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Film Study: USC Trojans

Working the ground game to light up the score board

USC vs Washington in Los Angeles, CA

When the football season schedule came out, everyone knew November would be an absolute gauntlet. The Washington Huskies started the month off on the right note taking down the defending Heisman winner and the USC Trojans at the Coliseum to move to 9-0 for the first time since 2016. The run game came to life as Dillon Johnson put up Madden numbers. The defense had trouble containing one of the nation’s best offenses but came up big when it mattered the most, including a strip sack right before the half and holding USC to 0 points in the 4th. After some sputtering over the last couple weeks, the team may have turned the corner just in time for the final push for what has already been a very special season.

To the film.

*Quick note from Coach B: There’s nothing I love more than nerding out about OL and blocking schemes, so buckle up for a long Film Study this week.

3rd Quarter - 7:30 - 2nd & 3

“Run the damn ball” -Jimmy Lake

That quote has become the punchline to many jokes of that woeful period of Husky football, but man did we deliver on the intent against USC. For having a predominantly pass-first offense that’s known for explosive passing, it was a reasonable question to ask ourselves heading into the game if we were going to be too stubborn to commit to the run, even if USC had regularly yielded 200+ yards on the ground to mediocre offenses. It was also a legitimate question if we could even put forward a performance like that. We had only topped 100 yards on the ground in half our games, and after shaky OL performances in our last two games, who was to say if we were going to be up to the challenge? Well, the games been played, and it was our return to two complementary run schemes, as well as a career performance from Dillon Johnson, that carried us to victory on the ground against the Trojans.

Much like how DeBoer & Grubb shifted the offensive play calling to a more vertical attack when they arrived on Montlake, they’ve also tailored our run game to the strengths of our roster. Last year, with different players in our offense with different skill sets, we leaned on Inside Zone and Zone Slice concepts that utilized our size up front to get vertical movement and to open creases for one-cut guys like Wayne Taulapapa and Cam Davis. This year, we’ve changed things up and leaned more on gap run concepts. I’ve spoken at length in past Film Study articles about how Parker Brailsford’s athleticism at center and Dillon Johnson’s downhill rushing style made us particularly well-suited to run the Counter run scheme family, and now we got a chance to see the next evolutionary step in the 2023 version of our run game’s development.

Counter (see my earlier Film Study explanation of the run concept here) is a foundational gap run concept that many spread-based teams have built their run games around because it brings the downhill gap run physicality of conventional Power without needing a second back in the backfield. Gap schemes like Counter and Power utilize a mixture of down blocking and pulling blockers to open a specific gap for the running back to run through. Down blocking, where an offensive lineman blocks a defender aligned to the inside of him or to the backside of the play from him away from the point of attack (see the LT, LG, and C in the diagram above), is the key to opening up one half of the gap on counter. Visually, it is also very similar to drive blocking technique that is sometimes used on Outside Zone plays to wash defenders down the line of scrimmage when the OL can’t seal the edge. When the offense uses similar techniques on run plays with very different points of attack, it is difficult for a defensive front to key in on either play. That’s why rushing offenses that utilize Counter, like ours, often also work in Outside Zone and its variations as a change up to keep defenses on their toes, and these change ups contributed to a lot of Johnson’s big runs.

On this big play from the third quarter we’re facing 2nd & short in a tied game situation. Our run game had already gashed USC in the first half, and I suspect that Grubb could feel the defense getting antsy. As I mentioned in the defensive preview, USC’s defensive philosophy of speed defense really emphasizes full speed reactions to swarm the point of attack, but it tends to get its defense in trouble with gap integrity. Outside Zone is both the perfect change up to Counter and can really stress the already suspect USC gap integrity by creating horizontal stress. A defense that doesn’t perfectly mirror the zone blocking with the second level flow opens itself up to cut back lanes.

