If you want to understand how a good team works the best way to evaluate their team is to look at the key players, the formations, and then the plays that they use. Players, formations, players is the mantra of Larry Kehres, head coach of the amazing Mt. Union football program, as well as that of his disciple Matt Campbell at Iowa State.
That sequence describes their process for determining their team’s core identity and how to develop their strategies every year. They identify the players, determine the formations that set them up for success, and then choose the plays. The end result is a team’s identity, the players that everyone will know about, and the needed roles that the non-stars are going to need to learn how to fill.
Although this is the express mantra of the Mt. Union folk, you have to assume that it’s also not too different from the process that most coaches and programs undergo each offseason when they are developing their teams and building a strategy for the coming season. It’s also useful to the college football enthusiast or analyst who wants to break down what makes a particular team work and how they truly stack up against their competition.
As an example, we’re going to talk about the Washington Huskies, that undefeated and surging Pac-12 power that should be in the playoffs if their season concludes as you’d expect.
Washington has some good players on offense, that should be abundantly clear from its S&P+ ranking of fourth nationally in offense, or the fact that it’s averaging 46 points per game, has scored 40 or more six times out of eight, and hasn’t been held below 31 yet. However, you might be surprised at Washington’s relative talent level compared to other top teams around the country.
When they’re in their base, double TE formations the recruiting rankings of their athletes average to 3.5 stars (per 247’s composite rankings) and many of their players were labelled at positions other than where they’ve ended up since arriving in Washington. For comparison’s sake, here’s a look at the star averages for the starting offenses of the four teams ahead of them in the current playoff rankings:
Alabama: 4.5 stars
Clemson: 3.5 stars (3.9 if you count Deon Cain as a starter over 0-star walk-on Hunter Renfrow)
Michigan: 3.6 stars
Texas A&M: 4 stars
It should also be mentioned that part of the reason Michigan’s number is lower is that they base out of 21 personnel and fullbacks rarely have high ratings. If you counted Washington’s 11 personnel package where they get an extra WR on the field their ranking wouldn’t go up.
It’s a team with some real talent but they’re a tier below college football’s blue blood programs. The key to their success is how they deploy it.
We have to start with RB Myles Gaskin as he’s the featured man in the Huskies run-heavy offense. The Husky run game is a good one, as evidenced by the strong numbers from his back-ups, but Gaskin really shines in this system.
At 5-10, 195 he’s a smaller guy yet Gaskin is capable of powerful cuts upfield that don’t make it easy for opponents to make arm tackles. He’s at 878 yards on the year on 6.5 yards per carry with seven touchdowns. He’s at his best on the edge where his lateral quickness can be put to work but he can cut upfield and between the tackles as well.
Then there’s QB Jake Browning, the straw who stirs the drink, who’s putting up absolutely insane numbers this season with 1895 passing yards at 9.87 yards per pass with 28 touchdowns and only three interceptions. His greatest strength is either his eyes or his ability to push the ball outside the hash marks to receivers who are generally operating in a lot of space thanks to tactics and run game of the Husky system.
He makes good decisions and can hit windows outside or down the field but much of the time he’s simply throwing speedy receivers into open grass. He can make plays off schedule by scrambling but he always keeps his eyes downfield and uses his legs to open up passing windows or lure in coverage defenders so he can punish them with his arm. If he actually has to tuck the ball and run past the line of scrimmage he’s not particularly threatening.
The main Husky WRs are Dante Pettis and John Ross, neither of whom are particularly big targets at 6-1, 188 and 5-11, 190 respectively. These guys are quick though and Washington will regularly get them matched up in single coverage and running routes that depend on speed rather than size.
The OL is a collection of tall, lean guys chosen for their quickness and intelligence, many of them plucked from the in-state talent pool. They aren’t a mauling group by any means but rely on quickness and chemistry. The average size across the starting five is 6-6, 304.
Finally the Huskies will regularly mix in receiving TE Darrell Daniels and one or both of their de-facto sixth OL, TEs Drew Sample and Will Dissly.
The skill players are all relatively small and quick and the name of the game at virtually every position is speed.
The Huskies formations are a massive part of their success on offense this season and they do what they can to set their guys up to make the most of their speed. One of their favorite set up is to go double TE with the receivers to one side of the formation:
The upside to twin sets is that one of the receivers can play off the line of scrimmage and have a chance to get going before the opposing DB can jam him off his route. The Huskies also like to get TE Darrell Daniels, who at 6-4, 246 is smaller, quicker and more of a receiving TE, off the line of scrimmage so that he too can use his quickness to his advantage after the snap rather than having to immediately grapple with a big DL.
With two TEs on the field, one of whom is generally a burly “mobile blocking surface,” it becomes easier for the Huskies to get double teams at the point of attack on troublesome DL that might otherwise blow up their lanky OL and stop up the works when they want to run the ball.
The Huskies also like to use bunch formations and create stress for opponents with “nub trips” sets that put three receivers opposite the TE:
The first problem for the defense here is determine whether to shade strength to the field against the WRs or to the boundary against the TE and run game. The next problem is the fact that the bunch set is going to create a free release for two of the speedy Husky receivers.
Another trick of Boise origin that Peterson’s Huskies will employ is to go 4x1 to one side of the field only to create extreme isolation for the backside receiver:
This one started out as a bunch trips set but then the RB motioned out wide and drew a CB with him, revealing that Utah was in zone for Browning’s benefit.
There’s intentionality to all of Washington’s formations and generally it’s to create space for Gaskin, Ross, or Pettis to operate in so that their strengths are leveraged and their weaknesses minimized.
There has always been a lot of misunderstanding about Chris Peterson’s offense dating back to his Boise State days. Misdirection is at the heart of everything Washington does, again they are always looking to create space or hesitation so that their skill players can run to open grass, but just because it’s a clever offense doesn’t mean it’s all a gimmick.
The Huskies rely heavily on running the ball and utilizing play-action off their run concepts to create leverage for both. Their favorite play this year is outside zone, which they’ll often supplement either with one of their ancillary blocking TEs or with RPO action to punish defenses that flow too hard to stop Gaskin:
This is outside zone with Browning reading the linebacker and ready to throw the backside slant to the slot WR if the LB attacks the run too aggressively and leaves the window open. The backside OT actually pass drops to lure the DE outside and either keep that window open to throw the slant or for the RB to cutback into on a hand-off.
Here’s another example of the ways in which they’ll set their players up to utilize their speed, their RB counter play:
There’s a bubble screen option for Browning if the OLB attacks off the edge and there’s also an initial step by the RB to the perimeter as though it were an option or toss play. Meanwhile that action just serves to set up the pulling blocks by the guard and TE to the opposite edge. This play stretches the defense from sideline to sideline while creating potential creases for Gaskin to break through with his speed. That’s a persistent theme in most of Washington’s run game concepts.
When the Huskies just want to go out-execute opponents they’ll often rely on a concept like weak zone...
...which is designed to create either a downhill gap or cutback route to the edge for Gaskin. In this example they get a lot of push with their double teams on the backside and Gaskin darts straight through to pay dirt.
Or they might just throw curl routes or outs on the outside in which Browning is basically throwing his speedy receivers open:
Stopping the Washington offense comes down to finding ways to prevent the speedy skill players that carry the load for their offense from having opportunities to operate in space. However, between Browning’s arm and all of the formations and concepts that the Huskies use, that has proven to be a very difficult task for all of Washington’s opponents thus far in the year.
If no one in the Pac-12 can figure it out, I imagine we’ll have to wait and see if defenses from other conferences can fare any better come playoff time.