Well what a difference a week can make. The Washington Huskies looked like they were still living in the moment from their big Border War win that they forgot they had an actual game this past Saturday. A bunch of turnovers and even more missed blocks and tackles brought the #5 team in the nation back down to Earth as they nearly suffered a monumental upset in true Pac-12 after dark fashion. Thankfully Arizona State won’t be joining us in the Big Ten conference. On the bright side, the defense was able to step out of the shadow of our electric offense that has been the center of attention all season to show the other side of the ball has played an integral part in the team’s success. Even the best teams have these days - a win is a win. At least the team looked sick in their new Husky Royalty jerseys with the purple helmets (but please do not wear them again for the sake of the bad juju it brought).
To the film.
1st Quarter - 11:27 - 3rd & 2
First play up this week is one from the first possession where it became evident that something was off with the offense. When watching the play live in the stands, it wasn’t immediately clear what happened on the play other than it being an uncharacteristically bad read/throw from Penix. However, when watching the broadcast and replay angles for Film Study, it became obvious that interior pressure, a major factor all game, was a key contributor to the outcome of this play.
Facing a 3rd & 2 deep in our own territory, Grubb dialed up a pass play that also seemed uncharacteristically straightforward. I think at this point, everyone’s expecting a 500-700 word explanation of how a unique formation or motion manipulates the opposing defense’s checks and pre-snap adjustments to set up an easy pitch and catch for a big play. Rewatching this play, I’m just not seeing too much of that. In my notes prepping for last week’s Defensive Preview, I had a note mentioning how ASU under DC Brian Ward (formerly of WSU) likes to disguise his coverage and pressure. Well, he did a good job with this one and was able to manipulate our play calling and checks. How the turn tables.
ASU likes to play a lot of single-high, press-man looks when bringing pressure, and on this play that’s exactly how they line up. Just before the snap they have no one deeper than eight yards off the line of scrimmage, the field side CB playing up on the line, and both LBs showing blitz in a MUG look. Based just on tendencies, I’d imagine that Grubb was expecting a man-blitz with pressure up the middle. It’s not an obvious passing situation, but with a possible interior blitz, it’d make more sense to go with a split field pass play that could give Penix a few options. That’s obviously an assumption as to Grubb’s logic, but it is what he ended up calling. Working out of a 2x2 shotgun formation with Johnson lined up to the boundary as the HB, Grubb calls a Double Post concept to the field as a potential man coverage beater, and he calls a Flood concept to the boundary as the zone coverage beater. As a bit of window dressing, we put Jack Westover in short motion to sell his Whip route.
At the snap, ASU bails out of their man-blitz look into a rush three, drop eight Cover 3 Sky (boundary safety rolls down to the flat) look. Based on the zone drop, Penix immediately looks to his zone-beating Flood concept to the boundary. A Flood concept is a three level perimeter passing concept that’s designed to “flood” the perimeter zones to one side. Typically, defenses will have at most a deep zone defender over the top and a flats zone defender underneath, so by sending three WRs running outbreaking routes to the short, intermediate, and deep portions of the perimeter, there should be at least one that’s open. On this play, we have Odunze running a deep Corner route, Westover running a Whip route, and Johnson running a swing route to create the three levels of the flood. Watching the broadcast angle above, you can see the three levels of the passing concept develop, but the depth and execution of the routes versus the down/distance and coverage doesn’t really leave Penix with many good options.
Odunze takes a really aggressive vertical release on his Corner route, which makes me think that his route is primarily to stretch the CB vertically to create space for the Whip route. The problem with the Whip Route is that Westover is running it directly into a dropping LB, so there is little separation gained out of his break for Penix to throw to. Finally, Johnson’s Swing route is an available option, but between the fact that he’s starting his route five yards behind the line with a safety barreling down on him and there’s two DL squeezing the passing lane, Penix doesn’t really have an obvious answer.
Speaking of the DL and the pressure, this was not a good rep by the offensive line. As I alluded to earlier, our OL did not do a good job handling the pressure looks that ASU threw at us all night. As you can see better on the replay angle above, we’re running a 5-man Scat protection (at least that’s what I know it as). Scat protection is a 5-man protection call that’s used when the RB gets a free release into a route out of the backfield. In a Scat protection call, the blocking assignments generally follow the (hopefully) familiar slide protection rules where one half of the line does a “zone” slide to to figure out their assignments, and the backside of the slide locks into man to man blocking assignments. However, in Scat protection, the guard to the RB’s side usually has a double read where if there is two potential rushers in his A & B gaps, then he defaults to blocking the A gap rusher with the other being the QB’s “hot” read.
