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Film Study: 2024 National Championship

The end of a magical season

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 08 CFP National Championship - Michigan vs Washington Photo by David Buono/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Washington Huskies’ magical season came to an end on Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship vs the Michigan Wolverines. Unfortunately it did not result in bringing the Natty back to Seattle as the Dawgs came up short on the biggest stage of all. In arguably one of their worse games this season, UW went down early but were able to shake off those jitters and settle in to show glimmers of hope going into halftime. The D held their own for most of the 2nd half, replicating that “bend but not break” trait that they have exhibited all year. However, uncharacteristically the offense was not able to get on track and show the national audience the skill and talent they have been capable of all year and the defense finally broke. Although it was not the result that we hoped for, you can’t help but be proud of this team. To win the last Pac-12 Championship, have a College Football Playoff berth, win the Sugar Bowl to advance to the National Championship, and end with a 14-1 record was a monumental feat and certainly a season of a lifetime to remember for the players, coaches and fans.

To the film.

1st Quarter - 10:23 - 2nd & 14

This week, we wanted to focus on our run defense’s performance throughout the game. Many Husky fans would agree that Michigan’s huge 1st quarter rushing performance set the tone of the game and likely changed the dynamic of the rest of the game. Michigan’s passing attack was efficient, but it wasn’t particularly dynamic, and by allowing them to gain an early 2-possession lead (in part due to our own offensive challenges that we’ll get to), we were never able to play to our strengths and force their offense off script.

Our early struggles with the run became immediately evident on Michigan’s TD run to cap their opening drive. Michigan is running 12 personnel in a 3x1 trips Nub formation that has one of their TEs (#89) attached to the formation on the boundary and their other TE (#18) and the two wide receivers split out to the field. We match their personnel with our base 4-2-5 personnel aligned in our standard Even front (4 on the line) and a 1-high safety look. Just looking at the situation pre-snap, there are two immediate reasons why this isn’t a great run defense look. One, with two TEs (12 personnel) and 5 DBs on the field (4-2-5), we will have at least one DB matched up on a TE for both the run and pass. Two, even though we are technically in a 1-high safety look, we are playing our three DBs to the field so deep that we still have a 6-man box. Additionally, since we play our safeties in field/boundary assignments, Michigan playing with their trips to the field against a 1-high safety look puts Hampton, our best run stopping safety, in deep middle field coverage.

I can understand playing our base 4-2-5 personnel against 12 personnel if the idea was to let Hampton play a TE-eraser role up near the line of scrimmage, but whatever coverage we called was able to be manipulated by the formation to keep him as far away from the box as possible. as you can see a little more clearly on the replay angle, the DB that we kept closest to the box was actually Elijah Jackson (#25).

Getting into the play post-snap, Michigan is running an RPO with a Duo run concept. Duo is a run concept that looks very similar to Inside Zone since it’s a downhill run concept without any pulling blockers, but Duo is actually a gap run concept. In general, Duo is designed to go towards the TE side of the formation and get double teams on the play side defenders on the LOS. The RB is supposed to press the interior gaps, read the MLB, and then make a cut depending on how the LB flows and how the double teams develop. A good RB that is well-versed at running Duo can force an LB to commit to a gap before bouncing the run between the double teams, and Edwards (RB, #7) does a good job of that on this play.

Edwards reads the Guard-Center double team against Voi Tunuufi (DT, #52) and sees that Tunuufi actually wins the outside leverage against the double team, so Edwards presses the interior gaps. Eddie Ulofoshio (LB, #5) reads Edwards and commits to the A-gap to meet the center in the hole to stuff the run at the line. However, this is where our run fit design and pre-snap alignment cause us issues. Michigan, seeing that we have Jackson on the edge of the box towards the boundary, they key their blocking assignments to have the TE-LT block from Trice (EDGE, #8) to Jackson (CB, #25), the LG-C double team block from Tunuufi to Ulofoshio, and then their RG and RT take care of the rest of the DL. They are ignoring Tuputala (LB, #11) and putting either a TE or OT on Jackson for a huge mismatch. Not only that, but because they are able to hold Tuputala to the backside of the play with an RPO that we would’ve had even numbers on the perimeter to defend, they were able to get 6 blockers on 6 defenders where the closest pursuit defenders who could make the tackle were at least 10 yards from the point of attack.

