It was a tale of two halves this week as the undefeated season was yet again on the line in front of the home crowd at Husky Stadium. After giving up multiple explosive plays in the first, the Dawg Defense flipped the switch in the second half and held the Utah Utes to 0 points by generating constant pressure and forcing key turnovers. The offense proved they can go toe to toe via both the ground and the air against another tough defense as the dream of a Pac-12 championship and College Football Playoff berth lives to see another day.
To the film.
*Note from Coach B: We’re trying a slightly different format this week to better dissect the three key topics noted above (Bad Defense, Good Defense, & Playing Against a Good Defense) and paint a better picture of the over arching trends throughout the game over multiple plays. As such, the plays won’t necessarily be in chronological order.
1st Half - “Non-Championship” Defense
It took me a while to figure out how to title this section without blatantly offending anyone.
Our Huskies certainly didn’t win the game in the first half against the Utes. No reasonable Dawg fan has claimed we have a championship caliber defense this season, but few would’ve thought heading into the game that our defense would make Utah’s MASH unit offense look like a championship caliber offense. As we’ve discussed on Film Study over the past few weeks, our defense is what it is, and what it is is a unit that needs to play to its strengths in passing situations and take calculated risks to capitalize on those strengths.
The winning formula over the past month has been to force opponents into one dimensional situations and then pray to the man upstairs that the pressure can get home or force a mistake. Typically, this has taken the form of a “bend-but-don’t-break” style of defense that conceded shorter gains underneath in the passing game and middling gains on the ground. The thinking behind this is that most opposing offenses wouldn’t be efficient enough or patient enough to string together long drives. One incomplete on 2nd & 7 could force the offense into a passing situation where our pass rush, the strength of our defense, could pin its ears back and make life hell in the backfield.
That strategy is particularly effective when you have an explosive offense like ours that puts the pressure on the opposing offense to stay aggressive rather than taking what our defense is giving them. However, where this strategy gets derailed is when the “don’t break” part of “bend-but-don’t-break”, well, breaks. Looking back at Utah’s 11 offensive possessions, the Utes scored on four drives. Of those four scoring possessions, three included 41+ yard explosive plays. Limiting explosive plays, or our inability to do so, is going to be a key barometer for defensive success for the rest of the season. Let’s take a look at a couple of key ones against Utah.
2nd Quarter - 6:19 - 1st & 10
First up, I wanted to take a look at this screen play from the second quarter where Utah scored from their own territory. Utah lines up in a generic 2x2 shotgun spread formation with 11 personnel that we match with a conservative 2-high shell with safeties 12-yards deep and our CBs lined up in off coverage. Based on the pre-snap coverage shell and post-snap DB reads, I believe we’re running our base Cover 4 Read coverage call with pattern match zone. Against this, Utah is running a creative RB tunnel screen design where the two WRs to the boundary are running decoy routes to clear out space, buy time for the RB to hit his landmark and for blocking to develop. The boundary WRs are running a Drive concept as the decoys against our 4 over 3 zone coverage look (including the RB) on that side of the field. The idea here is that the Dig route on the Drive concept will be run deep enough that it draws the safety’s attention, and the Drag route on the Drive concept will take one of the LBs across the field away from the play.
There are two key points that have been hurting our ability to hold these types of pass plays into the flats to short gains. First, we’re playing extra conservative coverages on the back end to prevent explosive plays down field, but we’re not addressing the soft underneath coverages with appropriate technique. Second, we’re struggling to shed blocks and make tackles in space and not doing enough schematically to make up for it. Both points are intertwined. As I mentioned earlier, we’re playing 4 over 3 coverage to the boundary with Dixon (CB, #9) and Hampton (safety, #7) playing over the top and Goforth (LB, #10) and Bruener (LB, #42) underneath. In our base Cover 4 pattern match coverage, the safety picks up the WR2 as soon as he shows a vertical stem (usually determined in the first 5 yards of the route). Since there’s only one vertical route from the boundary (#47), either Dixon or Hampton should’ve been able to make their determination on who’s picking #47 up quickly. However, both Dixon and Hampton continue to drop to depth and provide inside-outside bracket coverage on #47. That’s schematically sound and aligns with our strategy, but that leaves Goforth in space in a 1v1 against the RB with blockers ahead of him.
