Know Your Enemy: Previewing the Washington Huskies' Offense

How are you supposed to defend this? - Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE

Cal is facing the Huskies at the best possible time. Washington has lost three in a row and its offense has sputtered as Keith Price struggles to play with a thumb injury. However, Cal will still have its hands full with Sankey and the run game.

"The coach who has relied solely on their words, without producing wins, is ruined, for the fans and assistants which are gained by purchase and not through grandeur and nobility of spirit are merited but are not secured, and at times are not to be had" - Niccolo Machiavelli

The Washington Huskies are a team on the brink. Steve Sarkisian may have finally worn out his welcome in Seattle. After steady improvement from 2008 to 2009 the program earned bowl eligibility in 2010 and upset Nebraska to earn 7 wins. Clearly the Huskies were a program on the rise and should have had no problem eclipsing the previous year's win total. In 2011 the Huskies raced to a 5-1 start but stumbled down the stretch. In their final six games they allowed 38.5 points per game. UW finished 7-6...again. Clearly Nick Holt's defense was holding back the Huskies. With a huge sum of money spent on a new set of assistant coaches, Sark and the Huskies were ready to challenge for the Pac-12 North. Despite upsetting two top-ten teams (Stanford and OSU), UW finished 7-6. Now Sark has retooled his offense and installed a hurry-up, no-huddle spread offense that should propel the Huskies to greatness. It worked...for four games. After starting 4-0, the Huskies are now 4-3 and most likely headed to another 7-win season. It's unclear if UW fans will put up with another offseason full of new ideas that will ultimately lead to another seven-win season. They may have finally had enough of Sark's empty promises.

While we may enjoy some schaedenfreude at the Huskies' expense, we still have to face a potentially explosive offense.

Scheme

Steve Sarkisian's new offense is a moderate departure from his previous offense at UW. The team now runs the ball at a ratio much closer to 60-40 than it's previous near-perfect balance. Additionally, the Huskies now run nearly their entire offense from the shotgun. Price will occasionally line up under center, but this is mostly a shotgun team now. The offense isn't necessarily doing anything we have not seen this season. Much of what I'll review today are concepts we've seen other teams run: inside zone running, playaction, familiar receiver routes, and some pre-snap movement from WRs. What remains rather novel, however, is the pace of the offense. This is one of the fastest offenses we will face this season. Oregon was fast, but that game was more of a water polo match than a football game. This offense demands that Cal quickly identify UW's personnel and formation--that may be a challenge for such a young defense. Hopefully their experience against these familiar concepts will aid them.

Inside Zone

UW will run the inside zone over and over and over on Saturday. This isn't particularly complicated (they'll rarely run an inside zone read). They're simply good at it--their O-line is best at run blocking and their top RB Bishop Sankey can carry the offense on his back if necessary. This is not deceptive like the inside zone read. Cal simply needs to win the battle at the line of scrimmage to stop this. Smart Football explains how inside zone running works.

Yet there is much discussion of what "zone runs" even are. First, there is only so much "zoning" in a zone — much of it is still just blocking the guy in front of you. On all zone runs, the linemen must ask, "Am I ‘covered’ (is there a guy directly in front of me, aside from a linebacker set back a few years)? Or am I ‘uncovered’ (there is no one directly in front of me)?"

If "covered," there is very little "zoning" at all: The lineman’s job is to block the guy in front of them. Fans, commentators, and even coaches often overcomplicate things. The "zone" aspect comes in with "uncovered" linemen. If "uncovered," the lineman must step "playside" — i.e. the side the run is going to — and help double-team the defensive linemen along with his "covered" cohort. Once the two of them control that down defensive lineman, one of the offensive linemen slides off to hit a linebacker. It’s not that complicated. Indeed, let’s say the five offensive linemen are covered by five defensive linemen. In that case, each guy (save for maybe the backside offensive tackle) will just block the guy in front of them — there is no "zoning" at all.

