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Duck Tape: Film Analysis of Washington

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A preview of Oregon’s week 8 opponent in Seattle

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Washington at Stanford

I studied four of the Huskies’ games: vs Cal, vs USC, at Stanford, and at Arizona. That gave me enough data against solid competition to allow me to run a basic statistical analysis on their tendencies and situational effectiveness, which I’ll include as I go through these units. We also recorded a great podcast with Gabey Lucas of uwdawgpound.com in which we make fun of the PAC-12, break down the Huskies’ roster, and express our pure hatred for the other’s team.


Offense

At first glance this looks like a perfectly balanced offense: almost exactly 50/50 run-pass, and an overall 123 successful plays vs 119 failed ones (given the down & distance, prior to garbage time). But there’s a fairly profound split in effectiveness between the rushing and passing attacks - it’s an extremely efficient although not particularly explosive ground game, with 76 successful vs only 42 failed designed runs, which is one of the best success rates I’ve ever seen. However the downfield passing game is appallingly inefficient, with 40 successes vs 67 failures, but can sometimes hit explosive and game-changing deep shots.

The rushing offense enjoys a deep running back room, with #26 RB Ahmed, #25 RB McGrew, and until his recent injury, #28 RB Newton, plus a couple more talented backups. I didn’t see a whole lot of difference between their individual effectiveness; when I remove each of their longest runs and strike the penalty yardage, they each average very close to 4.25 yards per carry. Some examples of their great play:

  1. :00 - The lane closes quickly when #72 LT Adams loses control of his man, but McGrew spins out of it and runs through four more tackles for a nice gain.
  2. :09 - Here the Huskies are in their tight set, which they use about 20% of the time and mostly indicates run, and they’re getting some pretty good blocks at the line and downfield, including on the edge by #87 TE Otton and #5 WR Baccellia.
  3. :16 - They run heavily out of this 12-personnel shotgun formation, here an inside zone read … the inside lanes close up when #76 LG Wattenberg can’t get leverage on the nose and #56 C Harris doesn’t climb to the second level, but Ahmed bounces to the C-gap where #51 RG Kirkland and #70 RT Hilbers are doing a lot better.

There are a couple of issues with the run game. First, it very rarely breaks anything explosive: on 118 designed runs, I only tallied 11 that went for ten yards or longer. I mostly attribute this to an offensive line that doesn’t do a great job of getting to the second level to clear out backers and safeties in the box, instead the backs just have to hit them hard and get some yards after contact. Second, their designed inside/outside balance is way off - despite being successful more than 75% of the time when they run outside -- by far their most effective play category -- it only makes up about 12% of their play selection. Third, their relationship with power running is weird - they almost always run behind zone blocking despite facing some fairly weak d-lines and a lot of short-yardage situations, and when they do run power they telegraph it with their formation almost painfully. Some examples:

  1. :00 - Here’s a zone read with an RPO component attached; the safety stays outside so Ahmed gets the ball, but the blocks are all going in the wrong direction which allows the linebackers to flow to the gaps, and Ahmed bounces into the unblocked defender.
  2. :06 - This play starts going wrong off the snap, when the right guard Kirkland lets the 3-tech get outside leverage. That pushes him back into Harris’ pull, delaying his block of the linebacker, and at the same time Hilbers has failed to turn and seal his man to create the hole. Wattenberg has completely lost control of his man, which wouldn’t matter if the rest of the blocks were there, but the play is so strung out that he’s free to help with the tackle.
  3. :14 - Here’s the Huskies’ version of a 23-personnel ogre package; note how backup #59 RG Roberts is in on the right and backup #66 RG Bainivalu is aligned as another tight end between Adams and Otton on the left, and the backs are in an i-formation with the QB under center. The defense puts seven on the line, and even though they’re late to react to the motion, clog the middle easily and have an unblocked man to tackle on the bounce.

In the passing game, the Huskies have certainly upgraded the arm talent in #10 QB Eason, who throws a crisp, powerful ball and shows little hesitation in the pocket. Some examples of their successful play:

  1. :00 - I believe professionals call this a mesh concept, but I have this play coded as “BDD” on my tally sheet, for “Browning double dumpoff” (as the previous QB needed multiple point-blank targets in front of him to hit something), and I’m a bit surprised it’s still in the playbook as much as it is. There’s no pressure on this 4-man rush but Eason’s not looking for anything more than a quick 1st down to #1 TE H. Bryant.
  2. :10 - Adams’ pass-pro technique is questionable here (I see this stiffness and turning his shoulders to the sideline from him a lot, I’m not sure if it’s a result of coaching or his previous injuries) and Eason knows he’s going to get hit, but he delivers a gorgeous deep sideline pass to #2 WR Fuller, who’s burned the DB and makes a nice leaping catch.
  3. :30 - This is a pretty remarkable catch from true freshman #15 WR Nacua, somewhat strangely making his full-time debut late last week. The coverage is pretty tight but his size, physicality, and timing are excellent, and let Eason drop the ball in perfectly.

