threat from the sideline on that side) to create a 3x2 empty look. Before we dive into the play itself, I wanted to hit on Grubb’s creative use of formations, personnel, and motion. Grubb could’ve had the offense line up in this look from the get go, but instead he forces them to show how they’d adjust to the formation more clearly to Penix, and as we saw in the last play, there’s always a chance that they miss on one of their adjustments for a big play. In this case, KSU adjusts to Taulapapa’s motion by bumping their corner off of Odunze and onto Taulapapa, which would indicate some sort of man or match zone coverage with Odunze working against a more preferable match up.
Speaking of formations and match ups, we have Culp to the trips side of the formation as the #2 receiver. Often times, when TEs are detached from the line, you’ll see them aligned in the slot closest to the OL. However, in his #2 alignment and with Taulapapa starting in the backfield, Grubb is forcing the defense to tip their hand on how they are approaching the down and distance situation. If they walked their LB all the way outside the far hash to cover Culp, then Culp might have an easy receiving match up to throw against. It would also mean that there’s either a DB covering McMillan as the #3 who they could attack with a run play or another mismatch with an LB on McMillan. Either way, moving the TE farther away from the formation makes it harder for the defense to line up their players with neutral run/pass match ups.
Anyways, getting back to the actual play, KSU matches our post-motion formation with an LB (#10) out over Culp, 2 DBs over Taulapapa and Odunze, 2 safeties in a 2 deep shell, and 5 guys at the LOS as potential rushers. Penix and the OL see this front and know that they should be in the clear with 5 blockers against 5 immediate rush threats, so they call a man-to-man empty protection call that has them assigned to the rush threat covering them. However, Penix also sees that McMillan is uncovered in the slot, so the field side edge defender over Rosengarten is probably only feigning a rush threat and the DB over Odunze is starting to creep up to the LOS. It’s subtle, but you can actually see Penix look and point to Odunze’s DB prior to the snap to identify him as an extra rush threat.
At the snap, the field edge defender and the MLB do in fact bail into zone coverage, and Odunze’s DB comes downhill fast as the 4th rusher. The TV angle obscures the actual route combinations downfield, but you can see the boundary safety rotate hard over Odunze with the boundary CB and MLB covering the underneath zone beneath Odunze and Taulapapa. With all the bases covered for quick throws, Penix is forced to sit in the pocket and let things develop, which is exactly what the defense had hoped for with their zone blitz look. Fortunately, Penix had already identified the extra DB rush threat, and after neutralizing the initial rushers, Kalepo peeled off and laid a big hit on the DB. Even more impressively, Bainivalu also identified the zone blitz, and after the field edge bailed and the DT took an outside rush into Rosengarten, Bainivalu slid all the way over to the left side of the line to chip in to block the blitzing DB. Yet another great example of how much more prepared and aware our OL is on the field this year.
With all of WRs locked up deep downfield, and with the LBs bailing hard to stick with our WRs, there was plenty of space for Penix to scramble for the first down. While we’ve always had QBs who had the ability to move around in the pocket and sometimes gain a few yards (except for Eason), it was great to see Penix use his legs judiciously on this play after all other options were taken away. It was also nice to see him confidently take off once he made up his mind to run for the first down since he suffered a knee injury late in 2020, and it can take up to 2 full years to fully regain trust in the knee and shake off lingering pocket jitters associated with such a significant injury. We also don’t have much of a problem with the early slide. If he takes one more step, he probably takes a hit here.
1st and 10
Pump ’em if you got ‘em.
Penix is looking like the master of the pump fake; and not the kind most QBs do where it looks like a pump fake. Penix stares down receivers, subtly starts the throwing motion to that target, then comes off and hits the open man. In this case, the fake fools the corner and draws him up toward Jack Westover in the flat, leaving the corner route wide open.
Here we get an example of a version of the Smash concept that we saw a number of times from Grubb to attack KSU’s 2-deep shell. For those of you that aren’t familiar with the Smash concept, it’s a 2 route concept that creates a high-low conflict on the CB with a corner route and an underneath route, and it’s commonly used against 2-high shells. There are a number of ways to draw up Smash with different routes coming from different players, and this particular version was taught to me as Bench.
In this play, the offense lines up in a 2x2 shotgun formation with 11 personnel. As usual, Grubb put some window dressing on this formation with Westover starting out as the #1 to the bottom of the screen and Ja’lynn Polk inside as the #2. KSU matches with a CB in off coverage over Westover, a safety playing 12-yards deep over Polk, and an OLB splitting the OL and Polk. Westover is put in short motion pre-snap into the slot inside of Polk, and the defense adjusts by bumping the safety and CB in to now be inside Westover and over Polk respectively.
At the snap Westover and Polk break into their Bench-Smash routes. Westover runs a bench route (that’s why it’s called bench in some offenses) and Polk runs what I’ve been taught is a circle/box corner. The bench route is a version of a speed out that is run between 3-6 yards deep, and the circle/box corner is a version of the corner route that has the WR aggressively attack inside of the CB (almost at a 45-degree angle) to create space between himself and the boundary before pushing vertically into the break for the more familiar part of the corner route. It is specific to #1 receiver alignments. It is called the circle or box corner because on paper it looks more circular or boxy than the traditional corner route.
