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Film Study: Arizona Wildcats

The Dawgs needed to go back to a play from the 1950s to avoid a #Pac12AfterDark upset in the Desert

Washington v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Another year, another round of UW having all they can handle against a team from Arizona. It wouldn’t feel like the last year of the Pac-12 without it. Luckily, the Huskies remained undefeated with a 31-24 victory over the Wildcats. This game featured Heisman hopeful Michael Penix Jr. throwing for 0 TDs for just the second time in his UW career (first time coincidentally came vs Arizona State last fall). Let’s chalk this one up as a scheduled wake up call with Oregon coming into town after the bye week.

To the Film.

1st Quarter - 3:18 - 2nd & 10

First play up this week we have another creative screen design from Coach Grubb to build off of the screen game we established over the last few weeks. To date, we’ve largely been using the screen game as an extension of the run game and as a means to manufacture touches for our WRs. However, against Arizona we also wanted to take advantage of their aggressive defensive fronts and pressure packages.

Similar to the screen we broke down in last week’s Film Study, this play on 2nd & 10 is another Tunnel Screen concept, but this time its out of a 12 personnel pistol formation with play action. As with every Grubb play design, the formation and action are all very intentional. Arizona’s M.O. is to play a lot of single-high coverage looks, load up the box, and let their LBs play downhill as much as possible. A “slow” screen is a perfect counter to that, but we want to encourage those tendencies as much as possible to use that momentum against them. The 12 personnel pistol formation we are running is good bait to Arizona since we rarely run a straight drop back passing concept out of pistol, and 12 personnel is our change up personnel group that leans a bit heavier towards the run in our play calling tendencies. As designed, this draws Arizona into a single-high coverage shell with seven in the box and all eyes in the backfield.

The second key to this play design is the use of play action to draw eyes away from the point of attack and isolate the screen action. On the play we broke down last week, Grubb used Out motion on the far side of the play to clear out the box for a Mid Screen. On this play, we’re using hard play action (Penix actually turning his back for the pistol hand off instead of riding the mesh point with his eyes to the defense) to draw the attention of the defense towards the boundary. Hard play action is significantly more influential to a defense because they can’t see the ball while Penix’s back is turned to them, where as on a mesh point hand off (like on a shotgun hand off), the defense can see the ball the whole time. This action, paired with an initial Outside Zone blocking look, draws all seven defenders in the box, plus the field side slot defender, towards the boundary and up towards the LOS to create a widened lane in the field alley to set up Rome’s screen.

The final detail to set up the play, and the one I was most impressed with, was the blocking angles that were set up by Rome’s route prior to receiving the pass. On Tunnel Screen, you usually want the WR that’s getting the ball to push vertically before coming back to the ball so that the CB is playing on his heels and can’t just break on the pass. However, Arizona’s game plan was to keep their CBs in off coverage to stop the deep play, so Rome didn’t need to push him vertically with his initial route fake. Instead, we have Rome run a fake Arrow route into the flat to widen out the CB. This route still forces the CB (who is playing zone with his hips open to the backfield) to play off his heels, but it also sets up an easier blocking angle for Polk and further widens Rome’s running lane between the box and the CB.

All of these little details work to perfection and gets us a solid 12 yard gain, and the only piece that stops this from becoming a house call was Kalepo playing his blocking angle on the safety ever so slightly too flat. If he had gotten his block on the safety a split second earlier, Rome probably could’ve turned on the burners to split the gap between Polk’s block and Kalepo’s block with nothing but green grass in front of him. Regardless, it was a successful play with a couple of cool details that made all the difference.

2nd Quarter - 3:37 - 2nd & Goal & 3rd Quarter - 6:49 - 1st & Goal

This week, not once, but twice did we score on a throwback play that may not have been run at UW since the Owens era (don’t fact check me on that). Seriously though, this play, which I’m pretty sure is some sort of Wing T Buck Sweep with fake backside Load Option action, is straight out of the 1970s. Old school formations like the Wing T, the T formation, the Power I, and Wishbone have made a few cameos as short yardage change up packages at the FBS and NFL levels over the last few years as these option-based formations have died off and modern defenses have forgotten how to defend them.

On this Nixon TD run, as well as the identical play running the opposite direction for Dillon Johnson’s run in the 3rd quarter, Coach Grubb is going all in on misdirection and eye candy to win at the point of attack. At it’s core, this play is a Toss Buck Sweep (a Wing T classic) with both Guards pulling to the play side edge and everyone else down blocking. Like all pulling plays, the key to success lies in restricting the second level defenders from flowing to the point of attack and figuring out how to best set up blocking match ups. On this play there are seven defenders on the LOS and four defenders at the second level who could flow to meet our two pulling OGs at the point of attack. With Odunze, Polk, and Penix all rolling to the left side of the formation, the two backside defenders are forced to hesitate in backside contain for a split second to make sure that Penix or one of the WRs didn’t get the ball. By the time they confirm that, Nixon and the Guards are nearly at the point of attack.