Inside zone: block the guy in front of you. If no one is in front of you, take a step over and block that guy before releasing to block a linebacker. Simple, right?

Iz-run_medium

via smartfootball.com

Yes, it actually is that simple. The real challenge here is winning the battle at the line of scrimmage.

On rare occasion they will run an inside zone read and give Keith Price the option of keeping the ball. Given his fragile condition this weekend, I doubt we will see any inside zone read (famous last words).

Washington will run this from a variety of formations: pistol, I-formation, offset-I, and diamond. They will also use several personnel packages, from 4 WRs and 1 RB to 2 TEs, a RB, and 2 FBs. Below UW brings a FB and a TE (left side of the line) to assist with blocking.

Uw2-1_medium

While inside zone running is their bread and butter, they will occasionally run the outside zone. Do you remember how we diagnosed outside zone run against Oregon? From what I can tell, the same principle works with UW's offense.

Uw6-1_medium

If the RB lines up next to the QB, we're probably going to see an outside zone run. Again, they don't usually run the outside zone read like Oregon does. On this play UW's WRs occupy the boundary-side cornerbacks and the weakside linebacker. They pull the right guard to take out the middle linebacker while the remaining members of the line block the defensive line. The RB follows the right guard who helps clear the hole for him. Although the WRs did not get much of a push against their defenders on this particular example, the RB ran for a modest gain.

Passing Concepts

Again, much of what we'll see here is similar to what we have seen from several other teams. UW usually uses a combination of shallow/intermediate routes and deep routes. This gives Price the option to complete a big pass or a shorter, easier gain in case the deep man is covered or if pass protection breaks down.

UW will use crossing routes (field side receivers in the image below) and curls (boundary side receivers)

Uw1-2_medium

They'll run variants of four vertical routes. Notice that the TE gets involved with these deep routes too. They'll run Austin Seferian-Jenkins from a TE position, the slot, and occasionally an outside receiver position.

Uw4-1_medium

Below illustrates the shallow-deep concept. Just like with Washington State, outside receivers are not always the deep targets and TEs/slot WRs/inside receivers are not always the shallow targets. If UW can force a mismatch between one of its speedy WRs and a linebacker, they will take advantage with a deep route (typically a go route or a slant).

Uw7-1_medium

On the above play the pocket broke down and flushed Price towards the bottom of the screen. Fortunately he had his field side WR waiting, wide open on the curl route.

Play Action Passes

A team with a running game as effective as Washington's is particularly dangerous on play action. Play action didn't mean anything against Oregon State last week because they had no viable ground attack. Defenders have to respect the Huskies' running game and they will be more likely to bite on run fakes. Sark uses this to get some of his best playmakers in space.

Uw3-1_medium

UW lines up in 22-player personnel (2 TEs, 2 RBs). It's obviously a run, right?

Uw3-2_medium

This is actually going to be a pass play. As Price fakes the handoff to the RB, the TEs will run crossing routes towards the sideline while the lone WR runs a deeper crossing route. Ironically, Austin Seferian-Jenkins (at the left side of the line) is the target of this pass. You would think that one of the four defenders in his face would have picked him up on his route. Instead, their eyes are all locked on Bishop Sankey.

Uw3-3_medium

ASJ is wiiiiide open. This is the easiest throw Price will have all day. Notice that the other TE is open too. A fade pass to that other TE would have also led to a touchdown.

I really liked the following play. UW lines up with 2 WRs, 2 TEs, and a FB. This looks like it could be a run, but it's not. It's another play action pass. Usually with these play action passes, the O-line's blocking tells you whether it's a run or a pass. They usually pass block because it's a pass play. On this particular play they run block. This causes EVERYONE on the Arizona defense to bite on the run. You have probably guessed what will happen next.

Uw5-1_medium

Uw5-2_medium

Wide receiver Kevin Smith easily gets behind the defense and Price delivers the ball (highlighted) to him. Had Smith kept his feet, this would have been an easy touchdown. He loses his footing however and turns this into a "disappointing" 49-yard reception.