But outside of about a dozen jaw-dropping successful deep shots, this passing offense is simply not very effective or explosive. The most popular theory I’ve encountered is that this comes from too much allegiance to the wideouts Fuller and Baccellia, who are inconsistent receivers prone to some drops. I think there’s something to this, but would put it a little differently: those receivers (and Bryant) are naturally Ys, and they’re asked to play outside in the absence of injured #20 WR Jones and apparently suspended #21 WR Pounds.

However, by my tally, only about a quarter of the Huskies’ failed passing plays come down to receiver technique error or limitations in their talent (and actually, the worst offender in this regard is Bryant, whose choppy release and weird footwork does nothing to fool DBs). In my opinion, the much bigger issues are in execution and play design.

With the former, because Eason is so much less escapable than Browning was (only 5% of the time he breaks the pocket does it result in a successful play), they just can’t afford as many line breakdowns and out-of-position guys as this offense has. Some examples:

  1. :00 - The tight end Bryant is split way out here and against man coverage; Eason delays his throw a tick hoping for Bryant to break more cleanly in front of the DB, but he just doesn’t have the stride or the instincts to box out, and the throw winds up behind him, setting up this interception.
  2. :26 - If Bryant hadn’t fallen down he might have been able to catch this and turn upfield to get the six yards for a first down. Eason has a hard time here because Kirkland’s blocking footwork is sloppy and he’s getting his hands chopped, letting the 3-tech come around and into Eason’s face. The QB wants to move to his left but Wattenberg has been bullrushed five yards into the pocket and that’s taken away too. He tries an off-platform throw to Baccellia that’s either real poorly thrown and almost picked, or is tipped at the line (though the officials don’t signal as such).
  3. :39 - The OLB is running a loop stunt that by now should look familiar to Oregon fans, to which Wattenberg is late to react and through which Adams’ technique permits a huge hole to attack. The defense has taken away most receiving options, including the slant to Baccellia on the offense’s left with a double-team, but that leaves a single linebacker to cover the checkdowns to the tight end or back and Eason has the arm for one of those throws to beat him. Instead he panics and runs backward, resulting in a sack.
  4. :57 - The BDD play goes awry as both tight ends run into each other, and the twist up front gets home. Impressive arm strength to get this back to the area of a receiver and avoid an intentional grounding safety, though - that’s the prettiest throwaway I’ve ever seen.

But I reserve most of my criticism for play design. This offense typically only releases two, sometimes three eligibles downfield because they’re keeping so many back in pass-pro or a late leakout, and zone defenses have handled them without a lot of difficulty.

It’s worst on 3rd downs, where they’ll often go empty and send a triple slant or another play where only one receiver gets past the sticks. OC Hamdan has no plan for 3rd & medium: his 3rd & 2 or shorter playcalling is appropriate (as is the 1st and 2nd down calls, at all distances), but all 3rd & 3 or longer downs are all treated as the same situation … in which they pass 92% of the time, and convert the 1st down only 16% of the time.

This is effectively a two-down offense: defenses that win on 2nd down are almost certainly getting the ball back. Some examples of what I consider to be poorly designed plays:

  1. :00 - This is an empty set, defense in cover-1, and the Huskies have called a screen to the boundary with this spacing between the TE and receiver. The DB is going to come screaming down as soon as the WR turns to the QB, and I don’t believe it’s humanly possible for this block to get made in time.
  2. :11 - I usually like a fake sweep plus a TE release to overwhelm zone, but there’s no play-action to help with the backers and this puts all five eligibles on one side of the field, with two running effectively the same route down the hashes, and two bunched up on the numbers for the checkdown. This doesn’t actually create any conflict for the defense.
  3. :19 - 60% of receiving options are stacked on top of each other short of the sticks, the X only clears one man and Eason is never going to get that deep into his read, and the CB is perfectly positioned to cover the wheel or the crosser.
  4. :29 - This play is mind-boggling. They don’t block the MIKE, which means there’s exactly one possible positive outcome to this play: the OLB failing to recognize the comedic reverse by #6 WR McClatcher right in front of him and therefore not crashing down on it hard, which would have given enough time to hit the throw before the backer can get over. But he does, obviously, and the outcome instead is the QB getting helicoptered.

