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Film Study: Michigan State Spartans

The Dawgs dominate with another explosive offensive performance and maybe... a rushing attack?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 Washington at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Another game in the books and another week to add to Penix’s Heisman campaign. QB1 delivers yet again in his return to East Lansing and a Big Ten stadium. His WRs were absolutely dominant high pointing numerous passing throughout the game as the Spartans got yet another taste (as if last year’s upset at Husky Stadium was not enough) of what is hopefully to come when UW makes the transition to the conference next year. The Huskies bounce back with their most complete and dominant performance this season and just in time for Pac-12 play which begins this Saturday.

Despite having a phenomenal performance, dominance on this level is actually harder to breakdown schematically. The staff didn’t need to dig into their bag of tricks to scheme up a huge performance. A steady dose of base concepts and sound execution of the game plan was more than enough to let our talent shine. Like we’ve said before on Film Study, the difference is in the details, and this week we again wanted to focus on the details that set our staff and team apart.

To the Film.

1st Quarter - 12:02 - 1st & 10

Our offense hit the ground running, or whatever the passing equivalent of that saying is, like only Grubb & Penix could, with an absolute laser downfield to open up the first drive. Thanks to the defense, the offense started off in great field position without any situational handcuffs, and Grubb took advantage.

We roll with 11 personnel to open the series and line up in a 2x2 condensed formation with Polk and Culp to the boundary and McMillan and Odunze to the field. As we’ve seen in the past, Grubb likes to use a wide variety of motions, shifts and formations to create advantageous situations for our players. However, what isn’t always noted is how he also manipulates WR splits to both enhance route spacing for specific concepts and also to draw specific coverage responses from defenses. Certain splits allow for easier route timing for certain portions of the route tree than others. For example, it is easier to throw to an outbreaking route when it’s run from the boundary slot than when it’s run from outside the numbers on the field side because of how far the throw is and how much space the WR has to continue running his route to maintain his separation before he runs into other coverage or the sideline.

Given these basic principles, defensive play calling generally plays off of an offense’s tendency to pair certain routes with certain formations. This is where Grubb’s 3D chess comes into play. Michigan State is lined up in their base 2-high shell to match the balanced 2x2 formation, and they’re likely playing their base Quarters coverage. However, Grubb knows that Michigan State likes to rotate post-snap into Cover 3 out of their 2-high shell, so wants to limit what types of Cover 3 they could rotate into by baiting them with the formation. This season, Grubb has called a lot of passing plays that attacked the middle of the field out of condensed formations, and we’ve seen a lot of crossers and deep curls over the middle out of condensed formations in particular. If MSU wants to protect themselves against crossers and curl routes into the underneath middle zones, then they’ll want to call Cover 3 Buzz with a safety rotating down into the middle hook zone. Furthermore, they’ll want to rotate their boundary safety down underneath because the potential crossing route is more likely to come from the boundary side where the WR can run into the open space on the far side of the formation.

With the formational bait set, Grubb then paired it with a passing concept that could attack either of the two likely coverages. As you can see in the All-22 angle above, we’re running a Smash concept to the field and a Curl-Flat to the boundary. There’s a zillion different route combinations that could be considered “Smash”, but 99% involve a corner route with an underneath route to create a Hi-Lo read on the CB. In this case, McMillan is running the corner with Odunze running a deep 12-yard out underneath.

I’m almost certain that the Smash concept was the primary read all the way because of the depths of the routes. All zone coverage turns into man coverage at a certain depth, and the depth of the out route looks to be testing that. If MSU was running Quarters, the CB over Odunze would convert into man coverage ~9-yards deep where Odunze’s deep out would hold him at 12-yards, and McMillan could bend his corner route towards the sideline with outside leverage on the safety. If MSU rotated into Cover 3 with the field safety rolling away from McMillan, as Grubb was baiting them to do with the formation, then the CB over Odunze would still convert to quasi-man coverage ~12-yards deep, and McMillan could make the sight adjustment on his route to keep it in the opening up the seam but throttle down to avoid running back into a returning field safety. McMillan’s ability to read the coverage response to the formation and adjust his route is the key to him getting so wide open.

