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Film Study: 2024 Sugar Bowl

14 down. One more to go.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Texas at Washington Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Hello Husky Nation!

Your Washington Huskies are now 14-0 and one win away from glory following an absolutely thrilling victory over the Texas Longhorns in the 2024 Sugar Bowl. The Dawgs once again lived up to their ‘Heart Attack Huskies’ reputation as the result came down to the final play after it seemed that the game was iced earlier in the 4th quarter. Michael Penix Jr. delivered a masterclass in quarterbacking in front of a national audience, showing why he deserved the Heisman trophy.

The magical season continues as they head to Houston to play the Michigan Wolverines with the National Championship on the line.

To quote our Heisman: “We got one more to go.”

Note from Coach B: Yeah. This is another game that got Awgs feeling a little fired up, so keep that in mind while reading this week’s Film Study.

To the Film.

1st Quarter - 12:05 - 1st & 10

Kicking things off this week we have the play that didn’t just set the tone, but it was also the play that reassured me that for the 14th time this season we could compete with anyone in the country. At this point in the season, everyone knew that we were going to be aggressive with our vertical passing game, but no one was certain how we would fare with that approach. When Texas DC Pete Kwiatkowski was at UW, he developed defensive units that shut down high flying passing attacks and were rarely beat over the top. Those Coach K-led UW defenses often sat back and played coverage against pass-heavy teams, but this UW offense at times struggled when pressured, so it was anybody’s guess as to which strategy Texas would lean on in the Sugar Bowl. The early answer was evident by the fourth offensive play from scrimmage.

Here on 1st & 10 from the 21 yard line, our offense lines up in a 2x2 shotgun formation with 11 personnel. Culp (#83) is lined up as an attached TE on the wing to the field (near) side of the formation and Johnson (#7) is to the field as well. Texas initially sets up in a 2-high safety look (before the start of the clip) with the the CBs up on the line, but the safeties rotate at the last minute into a 1-high safety shell with the boundary safety creeping up over the slot receiver. In theory, Texas could be playing man or zone coverage here, but as with many of our pass plays, we have a built-in vertical option for Penix to take advantage of if he gets the right look from the defense.

On this play, we have a zone coverage beating horizontal spacing concept to the boundary side and Polk on a Post-Corner shot route to the field. This play design is focusing more on the aggressive shot play from Polk given the 7-man protection with Culp & Johnson staying in to block, which is certainly needed given the pressure that Coach K dialed up. Similar to what we saw when he was at UW, Coach K likes to generate pressure from different angles to sow confusion in the protection. Instead of just relying on the front 7, he’ll involve DBs in the pressure design. Post-snap, we see that Texas brings a Fire Zone blitz. To translate that jargon, Fire Zone blitzes slant the DL in one direction while blitzing a defender on the backside of the slanting DL and dropping either the DE or OLB towards the slant into coverage. In this case, Texas’ front four are slanting towards the boundary (top of screen) while bringing their slot DB (#23), their MLB (#41), and dropping their stand up EDGE (#91) into underneath coverage. It’s a well-disguised pressure given that, prior to the snap, the most dangerous edge pressure would likely be coming from #91, so we slide our protection towards the boundary. This leaves Culp and DJ on the backside as extra blockers in case pressure does come from that side. By slanting the field DE (#88) across Rosengarten’s face (#73) and blitzing #23 outside the edge, Texas also sets up an advantageous match up for #41 against DJ. However, like he has proven all season, Johnson is one of the best pass blocking RBs in the country and stonewalls the blitzing LB.

DJ and the rest of the protection unit bought Polk enough time to work his phenomenal route running and Penix enough time to drop this pass right down the chimney. While the play concept isn’t particularly sophisticated from an X’s & O’s perspective, it does do a great job of capitalizing on Polks route running and technical acumen at the WR position. With Texas in a 1-high safety look, Penix and Polk know that the Post-Corner double move will be there to take advantage of on the outside. Polk takes a great inside release to the inside, up the hash, that builds a cushion for his later break out to the sideline. By immediately showing the Post, the Texas DB is lulled into sitting back in trailing position thinking that he has inside help from the deep safety, and Polk is then able to break on the Corner route having already stacked on top of the CB. With the CB in trailing position on an outbreaking route, all Penix needs to do is to lead Polk with the pass to the outside with very little risk of a Texas DB making a play on the ball. Low risk, high reward. It’s a phenomenally executed play that got the game off on the right footing.