With all this in mind, Grubb dials up a well-designed Outside Zone play. We’re in 11 personnel out of a 2x2 shotgun look with TE Josh Cuevas coming across the formation in quick motion to the field that looks like an escort motion Counter play to the field that we’ve used earlier in the season. This accomplishes two things. First, it draws the field side LB downhill into the line of scrimmage in anticipation of a Counter run to the field. USC only had six defenders in the box, so preoccupying one on the backside of the run with the motion makes it an even 5v5 for our blocking front. Second, USC’s base adjustment to cross-formation motion is to bring up one of their safeties to the line on the side of the motion (in this case #7). This doesn’t help us get any better blocking in the box, but it does neutralize a third level defender that could make the tackle downfield and sets us up for a bigger potential gain.

From there it’s all about our blocking versus their gap integrity and Johnson’s ability to navigate the crease as it forms. On Outside Zone, the offensive line’s goal is to reach block and seal off their nearest play side defender so that the RB can run around the edge. If an offensive lineman can’t reach block his assigned defender, then he’s to drive block them down the line to open up a cutback lane. Now it should be noted that there are a couple of OL techniques that can be used to reach block a defender. The standard technique is to have a “drop step” laterally and then lean on footspeed and agility to gain leverage on the defender to seal him off. However, for bigger linemen with lesser lateral agility, like our two guards, the rip technique can be used to similar effect. The rip technique that Buelow (#77) best exhibits, and that Kalepo is also utilizing in the clip above, is similar to a DL’s rip move where the OL rips through any contact from the DL with the intent of getting his shoulder and body across the face of the DL to impede his pursuit upfield and towards the play. It’s not an easily sustainable block over the course of a play, but it does wall off the defender and can create a crease for the RB to cutback into.

On the RB side, Johnson’s initial target is the outside hip of the play side OT (#55 Fautanu), and if that’s not available, then his read progression works its way towards the backside of the play. USC is playing a 3-down front with both DEs playing inside our OTs to create a soft edge (no defender on the LOS to set the edge), so Johnson knows pre-snap that he has a chance on hitting the edge. However, at the snap, Kalepo over sets his reach block and gets too wide where the DL #47 is between him and Johnson. Because Kalepo is using the rip technique, he has no control on #47 who could’ve blown the play up in the backfield. Fortunately, #47 is not playing his gap soundly at all and never gets eyes on the backfield. Johnson, seeing the red jersey flash on the outside to cut off the edge, instinctively cuts upfield behind Brailsford as Buelow walls off the NT from collapsing the cutback lane. Brailsford and Fautanu’s blocks at the second level to spring Johnson are another example of USC’s terrible gap integrity and general confusion in their gap assignments. Pre-snap, zone blocking rules suggest that Brailsford is likely to block the MLB since he’d be the next closest defender to the play side. However, because it’s zone blocking, Brailsford also knows that he’s responsible for whoever comes into his zone. In this case, the MLB (#18) flows towards the edge while the boundary LB (#34) flies downhill right at Brailsford for an easy blocking angle. #18 flowing to the edge now becomes Fautanu’s blocking assignment, and because he’s coming from the inside rather than an OLB alignment, Fautanu has an easy angle to make the block.

The combination of a good play design with confusing window dressing, a couple of key blocks from Fautanu, Brailsford, and Buelow, excellent vision and cutting ability from Johnson, and bad gap integrity from the defense turn a potential negative play into a huge run for our offense.

2nd Quarter - 6:56 - 3rd & 3

On this next play we have another big run from Johnson that also came from a change up run concept that Grubb’s kept up the sleeve until now. Here on 3rd & 3 our offense is likely in 4 down territory near mid-field. USC’s defense, like the previous play, has been getting torched by our offense and is probably pressing hard to get a stop for no gain in order to force the punt. Earlier in the game we’d gotten a couple of chunk gains off of Outside Zone, so USC’s already a little sensitive to the threat of an Outside Zone run call. Grubb leans into this with his formation set up for this run call. We’re running 11 personnel aligned in a 4x0 formation that has no receiving threats to the boundary. However, with Johnson aligned to Penix’s left, our offense is threatening a run towards the boundary. With our run threat to one side and our receiving threats to the other side, we’re daring an already aggressive USC defense to play extra aggressively to the threats on each side.