One other key detail that we wanted to point out is the protection. Its easier to see on the broadcast angle than the All-22 that Dillon Johnson has stepped into Wayne Taulapapa’s pass protector role in the backfield very nicely. We’re running a 6-man Jet protection with a check & release from Culp on the boundary. We’re sliding the protection to the right with only Fautanu staying in man-to-man on the backside. Johnson’s protection assignment is to read the backside blitz inside-out from the backside B-gap out. MSU brings their field LB tight off of Buelow’s hip, and Johnson steps up to wall him off. It’s not an easy block considering that he’s coming from Penix’s right and is supposed to carry out a play action fake before picking up a blitzing LB with a full head of steam. It’s blocks like this that Grubb’s said is separating the RBs on our depth chart, and without that key block, Penix wouldn’t have had the time to deliver the strike downfield to McMillan.

1st Quarter - 8:15 - 3rd & 8

Next up we have a defensive play that highlights our defensive game plan and why it was so effective against Michigan State. The Spartan offense hadn’t shown itself to be to be a threat through the air heading into our game this past weekend, but they do have a couple of weapons on the perimeter who could win 1-on-1s. The problem for their offense was Kim’s erratic play. In their season opener against CMU, they had a sluggish performance until they went into their 2-minute drill and let Kim take 1-read shots downfield. We saw a little bit of that towards the end of the first half. However, if we could bait Kim into making rushed pre-snap reads, there were plays to be made on defense.

Here on 3rd & 8, MSU is in an obvious passing situation with a 2x2 shotgun spread formation. As we’ve done regularly this season, we are showing a Cover 0 man blitz look with 7-men on the LOS. Coach Inge mentioned in this year’s Coaches Clinic that he loves to bring guys up to the LOS to create simulated pressure. Simulated pressure is when you present a defensive front that elicits a specific pass protection adjustment that you can then exploit to create 1v1s without bringing all of the potential blitzers. Simulated pressure looks don’t always have to be 7-man fronts, but since MSU is in a spread set and can only present a 6-man protection, Kim has to prepare for the worst case scenario where there is a free rusher, and he has to get the ball out immediately. That rushed pass is as good as an actual pressure.

Instead of rushing all 7 on a Cover 0 blitz, we instead drop 8 in a Cover 3, 5 under, zone coverage. With 4 DBs standing at the sticks, we are well-positioned to both drop into deep coverage if Kim decides to heave a 50-50 ball downfield while also flooding the underneath zones with LBs who can rally to make the tackle. Mixing up our heavy pressure looks with very conservative coverage post-snap muddies the water for QBs and can bait less experienced QBs into poor decisions and rushed throws.

2nd Quarter - 6:50 - 2nd & 3

Next up, we head back over to the offensive side of the ball for the 2nd of Jack Westover’s 3 TDs on the day. For as omni-present it feels like Westy’s been over the years, he’s never been a prominent fixture on the box score. In fact, his 3 TDs against Michigan State actually doubled his career TDs mark. Instead of scoring or hauling in passes downfield for explosive plays, Westover has been a Swiss Army knife in both the run and pass games. He’s played everywhere from in-line TE to H-back to FB to Slot and even out on the perimeter in a WR alignment, all while exhibiting reliably soft hands, strong blocking, and a blend of athleticism and toughness that is tough to match up with in the open field. Its that credible versatility that makes him so dangerous in a goal line situation like this play.

On this play we’re facing 2nd & 3 on the 13-yard line, and our offense is well into the MSU red zone. Given our inconsistent rushing, we’ve had to get creative in the red zone, and an RPO like the one run in this play is something that we’ve set up throughout the season. Given our tendencies, and the fact that we are running an RPO, we want to do everything possible to make the defense think that we’re a credible threat to run the ball. As avid Film Study readers should know by now, Grubb lets his formations and personnel groupings do a lot of the heavy lifting for his play designs, and this play is no different. Here, we break the huddle with 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs). Against 12 personnel, a typical defensive response would be to match with their heavier base personnel (4-3 in this case), which is exactly what they do. Now that we have them in the run defense-heavy personnel that we want, Grubb moves around the chess pieces.

We set up our 12 personnel in a 2x2 formation with Odunze (WR1) and Westover (detached in the slot) to the boundary with tight splits, Moore in a wing/H-Back alignment to the field, Polk out side to the field, and Nixon in the backfield aligned to the boundary away from the TE. One of Grubb’s favorite run plays is Inside Zone Slice with a frontside H-back cutting back across the formation to kick out the backside EDGE, and we’ve run IZ Slice out of an almost identical formation numerous times with the only difference being Westover in the slot.

