The University of Washington seemed to finally put it all together in Steve Sarkisian's fifth season in Seattle. Starting the season with a dominating win over Boise State the Huskies won their next three games in convincing fashion. The season looks entirely different following consecutive losses to Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State. The ASU game particularly stands out because while losing a close game in Palo Alto and being blown out by the Ducks at home could be considered expected results, being blown out by the Sun Devils was definitely not expected. The co-stars of The Drive have proven to be a good but not great team and should have been an even match-up for UW. The 53-24 blowout in Tempe was the largest score differential of the season for Washington and after the first possessions for UW and ASU the Huskies were never really in it. Bishop Sankey, the leading rusher in the nation (149.8 YPG before the game) was held to 32 yards (1.7 per carry) by a defense ranked 77th in the nation against the run. Keith Price was sacked six times and the UW offense only had 12 first downs. Washington's resurgence the last couple years appeared to be headed by the defense but ASU ran for 314 yards and passed for another 271 yards (the UW coaching staff calculated that they missed 20 tackles on defense for 190 yards after contact). What can we learn from Washington's performance at ASU and can Cal replicate the results?
What worked for Washington - The Pistol Formation
On the Huskies first possession they found the Pistol Formation to be very effective. This is an early run by Bishop Sankey (#25). The Huskies are in their version of the Pistol with Sankey directly behind QB Keith Price (#17), wide receivers #2 Kasen Williams and #8 Kevin Smith are stacked to left while #88 TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins is tight to the right and #82 TE Joshua Perkins is lined up as an H-back. Arizona State has a base 4-3 defense.
Arizona State's defensive end and linebacker are going to run a stunt which will actually help Washington's blocking scheme. The UW linemen all block down (to their right) while #82 pulls and lead blocks the linebacker. Meanwhile out wide, #8 blocks the defensive back lined up over him while #2 back pedals to be ready to receive a pass.
Sankey and Price Mesh with the ball. The linebacker #31 (in white) is the player targeted on this play. I would say he was being read by the read option but Price does not appear to have the freedom to decide whether to hand off or pass since the linebacker is obviously crashing towards the exchange leaving the remaining DB in a 2 on 1 match up on the outside.
Price hands off to Sankey for a 6 yard gain.
The very next play the Huskies are in the same formation. The ASU defense is the same except this time they will not run the stunt with the DE and LB. ASU must have seen something on tape because the wide DB (in yellow) and the linebacker (in white) are set to crash the line of scrimmage before the snap.
ASU's aggressive posture against the run and the 2 on 1 out wide were not missed by the UW coaches. This time they call the pass.
The safety on that side of the field makes a quick read and comes up to make the tackle but not before another six yard gain. I wonder if ASU designed a defense where the linebacker has primary run contain and the safety is supposed to rotate over the top in the event of a pass...
The Diamond Formation
The Huskies broke out a formation that should be familiar to Cal fans after we have used it like a bulldozer. Washington uses it as a shield and sword. Washington has #2 Williams wide right and #88 ASJ tight left. In the backfield with #17 Price are #25 Sankey, #82 Perkins and #28 fullback Psalm Wooching. ASU is once again in their base 4-3 defense.
Washington runs a play action fake to Sankey who along with #28 add to the pass protection on the right while the offensive line does a slide left protection (I talked about Slide Protections in last year's USC post since Pete Carroll, Lane Kiffin and Sarkisian all use it - what a wonderful bunch of people). #88 ASJ runs a shallow crossing route while #2 Williams runs a deep post route which clears out the right side of the field for #82 Perkins.
The right outside backer is too slow to cover Perkins while the safety stayed with the deep post. Perkins is so wide open even a struggling quarterback cannot miss him.
This just highlights the efficacy of throwing out of the Diamond formation, something Cal has finally showed. Of course having a runner as scary as Bishop Sankey really makes the run fake work, even when Sankey is having a bad game.
What didn't work...
Here Washington is lined up with 2 wide receivers to the left, one out right, the tight end (#88 ASJ) tight right and the running back just to the left and behind Price. Arizona State is in the 4-3 defense with linebacker #31 lined up outside the tight end.
The receivers will run routes, the outside receivers and tight end run Go routes while the slot receiver runs a Wheel route. The right Guard and Center double team the play side defensive tackle while the left Guard blocks the back side tackle and the right Tackle blocks the play side inside backer. The left Tackle pulls to kick out the last defender on the line of scrimmage.
It all goes horribly wrong. Four players are left with just one offensive lineman to block them. Labeled in white back side players 1 (DE) and 2 (LB) are supposed to be unblocked as the running back is running away from them. However players 3 (DE) and 4 (LB) leave the pulling Tackle with a conundrum... two defenders to block by himself.
So he chooses to block neither.
How did this happen? The Arizona State defense was in man to man coverage (no extra safety help). This left seven offensive players and seven defensive players. The quarterback does not block (1st free defender), the running back does not block (2nd free defender) because of the double team the 2 defensive tackles are blocked by 3 offensive linemen (3rd free defender), and the pulling tackle was responsible for the 4th free defender.