Hampton doesn’t take a great angle from his deep alignment, and Michigan gets a 40-yard TD out of the play. They were able to take advantage of blocking mismatches, defenders playing out of their comfort zone, and quirky run fit assignments (why put Tuputala in coverage while Jackson picks up the C-gap?), and it was all set up by their formation and play design.

One last note on this play. I’ve heard a lot of chatter about our defensive front getting pushed around or that we needed to get into heavier personnel to stop the run. Well, Tunuufi, who is our lightest rotational DT did just fine against their OL on this play. What really killed us was the run fit.

1st Quarter - 2:31 - 2nd & 10

If you still don’t believe me that run fits were the primary issue (both in their design and in their execution) and not our personnel, formation, or talent, then this TD run capping Michigan’s second possession is for you.

On this 46-yard TD, Michigan is again running Duo with Edwards, but this time they are playing jumbo 13 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs, 6 OL) out of a tight bunch Nub pistol formation. Clearly worried about the run, we match with our jumbo package personnel (3 DTs, 2 EDGES, 2 LBs, 4 DBs) that even tailors our DB line up to feature our biggest and best run defenders with 2 safeties (Turner/Hampton), the Husky (Powell), and 1 CB (Jackson). With Michigan in such a condensed, run-centric formation, we also stack the box with all 11 defenders playing inside of 6-yards from the LOS and tight in to the formation. If every defender was responsible for taking on one offensive player, we should be covered, and if everyone played their run fit correctly, we should have a free hitter on the ball carrier. Clearly that’s not what happened though.

You can see the blocking develop a little easier from the replay angle, but it’ll develop a little differently than on the last play because of the Odd front (odd number of players in the front) we are deploying here compared to the Even front in the last play. Odd fronts, particularly Bear fronts like this where we have three DL lined up inside of the OTs, make the double teams a bit trickier to execute depending on if the DL is slanting their rush. Still, Michigan’s line is able to get quick double team chip blocks on both Tuli Letuligasenoa (DT, #91) in the left B-gap and Ulumoo Ale (NT, #68) over the center. Both Tuli and Ale anchor down well, and Tuli event gets some push on the LT (#73), but unfortunately we weren’t able to maintain good gap integrity in our run fit.

Prior to the snap, and outside of the clips that we could find for Film Study, Michigan shifts into the formation that we see here. Between the shift, the extra OL, and the tight formation creating additional gaps for DBs to be responsible for, our defense seemed out of sorts, and that confusion led to the run fit bust that Edwards took advantage of. At the snap, Faatui Tuitele (DT, #99) slants from the B-gap into the A-gap while Ulofoshio also seems to commit to the A-gap. At the same time, both Hampton and Sekai Asoau-Afoa (EDGE, #46) also seem to think that they’re responsible for outside contain which leaves no one keeping an eye on the backside B-gap that Edwards cuts back through. Because we have everyone up in the box and playing the run extra aggressively, we don’t have anyone deep enough that can flow with Edwards to plug the vacated B-gap.

At no point on this play would I say one of our guys got beaten 1v1, and if anything, our guys who were getting double teamed did a great job of anchoring to allow opportunities for other defenders to make the play. Our guys just didn’t execute the run fit well, and by playing the run extra aggressively, we opened ourselves up to a more explosive gain.

3rd Quarter - 8:58 - 1st & 10

For our last defensive play this week, we also wanted to highlight some of the adjustments we made after the first quarter that allowed our defense to find its footing and hold Michigan to just six points over the next eight drives following Edwards’ second TD run.

On this play, Michigan has 21 personnel (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs) and are initially lined up with a WR on each side of the formation, the TE attached to the line to the field, and both RBs lined up behind the QB. Against this we have our base 4-2-5 personnel lined up in a 1-high safety look that is very similar to the first play we broke down except that Jackson is now covering a WR (#1) instead of a Nub TE attached to the line. Also similar to the first play, because Michigan’s passing strength is to the field against our 1-high look, we have our FS, Kamren Fabiculanan (#13) rolled down closer to the LOS and Hampton as the deep safety.

Prior to the snap, Michigan shifts into a split back backfield and moves their boundary WR (#1) into the field side slot to create a 0x3 formation. Our defense accounts for that by bumping over coverage responsibilities instead of mirroring #1 into the field side slot. This again leaves a DB near the LOS on the boundary side that could get put into a mismatch scenario, but instead of leaving Jackson in that position and Hampton staying deep where his run support skills can’t be easily utilized, we have Jackson and Hampton swap spots as soon as they identify the potential mismatch. Jackson kicks back deep as the deep safety and Hampton moves up to the line as a quasi-LB.