1st Quarter - 1:03 - 2nd & 10

Next up we have what might be this season’s best example of Penix’s pocket presence as a passer and his chemistry with Rome Odunze. On 2nd & 10 from midfield, we line up with 11 personnel in a 2x2 shotgun look where we quickly motion DJ out of the backfield to set up a familiar empty look that puts our TE and RB out on the perimeter as the WR1s on both sides of the field. Texas, prior to the motion, is lined up in match Cover 3 with a single high safety tilted towards the field side. Most of our pass plays incorporate split field concepts (different concepts to each side of the formation) that are designed to attack different defensive looks, and out of these empty looks that put our TE and RB on the perimeter, we usually try to keep their routes simple. Go routes, hitch routes, and quick screen types of routes are usually involved. On this play we are running a 2-route Slot Fade Smash (WR1 hitch + WR2 Fade) concept to the boundary to attack the 1-high safety look, and we’re running a Go-Out route combination with DJ and McMillan to the field. Rome is running a deep Dig route over the middle as a zone beating option over the middle if the perimeter options are covered.

Because Texas starts in a 1-high look, Penix is reading the Slot Fade Smash at the snap. However, Texas’ DTs get quick pressure up the middle, and he has to bail on his initial read. Penix does an awesome job of quickly side stepping the pressure, resetting his feet, and rifles a laser down the middle of the field to Rome who is coming open. That’s all evident watching the game live, but in rewatching the play for Film Study, I got a new appreciation for Penix’s mental processing and how it relates to his pocket presence. Penix’s pre-snap read was to look at the Slot Fade Smash concept based on the pre-snap defensive alignment, but he also had to process the defense’s adjustment to DJ’s motion. Texas bumped their slot DB (#23) out to the perimeter to shadow DJ, which would indicate that they’re in some sort of zone coverage. However, because the #23 bumped out to the perimeter instead of the CB (#8), UT might be playing MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes, a common defensive formational adjustment) on the perimeter. This would mean that the MLB (#41) is taking over #23’s coverage assignment over McMillan on the Out route.

Why does this matter? It matters because that means Penix will have a wide open passing lane over the middle to throw Rome’s Dig route open once #41 turns and runs to chase McMillan to the perimeter. The amount of “if this, then that, because that means this” that Penix needed to process and run through over the course of this play while evading interior pressure is hard to fathom in the moment.

2nd Quarter - 13:12 - 2nd & Goal

(DJ FB TD)

Next up, we have one of the cooler/craftier play designs that we saw from Grubb in the Sugar Bowl. The offensive staff likes to get creative in goal line situations since we don’t have an otherworldly talent advantage in the trenches but do want to run the ball efficiently in these types of short yardage situations. How do you do that? You use schematic tricks to create confusion and mismatches.

From the initial broadcast angle above, one might take a quick glance and assume that we are in 21 personnel aligned in a I-Weak Slot Left formation running a FB dive, which is exactly what the formation is designed to make the defense think. However, after taking a minute to digest the actual formation and personnel, it’s one of the more creative formations we’ve seen all season.

As you can see a bit easier from the replay angle, we’re actually playing 11 personnel in an unbalanced formation that puts Troy Fautanu (LT, #55) in the usual TE alignment, DJ at FB, and Germie Bernard at RB. Even more confusing for the defense, we actually started out in a more conventional shotgun formation and quick shifted into this formation. That movement, especially because it’s an unbalanced formation, threw a huge wrench in UT’s run fit responsibilities, and you can see it in all of their LBs and DBs trying to sort out who needs to go where. Not just that, but all the shifting gets the defense’s eyes off of the backfield and who has the right coverage responsibilities on the eligible receivers (more on that in a minute).

