The Washington Huskies were expected to get in an offensive fireworks show with the Texas Longhorns in the Alamo Bowl. Instead, both team’s defensive fronts were disruptive enough to make it a game Washington would need to grind out.
The UW defense was very good at slowing the run against Texas and their RPO-heavy attack. The pass rush was a force as it was all season, and coverage on the back end was better, but still not good.
Ryan Grubb went to his bag of tricks and decoys, and ultimately is was the UW rushing attack that won this game. The UW offensive line, tight ends, and receivers executed beautifully to create huge running lanes. While Penix’s accuracy was off, his timing and pocket awareness was fantastic. Grubb adjusted to what he saw from Texas in terms of Pete K’s scheme, and the skill level of their defensive front. The UW staff dialed up their usual formation shifts (and some new formations) to keep the Longhorns guessing.
To the film:
2nd and 6:
Kicking things off this week on Film Study we wanted to take a look at Wayne’s 42-yard TD run in the 1st quarter of the game. Many expected an offensive fireworks show heading into this game, but both staffs put together solid game plans that slowed the offenses enough for a more muted showing. Ryan Grubb came out with his guns blazing with an first play flea flicker and numerous deep shots, but it was a well-designed run scheme that really carried the offense. Throughout the season, we’ve been expecting Grubb to get the run game going against opponents with light defensive fronts and strong secondaries, but time and time again Grubb has stuck to the pass-heavy play calling that fueled Michael Penix’s record setting season. However, finally, against a supremely talented defensive front that we were almost certain that the offense would try to outflank with the passing game, we finally saw Grubb dig into his bag of tricks to get the run game going.
As we’ve learned this season, the trademarked feature of Grubb’s scheme is his use of formations to put his personnel in unique positions where we can bait defenses into unfamiliar adjustments. Rarely do we present a static formation that doesn’t make the defense second guess their alignment or assignment. Here on 2nd & 6 in plus territory, the offense lines up in a new split back shotgun formation featuring Giles Jackson in the backfield. Early in the season, we used a similar split back formation with 2 RBs in the backfield, and 11 personnel is our favorite personnel grouping, but we haven’t put a WR and an RB in the backfield at the same time. Jackson isn’t a blocking threat, but he has carried the ball at times and is a dangerous coverage mismatch against a LB. Because of the new formation and personnel alignment, Texas doesn’t have an easy key to identify run or pass. Jackson also has a 2-way go out of the backfield so, unless Texas plays man across the board, brings a DB into the box, and tips their overall coverage structure, the Longhorns have to play conservative zone coverage underneath that adjusts post-snap to Jackson’s release. Jackson’s versatility as a runner and receiver out of the backfield is the key to this play design.
We’re running a simple zone run to the boundary with slider action (looks like a slice block but releases to the flat) from Jackson. With just 6 blockers (5 OL plus Jackson as a hypothetical blocker), the offense doesn’t have enough players to match up against a 7-man box, but Jackson is able to influence multiple defenders. Since Jackson and Wayne both cross Penix’s face, the backside DE needs to slow his backside pursuit long enough to make sure he doesn’t break contain on Jackson if he is the ball carrier. Then there’s the field OLB; since Jackson is releasing to the field, the OLB needs to widen with him to maintain leverage on the route in case Penix pulls the ball and dumps it to Jackson. With both defenders preoccupied by Jackson’s run and pass threat, our OL gets a 5v5 blocking match up where a dominant double team from Luciano and Kirkland blows open a massive hole for Wayne to run through. The field DT actually does a really good job of anchoring against a double team from Rosengarten and Bainivalu, but Luciano and Kirkland’s double team is so dominant that Wayne has the space to make the MLB miss in the hole, and he’s off to the races.
Here on the replay angle you can see just how dominant the Luciano and Kirkland double team is, and you can also see just how much “gravity” Jackson has on the play. The “gravity” concept in basketball is where a dangerous long-range shooter can influence the defense by drawing out one or more defender to the perimeter even if they don’t have the ball, thereby creating advantageous match ups and space for the rest of the players to work. Jackson has that type of gravity by drawing the two aforementioned defenders, but you can also see the MLB make a false step to the backside in the direction of Jackson despite the rest of the blocking front moving towards the boundary. This puts him out of position to make a tackle on Wayne despite never really getting blocked effectively.
