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Film Study: 2023 Pac-12 Championship

The Dawgs prove in Vegas that they can duke it out with anyone

2023 Pac-12 Championship - Oregon v Washington Photo by Ian Maule/Getty Images

In yet another college football classic, your Washington Huskies take down the Oregon Ducks for the second time this season to claim the final Pac-12 Championship and clinch a berth in the College Football Playoffs. The (under)Dawgs played arguably their best game all year and coincidentally enough, they were the healthiest they have been in awhile. Everyone and everything were firing on all cylinders: the long bomb throws were back, the defense stood pat, and the line of scrimmage was dominated on both sides of the ball.

The magical season continues as next up is a date and rematch with Texas in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day in the playoffs. Until then, soak it all in Husky Nation!!

“SAY WHO? SAY WHAT? SAY WHO SAY DAWGS AIN’T BAD ***”

Note from Coach B: Bear with me... Another win over Oregon means another spicy Awgs on this week’s Film Study.

To the film.

That’s all folks!

Just kidding. Actually to the film this time.

1st Quarter - 2:39 - 3rd & 1

First up this week, we wanted to talk about the strong defensive performance. On the first few Oregon possessions, as well as at other points in the game, it looked like we turned back the clock, and we were playing with the swagger of the Death Row Dawgs defense. The defense was playing fast and loose against an Oregon offense that conceivably should’ve had the blue print and talent to exploit our known weaknesses.

For the second half of the season, I’ve had to come here to Film Study and talk about how our defensive game plan revolved around hanging on on early downs long enough to catch offenses in passing situations. We haven’t been all that strong against the run, and we haven’t been great tackling in space. Oregon’s entire offense revolves around getting their shifty offensive weapons the ball in space or behind a convoy of road graders up front. One would’ve expected them to lean on those advantages, but that simply wasn’t the case. For whatever reason (I suspect it was our improved health in the secondary with Asa Turner and Kamren Fabiculanan returning to the line up), our defense played lights out early against the run. Our LBs were flying to the ball and plugging gaps in a manner that we hadn’t seen since September. Now you might ask yourself, “well why did you include this play in Film Study?” Great question. We chose this play because it highlights what our defense can do when we don’t have a glaring weakness to exploit.

On this play, Oregon has us facing a 3rd & 1, and as I alluded to earlier, this has been a situation where pretty much every Husky fan would just throw up their hands, assume we’d give up the first down on an easy run play, and hope we’d be able to hold them to a longer 3rd down later in the drive rather than just holding them to a stop right here. Well, when we have our secondary at full strength, we can play things a lot more aggressively at all levels. On this play, Oregon lines up in a 2x2 shotgun formation with 11 personnel, and we match with our base 4-2-5 personnel. However, unlike in past weeks, we have the players on the field to force Oregon’s hand. With Turner back in the line up, Coach Inge and Coach Morrell have DB personnel across the board that they trust to play Cover 0 man coverage. Jackson (#25), Turner (#20), and Muhammad (#1) are locked onto the three WRs, and Hampton (#7) and Powell (#3) have the TE (also #3) and RB (#0) in man coverage respectively. What does that do for our run defense? Well, as you might’ve picked up already, we are able to stack the box with eight defenders, five of whom are on the LOS. Against Oregon’s six blockers, we are at a significant advantage against the run.

Not only do we have a pure numbers advantage against the run, but we also have an advantage when it comes to run fit responsibilities. Our two DTs and ZTF are kicked inside to clog the interior gaps and “encourage” Oregon to run outside or to pass, and because we have Hampton and Powell up in the box playing man coverage against the TE and RB, everyone else in the box can flow hard to attack the ball carrier in the backfield without having to second guess their coverage responsibilities. Oregon ends up running a sprint out pass on this play, so the run fit and responsibilities point is seemingly moot, but it is still a key factor in this run play.

As Nix (#10) sprints out to his left, our LBs are able to mirror him down the LOS to close any potential creases for a first down scramble, and Trice is able to play fast on the backside pursuit to put pressure on Nix. There are only so many ways to shut down a mobile QB who is a dangerous passer off script, and most of them include scheming up ways to commit defenders to generating pressure while staying gap sound. In this case, by playing Cover 0 man coverage, we had extra defenders to play contain/spy (the LBs) while the defensive front forced a quick decision or force the sack (Trice & Powell on the sprint out side).

