How are we doing Dawgs!? We are still absolutely elated from Saturday as it was easily the best UW game Coach & I have ever watched, let alone saw in person. Husky Stadium was totally packed and rocking for all four quarters. It was a roller coaster of emotions and that 4th Quarter probably aged us a couple of years. Nonetheless, your Washington Huskies withstood a barrage of 15 unanswered points before scoring the final go-ahead TD to secure a victory over the Oregon Ducks for a second consecutive year, and the first back-to-back win since the 2016/2017 seasons. It was an absolute classic of a game that lived up to the hyped and showed the nation that the Pac-12 and West Coast football deserves the spotlight. The crazy thing was that the team did not even play their best football yet.
To the film.
*Quick note from Coach B - My writing partner, Awgs, was still riding the high of the win when we were putting together this week’s Film Study, so we’ll be breaking in and out of the usual breakdown flow for a bit of colorful commentary.
1st Quarter - 10:56 - 1st & 10
First play up this week, we wanted to spotlight veteran WR Giles Jackson in his return from injury for his season debut. With injuries hampering Odunze and knocking McMillan and Bernard out of the game, Jackson stepped up in a huge way on a number of key plays. He’s always been a talented member of our WR corps, but when the the figurative lights shined brightest, he stepped up to the challenge.
Anyways, to kick off the scoring this past weekend, Grubb dialed up the first of several key shot plays built off of the screen game that we’ve expanded on this season. We start the play off in a 3x1 FIB (formation into boundary) bunch 11 personnel look. From there, we quickly motion Polk across the formation as the blocker for a fake WR screen to Rome out to the field. This motion into a balanced 2x2 look draws Oregon’s field safety out towards the field and draws the attention towards Rome. This is all part of Grubb’s usual M.O. to use the pre-snap window dressing and our own tendencies to bait the defense into favorable looks and tipping their hand.
Prior to the motion, Oregon matches our FIB bunch look with a 2-high shell and a MUG look up front. The basic rules of modern spread defense say that Oregon should have +1 coverage defenders to the field where there’s more space to cover, or they should be playing a man-blitz to get pressure on the QB. However, the FIB bunch formation breaks these rules and makes it hard to disguise the pressure or coverage because there’s only so many ways you can effectively defend the bunch. You can play 3 over 3 with 2 zone defenders playing Cover 4 technique over the top, you can play 3 over 3 with 1 playing Cover 3 technique, 2 underneath zone defenders, and a tight aligned middle field safety to protect against multiple vertical threats, or you can play 4 over 3, again with 2 zone defenders playing Cover 4 technique over the top. That might not have made any sense without me drawing something up, but just know that because Oregon started off with 2 deep DBs to the boundary, the offense knew they were probably playing Cover 4 techniques.
With Cover 4 in mind, Penix knows exactly when and where he needs to go with the ball. On the backside of the WR screen, Jackson and Westover are running a double post concept that’s design to feast on these Cover 4 Looks.
I must sound like a broken record at this point, but I’ll mention it again. Cover 4 effectively converts into 1v1 man coverage past 8-10 yards down field. The Double Post concept is great against this because the inside Post route (Westover) draws the safety down and away from the sideline, and the outside Post (Jackson) gets to work a 1v1 against a DB who is usually playing outside leverage and now has no inside safety help. As you can see easier from the replay angle, Jackson makes quick work of the CB, and its a surprisingly easy pitch and catch for Penix and Jackson. Great play to open his season.
1st Quarter - 0:55 - 1st & 10
Next play up we have a very different play design that again is attacking Oregon’s approach to defending FIB formations to set up favorable matchups in space for our talented WRs. This time its Ja’Lynn Polk.
On this play we are working a 1st & 10 situation from just outside the red zone. There’s plenty of vertical space, so our whole playbook is available. We line up in an empty 3x2 FIB formation with Polk and Jackson to the field in a stacked alignment. Typically, Grubb likes to use a more conventionally aligned 3x2 empty formation where his formational trick is placing the RB and TE on the perimeter to absorb the toughest coverage match ups, but this time he’s got something else up his sleeve.
