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Film Study: Boise State Broncos

The offense shakes off the rust, the defense gets after it, and special teams lays the lumber

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Boise State Broncos at Washington Photo by Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Like College Football, Film Study is back, and this season we have a new partner joining the Film Study crew. We want to thank my old partner John Sayler for all the great work he’s done over the years, and we want to welcome Awgs to the crew.

Anyways, this past weekend’s game against Boise was a substantially more dominant performance than many were expecting given that Boise is a pretty strong G5 opponent that is a favorite to win the Mountain West this year. It was relatively slow start for the Huskies, but after finding our footing, our Dawgs put together an excellent 3-phase performance in the 2nd quarter that seized the momentum, and we never looked back.

This week on Film Study, we wanted to take a look a few of those plays from the 2nd quarter to see just what led to our success.

To the film.

2nd Quarter - 12:34 - 3rd & 10

First play up this week, we wanted to take a look at the defense. Last season, the run defense was average, but the passing defense took a huge step back from the Petersen/Lake era defenses that we were accustomed to. A lot of last year’s struggles could be attributed to injuries and youth, but it was also the first year in a completely new scheme. Base coverages were changed, new techniques needed to be mastered, and the play sheet was likely limited to what could be mastered in one offseason. This year’s defense looks quite a bit different.

Here on 3rd & 10, Boise comes out in an 11 personnel 3x1 shotgun look at our 27 yard line. Taylen Green is a young and unpolished pocket passer, so our defense has Boise right where they want them; in a passing situation. Coach Inge and Coach Morrell have said that they want to field an aggressive, press-man/Quarters pressure-oriented defense ever since they’ve arrived on Montlake, and this is exactly where that mentality shines through.

To match Boise’s pre-snap look, our defense runs out one of our 3rd down sub-packages. We swap out our DTs and one of our LBs to field 4 EDGEs, 1 LB, 2 CBs, and 4 Safeties. Voi Tunuufi and Sekai Asoau-Afoa are playing with their hand down on the boundary side, Tuputala is up on the LOS in the field side B gap, Trice and ZTF are aligned in their usual positions, but perhaps the most interesting wrinkle is that we have our starting safeties, Hampton and Turner, lining up over the slot WRs with Fabiculanan and Esteen playing deep safety 15 yards deep.

From Boise’s perspective, our pre-snap look is tough to read. It looks like we are bringing pressure, but with two deep safeties, we’d either need to drop one of our five rush threats on the LOS into coverage or be running some form of zone. Boise gets us to tip our hand by motioning one of their WRs across the formation into the boundary slot to give a 2x2 look, and Hampton travels with him (indicating likely man coverage). This narrows the coverage options for Green down to 2-Man Under (Cover 2 deep, man coverage underneath across the board) where there’s only 4 potential rushers, or its some sort of Cover 1 with a safety rotating into underneath coverage (the safeties were too deep to be a rush threat). Even with a minimal chance that we were bringing extra pressure at the snap based on our pre-snap look, Boise still checked into a 7-man protection, leaving the RB and TE in to block. This left just three receivers releasing downfield at the snap.

At the snap, Boise ran a variation of Smash (out route + corner route), a zone beater concept, to the boundary, and a deep out to the boundary, a tricky man beater to execute. Against this, we are running Cover 1 Robber (sometimes called “Hole” or “Cross”) with a green dog blitz call. What this means is that we are in fact running man coverage across the board, and Fabiculanan is dropping into zone coverage in the mid-field intermediate zone to take away any crossing routes. Elijah Jackson had been burned on a crossing route earlier in the game for a big play, so the Robber call was aimed at taking away that type of man beater route. Up front, Trice, Tunuufi, Sekai, and ZTF rush at the snap, and Tuputala and Turner sit back for a moment to read the RB and TE. Once it becomes clear that both are staying in to block, Tuputala and Turner have the green light to join the rush (the green dog call). That is why it appeared like there were six pass rushers at the end of the play even though we were playing man coverage with 2 safeties playing zone. Green immediately looks to the field side out route knowing that it was likely man coverage, but Davon Banks kept up with him step for step and came away with the PBU.