As far as the actual play design, Grubb calls a designed cutback run with an RPO look to the field that has our receivers in outside breaking routes to keep the field DBs preoccupied away from the run play. At first glance, the run concept could either be an Outside Zone run or an Inside Zone run depending on who you’re looking at. If you look at the line, everyone is blocking laterally as if it’s an Outside Zone run call, but if you look at the backfield action, Johnson is taking his handoff on a downhill track that never aims at the play side edge. Instead of a base Outside Zone or Inside Zone run, what Grubb has dialed up is a play that I’ve only seen a couple times known as Gap Counter. Gap Counter is a counter to Counter’s counter (Outside Zone). In simplified terms, every blocker is down blocking like they would on a Counter play, but instead of pulling blockers to the play side, the concept is relying on the backfield action, an overly aggressive defensive flow in the direction of the down blocking, and maybe a FB or play side TE to seal off the gap for the RB to run through. Because it looks so similar to Outside Zone with the down blocking, we’re hoping that the second level defenders run themselves away from the point of attack behind Moore and Johnson doesn’t need any pulling blockings to open up the gap once Moore washes the edge defender down the LOS.

USC’s alignment against this formation makes it an easy check to the Gap Counter. The edge defender (#51) is lined up directly over Moore (TE #88) so it’ll either be an easy down block if he cuts inside or a manageable reach block if he cuts outside of Moore. From there, everything else is up to Johnson to set up. Johnson is responsible for pressing the interior gaps behind the line to draw the LBs and safety up to the line, and then he’s supposed to make a quick cut at the last minute to cut back behind moore into open grass. Johnson sells it to perfection, and Fautanu and Moore’s double team of the #51 and the LB open up a wide lane for Johnson hit with a full head of steam. It’s a huge play off of a subtle change up to one of our base run plays.

4th Quarter - 7:42 - 1st & 10 || 4th Quarter - 3:10- 2nd & 5

Before you guys get tired of me of my run game nerd fest, I wanted to hit on two big dagger plays that came off of the same run concept out of different looks late in the fourth quarter after Grubb had a chance to play mind games with the defense all game. Do you know how to really mess with a defense after they’ve spent all game running sideline to sideline trying to guess where the ball is actually going? You keep running outside but start throwing in crack blocks from WRs and TEs. Well, they’re not actually crack blocks as those have been outlawed, but you get the picture.

On this first play above we’re running an under center toss play to the boundary out of a condensed FIB look. Grubb gets things started with a bit of pre-snap window dressing by putting Rome Odunze in jet motion to the field to fake the Jet Sweep. Like the motion used in the earlier play I broke down, USC’s base adjustment to cross-formation motion is to rotate a safety down towards the motion, and in this case, they also rotate a DB off the line on the boundary side. This leaves an incredibly favorable run look towards the boundary. USC’s again playing a 3-man front with only a 1-tech DT on the line to the boundary side and four defenders off the ball. Our blocking scheme here is basically a pin-n-pull concept where everyone on the play side of the line is either down blocking the DL to their inside shoulder or pulling out in front of Johnson.

Polk and Jackson as the WRs at the point of attack have the key blocks. Polk has a LB playing him in press man coverage, so he has to block him 1v1 in the toughest block at the point of attack. He has no favorable angles and is at a size disadvantage, but at least Polk can get into him right at the snap and just has to get in the way from him making the play. Jackson on the other hand, with no one directly in front of him, has the equivalent of a down/crack block on the nearest LB to him. I’ve mentioned it in past Film Study articles, but blocking match ups are as important as coverage match ups, but favorable angles can be your friend. Jackson blocking a much larger LB isn’t ideal, but with a down/crack angle of attack, Jackson might be able to catch him off guard and at a bare minimum slow him down from making the play on Johnson. Why do we want Jackson blocking the LB? Well, by taking care the LB with Jackson, we are now able to put Brailsford and Rosengarten on a safety and CB. With the way cut blocking rules are being enforced, DBs either have to take on our OL head on or get out of the way (instead of just submarining the OL out in space). Johnson cuts upfield at the perfect time to get behind his blockers and he’s off to the races for a huge gain to kick start our final scoring drive.