Finally, the cherry on top was Rome going in jet motion to threaten the wide run. Lost in all the commotion, Texas has three of their defenders to the backside of the run get confused as to who had backside contain, in addition to the DB covering Rome. This allows Fautanu to collapse the entire backside of the defensive front (as he does), and open up a nice cutback lane for Johnson to get into the endzone untouched. At a high-level, we’re just running Inside Zone with 11 personnel down on the goal line against what was hyped as one of the best DLs in the country, but when you can utilize confusion and misdirection to get defenders out of position and second guess their assignments, you can quickly level the playing field.

2nd Quarter - 6:12 - 3rd & 12 | 3rd Quarter - 5:57 - 3rd & 5 | 4th Quarter - 10:12 - 1st & 10

To wrap things up this week, we wanted to give the defense its due. While it wasn’t a perfect performance, the defense stepped up on key plays, and in many of those situations, it was the pass rush unit that led the charge.

We won’t go into as much depth on each of these three plays as we have in past Film Study articles, but we did want to use these plays to highlight a few of the creative ways that we’re scheming up opportunities for our guys to affect the offense and exploit weaknesses in the protection schemes.

First up, on this 3rd down play from the 2nd quarter, we have a pressure design that is from one of our staple pressure packages. We have our pass rush sub-package personnel (Tunuufi, Trice, ZTF, and Lane) and set up the pressure from a MUG look that brings both LBs up into the A-Gaps. This group obviously has the pass rushing athleticism that you want in a passing situation, but instead of just rushing them head on to win with talent or numbers, we further leverage their athleticism by bringing them on looping stunts. Here, we are looping both Trice and Lane on opposite sides of the line. The idea is that both of them are in a position to win a free rush on the QB if the other three rushers on this play can soak up their blockers. Lane gets in free, but so does Bruener once he gets abandoned by the center who is more concerned about blocking the looping Trice. This is a good reminder that generating pressure can come from scheme and not just talent.

Now that being said, talent definitely helps, and the mismatches that can get created by moving around your best rushers on weaker blockers is important as well. On this play from the 3rd quarter, Texas actually has enough blockers in their protection to account for our 6-man rush, and we aren’t using any stunts to get free rushers. What got us this pressure on the play was just Trice and ZTF winning a 2v2 against the center and left guard from interior alignments. Instead of matching our EDGEs up against lighter-footed OTs, we matched them up against UT’s interior linemen who seemed to struggle all game with effectively handing off quick rushers between each other. ZTF slanted his rush from over the LG to the center, and the center wasn’t quick enough to peel off of ZTF’s rush to pick up Trice, whose blend of speed and power so-overwhelmed the center that he was able to effectively get a free rush on the QB.

Finally, we have this play from the 4th quarter where Trice got to show off his individual talent against what should’ve been a pretty solid protection scheme designed to shut down a dangerous edge rusher. UT’s running a play action protection that pulls the RG over to the edge to pick up Trice. Generally speaking, an iOL against an EDGE isn’t a great match up, but on these types of play action protections, the OL simply has to meet the EDGE deeper into his rush and lock him up with power (rather than having to mirror the EDGE in a pass set before engaging). However, with Lane flushing the QB up into a clean pocket, and the DTs maintaining their rush lane integrity, Trice was able to leverage his lateral agility to cut back inside on what is more of an effort play than anything else. It’s a great example of how discipline from the other members of the defensive front can set up our transcendent EDGE talents to make a play without schematic advantages.

We’ll need to use all of these tricks as we face one of the best OLs that we’ve seen this year next Monday in Houston.



Awgs’ Bonus Play of the Week

In a year of spectacular plays by the Huskies, Elijah Jackson may have claimed the top spot with this absolute beauty of a PBU to send the Dawgs to the Natty.

SEE YOU IN HOUSTON HUSKY NATION!