While we had a lot of plays last year that looked like man coverage, a lot of them were actually match zone coverage calls that translates to man coverage techniques depending on what the offense runs. This year, it looks like we’re going to run a lot more pure man coverage with travelling DBs and amped up pressure packages. Keep an eye out for who is asked to play man-to-man in the slot, and if it continues to be Hampton and Turner, if we continue to have them travel with motion or if we start to mix things up depending on match ups.

2nd Quarter - 5:16 - 1st & 10

Next play up in the 2nd quarter, we have a beautiful deep pass TD from Penix to Polk that shows off how Coach Grubb is utilizing formations to create match ups and how well our offensive line is playing in pass protection to allow Penix to dissect Boise’s coverage.

Here on 1st down from the Boise 44 yard line, we line up in one of Grubb’s favorite formations, 11 personnel Empty with the TE and RB lined up as WR1s on both sides (outside most eligible receiver). This is one of Grubb’s favorites because it forces defenses to provide hints regarding man or zone coverage without needing to run motion, and if it is any variety of zone, then we are able to get our best three receiving threats lined up on safeties and LBs, which are automatic mismatches. It also allows us to run most of our base passing concepts without needing elite route runners at TE and RB. Most of our multi-route passing concepts have the outside receiver running a clear out Go route or a hitch, neither of which are particularly complicated and are mostly there to occupy a defender.

Against our empty set, Boise is playing a single high coverage shell with five players on the LOS threatening to rush. Given the alignment of the field side overhang defender (mid-field over Bernard), the defender is a potential sixth rusher, but he is not an immediate threat. As such, we call a half slide protection towards the boundary where Kalepo, Mele, Brailsford and Rosengarten can pickup the field DT and the three rushers to the boundary and Fautanu is responsible for the field DE man-to-man. If the overhang defender comes on the blitz, then that would be Penix’s hot man to account for.

At the snap, we can see that we are running a slot fade Smash concept (slot fade + hitch for a high-low read) to the boundary with Adams and Odunze and a Mills concept (outside WR post + Dig Route from the slot) to the field with Polk and Bernard (Culp is just running a hitch to occupy the CB). Given the single high shell and the overhang defender’s alignment splitting the LT and WR3, there’s a good chance that this is Cover 3 zone, and Penix makes his reads as such. The slot fade Smash concept on the boundary is a no-go given the slot DB over Rome is aligned 10 yards off the LOS at the snap, so Penix doesn’t even look in that direction. Instead, he immediately looks to the Mills concept. The Mills is a well-known and highly-effective Cover 3 beater because it creates a high-low conflict on the free safety. The Dig route from Bernard (WR3) is aiming to get past the underneath zone defender (the overhang on this play) to threaten and draw the FS. Then, the Post route (Polk) can get behind the FS in a 1v1 against his DB. If the FS drops to double the Post, Penix gets an easy 15 yard completion to Bernard. If the FS steps up to the Dig, its a TD pass to Polk running past an overmatched safety or slot corner without a leverage advantage. The key is giving Penix enough time to make the throw.

On this play, all three of our new starters on the iOL executed the protection call to perfection. Boise dropped their LB into coverage off the LOS and only brought the four DL on the rush. To get some extra pass rush juice on a clear passing situation, Boise ran TE and ET stunts (Tackle-End/End-Tackle) hoping to get a free rusher against inexperienced linemen. In our half slide protection, Kalepo, Mele, Brailsford, and Rosengarten are playing a zone assignment. If there’s a guy rushing in your zone, you block him. If he leaves your zone, you look for the next guy. Like zone run blocking schemes, that zone is from the OL’s centerline towards the slide (to the right in this case). When it comes to DL stunts, the OL needs to keep their head on a swivel and effectively communicate when they are handing off rushers to the adjacent zone to pick up the new on-coming rusher. The trickiest hand off though is at the pivot between the slide and the backside man-to-man blocking (Kalepo and Fautanu). The stunt hand off rule still applies to Kalepo and Fautanu even though Fautanu was supposed to be in man pre-snap. Fortunately every member of our OL communicated the stunts and made the hand offs to perfection, and Penix was able to deliver the 44-yard TD strike.