Circling back to what I mentioned earlier regarding the basic rules for modern spread defense, you need to have a +1 coverage advantage on the field side to cover the extra space. Oregon, like Georgia’s defenses under Kirby Smart, has an additional wrinkle to this. They like to set their coverage to the passing strength, but they also like to maintain their +1 coverage numbers advantage to the field. Against an empty FIB look, this usually means that they will keep 4 coverage defenders over the trips/boundary side and 3 over the stack/field side, especially if they want to run a 2-high look as they did often against our pass-heavy offense.
Now this alignment doesn’t indicate a specific coverage, and each team approaches things differently. You can have a pure zone, man underneath with a safety over the top in deep zone coverage, or you can have a mix of zone and man underneath. For Oregon, they have some pretty talented press-man CBs, so they like to isolate their CBs in man coverage and let the rest of the DBs play zone with their +1 coverage number advantages. Grubb & Penix likely knew this and used it to their advantage on this play.
As you can see better from the replay angle, Grubb dials up a split-field call. We’re running Levels (in-breaking dig routes at different levels to create Hi-Lo reads) to the boundary and a Hitch-Fade Smash concept (another Hi-Lo read but with a man coverage beating Fade route) to the field. Because Grubb knew Oregon likes to play man coverage with their CBs against these types of unconventional FIB formations, and that most defenses are trained to ignore the man portion of the hybrid man/zone coverages, Grubb was able to use formations and alignments to essentially design a 1v1 fade route in wide open space to the field against a 2-high look.
To take things one step further, Grubb does a phenomenal job of setting up his preferred match up with the stack alignment. Anticipating that Oregon was going to play man coverage on the perimeter against this look, he puts Polk on the LOS in the stacked alignment. If you’re going to play man coverage on an island, you’re probably going to want to play press or bail technique, and the only way to do that is by playing up in that WR’s face. If you only have one WR on the LOS for you to do that against, it makes it pretty easy for the offense to dictate that man coverage match up.
On last note on this play, Polk is playing against Oregon’s top CB Khyree Jackson, who simply gets beat for the long TD. For all of the schematic support that Grubb designed on this play to set up the 1v1, this was still a 1v1. Polk flat out beat his guy. It’s been a while since we had the type of talent across the board on both sides of the ball that we could be confident in to make that type of play. I’ll circle back to that in a minute.
*Another quick note from Coach B - Awgs left me a note in the outline here: “don’t forget to give my shoutout of calling out the play 5 secs before it was snapped lol.” Well, I suppose if you shoot enough shots, one’s bound to go in, am I right?
3rd Quarter - 3:36 - 4th & 3
Jumping over to the other side of the ball, the box score was not indicative of the true performance of these two units (Oregon offense & UW defense), at least in my opinion. Oregon’s offense had better basic per-play passing efficiency stats, rushing efficiency stats, and raw counting stats than our offense, and you couldn’t really look at our defense’s box stats lacking a forced turnover, poor down-to-down yardage averages, and only 4 TFLs and say that we played particularly well. However, in a close game like we saw, the difference in outcome comes from the margins where the defense forces the offense to execute over a stretch where per-play averages go out the window. On the three game-deciding Oregon 4th down attempts, and we’ll get to all of them in short order, our defense was able to come away with the stops we needed in part because of our own game planning matching the situation, partially due to our better execution of the play, and partially due to Oregon’s own questionable play calling/execution.
On this particular 4th down stop from late the 3rd quarter, Oregon is inside our own 10-yard line, down 11 points, and needs to cut the deficit. From a game management perspective, the decision to go for it was probably the easiest for the typically aggressive Lanning. A field goal is almost guaranteed points that would cut the margin to just one possession, but its also later in the game and possessions were going to come at a premium. If they kicked the FG here, they’d still need a TD and 2-point conversion to tie the game, as well as hold our offense to no points, which they hadn’t done outside of the first possession and a relatively fluky interception where Odunze slipped on his route. Additionally, the downside risk was relatively limited given that the field position would’ve left UW with an extremely long field to march down to be in scoring position. I just made sense to go for it.
