This week, the Huskies host the Tulsa Golden Hurricane for their first meeting ever. Tulsa HC Kevin Wilson is in the midst of his first season at the helm of Tulsa’s program after serving as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator for the last six years, and after a strong showing against FCS Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the Wilson’s Golden Hurricane defense faces a daunting baptism of fire against one of the best offenses in the country as its FBS opener.
The Scheme & Personnel
Wilson, an offensive-minded coach, brought in Chris Polizzi this past offseason to whip the Golden Hurricane’s defense into shape. Polizzi, a newly promoted DC at the FBS level, has experience working with strong defenses. He spent the last five years at UT Martin, the last three as their defensive coordinator, and his last stint coaching at the FBS level was as a DBs assistant with Iowa’s highly-regarded DC Phil Parker. Parker’s coordinated elite defenses and produced NFL-caliber DBs for nearly a decade despite rarely recruiting elite talent. Polizzi’s connection to Parker, whom Wilson is a big fan of, was a key factor in Wilson’s decision to hire him.
While there isn’t much UT Martin film and only one game of Tulsa footage to go off, it certainly appears that Polizzi’s defensive scheme has its roots in Parker’s Iowa scheme. Tulsa primarily runs a 3-down nickel personnel defense that often has a stand up EDGE to present a 4-man front. On the back end, Tulsa is a shallow 2-high zone-based defense that rotates between Quarters/Cover 4 and Cover 3 depending on the situation. Both of the Golden Hurricane’s starting safeties both have great size for the position (6’2”+ & 210lbs+), and Polizzi likes to use that to his advantage. Regardless of if it’s Quarters or Cover 3, Tulsa’s safeties are looking to play aggressively downhill. Their zone-heavy scheme is designed to keep plays in front of them and allow the DBs/LBs to keep their eyes on the backfield. The more eyes on the backfield, the faster they can break on passes and trigger downhill in run fits.
On the personnel front, Wilson and Polizzi brought in a number of transfer starters this offseason to upgrade key positions. Starting DE Ben Kopenski (Oklahoma State) and starting LB Julien Simon (USC) headline the transfer class that looks to raise the ceiling of this defense. Simon may be a familiar name for those familiar with either Washington HS football or UW recruiting. The Tacoma native played for Lincoln (Tacoma) HS and was recruited by UW before eventually committing to USC as a top 200 recruit. Simon became a casualty of Lincoln Riley’s USC roster overhaul and transferred to Tulsa to join his older brother Jayden, who starts at nose guard.
Jayden Simon, along with Kopenski and DE Owen Ostroski anchor a solid defensive front for the Golden Hurricane that racked up 4 sacks last week. That DL unit appears to be the strongest unit on their defense per PFF, and while Polizzi’s experience is in coaching DBs, it is still year one with technique that needs to be refined, schemes that need to be mastered, and not enough experience to overcome the sizeable talent gap between the two programs (Tulsa: #82 & UW:#26 in 247’s Team Talent Composite Rankings).
Keys to the Game
As we saw last week against Boise, a talent advantage on paper isn’t always enough to overcome an opponent that wants to make you one dimensional. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t be successful on offense. Like Boise, Tulsa’s solid defensive front and aggressive run fits will make it challenging to establish a consistent and explosive rushing attack, but there should be a lot of opportunities in the passing game.
As usual, we should expect Coach Grubb to lean heavily on formations, shifts, and motions to test Tulsa’s secondary and their ability to communicate and make adjustments pre-snap. One other wrinkle in play calling we should look for is how we take advantage of Tulsa’s post-snap safety rotations. Unlike most defenses, Tulsa aligns their listed strong safety to the field side, and they regularly rotate him into underneath coverage, the run fit, or blitz him off the edge. I’d expect Grubb to attack that safety rotation with the vertical passing game at some point. This could come in the form of the deep pass down the sideline away from the rotation, or it could be post/seam right at the safety. Zone defenses try to mitigate 1v1 mismatches through team defense, but at a certain point, everything transitions into man-like coverage downfield, and that’s where our talent advantage could make the biggest difference.