Later in the same drive, but down in the red zone, we roll with the same run concept out of a slightly different look against a different front that yields a different (positive) outcome. We are again using a condensed bunch formation to set up the play, but instead of running the play out of an under center look into the boundary with motion window dressing, we are now running out of Pistol and towards the field. Like the earlier play, the run concept is designed to get front side pulling offensive linemen out in space to block DBs while the WRs/TEs in the play side bunch are trying to pin LBs and DL inside with good angles. Because this is a gap play with a designed target, the blocking assignments need to conform to whichever front the defense presents. In this case, because we are running to the field and the defense has overhang defenders off ball and outside of the bunch, we need to reassign the blocking assignments for the WRs from down/crack blocks to be outside release reach blocks.

Pre-snap, Westover is matched up on #23 because he is up on the line over Westover, and post-snap he initially blocks #23. However, with #13 coming on the delayed blitz inside of Westover, Westover shifts his focus to #13 in order to stop an unblocked blitz blowing up the play in the backfield. It’s the right move, but that shift in blocking assignment post-snap throws off the timing of everything. Polk initially checks if he should be blocking #23 after the snap, but because Westover had him picked up at the snap, Polk moved on to a different defender and #23 was allowed to flow with the play unblocked. With Jackson making a great block on the safety #27, had the intended blocking assignment worked out, Johnson should’ve been in a 1v1 against the other safety #7 at the goal line. Fortunately, Johnson is a great talent at RB and nearly had the TD anyways.

My main take away from this play is that even when the play doesn’t go as planned pre-snap, every one of our players on the field are familiar enough with the blocking schemes and strong enough in their technique that there will be opportunities for Johnson to make a play on most run calls.

1st Quarter - 13:12 - 1st & 10 || 1st Quarter - 12:11 - 2nd & 3

Jumping over to the other side of the ball, there is a lot to unpack on our defense’s performance. There’s been a lot of hand wringing over how ineffective the defense seemed against the Trojans, but I have a more optimistic view of things. Yes, we gave up far more points than I’d like, but Caleb Williams won the Heisman for a reason. By my count, USC scored three TDs off of broken plays that Williams’ turned into scoring plays just on his own talent. If you exclude those plays, the final score looks a lot different. However, that isn’t to say that we don’t have a lot to figure out.

One key component of USC’s early game plan was the use of Zone Run RPOs that attacked the field side flats. These types of RPOs have been around for years at this point, and there are a nearly limitless number of ways to run these RPOs to get the same effect. They’ve stuck around even as defenses have made adjustments to handle RPOs because this family of RPOs build off of a time-tested offensive concept: the Triple Option.

In the old school Veer Triple Option, there are three options (duh) for the QB to decide where to distribute the ball to. Looking at the diagram above, the first option (1) is to hand off on the dive, the second option (2) is for the QB to run off tackle, and the third option (3) is for the QB to pitch the ball out wide to another RB. The QB is reading two different defenders to make his decision on which option to go with. Typically these are the play side DE/EDGE and a play side LB or safety. When run properly, the QB can neutralize the “read” defenders by distributing the ball to where they’re not and provide horizontal stress on the defense’s gap integrity. The Zone-Flat RPO family takes this horizontal stress to the next level by replacing the pitch option with a pass into the flat to a TE or WR and tagging this onto the backside of an Outside Zone run. Outside Zone already stresses a defense by forcing the defensive front to flow with the blocking front towards the point of attack, but by pairing that with the extended the pitch point out on the sideline (the pass to the flat), the defense has to account for almost the entire width of the field all at once. It’s a tough play to defend, and it’s even harder when it’s run by a Heisman QB with talented skill position talent around him.

This play from USC’s first possession is a great example of why it’s so hard to defend. On this play, USC is running a Split Zone-Flat RPO with TE exit motion. Prior to the snap, USC is aligned in a 3x1 shotgun FIB (formation into boundary) formation. At the snap, USC is motioning their TE across the formation at full speed towards the field. Our defense adjusts by rotating our field safety to match the TE and we end up in a single-high safety look. This leaves us with 2v2 over the TE and field side WR. Hypothetically everyone on that side of the field can be covered in man coverage, but with a Split Zone-Flat RPO, the offense is bringing yet another player across the formation (#16) post-snap. When the LBs and other second level defenders need to flow with the OZ run to the boundary, the Slice receiver (#16) can get lost in the traffic thereby creating a 2v3 situation on the field side.