Long story short, we might not have the players up front to line up in conventional fronts to stop the run with even numbers, but its looking like we have the DBs and play calls to force offenses out of the run and still hold up against the pass.

2nd Quarter - 8:52 - 3rd & 4

Speaking of the pass defense, we wanted to throw this play in to highlight that this secondary did get tested, and it meant business. Again facing a 3rd & medium situation with Oregon in both scoring position and possible four down territory, we weren’t afraid to play this offense aggressively in coverage. The Ducks are again lined up in a 2x2 shotgun formation with 11 personnel, and we match it with our 4-2-5 personnel. Like the last play, we’re rolling the dice with a version of Cover 0 man coverage, but this time we aren’t selling out to stop the run. Instead, we are playing a more pass-oriented version of Cover 0 that rushes four but puts our extra defenders in underneath Robber coverage.

Like the last play, we have every WR capped by a DB over the top, but instead of putting the the Husky and a safety in the box, we have Kamren Fabiculanan (#13) playing a shallow centerfield safety alignment and Powell (#3) over the slot receiver. This still leaves us with seven in the box against a 6-man blocking front (+1 advantage), but KamFab playing out of the box gives us a little more flexibility to get creative on the back end. Oregon is running a Double Slant concept to the field and a Slant-Flat concept to the boundary between the WR and RB, as well as a clear out Seam route from the TE.

What is cool about this coverage design is how we deploy KamFab to take away Oregon’s quick game on the field side. Instead of playing conservatively with the safeties sitting back to hedge against a vertical pass play, we’re letting KamFab be a playmaker against the easier quick pass coming from the slot. At the snap, Powell plays over the top of the slot receiver’s route while KamFab sits, reads, and then breaks to under cut the slot receiver’s slant in an inverted bracket coverage double team on the slot. Typically, vertical bracket coverage double teams (high-low) involve a CB playing underneath and a safety over the top, but that is really hard to play over the slot since the CB typically can’t press the WR, and it usually leaves both DBs out of position to make a play on the ball. With this inverted bracket, Powell provides the deep coverage on the slot, and KamFab can sit and read the QB’s eyes to break on the ball if it goes to the slot. Additionally, since neither DB is playing up on the WR, it gives the QB the illusion that the WR is open, at which point KamFab can jump out of his deeper alignment to rob the route (which is why this is also known as Trap coverage).

Nix ends up throwing the longer pass to the outside WR’s slant, but because its farther out on the perimeter, Muhammad’s able to adjust to the route and break up the pass in tight coverage. Quick passes to the perimeter (especially to the wide side of the field) are always more difficult, which is why our coverage is designed to set the trap on the easier slot routes and force the safer reads for the QB to the perimeter.

One last note on this play that I wanted to point out was our match ups on the TE and RB. Last week on Film Study, we really harped on the staff’s match ups in man coverage and how we weren’t doing Hampton any favors by putting him in coverage against shifty slot receivers. Well, against Oregon, the match ups and alignments made a lot more sense. Instead of playing out in space against a slot, against Oregon, Hampton was consistently lined up against TEs and RBs in man coverage. Now you might ask why that’s any better since Bucky Irving (Oregon RB, #0) is one of the most prolific pass catching RBs in the country and is one of the shiftiest players on Oregon’s offense, but it makes sense in the context of run fits. By playing Hampton on the TE or RB, like we did on this play and the last play, we were able to get him into the box on a consistent basis. This further discouraged Oregon from simply running the ball, and it also allowed Hampton to play downhill against a potential pass catcher who had a more limited route tree (i.e. fewer two way goes). On this particular play, Hampton’s picking up Irving into the flat where all he needs to do is read the outbreaking route stem and hustle to the sideline to takeaway the dump off pass. Between that coverage assignment with Hampton and deploying KamFab in robber coverage, we got a lot more play making out of our safeties on this play and over the course of the whole game. We were able to make plays and get the safeties involved more regularly to disrupt the offense, and that led to a much more active defense.

2nd Quarter - 7:19 - 2nd & 6

Jumping over to the offensive side of the ball, we wanted to look at two plays that exhibit the X-factor that is Jalen McMillan. We’ve been able to maintain our high-flying offensive production for most of this season on the back of the Penix-Odunze connection, but what we saw in Vegas was a much needed reminder of our offense’s limitless ceiling when our WR corps is at full strength.