Assuming that Goforth can’t make the tackle at the LOS through the lead blocking OT, either Dixon or Hampton would have to make similarly difficult tackles through blockers from 10-15 yards downfield. Since there are only marginal improvements to technique that can be made during the season, the only solution is schematic and which techniques were asking the players to use in certain situations. I’ve heard the staff speak about using press alignments and techniques to discourage and disrupt the timing of quick passes and underneath passing, but if that’s deemed too aggressive relative to our strategy, we could also stick with off coverage alignments but play catch technique. Catch technique is where a DB, typically the CBs, align in off coverage and plant themselves at that depth unless they’re forced off their spot by a vertical route. This is in contrast to Dixon’s coverage technique on this play where he’s immediately dropping back at the snap despite there only being one vertical threat that Hampton is responsible for. By planting themselves at a certain depth, the DB would be able to break on underneath routes more easily, and in this case, Dixon might’ve been able to make a play on the ball carrier before the guard was in position to protect the RB on the screen.
In the end, our conservative coverage and techniques hampered our already questionable tackling ability on the perimeter, and despite our intent to prevent the explosive pass play, we gave up a 53-yard screen pass TD.
2nd Quarter - 1:21 - 2nd & 7
Later in the second quarter, right before halftime, we gave up another explosive passing play because of poor technique getting paired with inconsistent coverage assignments/communication. Like the last play, Utah is in a 2x2 formation with 11 personnel, but this time they are lined up in a condensed formation with stack alignments for their receivers. Also like the last play, we are playing our base Cover 4 coverage call with the CBs playing off coverage. Utah must’ve identified early in the game that they had an advantage against our safeties in solo coverage because they had the perfect all-coverage play to beat us for a big gain.
In our base Cover 4 scheme, we are running pattern match zone where each DB’s coverage assignment is dictated by the routes the offense is running, after which point the DBs convert into man coverage techniques. In theory, this gives us a way to cover everything schematically, but it does not make us match up proof. Offenses can manipulate our coverage rules (pretty standardized across all Cover 4-based defenses) to dictate favorable match ups against our safeties. Lincoln Riley earned his offensive savant reputation at Oklahoma by scheming play designs that exploited Cover 4-based defenses that were in vogue in the Big 12. Some of his favorite designs involved getting a speedy WR matched up against a safety on a skinny post.
Utah’s OC takes a page out of Riley’s playbook and calls a Yankee concept on this play where Vele (WR, #17) is running a Skinny Post from the boundary and Parks (WR, #10) is running a deep Dig route from the field side. Yankee concepts are known more as a Cover 1 or Cover 3 beater because you can get a high-low read on the single-high safety, but against Cover 4 it can be similarly effective since you can isolate match ups against the safeties. The Dig route can be run deep enough to keep one safety shallow in the middle of the field, and the Skinny Post can be thrown open into the void where the other safety was previously. Vele was just too much for Hampton to keep up with in the open field in a 1v1 situation.
I understand why we went with the Cover 4 call for a large portion of the game. It allows the safeties to remain in a 2-high shell against most formations, and it also allows them to play that 2-high shell from a shallow depth where they can be incorporated into the run fit. Against a run-heavy team, that makes perfect sense, but when we don’t have safeties who can hold up against WRs in 1v1 man coverage (as Cover 4 can emulate), then you are susceptible to these sorts of match up-oriented explosive play designs. Again, there’s no silver bullet that can fix this, but the options available at this point in the season are A) improved play from the front 6/7 to allow us to play different coverages on the back end, B) play better on the back end and stick with the Cover 4 calls, or C) play a different 2-high shell coverage (like 2-Man Under) where you can better dictate match ups and let the safeties play in a coverage and run support role rather than the primary coverage defender.
2nd Half - Shutdown Defense with Complementary Football
As we said in the intro, it was a tale of two halves for the defense, and like we said in the last section, our defense needs complementary offensive play calling and field position for it’s bend-but-don’t-break strategy to be successful. Heading into the second half, we were down 24-28 and received the ball on the opening kickoff. Where the momentum started to change was once we eliminated the explosive plays, rolled the dice that Utah wouldn’t be able to maintain long drives without self-inflicted setbacks, and the offense was able to gain a lead to put pressure on Utah’s offense. We already hit on a few ways that the defense could’ve (and later did) put a stop to the explosive plays that fueled Utah’s early scoring drives, but what was really spotlighted in the second half was our ability to leverage our pass rush to capitalize on the times when Utah was put in passing situations.