We have ZTF and Ulofoshio playing conservatively on the backside of the OZ run, so Williams has the time to process that our secondary is late in shifting over to cover #16. Williams pulls the ball, even though he has an advantageous run look, and dumps the ball off to #16 for a gain of 9 yards.

Later on the same drive we are facing a similar RPO in the Zone-Flat family. This time, instead of a Split Zone look, USC is running a basic Inside Zone run concept with a TE Arrow route into the field side flat. Since there isn’t the motion or cross formation Slice-Arrow route like on the previous play, our defense has a much easier time in defending it. Mishael Powell immediately knows that he has to pick up the TE in the flat and doesn’t need to navigate traffic to get to him. The Trojans are running a more basic RPO without the pre-snap motion because they are in their up tempo mode, but the basic horizontal stress of the concept and the fact that they are able to get their TE isolated in space against a defense that isn’t fully set at the snap means that they are still able to get a decent gain for the first down.

There isn’t an easy way of defending all three options given the structure of either of these plays (also a favorite play of the quacks), but there are a couple of ways of stopping it. At a high level, the two most obvious schematic/structural ways are to utilize 2-gap techniques on the DL to free up second level LBs or DBs to chase down the three offensive options, or you can use the safeties more actively in the run fits to cover all the space that is created by the play’s horizontal stress. 2-gap techniques for the DL is preferable because it gives the defense more flexibility on the back end to defend the various directions that the pass option could come from, but very few teams have the DL talent and depth to keep up with an up tempo offense that is running these types of RPOs. Using the safeties more actively is an easier option, whether it’s via man coverage across the board in a Cover 0 and playing the 5 OL and QB 6v6 or some other coverage that gets the safeties in the box as extra run defenders. Either way, it forces the defense out of the more conservative pass coverages that are the basis of most defensive schemes.

Realistically, given where our defense is at, if we face an offense that leans on these types of RPOs, our best option might be to force the QB keeper on a consistent basis via our run fit assignments. If we roll the dice by playing a gap down or 2-gap, play man coverage on the receiving threats, and send the EDGEs at the RB, we might be able to force a QB run read. Playing 2-gap will free up our LBs to flow to the QB on a “Scrape Exchange” (EDGE takes the RB from the back side of the play & the LB replaces to pick up the QB). We actually shifted to this strategy later in the game when it seemed like Williams was regularly juking defenders out in space. It was frustrating to watch live, but over the course of the 2nd quarter and 2nd half, Williams visibly ran out of steam trying to make a play on the run against an LB corps that was constantly rotating fresh bodies to chase after him on the QB run read. The strategy isn’t a silver bullet against the RPO, but it eventually forced USC away from their early game plan and forced them to lean on the more one-dimensional drop back passing game that we could defend more conventionally. It also limited Williams’ ability to scramble away from our pass rush on drop back passing plays later in the game. It’s a strategy of attrition, but it was juuuuust effective enough to make the difference.

2nd Quarter - USC Possession Starting at 11:33

Wrapping up this week’s Film Study, we wanted to talk about what happened on this USC possession from the 2nd quarter when it seemed like we were unable to stop their rushing attack, as well as what we can do moving forward to mitigate these types of big runs.

Starting off the drive, USC hits us with a Counter run out of an 11 personnel 2x2 look. We’re playing a single-high coverage with Hampton playing from a deep slot alignment. Worried about getting gashed on the RPOs like earlier in the game, we have a lot of eyes on the backfield mesh point. The key on this is Ulofoshio. Anticipating an RPO or some other option concept, Ulofoshio keeps his eyes on Williams and stays in his position a split second too long. If it were an RPO, Trice would be crashing down the line to take the RB, and Ulofoshio would have to flow out towards the field to make a tackle on Williams in space. Basically, depending on if it’s an option or not, Eddie either has to flow fast towards the field or the boundary to make the play, and any hesitation can take him out of position to make the play on either.