Grubb’s creative use of personnel in unusual alignments and assignments for Jackson forced Texas to overthink their own assignments and set up our OL and Wayne for a big play.
3rd and 1:
Switching to the other side of the ball, a pleasant surprise during the game was how effectively we stopped Texas’ rushing attack. Coming into the game, we already knew that the Longhorns were going to be without their top 2 running backs, but you don’t have over 2,400 team rushing yards with your top 3 running backs averaging over 6 yards per carry without a strong offensive line and sound run schemes. UW’s rushing defense was solid this season, and significantly better than 2021. However, we rarely made impact plays in run defense, and we tended to give up a bunch of short gains. Against a Texas attack that features tons of easy read RPOs, it was easy to assume that we’d get gashed in the passing game and then get gashed on the ground when we were forced to shore up the coverage.
That didn’t happen though. When working properly, our defense is predicated on our secondary playing aggressive man or man-style press coverage that eliminates the easy quick passing game and aggressive play in the defensive front once the easy options are eliminated. Our DL is supposed to shoot gaps and pursue the ball carriers aggressively on most plays, and we’re aiming to create chaos in the backfield. Against most opponents this season, we either weren’t playing tight enough coverage to give our front time to make their presence felt, or we were playing too conservative in coverage.
Drop back passing games and mobile QBs who could buy time for themselves regularly torched our defense, but Texas’ RPO heavy offense wasn’t built to take advantage of our defense. In an RPO or option-based offense, the offense wants a quick and clear read from the defense, and any hesitation can throw the timing off for the offense. With a young QB as their trigger man, Sark’s RPOs were designed to give easy access throws underneath or quick screen reads for the pass options. If the easy throw isn’t there, Ewers is supposed to default to a handoff. However, such quick reads really took the pressure off of our secondary who could bait Ewers into handoff reads, and it really eliminated the number of times our DBs felt the pressure to cover deep.
Here on a 3rd & short play, our defense is sticking with their aggressive M.O. We’re playing man across the board out of a 2-high shell against Texas’ 11 personnel. Prior to the snap, Texas motions the slot across the formation, and unlike in the past, our safeties do not rotate to match the motion. Instead Cook bumps over while approaching the LOS a little, not needing to worry about a deep route against the slot in a short yardage situation. This leaves Dom Hampton near the LOS on the strong side of the formation as the force defender.
Now the real key to this play is a run stunt that we run with Smalls and Tuitele on the front side of the run. For whatever reason, Texas’s RT doesn’t follow zone blocking rules to block Hampton, and instead he stays in to double team Tuitele, who is slanting across the RG’s face into the playside B-gap. Smalls cuts behind Tuitele into the vacated A-gap and makes the stop on the play. Even if the RT released to block Dom, we would’ve been gap sound with Turner still playing shallow over that side of the field, ready to clean up behind Hampton. It was never going to be a pass based on our CBs’ press alignment, so we could bust out all the tricks against the run game.
The replay angle gives us a much better idea of how Smalls’ subtle footwork and aggressive shooting of the gap. If our defense is going to take a step forward next year, we’re going to need to see aggressive plays like this behind the line more often.
2nd and 2:
Sticking with our focus on the run game, we have another nifty RPO concept that got Richard Newton rolling in the 2nd quarter. Here on 2nd & 2 we are lined up in a shotgun 2x2 spread set with 11 personnel. Texas matches our formation with a 4-man front backed up with 1 LB. Their SAM is lined up over Quentin Moore in the nearside slot and their WILL over Giles Jackson in the farside slot. Texas’s M.O. all year has been to lean on their talented defensive front to handle the run game with light numbers and commit bodies to maintain a +1 coverage advantage whenever/wherever possible. In this case, Texas is able to maintain a 3 over 2 advantage on both sides of the formation, and is gambling that their 5-man box will hold up long enough to let the safeties trigger downhill after the pass threat is mitigated.
With such a light box, Grubb dials up a simple RPO look that might be a pre-snap hand off read. Seeing that the Longhorns are playing with only one off-ball box defender, Grub calls a C/T Counter + WR screen RPO look. Counter is an excellent call against this front because our 2 pulling linemen create 2 extra gaps at the point of attack, and the defense is only able to flow one box defender to the point of attack to match. Realistically, the WR screen action is only there to occupy the coverage defenders for a split second, but as we see here, our WRs commanded tremendous respect from the Texas defenders and Newton was able to 5 yards before the non-box defenders were able to rally.
