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Film Study: Washington State Cougars

12-0. That’s it.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

In the last rendition of the Apple Cup in Pac-12 play, the Washington Huskies yet again beat the Washington State Cougars 24-21 to clinch an undefeated regular season and the only Pac-12 team since expansion to finish 12-0. It certainly was not pretty nor should it have been this close but it was very on brand for how this team has played over the last two months as they avoided one last Pac-12 (after dark-ish) upset. Week after week it has been one possession games that came down to the last few possessions in the 4th quarter. But time and time again, the Dawgs found a way to get it done. It has been via almost every single way possible: pick-6, offensive shootout, 4th down defensive stops, safeties and even a FG as time expired. On to the Pac-12 Championship Game.

This Husky team and this season is special.

To the film.

2nd Quarter - 7:23 - 1st & 10

Another week and another big play off of our most productive package on defense. As most of you are already familiar with from the last month or so of Film Study articles, I’m a big fan of our passing down pass rush package that features Voi Tunuufi, Jacob Lane, and a pair of our EDGEs on the LOS, as well as a MUG look that puts our LBs up on the LOS. We might not be a good defense, but we can be an opportunistic one when we can take calculated risks as to what is coming.

Here on 3rd & 17, it’s pretty obvious that WSU is going to go with a pass play, so we roll with this sub-package. In general, we’ve stuck with vanilla coverages behind these more exotic pass rush designs, and on this play we’re running a Cover 1 man coverage look with a 5-man pass rush. Typically, this is because we can’t get into our more complicated pattern match coverages where we have safeties working into run fits and LBs need to focus on coverage responsibilities instead of getting after the QB. In a passing situation like this, we’re putting that to the side and rolling the dice on the pass rush.

WSU lines up in an empty formation with 02 personnel (0 RBs + 2 TEs) and both TEs lined up on the wing spot of the formation. This isn’t a common formation, but it’s indicative of a deeper pass play concept (due to the extra potential blockers) that still wants to get a couple different pass concepts downfield due to the 3 split out receivers. We match this by also playing dime personnel (6 DBs) where Esteen (#24) and Hampton (#7) are both in near the LOS to cover the TEs if/when they release into routes.

Up front, we are bringing the four DL/EDGEs plus Bruener on the pass rush. With 7 blockers and only a 5-man rush, we know that we can’t win just on numbers or a favorable 1v1, so we again lean on a looping stunt to generate pressure. This pressure design features ZTF, lined up over the RG at the snap, looping all the way around the formation to attack the field edge (the LT). ZTF’s stunt is set up by having Voi, Bruener, and Trice (basically the whole field side of the defensive front) crash in towards the center to pin the protection so ZTF has at worst a 1v1 on an overmatched TE. The best case scenario, as we saw on this play, is that we’re able to manipulate the field TE’s (#42) check/release read in protection to set up a free rush at Ward. As is common with auxiliary blockers (TEs/RBs, non-OL), WSU has their TEs read the initial pass rush to provide a helping chip block, and if there is no immediate edge rush threat, then the TEs are to release down field into a check down route. If our EDGEs had tried to rush outside the TEs, then the TEs would’ve likely stayed in to help, but since we crashed Trice (#8 to the field side), then #42 didn’t have anyone to immediately help block and released into his route right as ZTF came screaming around the EDGE on his stunt. ZTF’s rush didn’t get home against Ward, but you can see that it sped up Ward’s mechanics and prevented him from stepping into the pass. A QB’s lower body mechanics are a key factor in their overall accuracy and the timing of their release, and Ward’s inability to follow all the way through the throw is likely what caused the pass to be behind his WR. Dixon, playing in off coverage technique, was able to identify pass quickly and break on the ball for a timely interception.

These are the types of situations we are best-suited to defend, and the fact that WSU was already a pass-first team certainly helped us to limit their offensive production. Overall, we had a good pass rush all day against the Cougs despite Cam Ward’s athleticism, and we’ll need to keep this up as we enter the post-season.

3rd Quarter - 0:03 - 1st & 10

Sometimes you can’t wait for a defense to give you the look that you want, and you just have to manufacture opportunities for yourself. In last week’s Film Study, we broke down how there are certain formations and alignments that Grubb likes to use to isolate Rome Odunze on vertical shot plays. Rome, as our best WR and one of the most dangerous playmakers in all of college football, usually gets a lot of attention from defenses, so it can be rare that a defense just leaves him out on an island against a CB. When defenses commit safety help over Rome, Grubb needs to dig back into his bag of tricks to manufacture these opportunities for Rome.