Packaged Plays

Like UCLA, Washington will sometimes package plays together and let the defense decide whether Price should throw or hand off the ball. UW relies on this most heavily in its rocket motion plays. Just like UCLA's pre-snap movement, UW will take a receiver and motion him across the field, behind QB and RB.

Although UW has a slightly different twist on the concept, we have seen this before. Just like UCLA, they will run familiar plays from this motion: bubble screens, sweeps, and play action passes.

Rocket

Smart Football explains the rocket:

The rocket similar in concept to a jet sweep, but with some notable differences. Specifically, because the sweeper takes a deeper path:

  • the play actually happens faster than the jet, because the pitch can occurs outside of the box rather than via a jet which usually takes place where the quarterback is standing;
  • this depth actually allows the offense to get additional lead blockers in front of the rocket sweeper
  • it’s the ultimate "numbers to the perimeter" play; and because so much action is flowing to the playside, counters are even better off of the rocket action than they are from the jet sweep

They key is the bullet point about the "numbers to the perimeter." This helps the offense create a numerical advantage over the defense. If the defense overcommits to the direction of the rocket, the offense can throw a counter. If the defense barely moves in response to the rocket, the rocket side has a numerical advantage. This play gives the offense multiple options.

Example: If the safety is rolling hard down when the motion starts, what is your plan? If the defensive end flies out, what’s the plan? Inside linebackers are scraping hard, what’s the plan? You get the idea.

We will see Washington combine the rocket with its inside zone and with its passing game. First we'll look at how Baylor combines the rocket with inside zone. Below is a great illustration of how the rocket will try to draw the defender towards the boundary side (top of the screen) while the offense plans to run towards the field side.

Rocket-iz_medium

via smartfootball.com

The circled receiver will follow the rocket motion and pretend to receive the pitch from the QB just before the QB hands off to the RB for an inside zone run.

UW will also do this with play action. The rocketman will try to get the defense to bite on the run.

Rocket-post-wheel_medium

via smartfootball.com

Although not pictured in this post, the rocket naturally leads into the bubble screen (think back to UCLA's bubble screens). The rocketman will cross the field and catch a pass as he gets behind the receivers who will serve as his two lead blockers.

The rocket brings together the primary elements of the Husky offense: playaction and inside zone. This is already a deceptive concept when run at normal speed. When they run the rocket in the hurry-up offense, the Bears will need to make their reads very quickly. They need to ensure that everyone knows their assignments.

Personnel

* Denotes returning starter

Quarterback

*Keith Price: 6' 1", 202 lbs., Sr.

Keith Price had made an impressive comeback this year. He had a stellar freshman season with 3063 yards on 66.9% completions with 33 TDs and only 11 interceptions. This made him an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention and earned him a place among the semifinalists for the O'Brien Award. 2012 did not go as well. After losing his top RB and a few wide receivers, he passed for 2.728 yards on 60.9% completions with 19 TDs and 13 interceptions. He regressed because he was trying too hard to make big plays out of nothing. Instead of throwing the ball away, he'd toss it into traffic and hope for the best.

Price was back to his 2011 form this season. During the offseason Keith Price tightened up his mechanics and he is no longer trying too hard to make big plays. As a result, his stats are much closer to his 2011 numbers than his 2012 numbers. Well, they were until last week.

Imagine trying to throw a football without using your thumb. Pretty challenging, isn't it? Keith Price has been nursing a thumb injury for over a month and it does not look like it's getting any better. He was having serious issues passing the ball last Saturday and the relentless ASU pass rush battered and bruised him even more. He ended up leaving the game in the fourth quarter due to injury. While he should start on Saturday, he is far from 100% healthy.

Pros

  • Back to the accurate, efficient QB he was in 2011
  • Mechanics improved during the offseason

Cons

  • Held together with duct tape and bubble gum

Running Back

*Bishop Sankey: 5' 10", 203 lbs., Jr.