The play ends up being a standard handoff, but the threat of an RPO, and Eddie’s hesitation because of it, completely breaks out run fit. If the RPO wasn’t a threat, and we were just defending a Counter run, we had all the pieces in place. Sekai Afoa-Asoau (#46) would take on the first pulling blocker, Drew Fowler (#54) would scrape over Afoa-Asoau to take on the pulling TE, and then Eddie would scrape over him to make the play on the RB. The center is supposed to block back on Eddie, but in most cases, Eddie is quick enough on a Counter run read to beat the center’s angle to get to the RB. However, since he had to hesitate to read if it was an option play, he gets picked off by the center, and we’re unable to make the tackle until safety help comes from deep.

On the next play, USC hits us with the exact same IZ-Flat RPO play that I broke down in the section above, and again, it’s getting called while USC is running tempo. Our defense isn’t set and doesn’t do a good job in processing their run fits and responsibilities pre-snap. We’ve started to shift our strategy to force the QB run read on these RPOs, but not everyone is set and not everyone gets the memo. Afoa-Asoau attacks the mesh point as the unblocked edge defender that’s getting read by Williams. Most QBs are taught that an attack upfield on an option read is an automatic handoff, the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do here. I say that its the opposite of what we’re trying to do because Fowler has his eyes on the backfield and is coming up behind Afoa-Asoau as if he’s got the scrape exchange read to chase down Williams with the ball. With Afoa-Asoau and Fowler both preoccupied with Williams, we only have the other three defensive linemen and Ulofoshio trying to plug gaps against five offensive linemen. That’s just bad gap integrity, and USC is able exploit it for a big gain that was made worse by the fact that our safeties weren’t in position to read the run at the snap because they were still scrambling to get set when the ball is snapped.

Finally, on the very next play, we finally got set up prior to the snap, but we’re trying to play USC too conservatively to slow their rushing onslaught. Worried about another big run, we kept Nunley so deep (~20 yards deep) that he’s completely out of the broadcast angle at the snap. Theoretically, playing a single-high coverage is okay if it gets another body in the box, but with USC in a spread 3x1 trips look, we actually end up playing with only a 5-man box. We’re trying to play one of our base hybrid zone adjustment coverages and are keeping 4 defenders over 3 receivers to the field. That in a vacuum is fine since it adheres to basic spread defense principles, but the combination of keeping your single deep safety ~20 yards deep AND playing 4 over 3 coverage to the field (thereby taking Tuputala out of position to make a play on an inside of boundary side run) is just far too conservative pass defense to also be effective against the run. At the snap, USC is too smart on offense to not know that they have enough blockers to get guaranteed yards running to their left. That’s exactly what happened, and USC’s RB is able to out run Tuputala’s pursuit from a bad starting alignment and Nunley’s poor angle from deep.

All three plays had their own defensive issues, but not a single one was because we didn’t have the guys to stop what USC called. In each play, we were out of position or trying to defend too many options too conservatively. We need to tune up our on-field operation getting set for plays against an up tempo offense, but we also need put our players in a position to succeed by letting them play fast. Against an RPO based offense like USC where they have a mobile QB, we have to call more aggressive coverages that bring all 11 defenders into position to make a play against the run. It’s not about getting a +1 advantage in the box against option teams. It’s about getting a +2 advantage because the option will neutralize take one defender. Given our depth in the secondary and the shuffle of the line up against USC, I suspect that our on-field operations and comfort calling more aggressive coverages will improve moving forward as guys get healthier and return from seemingly non-season ending injuries.

Awgs’ Bonus Play(s) of the Week

This week we got a plethora of bonus plays, starting with Zion Tupuola-Fetui absolutely showing his love and heart for both the game and his team with a monumental play before half.

That turnover led to Germie Bernard showing his value with run blocking (this was Coach B’s personal request for a bonus clip).

Mr. Penix Jr. wraps up Film Study by adding another highlight to his Heisman campaign showing off his ability to scramble as needed and his immaculate touch hitting Culp where only he could catch it.

Quick note from Coach B: Awgs and I had quite the rollercoaster of emotions watching this play.

*Penix rolls out

This is your Heisman moment!

*Penix approaches the sideline

Never mind just kidding...

*Penix is basically on the sideline

Just throw it away!

*Penix lofts the ball down the sideline

What are you doing!?!?

*Culp comes out of nowhere for the reception

Yup, just like we drew it up