2nd Quarter - 2:17 - 3rd & 9

Next up we have the first interception of the season coming from Kamren Fabiculanan (my Film Study partner @Awgs’ favorite player). Like the earlier defensive play we broke down, Boise is in a clear passing situation on 3rd down, but this time they are in their own territory. The Broncos come out in a condensed 3x1 bunch formation with the bunch to the field, and we matched with a different sub-package that was more similar to our base nickel personnel. This time, we stuck with our same 4-2-5 personnel group, but we subbed in Ralen Goforth for Eddie U, Fabiculanan for Powell, and Makell Esteen for Dom Hampton.

Pre-snap, we have all six of our DL and LBs on the LOS, plus we have KamFab lined up on the edge. Back deep we have Muhammad, Esteen, Turner, and Banks all playing at the sticks with Esteen (playing the strong safety position) hinting at a single high shell. When we want to play a single high coverage against a trips formation, the strong safety will bump over to the middle of the field and the free safety would play over one of the slot receivers in the trips, but with all four of our back end DBs playing at the sticks, we could be disguising any number of coverages. Given the down and distance, the bunch formation isn’t as dangerous to our typical structures. Instead of putting one of our DBs up on the LOS, we can sit back in coverage and let the WRs make their releases. We’ll be ready for whatever they throw at us.

What Boise ends up running is an alert Go route to the boundary and a switch release Double Dig with an outside snag curl towards the sideline. I hadn’t seen this exact concept before, but it looks like a riff on the Spacing concept and the Stick concept. Spacing and Stick concepts zone coverage beaters that are designed to create lateral conflicts in the underneath zone, and they are typically called against Cover 3 and Cover 4 defenses where there may only be 3 or 4 underneath zone defenders covering up to 5 receiving threats.

Based on a conventional Stick concept progression, the QB would be reading the zone defender between the curl and the adjacent breaking route. On this play our defense is running Cover 3 Sky where Esteen is covering the middle of the field, our two CBs are bailing into their respective deep thirds, and Turner is rotating down into the Curl-Flat zone under Banks. This means that on this play Turner is Green’s first read. As you can see in the clip above, Turner initially drifts out towards the curl, so Green fires his pass to the outside dig adjacent to the curl. However, what Green doesn’t see is that both Fabiculanan and Tuputala drop into underneath coverage at the snap after feigning the blitz. Even if Green did see Fabiculanan initially drop into coverage, it looked like he was covering the inside dig and not the outside dig, but since Fabiculanan knew he had Tuputala dropping into zone alongside him, he was able to hand off that dig and sit on the outside dig breaking into his zone for the pick.

This is a great example of our defense has taken the next step in its mastery of the new system and understanding how the disguises are being designed to set up play making opportunities. This play is also a good example of how the coverage and pressure need to work hand in hand to make these big plays. If Tunuufi wasn’t barreling down the A gap to force Green into a quick decision, then there was a good chance that Green would’ve been able to make his second read and throw to the inside dig route. Tuputala seemed to be dropping to a landmark instead of reading the depth of the routes, and he was dropping with his hips towards the direction of the WRs. Because of this, #3 would’ve been able to get wide open past Tuputala once Fabiculanan passed him off, and he would’ve gotten the first down. However, the pressure got home and forced Green into a bad read.

2nd Quarter - 1:32 - 2nd & 10

One of the cooler play designs that we saw on offense this past week was this last TD of the first half to Jack Westover. This play was a classic Grubb design that incorporated motion, pulling in pass protection, play action, and a new formation with unique personnel alignments to spice up an otherwise basic concept.

On this play we are facing a 2nd & 10 situation in the red zone. We hadn’t been running the ball effectively so far in the game, so from a Boise perspective, it is interesting that we went to a heavier personnel package. Lining up in 12 personnel with both Culp and Westover on the field, it would indicate that we wanted to run the ball here, but as we know, Culp and especially Westover are capable receiving threats. Pre-snap we line up in shotgun Strong-I weak formation with Culp attached on the LOS, Westover lined up as a FB towards Culp’s side, and Nixon also lined up to the boundary. On the field side we have Polk lined up in a tight split as the WR2 and Odunze out wide.