Up to this point in the game, WSU had done a pretty good job in limiting deep play opportunities for Rome, and this play is no different. Here, we have Rome out on the field side boundary, and WSU has their CB (#3) playing in a press alignment over him and a deep safety (#0) playing near midfield where he can protect the deep half. The CB can help eliminate any underneath quick passes, and the safety is supposed to help as a clean up defender against underneath passes to the slot and the over the top passes overall.

Grubb dials up a fake bubble screen to McMillan (#11) with Rome going vertical down the sideline on an outside release to attack this look, and this is the perfect set up for this play call. Because Rome’s CB is in a press alignment, he can give a fast outside release without tipping the play call to the defense. Most offenses coach outside WRs to give an outside release on press CBs rather than blocking them because it forces the CB to flip their hips to the outside and takes their eyes off the ball and the slot WR. If the CB was playing off, then Rome would’ve had to fake block him since the CB would’ve been able to keep his eyes on the whole play as it developed. This got Rome down field faster, and he was able to out run the safety’s poor angle. Speaking of the safety, Penix knew that WSU was probably either in a Cover 2 or Cover 4 based on the two deep safeties, and Cover 4 safeties are typically taught to read the slot WR and the QB. You can even see the safety’s eyes lock into the backfield right at the snap. Because of this, Penix knows he might be able to buy Rome some time against the safety by pump faking McMillan’s bubble route. This freezes the safety and Penix was able to uncork one of the most perfectly placed far side back shoulder fades I’ve ever seen.

Overall, this wasn’t a particularly complicated play design, and we’ve done well on similar concepts earlier in the season, but what you should take away from this is that we need to get back to what made this offense special. We have great players, but we can’t rely on them to make heroic plays on their own. Grubb and the staff have to call the right plays for the right situations to set them up for success. We have answers in our playbook to every defense out there, but we need to set them up and call the right plays at the right times. We don’t need Jalen McMillan on the field to throw a bubble screen. We have a bunch of WRs that can take that pass and run for a few yards, and that’s all you need to set up a bigger play later in the game. That type of play calling layering/sequencing (along with motion and passing over the middle) is something that we’ve gotten away from over the last few weeks, and it’s something that we should keep an eye out for for the rest of the season.

4th Quarter - 6:08 - 1st & 10

We included the last play to highlight something in the play calling that worked earlier in the season and should circle back to as we enter the post-season. On this play, we wanted to highlight something that’s been an issue and that we might want to rethink how we’re defending certain concepts and protecting certain coverage match ups.

Here on this play, WSU sets up with 11 personnel aligned in a 3x1 FIB (formation into boundary) look that we match with our base 4-2-5 personnel and a single-high Cover 1 call. The Cougs motion their slot WR (#5) across the formation into a stacked WR look to the field, and we match it by bumping Hampton (#7) over the top of the stacked WRs. WSU then runs a fairly common red zone rub route concept where the stacked WR on the LOS runs off the press CB and creates space for #5 to run a quick in-breaking route into space. #5 was in a 1v1 against Hampton with a 2-way go and was able to slip the tackle for the touchdown. It isn’t a fancy play design, but it was a good play call by WSU to attack a preferential match up between one of their shiftiest slot receivers and our strong safety.

What’s most frustrating about this play is that we’ve seen almost the exact same concept before and the result of the play was much different...

Bonus points to those of you who knew which play I was referencing. This clip above was Meesh Powell’s pivotal pick-6 against ASU. We’re running a slightly different defensive front with different coverage match ups, but the fundamentals are all the same. ASU started in a 3x1 FIB look, motioned a WR to the field side to create a stacked WR look, we matched the motion by bumping a safety out over the stacked WRs to pick up the motion WR in off man coverage, and then the motioned WR ran a quick in-breaking route against the off coverage DB.

The two key differences between the ASU play and the WSU play were 1) Powell vs. Hampton in coverage, and 2) inside coverage support. First, the coverage match up between Hampton and a slot receiver is the most obvious for UW fans to pick up on. By now, I think most can agree that Hampton is not someone we want to regularly cover shiftier receivers. He’s a more traditional strong safety type of player that can play physically with bigger receiving threats and lay some big hits against the run. I don’t want to knock the guy, but he is what he is at this point and doesn’t have the quick-twitch agility or open field tackling to be a reliable player in space with the game on the line. If we want to keep him on the field, we should reconsider how we adjust to FIB and motion looks.