The problem for the Ducks on this play came after the decision to go for it. Between the play call and the execution, Oregon just didn’t step up to cash in on the gamble. On this play, they line up in an empty 4x1 shotgun formation with a slot bunch to the field side and an isolated receiver also to the field off the screen. Very similar to the TD play to Polk that I just broke down, Oregon OC Will Stein is trying to use formations and alignment to set up an isolated 1v1 match up for Troy Franklin to the boundary. 4x1 looks are extremely hard for a defense to adjust to because it requires five defenders over the field side in order to maintain the +1 coverage numbers, and that usually means taking 2-high coverages off the table or mixing in some man coverage. Our defense responds to the formation with a 2-high shell, a 5-man bear front, and 3 over 3 coverage on the bunch. All signs are pointing to some sort of man blitz, but the two safeties are aligned in a way where it’s not obvious if this is a disguised coverage. Tuputala could drop into coverage from the edge where there’s a 4 over 3 on the bunch with Powell, lined up as the field safety, playing deep half coverage over the top. The defensive front forces Nix to anticipate the worst case blitz scenario, and the muddied coverage look forces him to make a pre-snap decision to ignore the route combination coming from the bunch and solely focus on Franklin (#11 to the boundary) as his primary read.
At the snap, Franklin runs a quick hitch/comeback and the bunch WRs run a trailing Slant concept (one slant first, with another timed to go behind for a horizontal stretch read). Against this, our defense is running a variation of our zone blitz package where, as usual, we’re dropping our boundary edge rusher into the flat zone to squeeze passing lanes/undercut routes, and we’re bringing a Tuputala on a blitz off the field edge. It’s a great defensive call on the pressure that caters to what we’re doing in coverage to account for the 4x1 look. We’re playing man coverage across the board with Hampton leaning his single-high coverage heavily in favor of Franklin in the iso and Trice dropping back to wall off a potential in-breaking route, so there isn’t any coverage help in the underneath zone or out to the field for our four guys in man coverage. What helps them on this is a very conservative and well-designed rush that slants our DTs towards the field and Tuputala playing a shallow rush lane to clog the passing lanes towards the field. That rush design, along with the aforementioned murky coverage picture to the field, is designed to funnel Nix’s attention back towards the boundary where his only immediate options are an outside pass to Franklin against tight man coverage or to scramble into Trice and Hampton who take initial steps post-snap that indicate that they are waiting pounce on a QB run to their side (like last season’s game deciding 4th down stop from Alex Cook).
Nix pulls the trigger on the hitch/comeback to Franklin and does a decent job of placing the ball outside and low away from potential danger. However, by erring on the side of caution, despite it being 4th down anyways, he makes an already difficult timing route for Franklin even more difficult. Elijah Jackson makes a great break on the ball, and while I don’t think he gets his hand on the ball, he does an awesome job of contesting the catch and playing physically against Oregon’s #1 WR. Oregon did everything possible to set up a favorable situation for their star QB and best playmaker and our guys stepped up and out executed them. Plain and simple.
2nd Quarter - 0:06 - 4th & Goal | 4th Quarter - 2:16 - 4th & 3
Finally this week, we wanted to take a look at Oregon’s other two failed 4th down attempts. We’re grouping the two plays together despite different game management situations because, in essence, they are the same play. The two main points I wanted to make about these plays are again with regards to game management from a coach’s decision making perspective and situational play calling.
On the play above, Oregon is in prime scoring position at the very end of the first half. The ball is on the UW 3-yard line, and with 6 seconds left and goal to go, there’s really only one play remaining. Down four points, it’s a tight one possession game, but it’s only halfway through the game. In general, I have a very aggressive decision making philosophy in situations like this (Awgs and the rest of my gameday group can attest to it), but in my opinion, there’s more than just the additional points to consider. From what I’ve learned in my time coaching, you have to consider a number of factors: Is the game close where leaving points on the table will take me out of winning position? Is my team more or less talented than the opponent where I need to take additional risks to gain an advantage? Am I going to set my defense up for failure if we don’t get the 1st down/TD? Will I be significantly improving/reducing my options moving forward? What is my team’s identity/how will they respond to this decision?