In this case, Hatchett has the double read for the Scat protection between #22 in the A gap and #0 in the B gap. It’s tough to tell without slowing down the replay (if you’re watching on YouTube or something), rewatching the GIF a couple times, or are familiar with OL technique, but Hatchett does a decent job with his initial set. He has a short initial step with his right foot that doesn’t overcommit him in case #22 blitzes, and he keeps his head up and on a swivel to read the pressure. Where the wheels come off the wagon is his reaction to the non-blitz. Once he reads #22 dropping into coverage, Hatchett makes the fatal mistake of getting antsy and over compensating to stop #0’s rush. Instead of sitting back and keeping his feet under him to mirror the rush, Hatchett plants and tries to land a knock out punch to stonewall the defender. It’s a common mistake for inexperienced linemen, and it’s something that’s hard to coach out of their system without a lot of live reps. Having coached inexperienced linemen at the HS level, I’d argue that the teaching someone to remain under control while there’s a large human running full speed into you is one of the toughest things the do. It’s natural instinct to meet force with force, so it’s counter intuitive to think that you are better off being patient, giving up ground to maintain balance through contact, and eventually gain control of the defender to steer their momentum away from the QB. It’s something that Hatchett will need to do moving forward if he’s to improve his pass protection to a serviceable level.
With that out of the way, I did want to give another shout out to Parker Brailsford. With the other LB (#24) dropping into coverage, Brailsford didn’t have an assigned rusher to block. However, he kept his head on a swivel actively looking for someone to block, and his last minute block on #0 was the only thing that saved Penix from taking a huge shot. That being said, it was too little too late. The pocket was compromised, and without being able to step up into the pocket, Penix was forced into an errant pass downfield that ended up being picked off. There may not have been many good options, but I have confidence that Penix wouldn’t have made that read or delivered that inaccurate of a pass had he had enough time in the pocket.
3rd Quarter - 10:58 - 3rd & 11
You want to know why the coaching staff puts so much emphasis on our RBs being able to block? It’s because of plays like this one here. I apologize in advance if this starts to devolve into me nerding out about the more complicated aspects of pass protection.
Anyways, this play was more or less D.O.A., so I’m not even going to break down what the overall play call was. At a high level, we’re again facing a 3rd & long deep in our own territory, so it’s an obvious passing situation. ASU is again showing a MUG pressure look, but this time they have their DBs playing off coverage, which is typical of a true pressure look that we often run with our own defense. Against this, we have 11 personnel lined up in a 2x2 formation. Having already suffered through a full half of unrelenting pressure, Grubb calls a max protection look with Westover and Nixon both staying in to block for Penix.
Before we dive into this play, let’s take a step back to provide context for what I’m breaking down (in hindsight, I should’ve included this with the last play, but oh well). Just like there are mismatches between skill position players in coverage, there can be blocking mismatches as well. Fundamentally, pass protection schemes are designed to keep the OL blocking the DL if at all possible. This is known as “Big on Big” (BOB). The most basic blocking scheme (run or pass) is man blocking with BOB assignments. These are great if you have a linear rush patterns where there’s five or fewer defensive linemen who rush directly into the gap they’re lined up in. However, defenses rarely line up with five DL and rarely rush without some sort of slant or stunt.
To account for this, offenses developed slide protection rules to sort out blitzes and stunts. In slide protection, some or all of the OL slides in one direction and their blocking assignments are set on which defender is in their “zone”, just like zone run blocking. That zone is defined as a defender lined up directly in front of them (“head up”) or in their adjacent gap towards the slide. These rules are great because they provide the OL with the flexibility required to stay in sync with each other’s blocking assignments post-snap in the event that a stunt or blitz develops. If a rusher vacates your “zone”, then hand them off to the guy in the adjacent zone and look for someone else to block. The problem with slide protections are that they are easy for defenses to manipulate into creating advantageous blocking mismatches, like a DE on a RB. That’s why offensive lines often go with a combo blocking scheme where half the line is running a slide protection and the backside is locked into man blocking with BOB assignments (like the Scat protection mentioned in the last play).