Dwayne Washington: 6' 1", 220 lbs., RS Fr.

(FB) Psalm Wooching: 6' 3", 228 lbs., RS Fr.

The Washington rushing attack is led by Bishop Sankey, who is the nation's leading rusher. Replacing Chris Polk last year, Sankey ran for 1,439 yards and 16 TDs en route to an All-Pac-12 honorable mention. Both his yardage and his 289 carries are third-most in school history. He enjoyed one of the best games of his career against Cal last year as he ran for 189 yards and 2 TDs. Just like they did with Chris Polk, UW isn't afraid to run Sankey 30 or 40 times per game, if necessary. Fortunately for them Sankey is an excellent running back. He has great vision, strength, and, of course, durability.

Sankey will be backed up by Dwayne Washington and Jesse Callier, both of whom have seen limited action this season. We may also see Psalm Wooching in the backfield. Wooching is a big, physical fullback who made Sark very happy when he joined the team.

Pros

  • Psalm Wooching might be the best name we have seen all season
  • Bishop Sankey can singlehandedly carry the offense if necessary
  • Sankey is productive, experienced, durable

Cons

  • Limited experience behind Sankey (not that it really matters)

Wide Receiver

*Kasen Williams: 6 '2", 212 lbs., Jr.

*Jaydon Mickens: 5' 10", 170 lbs., So.

Kevin Smith: 5' 11", 214 lbs., Sr.

The wide receiver corps is headlined by All-Pac-12 honorable mention Kasen Williams. He led the team with 77 receptions and 878 receiving yards last season. His 6 receiving TDs were second on the team. Fellow receiver Jaydon Williams only tallied 190 yards and one touchdown last season, but showed impressive speed. His tendency to drop the ball was less impressive. The third starter Silent Bob Kevin Smith is returning from an ACL tear. Surprisingly, Smith has been the team's most productive wide receiver this season and has been a consistent, reliable WR all season. He has the speed to stretch the field and get behind the defense.

Despite plenty of talent, this unit disappointed last season. They often let Keith Price down with drops and an inability to gain separation on deep routes. The receivers started off strong but their production has declined over the past four weeks.

Pros

  • Nearly every receiver from 2012 returns this season
  • Smith and Mickens have field-stretching speed
Cons
  • Susceptible to the dropsies

Tight End

*Austin Seferian-Jenkins: 6' 6", 276 lbs., Jr.

Most Cal fans are already too familiar with Austin Seferian-Jenkins. He was an All-Pac-12 second team member last season and earned spots on several All-America teams. He was also one of three finalists for the John Mackey Award. He was second on the team in receiving yards last season with 878 and led the team with 7 TDs. He had the best game of his career against Cal last season as he terrorized our DBs with 154 receiving yards and a touchdown. One of his two career 2-TD games was against Cal in 2011. Again, we know this guy too well.

Pros

  • Size, strength make him extraordinarily difficult to defend
  • Best pass-catching tight end in the country

Cons

  • Bad driver

Offensive Line

*(LT) Micah Hatchie: 6' 5", 305 lbs., Jr.

*(LG) Dexter Charles: 6' 4", 289 lbs., So.

*(C) Mike Criste: 6' 5", 306 lbs., Jr.

*(RG) Colin Taginawa: 6' 3", 275 lbs., Jr.

*(RT) Ben Riva: 6' 6", 300 lbs., Jr.

The Huskies return all five starters from last year's offensive line. While that ordinarily would be something worth celebrating, the offensive line has been the team's worst unit for the past two seasons. They were 103rd in the nation with 2.71 sacks allowed per game last year and 108th with 7.00 tackles for loss allowed per game. Their struggles haven't been entirely the result of poor play, as injuries also played a role in the unit's struggles. Although the line struggled last year, they became healthy towards the end of the season and paved the way for some impressive rushing yards (168 ypg) over the final five games.

