Utah’s defense has always been one of its strengths, with their hometown being known as “Sack Lake City” since the 2013 season. They led the Pac-12 in total sacks from 2013-2016 with 171 and trailed only Clemson for the lead in the entire FBS. While watching the film from their recent game against the Southern California Trojans and star quarterback Sam Darnold, I was stunned by the way they defended the smash concept.
The smash concept is a hi-low concept for offenses, involving a corner route over the top and a curl route underneath. The curl can often be replaced with a flat route or something similar, such as a slant route or smoke route, as long as it stresses a defender by forcing him to choose to defend one of the two levels of the field.
The smash concept is an ideal zone concept beater, specifically Cover 2, but really any zone coverage that has a deep defender and an underneath one. Man coverages tend to fare better against the concept, as each defender simply needs to follow their receiver.
Here’s an example of USC winning with the smash concept from their game against the Washington State Cougars. They’ll run a smash concept to the right side of the field, with wide receiver Tyler Vaughns (#21) running the corner route and running back Ronald Jones II (#25) running to the flat out of the backfield. The corner in Washington State’s Cover 2 defense will sit on the flat route, opening up Vaughns in the honey hole for a big play to get the Trojans near the end zone.
So, USC can run the smash concept. Additionally, a very similar concept is the HOSS concept, which is a seam or go route from the slot and a curl route on the outside. I’ve written about how much USC uses the HOSS concept, and it’s certainly something the Utes would have prepared for in this game.
Their defense of the smash concept would closely mirror that of the HOSS concept. The curl/underneath route would occupy the flat defender, but the Utes would need a way to defend the vertical route from HOSS or the corner route from Smash.
What they did was a type of matchup/pattern matching zone coverage against these concepts. The slot defender tasked with staying in the middle/underneath area would carry the corner route from the smash concept vertically as though it were man coverage, allowing the other flat defender to take away the underneath route. This closed off the honey hole in zone coverage for Darnold and forced throws into tight windows for incompletions.
Here’s the first example of the Utes shutting down the Trojan’s Smash Concept. It’s a 3rd and 5 on the Utah 46 yard line early in the first quarter. USC comes out in 11 personnel and Utah counters with 4-2-5 nickel personnel.
Utah is running Cover 3 on this play, with playside cornerback Julian Blackmon (#23) in an underneath zone coverage closest to the sideline, safety Marquise Blair (#13) – who is off the screen for the still images here – playing the deep third coverage over the top, and linebacker Sunia Tauteoli (#10) playing the underneath zone next to Blackmon.
However, Tauteoli will match any vertical route from the slot and vacate the underneath zone. The corner route from Imatorbhebhe fits that description nicely.
Darnold, reading his smash route key of the playside underneath defender, in this case Blackmon, throws the corner route. Since the corner was sitting on the flat route, the corner route to Imatorbhebhe should be open before the deep defender (Blair) can come down to make a play.
Tauteoli, though, defends this perfectly and gives Darnold and the TE no room to connect.
It was a relatively simple adjustment to a Cover 3 zone defense, but one that really paid dividends for the Utes here and on the next play.
This time, the situation changes but the basic adjustment remains the same.
This is a key 4th and 7 with 21 seconds remaining in the first half. USC trails 21-7 and needs to put points on the board to build some momentum going into halftime. They’ll turn to one of their go to designs – the smash concept.
USC has 11 personnel again, this time with inverted slot formations to both sides of the field. Utah counters with 4-2-5 nickel personnel. At first Utah is showing Cover 3, with a single high safety and the field corner turned on a 45 degree angle to face Darnold, indicating some kind of zone coverage.
USC runs the Smash Concept to the boundary side of the field, with slot receiver Deontay Burnett (#80) running the corner route and Vaughns (#21) running a curl route from the outside.
Utah will run into Cover 2 on the snap though, with safety Chase Hansen (#22) dropping from near the first down line into a deep half coverage, splitting the field with Blair (#13), his safety partner. All the other defenders dropping into coverage will hang around the first down line in underneath zone coverages.
All except freshman nickel corner Javelin Guidry (#28) that is. He’ll be tasked with the pattern match coverage on this play, and will follow Burnett’s corner route and abandon his underneath zone.
Guidry does an excellent job constricting Burnett’s space and Darnold’s throwing lane. The QB tries to lead Burnett into the open area below Blair and above Blackmon, but Guidry takes away any attempt Darnold can make to throw the ball in on a line. The QB floats it upfield hoping his guy can make a play, but it’s too well covered for the Utes and results in a turnover on downs.
It’s only two plays, but it totally shut down a key concept for the USC offense in a huge game for both teams. USC would prevail down the stretch, but not after the Utes scratched and clawed their way to a very close game.