Two items worth mentioning on Nixon’s TD run. First, we have to give a shout out to Culp for his reach block at the point of attack. His 3rd down circus catch later in the game will go on the highlight reel, but his block on this play was phenomenal. He had a tough blocking angle against a LB with outside leverage on him, but he made good contact, kept his feet moving, and worked his hips around the edge to set the inside edge of Nixon’s rushing lane.

Second note on this play, Nixon had a great read on this play. Even with all of the backfield eye candy, against Arizona’s short yardage front, this play wasn’t designed to actually win with numbers at the point of attack. If you count the defenders to the play side prior to the snap, our blocking scheme is actually playing 5v6 at the point of attack (Bernard, Culp, Rosengarten, Hatchett, and Kalepo on the pulling action). The DT over Hatchett was never actually designed to be blocked. Instead, Nixon has to read the crease behind his pulling Guards, make his cut, and turn on the burners to avoid getting tackled in the backfield by the DT. Great play by Nixon.

The second TD from Dillon Johnson off of this look was much easier to block, even with similar defensive numbers on the play side, for two reasons. First, instead of having the play side DT over the pulling Guard, the DT is over Fautanu. This means there was no immediate threat of backfield penetration from the vacated gap left by Kalepo. Second, the backfield action actually worked better to draw in the LB to the backside of the play on the second time we ran this design. Arizona lined up with three off-ball LBs either head up or to the play side of the center, and the backfield action drew two of them. Instead of being 5v6, we were playing 5v5, and if it weren’t for a heads up play by Westover to release his block at the last second to avoid a holding penalty, Johnson would’ve walked into the end zone untouched.

I’d be interested to see how Grubb builds off of this look down the line. I’m certain he has a few other plays in the playbook that build off of this action, and I’m looking at Polk in particular. On both plays he’s cutting behind the line from the play side to the backside while not really influencing the second level defenders and not making any meaningful block. I would’ve thought he might be there to hit an unblocked DT (like on Nixon’s TD) with a Wham block to mitigate the risk of a TFL, but that was never in his assignment.

3rd Quarter - 2:24 - 3rd & 3

The hype surrounding our offense and Penix’s Heisman campaign is largely attributable to our explosive vertical passing game, but do you know what is almost more impressive and what will carry us further this season than those bombs over the top? Quick pass hot reads like this one from Penix to Culp.

Here in a 3rd & short situation, we initially set up in a 2x2 shotgun formation with 12 personnel. Westover to the field side is lined up in a wing alignment attached to the formation and Culp is in the Y-TE alignment to the boundary. Against this, Arizona lines up in a two-high shell with the field CB indicating zone coverage with his hips opened towards the formation and eyes in the backfield. Pre-snap, we motion Polk over to the field side slot and see the safeties rotate to match numbers to the field, and the field CB changes up his technique to indicate man coverage. I suspect that the staff identified in the game prep that one of Arizona’s motion adjustments against 3x1 formations was a MEG call (Man Everywhere he Goes) on the field WR1 and a safety rotation. It’s a common adjustment for zone-based coverages against 3x1 formations that our defense uses as well to mitigate the overall number of coverage adjustments necessary to match motion. What does all of this mean? It means that Penix likely knew from the defense’s reaction to the motion that he was facing a Cover 3 look given the single-high safety and zone coverage outside of the field CB. That’s a lot to process in a couple of seconds, but that’s only half of what makes Penix processes on this play.

The other half of the equation is understanding when and where to go with the ball once you’ve figured out the basics of the defensive call. Against this likely Cover 3 call, we’re running a variation of the Mesh concept. Culp and Westover are running the two two drag routes, Polk has the hook curl over the middle, and Johnson is running an arrow route into the flat. Rome, being the guy being covered in man, is basically just running a clear out go route to open up space for the rest of the play. On a Mesh concept against zone coverage, the progression can be as simple as which of the two drag routes has more space to run into, if neither, then the hook curl should be open.

While the read may be simple in theory, the impressive part about this play is that Penix is working under duress to make the right read and delivering an accurate pass. As you can see a lot better on the replay angle, with five routes being run, we are running a 5-man protection. This specific call is a standard half line slide protection to the boundary. This means that the boundary half of the OL will set their blocking assignment to be anyone head up (in front of them) or in the gap to the boundary side of them, similar to zone run blocking. In this situation, Kalepo has a 1-tech DT in his gap towards the slide, so he will also join the slide protection. Fautanu as the backside OT without a down DL in his slide side gap instead has the DE in 1v1. These calls become second nature to an offensive lineman, but an elite QB will also instinctively understand what the protection calls will be because of situations like this one.