For the actual RPO concept, Grubb pairs a triangle read Post-Wheel-Arrow route combination with the aforementioned IZ slice. If the CB on the LOS tries to jam Odunze’s inside release Post/Slant. then Westover gets a free release behind him on the Wheel with a natural “pick” on the mismatched LB. If the CB gives Odunze a free release, and both the CB and the LB over Westover switch the their assignments on the switch release the Post & Wheel vertically, then Moore would have open grass in the flat for the first down. The only way for all three routes to be covered is if the ILB immediately triggers downhill into the flat to cover Moore (which would present a 5v4 blocking advantage for the run play) or if the boundary safety flies into the flats at the snap to cover Moore (which would again trigger a handoff with an even 5v5 blocking situation).

It’s a complicated read for Penix to make in a split second, but to summarize, its set up for Westover as the primary pass read with the “pick”, an athletic mismatch, and a LB who would rarely have to cover a switch release in space working to Westover’s advantage, or it’d be a handoff read. In the end, it was an easy pitch and catch down the sideline for the TD.

3rd Quarter - 12:56 - 2nd & 3

Finally, we have our most explosive conventional run play of the season. After a couple of weeks working through various OL and RB line ups that have been rocked by injuries, we seem to be getting our run game figured out. As we all know, we have a strong pass protecting offensive line, but the traits that we look for to keep Penix’s pocket clean aren’t always the same ones that help to open lanes for our RBs. In general, taller linemen with longer reach, like Kalepo, Buelow, and Mele, hold up better in pass protection but struggle to maintain leverage and move defenders off the line when run blocking. That height/length can make up for deficiencies in footspeed/athleticism in pass protection, and you can be good in pass protection with one or the other. Looking at it the other way, you can have a slow footed but strong pass protecting offensive line, which is what it seemed like at times with our initial OL line up. That is also why figuring out the run game against Boise and Tulsa wasn’t as simple as running more Outside Zone.

To further complicate things, not every RB is well-suited for a zone-based blocking scheme. Zone RBs need to have good vision and a good rapport with their OL, as well as high-end short area burst, but you can pretty much point a RB towards a specific gap on a gap run concept and tell them to run as fast as they can. Obviously I’m dramatically over simplifying gap runs, but you can get the idea. There’s a lot less reading of blocks, and you don’t need to make sudden cuts to take advantage of cutback lanes (which is good for a guy like Dillon Johnson who is playing at <100%). Against MSU, we leaned more heavily on gap runs, and the early returns suggest that we may have found something that works for both our OL and our RBs.

On the play above, we are running the gap run concept GT Counter out of an 11 personnel Trips Nub formation. Like traditional Power run plays, Counter plays involve two backside blockers pulling to the point of attack (C-Gap just outside the OT) with one blocker kicking out the “End Man on the Line of Scrimmage” (aka EMLOS or typically the EDGE) and the second puller turning upfield inside of the kick out block to lead for the RB. The play side offensive linemen would block down the line of scrimmage and essentially wall off the inside of the C-Gap to create the other side of the RB’s lane. The GT in GT Counter means that the backside Guard & Tackle are pulling, and its common to see GH Counter (Guard & H-Back) and Counter Trey (Tackle & TE). However, Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma offenses popularized GT Counter as a base run play for “Spread” offenses that didn’t want to substitute a WR for a TE/H-Back just to be able to run Counter.

The reason why GT Counter wasn’t popular prior to Riley’s Oklahoma offenses was because few teams had a good answer for stopping a backside EDGE or backside 3-tech DT from flying into the backfield behind the pulling Guard & Tackle to blow up the play. Riley’s solution was to use a combination of Jet motion, reading the backside EDGE on an option, and RPOs to constrain these backside DL. Our solution wasn’t schematic, but it was actually talent. With Parker Brailsford in at Center in place of an injured Matteo Mele, we suddenly had one of our most athletic offensive linemen at a key position for the run game. Brailsford is one of the few offensive linemen who is athletic enough to block the backside 3-tech DT without help. Blocking the 3-tech on a GT Counter doesn’t require much power since he only needs to get enough of a block on the DT to prevent the chase down block, but the hard part is being laterally quick enough to even get into position to get to the block. Do you know who was the last UW Center who could consistently make that block? Nick Harris.

In a weird way, and in no way is this a knock on Mele, we may have stumbled into a reshuffled OL line up that actually upgrades our run game by getting the right pieces into the right positions to run the blocking schemes that fit our RBs. If Buelow returns to the line up healthy enough to at least maintain his pass protection, then this change might be a net improvement overall with a potential blueprint for our run game just in time for conference play to begin.

Awgs’ Bonus Play of the Week

Ja’Lynn Polk defines being in the right place at the right time in this absolute rollercoaster of a play to take this week’s honors.