1st and 10:
Grubb wasn’t done unveiling other nifty run game tricks. Starting this possession deep in our own territory, Grubb broke out a new motion look to bolster our outside zone concept. Lined up in an pistol ace wing formation with 12 personnel, our formation doesn’t tip our hand for where the run is going. Texas knew to expect a run given our personnel and field position, so they are lined up in their 5-man bear front with 7 defenders in the box to match our 7 blockers, and even though they don’t have the number advantage against the run, they are sticking with their game plan where they’d rely on their talented front to win without numbers while keeping their safeties in a shallow 2-high shell where they can theoretically play both the run and pass reasonably effectively.
At this point in the game, and really at this point in the season, Wayne had found his rhythm in our zone run scheme. He was starting to read his blocks more effectively, and he was showing the one-cut running style that made him so effective in HS and at UVA. Grubb leaned into this by calling outside zone with a short motion from Jack Westover that catapults him to the play side edge. The defense reads the outside zone the entire way and the LBs aggressively flow to the play side edge to match Westover who is acting as a lead blocker on zone lead, but aggressive reactions to zone are what Wayne’s looking for. The key on an outside zone play is for the RB to press the edge and make the defense commit before cutting back. Between Wayne’s angle of attack and Westover’s motion-into-block, both LBs are completely committed to the edge before Wayne even gets the ball. Rosengarten has a killer seal block on the backside, and Luciano has a great combo block with Bainivalu where he smoothly hands off the DT and seals off the MLB downfield to spring Wayne for 13-yards.
2nd and Goal:
Sticking with the RPO theme but looking at a pass read, we have our last touchdown of the game to Jalen McMillan. Down in the red zone, we don’t have a ton of space to work our typical drop back passing game, but by leaning on the RPO, we’re able to manipulate the defense to get good looks. In a 2x2 formation with 11 personnel and with McMillan and Odunze stacked to the field, we are forcing the defense to make tough decisions. They can keep the field alley player wide to maintain 3 over 2 coverage, there by offering up a soft edge if we want to run to the field, or they can bring the alley player into the box and put their safety and CB in 1v1 vs one of our stacked WRs. Grubb then adds fuel to the fire by running a wide pin and pull run concept to the boundary that forces both LBs and the safety to flow with the run to match the two pullers. Penix already knows he has a good 1v1 match up with McMillan against the safety, so as long as the LBs flow with the run to open up the passing lane to McMillan, its almost a guaranteed TD. Similar to what our own safeties got burned on earlier in the season, a safety playing off coverage against a quick WR with a 2-way go is almost a sure fire win for the offense.
The defense flowed with the run, and McMillan was wide open.
Not to gloss over McMillan’s amazing snag, the replay angle really showed how tough of a catch he made on the play. Penix probably wishes he gave him a better shot, but with the alley player attacking the mesh point, Penix did his job and got the ball out to the right guy and on time.
2nd and 10:
Here on the last play for this season’s Film Study, we wanted to take a look at a defensive play that has a few pros and cons. The defense will be the focus of much of our attention over the off season, so it’s good to look for the things we can build on and the things we can focus on.
Here on 2nd & 10 on our own side of the field, Texas runs a 4 Verts concept out of a tight bunch shotgun set that motions the RB out wide to the field prior to the snap. We’re playing match zone under a 2-high shell that should’ve had adequate numbers to cover the concept without leaving players on islands with no safety help. However, where the coverage breaks down is before the snap. Much like Grubb’s offense, Sark was trying to use formations and motion to confuse the defense. Sark had already noticed earlier in the game that we weren’t rotating our safeties against motion like we were throughout the season, but instead we were bumping our LBs over to account for the change in the formation’s passing strength. The problem is that when we made the motion adjustment, Bruener and Eddie did not effectively communicate who had who. This was further compounded by the tight bunch formation where the three players in the bunch could have any number of switch releases in different directions. The chaos pre-snap ended up leaving the TE wide open in the middle of the field for a big play.
On the play, Powell actually played the go route on his side pretty well, but our coverage is only as strong as our weakest link, so we need to make sure that we shore up our on-field communication and really drill down all of our pre-snap checks and adjustments over the off season. It’s going to be year two with this defense. We’ve got the basics down. Now we get to see who is going to take the next step as our on-field coordinator that can keep guys in the right spots to make plays.