This proves to be a key alignment swap because Michigan runs a Lead Counter run right at Hampton with the boundary RB (#20) taking on Hampton as the lead blocker. Hampton, who is ~30lbs heavier than Jackson, is much better suited to match up against the RB #20 at the point of attack, shed the block, and make the tackle on Edwards for a gain of only 3 yards. Once we understood how Michigan was trying to attack our run fits with formations, we were able to make adjustments to our alignment and run fits that would place our best run defenders in positions to make plays on the ball carrier.

Sometimes it isn’t about having the better players as much as it is putting the right players in the right positions to make plays.

1st Quarter - 1:15 - 3rd & 5

Jumping over to the offensive side of the ball to wrap things up this week, there isn’t a ton to say about how our offense matched up with their defense. The performance against Michigan that we saw from our offense was one of a few games this year where the opposing defense exposed our Achilles heel: pressure. Unfortunately, unlike our games against Arizona State and Oregon State, we weren’t able to overcome the early deficit with a timely defensive turnover or miraculous offensive fireworks in key moments. Michigan’s defense was legit, and when you’re playing with long odds and the deck stacked against you, you simply need to execute flawlessly.

This play from the end of the first quarter pretty accurately summarizes what Michigan did all game to bottle up our offense. Facing 3rd & 5 from our own 30-yard line, our offense comes out in 11 personnel that’s lined up in a 3x1 bunch formation that puts Jack Westover (TE, #37) in a condensed split to the boundary as the iso receiver and our three WRs to the field in the bunch. By this point in the game, Dillon Johnson had petered of in the rotation after what was later found out to be a high ankle sprain on the first offensive play (to go along with the laundry list of other injuries that he’d been battling through all season), so Will Nixon (RB, #8) is in the backfield next to Penix. Without Johnson as a rushing threat or as a key blocker in our protection schemes, Michigan knew they could key in on the pass and had weaknesses to exploit.

On most downs, Michigan played a ton of 2-high safety looks with a blend of CB techniques (press, bail, catch 5, etc.) where they could limit our vertical passing game and force us to march down the field without a rushing attack. However, 2-high safety structures and a good defensive line alone aren’t enough to stop good offenses to the extent that the Wolverines did to our offense. Michigan also blended in pressure looks in key, high-leverage situations to force Penix into quick throws before the routes have time to develop. I say pressure looks intentionally because Michigan did a good job of simulating pressure with their pre-snap alignments and disguising their true pressure design without actually bringing extra blitzers.

Here, Michigan is using a MUG front with both ILBs in the A-gaps, like we do, to force us into either checking into a conservative protection or designating a free rusher for Penix to account for. What sets Michigan’s pressure designs apart is how well they do in game planning to identify key weaknesses in the protection that they can exploit by sending different rushers, all while using the remaining defenders on the LOS to shore up their coverage and take away easy throws. They probably also identified pre-game that we utilize 6-man BOB (Big On Big) protections when facing 6 potential rushers, and with Nixon in the backfield, Michigan probably saw an opportunity to win an advantageous blocking match up against a LB.

The MUG look draws us into a 6-man BOB protection, but they further set up the pressure by initially rushing all 6 defenders on the LOS. This draws all the attention from the OL and isolates the Nixon vs. LB 1v1. However, as soon as the DTs and the other LB engage with the OL, they drop back into underneath zone coverage to take away any quick hitting crossing routes. Nixon actually does a decent job of blocking the LB, but there was enough push up the middle to panic Penix. With the EDGEs maintaining good rush lane discipline and traffic over the middle with the dropping DTs and LB, there was nowhere for Penix to go to other than the speed out to McMillan. From there, Michigan’s DB does his part by making a good tackle in space short of the line to gain, and we were forced into a punt.

Michigan being able to get pressure with only three rushers on this play, while keeping the most dangerous catch-and-run routes bottled up over the middle, and having good tackling in space, is a good summarization of what they did to slow us down. We still had other opportunities throughout the game, but like I said earlier, if you execute flawlessly on those few opportunities, you just won’t be able to win against a talented team like Michigan’s.

Awgs’ Bonus Play(s) of the Week

This week’s plays goes to our Heisman’s final passing TD as a Husky on this laser to J-Mac (as well as his nonchalant point out to one of the only holds on Michigans that was called) and Kam Fab with his best Troy Polamalu impression (both with the tackle and hair flow).

What a year Dawgs, what a year.