You may or may not have noticed it during the game, but we had Utah’s number every time they were forced into passing situations. Of Utah’s seven non-scoring possessions (not including the end of half kneel down and the safety), six were because of failed conversion attempts or turnovers when Utah was facing a passing situation. Once Utah’s offense got behind schedule (whether by penalty, incompletions, or stuffed runs), they became one dimensional, and we were able to put in a new pass rush sub-package that wreaked havoc on the Barnes and their offensive line. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.
3rd Quarter - 11:09 - 3rd & 7
First up we have this 3rd & long situation from Utah’s first second half possession. On the previous two plays, the defense hunkered down and held Utah’s rushing attack to just three yards to set up this passing situation. Since it’s a clear passing situation, we subbed in a new pass rushing front consisting of Bralen Trice, ZTF, Voi Tunuufi, and true freshman Jacob Lane. Passing situation sub-packages aren’t anything new, for this staff or in football in general, but this was the first game we saw this particular line up.
Earlier in the season we had pressure packages that subbed in Tunuufi for Tuli or Ale, but the pressure designs largely focused on zone blitz concepts where the pressure was generated by bringing blitzers from various angles and manipulating the protection calls with MUG looks that put our LBs in the A gaps. Those pressure calls are still an effective and integral component within our defensive playbook, but there are pros and cons to relying on those calls on third down. The biggest issues with zone blitzes, especially those that feature MUG looks, are that they rely on the element of surprise, require the LBs to play in suboptimal alignments for playing coverage, and the LBs have to play spot drop zone coverage that limits the number of coverages that the offense has to consider pre-snap. What we saw against Utah with this new passing down sub-package was a personnel group that could bring pressure with out the extra schematic and formational window dressing. We were able to generate pressure with DL-only stunts and play more conventional and conservative coverages on the back end. There’s nothing more effective against a passing game than a defense that can apply immediate pressure with only four rushers, which is a big reason why defensive line talent is so important (EDGE in particular).
On this particular play, we line up in a MUG look with a 2-high shell over the top against Utah’s 2x2 shotgun look. After re-watching the play, we made a split field coverage call with Cover 4 MOD (Man Only Deep) on the boundary and something like a 2-Man Under coverage to the field. The boundary CB (Muhammad, #1) has the boundary WR1 (#17) in man coverage if he goes deep, otherwise he’s dropping deep in support coverage. The boundary safety (Hampton, #7) has a similar coverage read and assignment but against the boundary WR2 (#82). On the otherside, the field CB (Jackson, #25) and Husky (Powell, #3) have the field WRs in man coverage with the field safety (Nunley, #28) providing help over the top. Because we are playing a MUG look pre-snap but only rushing the DL, we have to modify our base Cover 4 coverage underneath so that our two LBs only have spot drop zone coverage responsibilities. Goforth has the boundary flat and Bruener is responsible for the underneath middle zone unless there’s a crossing route to the field that he would then pick up in man coverage.
As I mentioned earlier, one downside to MUG zone blitzes are that you are forced into using spot drop zone coverage underneath because of the pre-snap alignments of your front 6/7, but because we are only rushing the DL, we are at least able to keep our best underneath coverage defenders (the LBs) playing coverage instead of dropping a EDGE or DL into coverage. Bruener and Goforth do a great job picking up the underneath safety valve routes to take away Barnes’ quick options, and the quick pressure from the DL forces an errant pass that was almost picked off by Goforth. The combination of solid underneath coverage match ups and the quick pressure get our defense off the field for a 3 and out.