This play just looks odd. If the tight end had blocked instead of faking a route the numbers would have worked. I assume that the double team by the offensive line was an attempt to neutralize 2012 Pac-12 defensive player of the year Will Sutton (#90) but the irony is that Sutton was the back side DT on this play and only had one man blocking him. I have rarely seen the left Tackle pull, that is usually the job of the left Guard, again the pulling assignment may have been changed to contain Sutton but the Tackle arrives at his block after the running back, he just had too far to travel. If this was a pre-game or in game adjustment it was a poor one.
The Sun Devils appear to have decided to stop the run at all costs and make Keith Price beat them through the air. That was something he was simply unable to do.
The other side of the ball - Huskies on Defense
If this game was just about UW's offense struggling the final score would have been much closer, in fact because of the huge early deficit Washington had to abandon the run, their most successful part of the offense. But the defensive collasp was just as marked as the offensive.
This play will give us a hint of how UW will defend the Spread formation on Saturday. ASU lines up with trips receivers left, one receiver right and the running back just ahead and to the quarterback's left. Washington has what appears to be a 3-4 defense on the field. Two defensive tackles #90 Taniela Tupou and #71 Danny Shelton are in 4 point stances while the two defenders on the ends of the line are in 2 point stances #8 DE Hau'oli Kikaha and #42 LB Cory Littleton. The linebackers are #37 Princeton Fuimaono, #50 Thomas Tutogi and #7 Shaq Thompson. Thompson is lined up towards the trips receivers and the Huskies are confident allowing him to cover receivers or tight ends instead of bringing in a nickel back. There are four defensive backs.
After the snap Washington appears to drop into a cover 3 zone with the linebackers 5-10 yards deep, the boundary corners and free safety dropping deep and the remaining DB staying underneath with the linebackers. ASU throws to the wide open running back in the flat.
The running back appeared to be open in the flat several times in this game. It may be something that can be exploited by Cal providing the quarterback can be protected long enough. If the running back has to stay in to block, then UW appears to have good coverage on the receivers.
At the Goal Line
Washington was not the only coaching staff that took advantage of exploits in a defensive scheme. On 2nd and Goal ASU lines up with two receivers split out right, one split out left. In the back field are the quarterback in shotgun with a running back who has motioned to his right and an H-back lined up right.
The H-back blocks #42 who slants inside while #37 Fuimaono takes outside contain responsibilities.
The straight hand off does not produce a touchdown but it provides valuable information. ASU learns that the Safety stays with the blocking receiver to the right and that if they run a read option the Huskies will not have anyone who can stop it.
This time the H-back blocks #37 and the option is run on #42.
Looks easy but it was all set up by what looked like a failed play.
Arizona State came out with the attitude in this game and they ran two very creative trick plays with that swagger.
The Fake Check-With-Me was pretty cool. ASU looks to their sideline, at the same time the Washington defense checks their sideline for a possible change of defensive call. While everyone is looking towards their respective sidelines the ball is snapped.
The Husky Cornerback recovers quickly (helped by the huge cushion he was giving) and makes a play to intercept the ball. But this play is an important counter to the defensive check-with-me counter (ie. the defense changing the call when the offense is changing the play to exploit the defensive alignment), now the defense will have to pay attention to the offense when the offense runs a check-with-me and will have less time or be totally unable to change the defensive call. Move and counter move.
The second trick play is a nostalgic one for me. Growing up near Los Angeles I did not have any exposure to Cal football until Bruce Snyder's teams in 1990 and 1991. The signature play I remember from those televised games was the Fumblerooski. The Fumblerooski is a play where the quarterback takes the snap from under center and places it on the ground as in intentional fumble, then an offensive lineman (usually a Guard) picks it up and runs with it. It was banned in 1992 but a modified version showed up in 2006. This version has a small eligible receiver hide behind the offensive line next to the quarterback, after the snap the quarterback quickly hands off to the hidden player. ASU attempted this version of the play...
However #42 Littleton notices something is up... The offensive line is bunched up much closer together than normal and the running back and receiver line up facing sideways. If Littleton spotted the hidden player he should be UW's defensive player of the game. He switched over to the right side of the defense and is just waiting to pounce on the play for a loss while the rest of the defense bites on the play fake.
The Invisible Man
Anyone who watched the Cal-Washington game last year cannot forget how Austin Seferian-Jenkins, despite a leg injury, was literally un-defendable. Anyone that is except the Washington coaching staff. Seferian-Jenkins who led all NCAA tight ends in receptions and yardage last year was only targeted four times for one reception against ASU and that was not a one game anomaly it is a season long pattern. The one reception didn't happen until the 4th quarter, of course it resulted in a touchdown...
The touchdown did come at a high cost for the Huskies, Keith Price re-injured the thumb on his throwing hand after it collided with a helmet. He left the game and did not return, he is considered probable for the Cal game at the time this was posted. In his post-game comments Price does not attribute his struggles against ASU to his thumb injury but since he hurt it against Stanford. Washington has not been the same and we have to wonder if the Huskies will struggle again through the air this week.
This year's Husky victories were due to a combination of offense and defense playing at a high level. The defense was vastly improved last year. The offensive improvement this year co-incided with an increase in the tempo of the offense. Steve Sarkisian claimed that he was running the same offense, just faster, but it appears that the changes are deeper than that and Sarkisian is trying to obfuscate the other changes. Perhaps defensive scouting has caught up with the new playbook or maybe the key all along was to contain Bishop Sankey.
Arizona State was certainly prepared for the Huskies, how prepared will Cal be?