Boise matches this with a quasi-Under front (3-tech away from the TE and the LBs rotated towards the TE to match passing strength), with the boundary CB lined up over Culp on the edge. They also have a single high coverage shell to put an extra body in the box to brace against a run play. In this particular case, because of the run strength into the boundary opposite the passing strength, Boise rotated their safety towards the boundary. This is a key factor in this play’s success because of how Boise accounts for motion.

At the snap, we have Rome running a jet motion fake towards the boundary. Boise accounts for this by bumping over their coverage assignments by one receiver. Typically this just has to be communicated between the LBs as the backside LB would now need to pick up Rome. In the clip above, you can see this adjustment happen live, but where the wheels fall off the wagon for Boise’s defense is at the dropped down safety. On this play, our offense is running a version of 3x1 4 Verts with Nixon running a Wheel route down the boundary, Westover hitting the boundary seam, Culp running a deep crosser and Polk running the backside Fade route. Rome is just running his jet fake and then swinging into the flat as a dump off option for Penix.

Prior to the motion, assuming that Boise is running Cover 3 like how it looks on replay, the boundary CB would pick up the most dangerous route to the flat (Nixon’s wheel), but now that Rome is in motion and the LBs have to bump out their coverage assignments, the boundary LB is now picking up Rome‘s swing route and the field LB has to pick up Culp’s crosser. Instead of also bumping out his coverage assignment, the boundary safety keeps his initial assignment and carries Culp’s crosser leaving a wide open seam for Westover to score the TD.

While the jet motion was the catalyst for the eventual coverage bust that set up the TD, Grubb lining Westover, a known receiving threat, up at FB, a coverage after thought, was the extra window dressing that laid the trap. If he were aligned in the slot, no one would’ve forgotten about him. Finally, the protection call to pull Mele to block the boundary DE was what set this play design over the top. Lots of defenses instruct frontside DEs to attack the mesh point on jet motion, which is a serious threat to a pass play running a jet fake. Hypothetically we could’ve had Fautanu block the DE, but any depth in his pass set would throw of the timing and depth on Rome’s swing route that is meant to occupy another coverage defender. Instead, having Fautanu block down the LOS draws the DE upfield to get picked up by Mele pulling, which would follow Rome clearing the backfield, and it also has the added benefit of adding to the play action fake since LBs are trained to see pulling linemen as the clearest indicator of a run.

Excellent play design all around.

4th Quarter - 4:59 - 2nd & 6

Finally this week we have another awesome example of how our defense is taking the next step in playing fast within the new system. This time its the LBs.

Late in the game, Boise’s offense had been struggling to regain their footing, so they go back to the well one too many times with the RB slip screen that they had already used twice earlier in the game to great effect. Pre-snap, this seems to be a good call against our defense. We seem to be showing a pressure look with 6 potential rushers on the LOS but no clear indicator on man or zone. Typically you want a zone look on these types of screens because a man coverage look means that there is at least one defender that has to keep their eyes on the RB. It doesn’t really matter though because even though we are running a cross dog zone blitz (LBs blitz on a cross/twist type of stunt, EDGEs drop in zone coverage) we are still able to sniff out the screen.

The intent of a cross dog blitz is to exploit the center as the pivot man on a half line slide. One blitzing LB will cross the center’s face to draw the block while the other blitzing LB will loop around him and get a free rush to the QB. On this play Bruener was the first blitzer and Goforth knifed straight through the line and immediately got into Green’s face. Even though blitzes are susceptible to screens, Bruener occupying the center on the screen actually worked in our favor since it kept him closer to the LOS where he was in perfect position to make the pick once the center released to block for the screen. Bruener has always been an instinctual LB that was more comfortable at the LOS and playing downhill than in wide open space, but its clear that his higher level of confidence within the system is letting his instincts shine through.

Bonus Special Teams Play

Warning this hit is borderline NSFW (kidding)

This week you get a bonus Film Study play compliments of Awgs. Watching the game live at Husky Stadium this past weekend, this was a play that he thought was absolutely worthy of highlighting.

I’m no special teams expert by any stretch, so there isn’t much schematic breakdown for me to do, but this is a play that highlights the different level of energy it seemed like our special teams units were playing with this past weekend. The younger players seemed to have stepped up and are elevating both our team speed and our special teams physicality with big hits like this. That shift in energy even showed up in our FG block unit that seemed to have tipped on FG and blocked a punt.