4th Quarter - 8:41 - 3rd & 7
Later in the fourth quarter we’re in a similar passing situation with the same pass rush sub-package. Utah’s in a similar 2x2 shotgun formation with 11 personnel, but this time they have #47 attached to the formation on the boundary side to provide extra pass protection assistance. As I mentioned earlier, the fact that we’re able to generate pressure just with our front four means we can mix up our coverages on the back end to keep the offense off balance. This time, we’re running Cover 1 Lurk where we have one deep safety, everyone else is in man coverage, and our extra LB is reading the QB in zone coverage looking to make a play on the ball or shadowing the QB if he breaks the pocket.
The coverage on this play is pretty vanilla and does the trick, but what I wanted to highlight on this play was why this sub-package on the defensive front was so effective. Unlike our base DL personnel, this sub-package with Tunuufi and Lane in the DT spots has the ability to run ET (EDGE/Tackle) stunts where the EDGEs crash inside into the B-gaps and the DTs are looping around the edge to get pressure on the QB. Tunuufi and Lane have the lateral and explosive athleticism to get quick pressure on those looping ET stunts. With Trice and ZTF being the primary focus of the offensive lines in passing situations, they are able to free up the DTs to get clean rushes at the QB, albeit on a longer path. On this play, their closing speed made the difference and Barnes was forced to throw the ball away.
Playing Against a Good Defense - Establishing the Run
Our defense’s second half turnaround wasn’t the only thing that I took away from the game. Heading into the Utah game, I was looking forward to seeing how we would fare in a strength versus strength match up between our explosive offense and Utah’s elite defense. As I mentioned in last week’s opposing defensive preview, Utah’s defensive front has historically been the strength of their team, and their LBs and DBs are often versatile enough to play a key role in run support. We aren’t a run-focused offense, but after an impressive performance against USC and a 2-season tendency to lean on the rushing attack later in the season, I wanted to see how we’d fare. In short, our offense stepped up when it mattered.
3rd Quarter - 14:54 - 1st & 10
One of the key concepts that we leaned on throughout the Utah game was Escort motion. We’ve broken down Escort motion on past Film Study articles this season, and it’s a great way to mix up how we present some of our base run concepts. In the past, we’ve used Escort motion to spice up Counter, one of our base run concepts this season, but this week we also paired it with Outside Zone, one of our change up run concepts that we leaned on against USC.
On this play, we line up in a shotgun bunch formation with Westover out to the field in the bunch. Pre-snap we put him in Escort motion towards the boundary to create an Outside Zone Lead look. On Outside Zone Lead plays, the lead blocker (Westover, #37) is supposed to read the blockers just like the RB would and block the first defender in the hole. On Outside Zone runs, the RB is aiming for the outside hip of the playside OT (Rosengarten, #73), so Westover’s read is to see if he can get around the edge of Rosengarten or if he has to cut it inside of him. With Utah running a 5-man bear front, Westover can anticipate needing to cut inside of Rosengarten because he will likely need to drive block the wide OLB rather than reach blocking him.
Utah doesn’t shift, travel, rotate their safeties, or make any major adjustments to account for Westover’s motion, so we are able to get numbers at the point of attack with an opportunity to spring Dillon Johnson for a big run. What further sets up the big run was Denzel Boston’s (#12) key crack/down block on the ILB (#3) to seal off the second level flow and put Westover in a 1v1 against an overmatched CB. With a clear rushing lane ahead of him, Johnson was able to get 12 yards downfield before he was even touched.
Pairing the Escort motion with Outside Zone and a couple of key blocks from auxiliary skill position blockers allowed us to move the focal point of the rushing attack from Utah’s stout defensive front and outflank them. It’s just another example of how Grubb is starting to open up the rushing portion of the play book to keep defenses honest while maintaining our offensive efficiency and exploiting their weak spots.
4th Quarter - 7:47 - 1st & 10
Later in the game we busted out another change up run concept that we leaned on against USC: Gap Counter. Fundamentally, Gap Counter is a change up off of Outside Zone where our blocking front is down blocking the whole defensive front in one direction and the RB has a designed cutback to the backside. Similar to how we set it up against USC, we have three WRs to the field and our TE attached to the OL on the field side as well. This will draw the defense towards the field and set up a double team on the field edge defender between the TE (Westover, #37) and the adjacent OT (Rosengarten, #73). That double team’s goal is to wash the edge defender down the LOS and hopefully into the lone LB so that Johnson can split the gap between the defensive front and the DBs covering our decoy WRs to the field.