To jump from Pass Protection 101 to Pass Protection 250, let’s add in extra blockers. More often than not, offenses will have an extra blocker stay in to block on anything other than a quick pass or screen. Usually that’s the RB, but it can also be a TE. RBs have more flexibility to plug gaps in the protection since they have a much wider reach along the front given their alignment in the backfield. TEs are a bit bigger than most RBs, so they’re a bit more matchup immune along the DL, but they can only shore up one edge of the blocking front based on where they are aligned in the formation. As far as blocking assignments, RBs and TEs are “bonus” blockers that get tagged onto whatever blocking call the OL makes. Typically, the RB would line up and block on the backside of the OL slide so that he can pick up any blitzing LBs (Big on Big & ‘Back on ‘Back). For the TE, he would just be considered an additional lineman in the slide or backside BOB blocking.
Now that you have better context for how blocking schemes work, let me repost the play here so you don’t have to scroll back and forth. On this play, ASU is showing 6 on the line in a MUG look and one DB lined up off the line but lurking near the box. Hypothetically, that leaves 7 potential rushers for our 7 blockers to take care of. Not too bad. Where the blocking scheme fails is in the match ups.
What we have called for the protection is a combo scheme where everyone from Brailsford to the right is in slide protection, and Kalepo, Fautanu, and Nixon are in BOB man blocking on the backside. This would be sufficient if all of ASU’s defenders rushed exactly where they were lined up, but they got more creative than that. ASU is running a well-disguised zone blitz on this play. Instead of rushing the 6 defenders on the line, they drop their field side DE and ILB into coverage and bring the backside ILB and lurking DB on the blitz. This causes issues on the backside of our OL because of the man blocking call. With the DE dropping into coverage, the field DT takes a wider angle drawing the attention of both Kalepo and Fautanu. Since they were in man blocking prior to the snap, Kalepo is locked in on the DT longer than he otherwise would be and ASU gets to preoccupy two blockers with one rusher.
Just to the inside of them, ASU brings the haymakers. The blitzing ILB shoots the field side A gap where the slide and the man blocking assignments meet. As is typical, Nixon as the blocking RB, is responsible for picking up blitzes through that gap so Brailsford can keep his focus towards the zone. However, the boundary DT also loops around Brailsford to attack the same A gap as the blitzing LB. Nixon, already overwhelmed by the blitzing LB, gets bull rushed towards Penix while also acting as a screen for the looping DT to run around to get free of Brailsford. That interior pressure completely threw off the timing of the play yet again, and there wasn’t much for Penix to do other than get rid of the ball. It’d be one thing if ASU had brought the house and we were overpowered by numbers, but this was bad execution at an individual level. Kalepo could’ve handed off the DT to Fautanu quicker to help Nixon with the interior pressure, Nixon needs to do a better job of squaring up and anchoring down on his blitzer, and I don’t even know what is going on to the field side but Westover could use some help.
Empty sets weren’t getting guys open fast enough, and max protection still wasn’t able to hold up against a well-designed blitz. More often than not, using the far extremes of blocking doesn’t necessarily help if you’re team isn’t used to it (we’re good at empty protection, less so in max protection), but at least we know we tried everything.
3rd Quarter - 1:40 - 1st & 10 & 1:02 - 1st & 10
Jumping over to the defensive side of things, I wanted to use these two plays from the third quarter to discuss our secondary play and our utilization of our safeties in both the run and pass defense. Our lead recruiting writer at UWDP, Aaron Sieverkropp, and I have had several conversations about our schemes and strategy regarding the secondary this season, and the ASU game might’ve changed my mind on this topic. In general, Aaron’s been an advocate for more aggressive secondary play with the thinking that tighter coverage and more aggressive schemes and techniques would help us get more stops than our current bend-but-don’t-break approach. While I’m generally in favor of more aggressive play calling, there’s a certain point at which that approach can present an unnecessary risk to the defense because of unsound schemes. In my opinion, we are already seeing significant improvement in our run and pass defense from last year with a more aggressive man coverage focused approach and seemingly a higher percentage of blitz calls this season. I am also cognizant of the specific challenges we’re facing at this point in the season. We are down several key starters or rotational players on both offense and defense, so the play calling and game plan may have been tweaked to accommodate new players. Additionally, every week’s game plan is tailored to the opponent we’re facing. ASU is not a juggernaut on offense, so there should’ve been a different approach to them than the previous week against Oregon.
