Myles Gaskin has been remarkably consistent throughout his career in Seattle. Until this year, when he’s missed some time due to injury, he’s been right around 225 carries and 1300 yards every year. It’s been almost uncanny. And, other than 2016 when he wasn’t really needed, he has consistently killed the Washington State Cougars. His previous three Apple Cups have seen him have 32, 16, and 25 carries for 138, 50, and 192 yards respectively. The play on which Gaskin has done the most damage to #SpeedD? It just might be the simplest play in Washington’s arsenal—inside zone. So let’s take a look at a couple examples of that play, and how UW has taken advantage of the Cougar defense.
I apologize in advance for putting a damper on your Thanksgiving.
The first play is a perfect example of how Washington exploits the movement of the defense. The play is inside zone to the offense’s right, with a slice block to the backside with the wing tight end. Gaskin ends up working this back to the backside after reading the defense. The Huskies catch the Cougar defense slanting hard to the weak side of the formation. The UW offensive line gets on the defenders’ shoulders and simply take them where they want to go, which wipes 75% of the defense out of the play. The linebacker level sees Browning extend to weak side as well, so their read steps take them to that side. This puts Isaac Dotson in particular way out of position, and he gets caught in the wash and is never able to recover. Jalen Thompson is slow to recover to the gap, and Gaskin is already in the end zone by the time he makes contact. Marcus Strong could do a better job here of attacking the slice block and squeezing the hole down.
The defense puts itself in a bad position, but the really impressive thing to me on this play is how Gaskin sets it up. He delays at the snap, taking a short zone step to his right. He’s likely reading flow as Browning is making his way towards him, and he sees a lot of clutter to his right. He probably has his mind made up to cut back against the grain before he even takes the handoff. He’s been in this offense for a long time, and his experience shows in this situation.
The second example is markedly similar to the first, except in this case there’s no cutback lane for Gaskin. Instead this is run to the bunch formation at the top of the screen. Again, the Cougar defense is caught slanting away from the hole and the linebacker level can’t recover fast enough to fill the gaps. Not to pick on Isaac Dotson too much, but he’s flat-footed here and that allows the wing tight end to come down and crack him hard. Hunter Dale and Marcus Strong are the two edge defenders, and they misplay this a little. Dale, knowing that Strong has outside contain behind him, should squeeze in tighter as Nnamdi Oguayo shoots down inside (and gets completely washed out of the play), preferably jumping into D-gap before the Washington receiver seals him out.
Unlike the previous play, there’s no patience from Gaskin here. It’s see hole, get ball, run fast. The offensive line is the start here, as #9 for Washington isn’t touched until Jahad Woods gets a hand on him 15 yards downfield. It’s another huge chunk of yards before he’s actually run down by a Cougar defender.
So there’s an easy answer here, right? If the slant by the defensive line is hurting us, well, just don’t slant any more. The problem is that #SpeedD isn’t designed to go face to face with offensive linemen. We are consistently at a size disadvantage, but at a speed advantage. So it was incumbent upon Alex Grinch then, and Tracy Claeys now, to use the advantage that our defense has—getting off the ball quickly and getting into and controlling gaps before the offensive linemen can beat you to that spot. The best way to do that is through the use of stunts and slants by the defensive linemen. Unfortunately, a zone blocking scheme by the offensive linemen can sometimes catch that slant and put your defense in an extremely bad spot. In those cases, your linebackers and safeties have play big and fill the gaps to limit the damage. In both the examples above, the linebackers were a step slow or out of position, and the safeties were too deep to have an impact on the play. That will have to change on Friday night.
We’re still small defensively. In fact, we’re probably smaller overall than we were last season. This is still a defensive front that is predicated on speed and quickness, and that can spell trouble when going against an offensive line that is as talented as the one that we’ll see on Friday. Where we need to be better, and where I think we’ll see a bit more success, is at the linebacker level. Jahad Woods and Dillon Sherman have another year of experience under their belts, to say nothing of having Grandpa himself, Peyton Pelluer back anchoring the Cougar defense. Pelluer has seen just about everything a linebacker is going to see in his time on the Palouse. Nothing Washington will do should surprise him. If he can consistently meet Myles Gaskin in the hole, that’s going to be a net positive for the Cougar defense. If he gets caught flat-footed and out of position, we’re going to be in trouble defensively. That’s the key match-up in my view.
Win at the line of scrimmage, win the Apple Cup, go play for a conference championship. That’s the plan. Go Cougs.