Washington v Arizona Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Defense

As I wrote about in my summer preview, the Huskies defense were replacing almost all of their production from last year. I think the three starters on the line who returned -- #8 DE Potoa’e, #95 DT Onwuzurike, and #55 OLB Bowman -- have played very well and the structure of this defense doesn’t require a whole lot more depth than them and a few freshmen 4-stars to clog up gaps in relief. But it’s one that doesn’t go for much of a pass rush or slicing into the backfield in rush defense, instead keeping the play in front of them and relying on linebacker and safety play to minimize gains and force the opponent to march down the field.

The problem the Huskies have is that their senior starting inside linebackers have played exceptionally poorly this year, and that’s a huge step down from the guys they had in 2018. To my eyes they are slow to diagnose plays, even slower to get to them, and have a hard time making the tackle when they do. The result is the softest rush defense I’ve seen since the Beavers last year: 47 successful run defenses vs 70 failures. Some examples:

  1. :00 - The offense is four-wide on 2nd & 10 so the Huskies are expecting a pass and are playing a pretty light box, which is quite typical. The read-option occupies the sixth defender and everybody else gets a hat on a hat without difficulty. #30 ILB Manu gets blown back 5 yards, #13 ILB Wellington is indecisive, and the single-high #16 S Williams gets trucked.
  2. :18 - The defense spent most of this game in a 3-2 front, and the offense made them pay for it with several long runs. Here a couple of undersized DBs attempt to help and are promptly destroyed in a comical manner. Bowman buckles at the line, Manu is extremely late to the play, and Wellington just whiffs.
  3. :40 - This was the first play of the game, and a tone-setter. Manu is up on the line and easily handled by the freshman left tackle, while Wellington is slow to react and gets dragged seven yards.
  4. :49 - The defense is rather lackadaisical getting ready for the snap even though the center judge is deep in his retreat and the offense is set, something I saw on 10% of their snaps in this game. The toss twists the backers up and Manu is way too slow to get to the outside. #5 S M. Bryant makes a valiant attempt at a shoulder tackle 3 yards past the sticks and gets crunched.

The downfield passing defense is above water, 60 successful plays to 46 failures, which is actually up slightly compared to their success rate on my tally sheet at this point last season. Part of that is no doubt due to the QBs they faced in the games I watched: two 3rd-stringers, the #103 offense in SP+, and an inexplicably self-destructing QB last week.

But I think a larger part is due to good d-line play from the veterans, and a very talented if young secondary full of 4-star freshmen. Some examples:

  1. :00 - The line is getting penetration here just rushing three, and it affects the throw. This play illustrates one of the reasons why the Huskies love playing their deep safety, because it positions them well to get interceptions on overthrows like this one.
  2. :12 - Tight coverage and a heroic effort gets the pass breakup here by #3 DB Molden despite the clean pocket for the QB, something I saw on about 13% of opponent dropbacks.
  3. :20 - This was simply the most comical of the QB errors that the Huskies were rewarded with last week. Here they’re getting pressure with only three, including a nice stunt by #9 OLB Tryon.
  4. :38 - Nice safety blitz from the nickel Bryant, something he does a lot and conceals well with a lazy-looking walk up. The left tackle never has a chance at him.

The two problems in pass defense are that, again, the inside linebackers are so slow as to be a liability in underneath coverage, and that their incredibly deep safety (often 25 or 30 yards back) effectively means they’re playing a 10-man defense. That leaves the middle of the field wide open an awful lot, and when opposing offenses can hit a pass to it the safety is so far away that he often can’t make a difference. Some examples:

  1. :00 - This starts looking like cover-2, but then Molden blitzes and Bryant comes down to cover the slot and it’s single high. #27 CB Taylor thinks he’s got help over the top in zone coverage, but Williams is 30 yards deep and maybe 20 yards from the play.
  2. :18 - #23 DB McKinney is creeping into the box, but he’s slow to figure out the screen pass and nobody can make a tackle. Bryant is the high safety here, I suppose he does his job by helping prevent the play from breaking any bigger, but he gets to the ball after it’s gone 25 yards downfield.
  3. :39 - Molden is simply beat off the break and the slot keeps widening the distance. Bryant gets pretty far to his left for reasons I don’t understand, this is a paired slant concept the other way, and he can’t be of any help on the long touchdown.
  4. 1:01 - Molden’s beat again, there’s no underneath coverage because the linebackers come up real heavy on play-action, and 4-star #20 S Turner ends up taking a nap.