Between the bench route and the box corner, the two routes’ initial stems should show the appearance of a switch route in the first few yards. This is useful because the bench route holds the attention of the CB as he crosses his face underneath, and the box corner’s hard inside stem slows down the safety’s drop out towards the boundary and maintains Polk’s outside leverage on the safety for his later break towards the sideline. By the time Polk makes his break, he has an easy 5 yards of separation and 7 yards of space between him and the sideline for Penix to throw to for an easy pitch and catch.
I love Grubb’s selection of this version of Smash against KSU because of how these routes manipulate the safeties in their Quarters-heavy defense. Any coach can quickly identify a 2-high shell and dial up a generic hitch-corner Smash play, but the Bench version of Smash is particularly effective against a defense that might be in Quarters because the safeties are typically aligned farther inside and are responsible for vertical routes from the #2 WR. After the switch stem, Polk is effectively the #2 and is also showing a vertical stem, therefore becoming the safety’s assignment in man coverage. As such, the safety won’t try to gain outside leverage in case Polk breaks inside. By choosing Bench Smash against Quarters, Grubb schemed Polk an easier route to win on.
3rd and 4
Moving the spotlight away from the scheme and preparation and onto specific players, here we have a great play by Rome Odunze and an example of why he might be our next dominant WR on Montlake.
Facing a 3rd & 4 situation, we decide to go with a condensed bunch set with Odunze alone to the boundary as the X receiver. Knowing that KSU will want to bring pressure and play press to eliminate the underneath throws, the bunch seems like an easy way to create easy releases on quick routes. However, KSU matches with a 4-over-3 coverage look between the CB, nickel, safety, and OLB. To counter this, we motion Taulapapa out wide to the field to draw the CB out wide and create a 3-over-3 situation.
At the snap, both of KSU’s ILBs drop into the underneath zones and blanket the 3 routes out of the bunch, and because of the 6 immediate rush threats pre-snap, the boundary OLB comes unblocked against the OLs full line slide to the field. This plays right into their DC’s plan. The simulated pressure from the defense elicits a protection call that gives them a free rusher with only 4 rushers and enough guys in coverage to smother the bunch receivers.
This is where Odunze comes in. Despite being the only WR without schemed help to create separation, he is now the hot receiver that needs to get open immediately against press coverage. After a quick jab step outside, Odunze bursts through the jam to win inside leverage, opens his chest to create an easier target for Penix, secures the catch through contact, and accelerates upfield. Odunze seamlessly transitions from receiver to runner and breaks through 2 tackles and falls forward through a third for 8 extra yards after the catch. It’s that combination of individual receiving skills, playmaking ability, and chemistry with Penix that has him poised to be dominant force moving forward.
The eye manipulation from Penix is more difficult to observe on this play, but you can see the linebacker dropping into coverage slide in front of Westover, and then Penix’s head move left to Odunze. That tells us he was staring down Westover, but only as a decoy.
2nd and 10
Not to be overshadowed by his running mate, Jalen McMillan had quite the breakout game himself against KSU with the statistically more impressive performance. Here on the first of his 2 TD receptions, McMillan shows how his skill set could be utilized to produce dominant performances in his own right, while also providing the type of complementary play that will amplify the talent around him.
On this play, the offense is facing a 2nd & 10 situation deep in the red zone. After a few short runs earlier in the drive, Grubb decided to lean on the passing game to explosive results, and despite being inside the 15 yard line, we stick with it. Working out of an 11 personnel empty set that featured Will Nixon in yet another new alignment for a RB, Grubb goes back to the well with another Bench Smash call. This time he dials up a mirrored Bench Smash play with the outside 2 receivers on both sides of the formation running the concept against KSU’s familiar 3-3-5 2-high shell look.
McMillan is working from his new slot position as the #3 receiver to the field side, drawing the nickel as his primary defender. While the other 4 receivers are running the Bench Smash concepts, Grubb has McMillan run an out-and-up double move as the alert receiver against certain coverages. McMillan’s out-and-up is important here because KSU, wary of another big completion, rotates post-snap into a Cover 3 Cloud look with 5 defenders flooding the underneath zones. With two defenders blanketing each of the sidelines, McMillan’s route is the only option that wouldn’t require a miraculous throw and catch. McMillan sells the out convincingly enough that the field safety looks to help elsewhere, and he immediately looks for the ball after the second brake for the easy touchdown.
What McMillan brings to the table in this offense is a second player that can win without being schemed open by the concept. He had a fairly easy assignment on this play working towards the space between the safeties, but his skill set will come in handy against man-heavy defenses that will try to bracket Odunze on the perimeter and bring pressure. Working from the slot, it will be much more difficult for McMillan to draw double coverage, and his slippery route running should earn him loads of targets this season.
Overall, a really nice, clean game from the offensive unit. Penix looks very seasoned, and cool in the pocket. The wide receivers and tight ends ran outstanding routes all night, creating great separation. The pass protection was also outstanding.
Film Study Game balls, offense:
Michael Penix, Jr (#9)
Troy Fautanu (#55)