Second, if we don’t want to change how we’re matching up against formations and motions, we need to consider coverage calls that provide Hampton with coverage support. If we can’t rely on Hampton to keep up with a slot receiver with a 2-way go (can break in or out on a route) in space, then we should narrow down Hampton’s responsibility to just one. On the ASU play, we dropped a LB into underneath zone coverage to the inside, but on the WSU play we didn’t. If we dropped one of the LBs to play inside-outside bracket coverage on #5, then Hampton would’ve been able to cheat up a little to play tighter coverage and possibly be in position to make a play on the ball or make the tackle prior to the end zone. I’m not sure what specific technique Hampton was taught, but he was playing 9-10 yards off the line at the snap, but Powell was only playing 6 yards deep on the ASU play. To a certain extent, players adjust their technique to match their abilities, but that’s a pretty big difference.

The staff needs to seriously reevaluate the match up situations that their coverage calls are putting the players in. We aren’t the ‘85 Bears defense, but we do have good players that just need to be put in better positions to succeed.

4th Quarter - 1:15 - 4th & 1

Finally this week on Film Study we have the ballsiest play call we’ve seen from Grubb and DeBoer. Backed up on our own 29-yard line in a tied game with 1:15 left and a perfect 12-0 season on the line. A stop here would’ve gifted WSU a chip shot field goal and likely end our playoff hopes. That’s a lot to gamble on one play, but we had the perfect play. Grubb dialed up a Read Option with a pitch end around to Rome Odunze that was reminiscent of the old school single wing offense’s Spinner sweep run concept. That’s a lot to unpack, so let me break it down further.

Facing a pretty clear short yardage situation we roll with 13 personnel (1 RB + 3 TEs) with two TEs lined up to the left side of the formation, attached to the line, Westover in a tight slot alignment to the right of the formation, and Odunze out wide outside of Westover. Dillon Johnson is lined up to Penix’s left, so the defense can anticipate a run to the right, but WSU isn’t dumb either. They’ve done their homework, and they know we like to run Counter to the weakside (away from our double TEs) and Gap Counter to the strongside, so Johnson’s alignment doesn’t tip our hand to them. WSU counters by selling out on both runs. They stack the box with nine defenders, shoot their two ILBs to the weakside C-gap to stuff the Counter, and crash their defenders to the double TE side to seal off a Gap Counter cut back lane. What they didn’t account for was a wide off tackle run towards the strong side.

I mean, why would the Cougs expect a wide run to our left? Penix is athletic, but he isn’t a burner. Against an overhang defender (#25) there’s no way that Penix wins the edge, even in a short yardage situation. Against a conventional Jet Sweep with pre-snap motion, the defense could’ve prepared for it, but post-snap cross formation movement, like Rome on this play, is almost impossible to stop without elite field vision from the second level defenders or an elite CB trailing in man coverage who can also make a play as a pursuit run defender. Even then, it’d be almost impossible to stop short of the line to gain.

Anyways, back to the play design, as Grubb mentioned in this week’s press conference, this was actually an option play that Penix was reading and not just a designed pitch to Odunze. I’m not sure exactly what Penix was reading, but based on his mechanics on the mesh point with Johnson, I think he’s reading the backside DE and overhang defender (#25). Once they both commit to crashing on Johnson, they are effectively taking themselves out of position to beat Rome to the edge, and at that point, Penix knows to pull the ball and pitch it back to Rome on the End Around. The read and the points of attack are the exact same as a conventional Read Option play, but instead of Penix taking the ball, we turbo charge the pull read by giving the ball to Rome with a running start to the edge. Not only that, but because Rome gets the ball and the whole defense is stacked in the box, Penix is able to make the pitch, spin around, and help Rome get to the edge with a small nudge to #25.

It’s a phenomenal play design that was called at the perfect time to capitalize on a defense that was rolling the dice to stop the inside run. It maintains the read element of the Read Option, it protects the QB from an unnecessary hit, and it allows the Read Option to be run with a non-running QB. It’s not often that we see brand new play designs like this, but I was reminded on Twitter that this isn’t actually something that Grubb came up with all on his own (I think). Thanks to Nate Tice, I was reminded that I had actually seen a very similar concept earlier in the year when USC played Utah. I hadn’t connect the pieces together until writing this Film Study article that the play I saw USC run earlier was actually a Read Option concept, but it almost certainly was because it’s the exact same play. Take a look.

USC’s version has the exact same personnel, formation, and short yardage situation. It just goes to show that it’s a copycat league. The best coaches are constantly picking up new play concepts and tricks as they study opponent film. Grubb likely picked this one up as we prepped for USC and Utah and got it installed in our short yardage package. We’ll need more tricks up the sleeve like this one this week as we go for 13-0.

Awgs’ Bonus Play(s) of the Week

This week’s honors goes to none other than the hero of the game and new scholarship player Grady Gross showing off his clutch gene.