That’s a lot of things to consider in a matter of seconds, but in this particular situation, its so early in the game that it really boils down to questions about upside/downside and the team’s identity. 3-5 additional points would be big in a four point game, but with the ball going back to Oregon after halftime anyways, even the likely best case scenario of a TD before and after HT would only put Oregon up 10 points before UW got the ball back. The downside to failing on this 4th down conversion is you are only playing for a three point lead after HT, and because this is right before halftime, Oregon wouldn’t be able to potentially capitalize on future field position if they stopped us deep in our own territory. They’ve fought their way deep into our own territory. They might as well cash in on it and still play for a significant one-score lead after HT.
The other point I wanted to make on these two plays was on Oregon’s specific play calls once they decided to go for it on 4th down. The decision to call Sprint Out concepts was baffling in the moment and even more so when I watched the tape. In these types of high-leverage situations, you want to do everything you can to scheme up advantages and set up your best players to capitalize on your greatest strengths. I wouldn’t say Oregon did that with these two Sprint Outs.
In my experience, Sprint Out concepts are used by offenses to neutralize an aggressive pass rush that you can’t block and to break down a coverage structure that your receivers can’t create separation against. Unlike a Bootleg concept, there’s no schematic misdirection or play action involved, and more often than not, the play structure quickly devolves into a one-route-and-run type of decision making process for the QB. On top of that, you’re breaking down your own protection structure and forcing the QB to make a pass, likely under pressure, on the move without the ability to use perfect technique. When you have a highly touted OL and rushing attack, multiple talented receiving threats, and an experienced QB, why would you choose to limit your own post-snap options like that? Not only that, but why would you make the same decision twice? The only reasonable answers are that the alleged paper advantages/strengths you have at OL, RB, WR, or QB aren’t playing out on the field or your play caller just isn’t taking advantage of those strengths and is performing coaching malpractice.
This last 4th down attempt is similarly baffling on the play call, but the decision to go for it made a lot more sense to me. Oregon was in a 4th and short/manageable and in my version of “No Man’s Land”. It’s too far to attempt a FG, but you’re also not gaining a ton of field position by punting the ball. What I consider No Man’s Land and what others consider their No Man’s Land can vary drastically. It’s likely that Oregon has a punter who could’ve pinned us inside our 15 and almost guaranteed inside our 25. However, with no timeouts left, an Oregon 1st down would’ve basically sealed the victory for them, and a failed attempt would’ve still put our backs against the wall (and clock) with a defense that had held us to zero points on the previous three possessions.
Again from an offensive play calling perspective, this call made no sense, but that’s not to say we weren’t prepared for it. Our heavy reliance on man coverage this season put us in a good position to lock down every receiver to the Sprint Out side of the play. Even if we didn’t have the tightest coverage here, Sprint Outs are designed to breakdown coverage structures, and the easiest way to give up a big play on a Sprint Out is simply forgetting to cover someone because you were in zone coverage. With our man coverage, we were never in that position, and Nix never had the opportunity to float a pass to a wide open WR. The pass sailed on him anyways, but it’s a lot easier to complete those sorts of throws on the run when you don’t have to worry about coverage defenders.
In the end, these high pressure situations were as much about our defense playing well as it was Oregon making bone headed game management and play calling decisions. As I said earlier, in a close, instant classic type of game like the one on Saturday, its those marginal differences on the periphery that make all the difference.
Awgs’ Bonus Play(s) of the Week
For a game as special and electric as this one, we had to have more than one bonus play this week. Shoutout Mishael Powell for absolutely setting the tone early by laying the boom and Rome proving he is HIM with the game winning touchdown to show the Oregon who runs the PNW.
*Note from Coach B - Again, Awgs was feeling a little frisky when he was writing this part.
*Note from Coach B - Anyways, since we’re doing the whole side note thing, I’d also like to point out that on Rome’s TD, the play was a called RB swing screen to the field. Rome was NOT the primary read, but the killer instinct in Penix decided to go for the kill shot and, yet again, Rome simply overmatched his CB. This is the sort of game breaking talent advantage that can carry a special team far.
How often do Husky fans think about the Rome empire? Every dang day.
Lastly we of course need to give Michael Penix Jr. his flowers for toughing out the cramps and continuing to let it fly. This was your Heisman moment young man.