We end up not needing to seal the LB because he flows hard to match the OL’s down blocking in anticipation of an Outside Zone play to the boundary. Johnson was able to split the gap and get a nice chunk gain on the ground before being tackled past the line to gain. Again, this is a well-designed and well-timed run play that shows how our core run concepts all build off of one another to play mind games with the LBs to catch them out of position.
Playing Against a Good Defense - Pass Protection & Vertical Passing
Establishing the run was only one half of what we needed to do against Utah in order for confidence to be restored in our offense and put the clunker against ASU in the rear view mirror. Interior pressure has been the Achilles heel of our offense ever since the Sun Devils took full advantage of it to hold our offense to zero touchdowns. Facing a well-coached Utes team with a strong defensive line and a willingness to tailor their game plans to exploit opponents’ weaknesses, keeping Michael Penix clean in the pocket was going to be the key factor in gauging our offense’ ceiling heading down the stretch.
Fortunately, we seem to have passed with flying colors this past weekend.
3rd Quarter - 10:07 - 3rd & 8
This play from the third quarter is a perfect example of how we’ve gotten our pass protection turned around since our rough stretch in late October. Pre-snap we’re set up in a nubs bunch formation where we have Culp (#83) lined up as an attached TE to the boundary and three WRs in a bunch alignment to the field. Grubb has a shot play dialed up with a 7-man max protection that keeps Culp and Johnson in to protect Penix as the deep routes develop.
Against this look, Utah is showing blitz out of a 5-man bear front. Post-snap they rush seven in a Cover 0 blitz. With Utah’s DL lined up covering all three of our iOL, we call a full OL slide to the field to protect the interior gaps and leave Culp in 1v1 man blocking against the backside OLB in case he comes on the blitz. Johnson is reading the second level LBs for their blitz with the understanding that he needs to protect inside-out to maintain the pocket’s integrity for Penix, regardless of the slide protection. Utah ends up blitzing their two ILBs through the A-gaps where Brailsford hands off the NT to Kalepo to the backside of the slide from him to pick up the first A-gap blitzer, and Dillon Johnson picks up the second blitzer. Johnson picking up the blitzer kind of undersells how good of a job he does in his pass protection. Johnson absolutely stone walls him and gives Penix all the time in the world to uncork a laser to Odunze for a 40-ard gain.
We kept seven blockers in on the protection, and Utah brought seven rushers on the blitz. Not only were we able to effectively sift through the slants and delayed blitzes to get hats on hats, but we also held up well across the board in 1v1 blocking. While Culp started to lose control of his block towards the end of the play, the key was that it was on the edge and our interior offensive line and Johnson held up their end of the bargain to keep the pressure out of Penix’s face.
3rd Quarter - 4:20 - 2nd & 9
To wrap things up this week we wanted to take a look at the final touchdown play of the week. Two things to point out here.
One, Penix is pretty good in moving pocket plays. This play isn’t really a true moving pocket concept like a Rollout would be, but we have used these sorts of half-roll protection concepts in the past to stress the DL’s containment, change the rush angles, and to manipulate aspects of the coverage. Our preferred version of half-roll protection is to pull Brailsford out in front of Penix’s roll to help out with that side’s edge defender. You need an athletic center like Brailsford to successfully pull of this protection, but between keeping Culp in as an extra pass protector and Brailsford’s bulling block, you are almost guaranteed to be able to cut off the edge rush towards that side. The backside of the roll is tough to keep clean since the change in rush angle target usually leads to the backside protection breaking down, but since Penix moved off his spot, he is able to buy himself some time. Keep this protection in the back of your head next time we face a defense with a dominant edge rusher.
Two, Michael Penix can make unbelievable passes when he has time to set his feet (although I think everyone reading this article recognized that already). He is launching a 40+ yard pass on a frozen rope in a swirling windstorm, but his spiral is so tight and the pass has so much velocity that it knifes through the wind. It’s also perfectly placed between converging safeties with enough touch to layer it over the shallower safety but not so deep that Odunze can’t get underneath it as he’s running along the goal line.
Awgs’ Bonus Play(s) of the Week
Jack Westover takes the honors with another acrobatic and clutch 4th down reception.