Anyways, I wanted to focus on the secondary play being a tad too conservative for my liking. Here on 1st & 10, ASU is lined up in a 3x2 empty formation with our defense lined up in a single-high safety look that had all of our DBs backed up off the line except for the field CB. Prior to the snap, ASU motions their TE across the formation to create a 3x2 FIB (formation into boundary) look that draws Hampton out towards the boundary to create a 2-high shell. ASU had been doing really well all game in utilizing empty formations to create quick passing options for their QB. This made it really hard for us to get pressure and any negative plays against their offense. With that context, the only way for us to get their offense off schedule was through forcing early down incompletions and negative plays in the run game (more on that in a bit). That’s why I don’t get why we were playing such soft coverages with our safeties and DBs overall.
On this play, we were able to get a good jam on the WR1 to the boundary and inside-outside bracket coverage on the field slot receiver, so that was taken care of. However, on the boundary side, ASU was able to get all three of their receivers a free release off the line. We had the numbers advantage as far as having 4 over 3 coverage on the boundary side, but that really didn’t do us a lot of favors given their quick passing strategy. We deployed our four coverage defenders in a 2-over-2-under zone where ZTF and Eddie U were underneath and Hampton and Muhammad were playing Cover 4 technique over the top, so even if we had enough defenders to cover their receivers, we were playing in no man’s land. We wouldn’t have enough deep defenders to cover three vertical routes, and we wouldn’t have enough underneath defenders to cover three underneath routes like we saw on this play. Again, it’s a fundamentally sound coverage against a lot of concepts, but we weren’t putting our guys in a position to make impactful plays.
If ASU was intentionally using empty formations to create quick passing looks that would get the ball out of Bourget’s hands, then why wouldn’t we want to play coverages that take that away? We could’ve played a 1-over-3-under Cover 2-like coverage to the boundary so that we could at least have an underneath defender for every possible underneath route. Hampton playing Cover 2 technique doesn’t seem very aggressive, but it would’ve added more space for him to cover while allowing Muhammad to play underneath more aggressively, so relative to the Cover 4 that we did run, it is more aggressive. We could’ve also played man coverage with Eddie, Hampton, and Muhammad while letting ZTF be a lurker underneath for an opportunity to make a play on the ball. Either way, if ASU is so worried about staying on schedule and creating quick pass opportunities, we needed to do what we could to take that away within reason.
On this next play, our conservative secondary play hurt us in a different way, this time against the run. Here, ASU is running a toss concept that they must’ve run 4-5 times during the game out of the exact same look and with the exact same motion. ASU, after the motion, is lined up in a FIB look with with three blockers tight to the formation and their RB also towards the boundary. However, after the motion, we don’t flip the strength of our defensive alignment. Last year, when the offense would flip the strength of their formation, we would rotate our Husky back to a safety alignment and then rotate the farther safety down near the line. This time, we don’t make that adjustment. Instead, we are keeping both Hampton and Muhammad off the line and Powell stays near the line on the field side.
This alignment just doesn’t make sense relative to ASU’s tendencies. Why keep Powell on the field side when there’s only one receiver out there that Jackson is already covering? Maybe we were worried about a slant and wanted to keep someone to the inside to take away routes over the middle that they kept hitting. That’s fair enough, but then what is there to be gained by keeping Hampton 9 yards off the line? ASU hadn’t been hitting the deep ball on us, and we already have Fabiculanan playing deep center field coverage to help deep.
There are some coaches that subscribe to the thinking that single-high coverages are actually counter productive to the run and pass even though they get can get an extra body in the box. This is because more often than not, the deep safety isn’t in a position to influence the play at all because of his depth. I go back and forth on that line of thinking, but what I do believe in is putting all of your players in a position to influence the play at all times. Either Powell or Hampton needed to be aligned in a position to make a play on the ball, and the coaches simply didn’t put them in a position to succeed.
Awgs’ Bonus Play of the Week
No breakdown needed for Mishael Powell living every DB’s dream of having a pick-6 game winner. Congratulations on cementing your legacy as a Husky legend.
*Quick Note from Coach B - I’d like to apologize to Awgs for being the collateral damage resulting from my celebratory antics in the stands resulting from this play. Y’all can ask him for the story behind this side note.