Coming into the 2017 football season, both the Washington Huskies and the Washington State Cougars felt pretty good about their quarterback situations. On the Palouse, the Cougars had Luke Falk, a redshirt senior returning for his fourth year in the Air Raid—which has historically translated to ridiculous statistics—who was poised to break every meaningful career passing record in the Pac-12. Over on the west side of the state, the Huskies had Jake Browning, coming off a trip to the College Football Playoff as the capstone to a season where he threw forty-three touchdown passes, putting him in line to become the all-time leader in touchdown passes thrown by a Husky quarterback. The two signal callers had their respective positions under lock and key.
And then the season started, and the Cougar offense looked “constipated” while the Husky offense proved not to be as explosive as it had in 2016. Suddenly there were rumblings about whether Tyler Hilinski should be taking more snaps for the Cougar offense, and maybe Jake Browning won’t even be the starter for the Huskies come 2018. That there would be questions about these two guys coming into the Apple Cup—especially considering that both teams are 9-2 and one of them is playing for a division title—would have been inconceivable in August.
The struggles of Falk and the Air Raid have been well documented here and hashed out numerous times in the commentariat, so we’ll leave those for another article. But this is our first in-person look at Browning and the Husky offense. And, if you take a look at Browning’s numbers, he’s not all that far off from where he was during his stellar 2016 campaign.
If you cherry pick some other numbers from the Husky offense, the picture starts to fall into place a little bit. Myles Gaskin’s numbers are actually up slightly, likely a product of slightly higher usage. But Lavon Coleman has seen his per carry average drop from 7.5 to 4.6. Chico McClatcher averaged 18.5 yards per catch(!) in 2016, but this year he was down to 12.8 before injury claimed his season. Dante Pettis had fifteen touchdowns last year, but has only seven coming into the Apple Cup. Browning had all these guys back from last year, plus the addition of Hunter Bryant, a fantastic young tight end.
But there was one guy that didn’t come back, and that looks to have made all the difference. That guy? John Ross III and his elite (some would describe it as “F&$* You”) speed. Ross was able to consistently take the top off of defenses regardless of the coverages that were thrown at him, and the threat of Ross running through, over, and past defenses forced defenses to leave creases open for everybody else in the Husky offense to exploit.
This week, we’ll take a look at an example of how Ross demanded coverage and how that opened up the field for Browning and the Huskies.
Washington Offensive Formation: Ace Right Open. Ross is at the top of the screen as the outside receiver.
WSU Defensive Formation: 4-2-5 Combo coverage. WSU brought a safety into the box (or had Luani playing linebacker, depending how you look at these sorts of things) turning the look into almost a 4-4. Marcellus Pippins, at the bottom of the screen, is locked up with Dante Pettis playing soft man. At the top of the screen, Alex Grinch has the secondary playing an interesting sort of coverage that might be Cover Two. Darrien Molton ducking inside is interesting. It also makes it harder for him to defend this play. But the upshot to all this is that there are three defenders to John Ross’ side and one opposite of him.
The Play: It’s tough to tell whether this is an RPO play or just a straight called bubble to Ross, but either way the point was clearly to get the ball in his hands in space. The line gives a false key with a buck sweep look, and everybody in the box flows that way. Pettis either runs a vertical stem or goes to block Pippins, and Ross gets a good block from Aaron Fuller and runs away from Shalom Luani. Molton jumping inside really makes the block easy for fuller, and Jalen Thompson is left to clean up, but only after a gain of eleven yards. WSU had a safety over the top of Ross and potentially two defenders underneath or inside of him. He was the focus of secondary.
The very next play shows how the threat of John Ross’ speed could open up a defense, even when Ross wasn’t the target (and even though the pass ultimately fell incomplete).
Washington Offensive Formation: Ace Left Open. Same as above, just flipped formation strength.
WSU Defensive Front: 3-2 Cover 0-Under, but honestly I have no idea what to call this. For starters, Nnamdi Oguayo is initially lined up at corner. But what really amazes me is that WSU shows a light box (five defenders against six linemen) on 2nd & 4 and Washington still decides to throw it. Anyway, the focus here is at the bottom of the screen. WSU goes man across in coverage, but Luani shoots underneath John Ross to bracket him with Pippins.
The Play: Pretty simple combination here: Deep curls on the outside by Pettis and Ross with a post inside by McClatcher trying to exploit the space vacated by Luani shooting underneath Ross and the hole left open by Charleston White flying up into the box. And that’s where Ross, essentially single-handedly, has beaten the defensive call, even though he’s not the target. Pippins isn’t fast enough to press and cover him, so he has to play deep. But you can’t just give up a 5-to-7 yard curl on 2nd & 4, so Luani brackets. That puts Jalen Thompson on an island against Chico McClatcher because Charleston White has to come up in run support. Because the coverage is focused on Ross, space is opened up for McClatcher, and it takes a pretty good play by Thompson to break up this pass. Without it, it’s a first down for the Huskies.
Sometimes that focus on an outside guy can open up creases in the running game as well. Look at how hard the safety to the top of the screen bails here, even with a pure run read. If Coleman doesn’t get tripped up here, he might find the end zone. I mean he does later in the drive anyway but, you know, go with me here. And guess who’s at the top of the screen, demanding that coverage? Yep, Mr. Ross.
But hey, John Ross can’t hurt us anymore right? (Oh god, please tell me he can’t hurt us anymore.) And without Ross, the field gets a little bit smaller for the defense, which has some speed of its own, and that should compress the field even more for Browning, Gaskin, and company come Saturday night.
Santa Clara awaits the Kings in the North.