Not too long ago, Jake Browning was the toast of college football.
After leading Washington to a berth in the College Football Playoff in his sophomore season, his second as a starter for the Huskies, Browning appeared destined for greatness. His 3,430 passing yards and 43 touchdown tosses shot him to the top of many 2018 mock drafts and made him a preseason Heisman contender as he entered his junior year, with many believing the Granite Bay, California native was the brightest star among a UW offense that featured plenty of firepower.
Throughout that heralded sophomore season, Browning had a trio of stars to whom he could distribute the ball: speedy deep threat, John Ross, who would go on to be selected ninth overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2017 NFL draft; All-American punt returner and slot receiver, Dante Pettis, a 2018 second-round selection by the San Francisco 49ers; and Myles Gaskin, Washington's all-time leading rusher and fellow four-year starter who will line up behind Browning in their final collegiate game on January 1st.
Gaskin, who has totaled over 5,200 yards with 55 touchdown carries during his storied career in Seattle, remains the key to the Husky offense under first-year coordinator, Bush Hamden. While Chris Petersen has every reason to be happy with Jimmy Lake, his rookie play-caller on the other side of the ball, Hamden has forced the head coach to come to his defense on more than one occasion this fall, as the Huskies have struggled to maintain the standards set by former OC (and current head coach at Oregon State) Jonathan Smith.
However, despite the supposed success of the 2016 squad, Smith's offenses hardly resembled the explosive units associated with Northwest neighbors like Washington State or Oregon. The west coast's best team features a system that largely resembles the one seen in Ann Arbor, which led to a national ranking of only 59th in total offense after averaging just 412 yards-per-game.
"As far as comparing them, you know, personnel-wise, [they're] similar to what team up north does in terms of multiple tight end packages and using the running backs," OSU linebacker Tuf Borland told the media in southern California yesterday.
Like the Buckeyes' arch-rivals, the Huskies rely heavily on a massive offensive line that looks to overwhelm opponents with the help of a pair of tight ends. From this '12' personnel grouping, Hamden likes to keep opponents on their toes with the use of varied formations and the occasional unbalanced look, like the one below that sprung Gaskin for a long touchdown run against a tough Utah defense.
"I feel like they're good in the run game, the pass game, they run a lot of trick plays," Buckeye defensive end Jonathon Cooper said of the Huskies. "They can throw you off in the game. I guess definitely a momentum changer so we have to be on our jobs and know what we're doing on each and every play, our eyes in the right places because I think one time you think the ball is going this way it's going in the total opposite direction.
But though Hamden likes to throw in wrinkles like the ones seen above, Gaskin and fellow back Salvon Ahmed have been most effective when the Huskies line up in a simple, double-tight end set and run outside zone.
"I see a team that really relies on their running backs to get them going. I see No. 9 [Gaskin], he's really I guess the kick starter for their team, seems like, my point of view, and he's really talented," Dre'Mont Jones said of the Husky ground game. "Their "O" line they seem to work really good together. I think the player that sticks out to me is the center. Seems like he's the key guy for that "O" line."
While Gaskin and Ahmed have combined for over 1,700 rushing yards this season, opponents have stalled a number of drives by penetrating the interior of the Husky O-line and creating negative plays.
“I think we just need to be a little bit more patient, not burying yourself into blocks, staying free and then being gap disciplined," Borland added yesterday. "At the end of the day, you take away all the running lanes, there's not going to be anywhere to go.”
As Cooper eluded to, however, the Huskies are ready to catch defenses that overpursue the outside zone run with a strong play-action game, including a version of the old school Waggle concept. Originally run by the University of Delaware in their Wing-T offense, the concept gives the defensive front a false run key while Browning has an easy front-to-backside read as he rolls out in the opposite direction.
The Huskies don't live entirely in the past, however, as they've consistently called a diverse set of run-pass options since Petersen and his staff took over in 2014. This year's squad seems to lean on them most often in short-yardage and red-zone situations, and although the concepts themselves aren't complex, Browning and the Huskies execute at a high level when the plays are called.
Not all of Browning's RPO reads are based on the movement of a particular defender, either, as he'll take shots downfield is he sees a one-on-one matchup that favors one of his receivers.
This ability to hit deep balls is one of Browning's strengths, and Hamden looks to create winnable matchups that give junior receiver Aaron Fuller a chance to beat a defender downfield. Fuller leads the team with 794 receiving yards as well as 11 catches of 20 yards more.
When Browning is able to set his feet before and deliver at the top of his drop, the QB shows why he owns virtually every UW passing record.
However, the key to pressuring the senior signal-caller is to throw him out of his rhythm in the pocket, as he struggles to reset his footwork when pressure forces him to readjust his timing.
While Browning has shown an ability to execute at a high level, he's guilty of committing a quarterback's greatest sin as he doesn't take care of the football. While his 10 interceptions may not seem too bad, the way in which he carelessly throws the ball up when pressure arrives is a dangerous way to live, leading to a number of intentional grounding penalties as well.
To create this pressure, the Buckeyes may want to consider employing the press-man coverage that became controversial earlier this season after seeing so much success in Greg Schiano's first two years on campus. When complemented by pressure from Malik Harrison and Baron Browning in their nickel package, the Buckeyes should be able to disrupt Browning's timing and force him into his characteristic mistakes.
However, as we saw far too often in the front half of the season, this aggressive approach to pass defense can leave the Buckeyes vulnerable against the run, and an explosive back like Gaskin is more than capable of gashing the OSU defense on the ground if given a seam. The key, according to Schiano, won't be any scheme or game plan, but rather, his team's execution.
"Well, there's the old axiom that you blitz the young guys and you cover the experienced guys. I've never really bought into that," Schiano said of Browning and the Huskies. "It's about execution. It's about one-on-one matchups. You're going to have to win one-on-one battles."