Riva is the team's best lineman while Hatchie is arguably the worst among the group. Riva excels in run blocking and is serviceable at pass protection. Hatchie struggled with the basics such as snap counts and fundamentals of pass blocking.

Pros

  • Experienced unit full of four-star recruits
  • Good run blocking

Cons

  • Sub-par pass protection

Statistics

Individual Stats (2013)

Passing

  • Keith Price: 1,793 yards, 64.5% completions, 7.8 yards per passing attempt, 146.24 efficiency rating, 14 TDs - 4 interceptions
Price looks like he's back to 2011 form, doesn't he? He certainly did. Until two weeks ago when his stats took a nosedive.

Rushing

  • Bishop Sankey: 921 yards (5.35 ypc), 10 TDs
  • Jesse Callier: 170 yards (6.07 ypc), 3 TDs
  • Dwayne Washington: 112 yards (4.00 ypc), 1 TD

Bishop Sankey has more rushing yards than our entire team and twice as many rushing TDs as our entire team.

Receiving

  • Kevin Smith: 459 yards (17.65 ypc), 3 TDs
  • Kasen Williams: 400 yards (14.29 ypc), 1 TD
  • Jaydon Mickens: 362 yards (9.28 ypc), 2 TDs
  • Austin Seferian-Jenkins: 205 yards (12.06 ypc), 4 TDs

Unlike OSU and UCLA which clearly had a favored receiver, UW is pretty good at spreading the yards around. Despite leading all TEs nationwide in receptions and yards last season, Seferian-Jenkins is not doing much damage this year. Fortunately for him Dr. Buh has the remedy to fix that.

Team Stats (2013)

Scoring

  • 33.6 points per game (42nd)
  • 481.9 yards per game (24th)
Though averaging 33.6 points per game, UW hasn't crossed the 30-point barrier this month. Last week they scored 24 points--tying a season low--for the second consecutive week.

Passing

  • 270.0 yards per game (39th)
  • 148.23 efficiency rating (31st)
  • 7.9 yards per passing attempt (41st)
These are some pretty solid statistics, but a banged-up Keith Price is only averaging 5.62 yards per pass attempt and completing 49.3% of his passes over the past two weeks.

Rushing

  • 211.86 rushing yards per game (24th)
  • 4.56 yards per carry (55th)
Fortunately for the Huskies, Bishop Sankey has consistently been churning yards all season (except for last week's 22-yard performance against ASU). Even if Price is hobbled, we will have to corral a very productive rushing attack.

Conversions

  • 51.38% third down conversions (10th)
  • 33.33% fourth down conversions (96th)
  • 71.88% red zone TD conversions (19th)
These are excellent numbers. The Huskies clearly excel in these high-pressure situations.

Ball Management

  • 9 turnovers (35th)
  • 28:10.57 avg. time of possession (95th)
  • 20.98 seconds per play (moderately fast); Cal averages 19.48 seconds per play
The Huskies are taking much better care of the ball this year than they did last year. The hurry-up offense could be run at a faster pace, however.

Negative Yardage

  • 2.71 sacks allowed per game (100th)
  • 6.86 tackles for loss allowed per game (104th)
  • 81.0 penalty yards per game (125th--LAST)
The UW offense has a tendency to self-destruct with negative yardage plays (which makes their third-down and red zone conversion numbers seem even more impressive).

Conclusions

Even with a hobbled Keith Price, this is a very good offense. Bishop Sankey is a tremendous running back and his line excels at run blocking. The Huskies will run the offense at a fast pace and try to use playaction and the rocket to get the Bears out of position. How well they can pass the ball remains to be seen, however. Keith Price is nursing an injured thumb that hampered him in ideal conditions. I can't imagine it will be feeling great during Saturday night's four-hour affair in mid-40-degree weather. Cal's key to winning may be selling out to stop the run and hoping Price's injury prevents him from passing the ball. If nothing else, it will give us practice for next week's defensive plan against Arizona.

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