Here on 2nd & 6, we’re at about mid-field in a shot situation. 3rd & 6 is manageable from a conventional game management perspective, and depending on how the staff is feeling about the overall flow of the game, it could be four down territory. Dialing up a good shot play in this situation, especially against an Oregon defense that had been playing aggressively on the back end, is basically playing with house money. With that in mind, Grubb calls a 3-route shot play with 7-man protection out of 11 personnel lined up in a 3x1 trips nub formation.

A trips (3 WRs to the same side) nub formation (TE attached to the OL as the solo receiving threat to his side) is great at setting up shot plays because it forces the defense to declare match ups and coverages ahead of time and allows our offense to check out of the play if they don’t like the look. Prior to the snap, Oregon lines up in a MUG look that puts six DL/LBs on the LOS with five DBs back at or behind the line to gain. As we’ve gotten familiar with this season, one of the main reasons why defenses play MUG looks is because it can help disguise underneath zone coverage since any of their six defenders on the LOS could hypothetically drop into coverage. What the nub formation does for us is is that it confirms that Oregon is in some form of zone coverage and forces them to keep a DB on Westover’s side of the formation even though he’s staying in to block. This leaves just three DBs dedicated to our three WRs on the trips side.

As you can see a little easier on the replay angle, we’re running a three route shot concept to the trips side. Rome Odunze is running a deep Dig route, Jalen McMillian is running a deep Corner, and Polk has a slow-play release on an check-down Out route. The combination of Rome’s Dig and McMillan’s Corner is develops very similarly to the Yankee concept that pairs a Dig/Crosser from one side of the formation with a Post route from the opposite side of the formation. On Yankee, the Dig/Crosser is designed to occupy the deep coverage, setting up the Post run over the top in a 1v1 with inside leverage on a CB. By running this route combination from the same side, and with a Corner route attacking the safety instead of a Post route attacking a CB, Grubb is able to set up a better match up for McMillan while also guaranteeing preferred outside leverage on the Corner and the same high-low stress on the outside CB in 13 field deep coverage. Oregon’s outside CB (#8) bit on Odunze’s route, and McMillan was able to run his route into the space behind the CB for the long gain. It’s a unique riff on the Yankee concept that works to perfection and capitalizes on McMillan’s outstanding deep speed for a predominantly slot-based receiver.

One other player to highlight on this play is Dillon Johnson in pass protection. Johnson’s played a huge part in our pass protection all year, but this play is just another reminder that he’s as important to our offense when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands as when he does. Oregon’s running a safety blitz right up the middle, and while it wasn’t the prettiest block, Johnson sniffed out the safety blitz right at the snap, stepped up into the gap in the line, and stood his ground through contact to prevent the free hit on Penix. Penix has been inconsistent with pressure up the middle (as most QBs are), but most QBs would get happy feet if they saw a safety come screaming through the middle of the line even if they had their RB in position to make a block. However, Penix stood tall in the pocket and let the play develop downfield because he has such high confidence in Johnson’s pass protection. Without the time and confidence in Johnson, this huge play wouldn’t have been possible.

2nd Quarter - 2:47 - 1st & 10

The last play highlighted what McMillan brings to the offense as a secondary vertical threat, particularly from the slot position, but we chose this play to highlight his other, arguably more valuable skill set that was missing from our offense; his yards after catch playmaking. Unlike Oregon’s passing attack that focuses on the quick perimeter passing and yards after catch (YAC), our passing attack has leaned on Penix’s elite arm talent and our tremendous WR corps to attack downfield. Early in the season, we were able to hit on enough of these plays to stay efficient, but as the schedule and competition got tougher, we weren’t able to hit on those downfield passes as consistently. We shifted our attack to incorporate more rushing and some quick passing to the perimeter, but we never really got into a rhythm when it came to consistent and high efficiency quick passing because YAC simply weren’t Rome or Polk’s best qualities. They are outstanding athletes and sure handed downfield receiving options, but they don’t have the shiftiness that McMillan brings to offense.