On this play, Arizona is running a zone blitz with the playside EDGE outside of Culp dropping into coverage and the two field LBs are coming on the blitz. Because the blitz is coming on the backside of the slide protection, any blitzing defenders are Penix’s “hot” read.” Fautanu is locked onto the DE, and Johnson is releasing into a route, so these blitzing LBs will have a free run at Penix. It’s up to Penix to get rid of the ball before the pressure gets home. Like the elite QB he is, Penix immediately feels the pressure and knows that the soft spot in any blitz coverage is where the blitzers are coming from. With Johnson widening out the dropped down safety into the wide flat, Odunze pushing the field CB deep, and Culp running free into the open grass, Penix sidesteps the inside pressure from the DE, resets his feet, and fires a laser to Culp right into the teeth of the blitz.

It’s not a huge gain, nor is it a particularly memorable 3rd down conversion, but it’s a great example of Penix’s ability to take what the defense is giving him at all levels of the field and maximizing each play within the design of the offense.

4th Quarter - 6:06 - 3rd & 8

Last play up this week, we wanted to take a look at a defensive play. Despite Arizona running with their backup QB and RB, the Wildcat offense was able to make plays against our defense. Boneheaded penalties on UW’s side definitely aided Arizona by extending a few drives, but they were also the first offense with a QB who could exploit a weakness in our defense. The spot drop zone.

As we’ve discussed at length this season here on Film Study, our defense has leaned heavily on a simulated pressure MUG look in 3rd down passing situations. We’ll put six players on the line of scrimmage to make it look like we’re bringing an all-out blitz with our DBs lined up in man coverage behind it. From that look, we’ll drop one or two of the defenders off the line to join the DBs in zone coverage. The thinking is that our pre-snap look will confuse the pass protection and generate immediate pressure while disguising the zone coverage. Pressure plus disguised coverage is a recipe for either a sack on a hesitant QB or an interception off a throw under duress. That is, unless the QB can either mitigate the pressure and/or can make the quick pass against a relatively soft coverage design underneath.

On this play, Arizona is lined up in a 1x4 quads empty shotgun formation. on a 3rd & 8 passing situation, and we are lined up in a MUG look with seven players on the LOS and four DBs lined up about at the first down marker in what looks like man coverage. What we have called here is a version of a zone blitz call that we usually pair with our MUG look against 1x3/1x4 offensive formations. The basics of this zone blitz call is a four-man pressure with a boundary EDGE/LB and the boundary CB assigned to over/under bracket coverage (double team) on the solo boundary WR, two of the MUG defenders dropping into underneath middle zone coverage, and the Husky and field CB sitting in “catch” technique zone coverage (sit and break on underneath routes) at the line to gain with the deep safety playing deep half-field coverage over them. In this case, ZTF and Muhammad have the boundary bracket coverage assignment, Bruener and Goforth have the middle zones, and since ZTF is dropping into coverage, KamFab is the fourth rusher alongside the DL in the pressure scheme.

The blitz design on this play is a thing of beauty. KamFab is lined up over the TE outside of Trice, who is lined up on the outside shoulder of the LT. Arizona’s OL calls their slide protection into the boundary, so when Trice cuts inside of the LT and draws his attention inside, KamFab has a free rush at the QB. However, Noah Fifita, Arizona’s RS freshman QB, is both athletic and incredibly poised on the play. He pulls a Russell Wilson-esque backdoor escape out of the pocket to avoid KamFab’s rush and delivers a laser to the TE for the first down. The TE looks like he’s running a hook curl route that’s designed to attack the space between the middle zones, which is a pretty common route. Where things go wrong for our defense on this play, other than KamFab whiffing on the blitz, is how we’ve designed our underneath coverage.

In theory, our five underneath zone defenders (ZTF, Goforth, Bruener, Nunley, and Dixon) should be able to adequately cover the five eligible receivers on anything underneath. However, our LBs are playing spot drop zone coverage, what most think of when they hear zone coverage, where they have to bail hard at the snap to a specific landmark. Compared to pattern match zone coverage that blends man coverage techniques with zone assignments/alignments, spot drop zone is susceptible to passes to the soft spots between the coverage zones, and those soft spots are extra large when the LBs have to bail out of a blitz alignment on the LOS to hit their landmarks. The TE on this play found the soft spot between Goforth and Bruener and then shuffled out to maintain his separation as Fifita rolled out of the pocket. The broadcast angle cuts off Bruener’s drop, but it looks like he way over ran his zone coverage or carried a vertical route way past where he should’ve handed it off to the deep safety, and he left a gaping hole in the middle of our underneath coverage for the TE to settle into.

Back in Week 1, we broke down an almost identical defensive play call here on Film Study where Kamren Fabiculanan was able to snag his first INT of the season against Boise State. The play against Boise had a completely different result, but we had a similar situation where one of our LBs over ran their zone drop and nearly gave up a big play. It’ll be interesting to see if these spot drop zone coverages get dialed in ahead of our string of big games or if we shift away from these types of spot drop zone coverages.

Awgs’ Bonus Play of the Week

Josh Cuevas takes this week’s honors showcasing the depth the Dawgs have in the TE room with one of the team’s lone explosive plays against Arizona’s conservative 3 deep safety defense.

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