Here on this play, Grubb calls a Verts concept with a pre-snap Jet motion with McMillan. The play is designed to fake a Jet Sweep to McMillan but gets the RB downfield as a part of the Verts concept. McMillan is just the check down option on the play, but with the defense selling out to cover the vertical routes, Penix dumps the ball off to McMillan in the flat against the MLB (#2). It’s an obvious mismatch in space, and McMillan is able to take the pass and turn it into a 19-yard gain by himself. It’s a creative play design from Grubb, but McMillan did all the heavy lifting to make the play successful. If we can turn a handful of well-covered downfield plays from incompletions or check downs for minimal gains into chunk yardage plays like this one, or if we can mix in a few quick passes to stress defenses horizontally and take pressure off of the run game or downfield passing game, then there really is no good answer to defending our offense.

McMillan’s complementary skill set on these last two plays perfectly summarize how well all of our offensive talent complement each other, and between his vertical and open field skill sets, his is the catalyst that turbo charges the entire offense.

4th Quarter - 13:48 - 1st & Goal (8-yd Line) & 12:26 - 3rd & Goal (1-yd Line)

Finally this week, we wanted to take a minute to appreciate how well Johnson and our OL did in asserting their dominance over a very talented Oregon defensive front, as well as break down what made it work so well. Both of these plays came from the same goal line series early in the fourth quarter when we had figured out how to run on Oregon’s defense and started to throw haymakers.

On this first play, we’re lined up on 1st & goal from inside the 10-yard line with 11 personnel aligned ina 4x0 formation that has Westover attached to the formation. Grubb dials up a GT Counter (Guard + Tackle pulling) with a TE Screen tagged to the backside as an RPO. Oregon appears to match our formation in a run-minded man coverage call that puts seven defenders in the box against our 6-man blocking front. At the snap, Oregon’s three DBs over our WRs and the field safety all get drawn to the screen play option, which should’ve been the right read for Penix. In theory, we’d have three WRs blocking three DBs and Westover matched up in space against a deep aligned safety. It would’ve been an easy couple of yards to throw to Westover, and we’re at the additional disadvantage of trying to block seven defenders with only the five OL. However, that just further highlights how dominant our run blocking was against Oregon.

Gap run plays like Counter can work against a defense that has the numbers advantage in the box if the defense doesn’t flow to the point of attack (they didn’t do a good job of that), but it can sometimes also take advantage of blocking angle and mismatch advantages where a lineman or two can neutralize more than one defender. That was exactly what happened on this play. Julius Buelow (RG, #77) was the kick out blocker for the Counter on this play. His job is to either kick out the edge defender at the point of attack, or he has to “log” him and seal the edge inside if he’s squeezing the intended gap. Buelow sees that the EDGE (#44) is squeezing the gap, so he turns upfield and pancakes both #44 and the MLB (#4) all on one block. Rosengarten follows right behind Buelow to kick out the off-ball DB, and Johnson drops his shoulder to run over the backside pursuit LB for an extra few yards at the end of a solid 6-yard gain. I also wouldn’t be doing a good job if I didn’t point out Troy Fautanu’s monster pancake at the end of the play where he finished the block through the whistle, 5 yards downfield.

Two plays later, Grubb dials up a simple Inside Zone (IZ) run out of a condensed quasi-bunch formation for a 1-yard TD plunge from Johnson. There’s a lot less going on schematically for this TD play compared to the GT Counter RPO that was called on the last play, but this play does a better job of illustrating the point that I’m trying to make. This isn’t a soft, pass-happy offense. We are willing and capable of lining up toe-to-toe with anyone and run the ball down their throats.

It’s easy for offensive linemen in pass-oriented offenses to lose their edge and the gritty toughness necessary to impose their will in the run game, but that isn’t this unit. Just look at Fautanu on the replay angle. He takes his down block on #55 (former Husky Taki Taimani) and gets yet another monster block to open the hole for Johnson to get into the end zone. That’s a total of four defenders on the ground over just these two run plays that we’ve included in Film Study. It’s plays like these that will set us apart offensively as we make our CFP run against college football’s blue bloods, and it’s also plays like these that earned this OL their spot as a Joe Moore Award finalist for the best offensive line unit in college football.

Awgs’ Bonus Play(s) of the Week

This week’s “plays” go to the man who has made this season all possible: Coach Kalen Deboer. The culture and mindset he brought to the program has been phenomenal, leading to this 13-0 season and Pac-12 Championship. Thank you for bringing so much joy to both the players and the fans since arriving on Montlake. These moments perfectly embody the special year it has been as well as all of Husky Nation.