Russell Athletic Bowl — Key to Rutgers vs. Virginia Tech: Outside Zone

College football’s bowl season is not much like the single-minded narrative of a one winner-take-all playoff. Instead it’s a shifting, multiple layered story told through an ensemble cast. Some of the stories, like the BCS title game, are triumphant, with maybe even a tinge of poetic folklore — some battle that could as easily be taking place on Mount Olympus as in New Orleans or Pasadena. But other bowls are decidedly middle American, where hope and expectation have been dulled into some more reasonable expectation of just a simple win, maybe a winning season; more Death of a Salesman than Greek myth.

Key to the game -- more of this

Key to the game: more of this

But it’s often the smaller story that carries the most drama.

The Russell Athletic Bowl pits a Virginia Tech team — a consensus preseason top 20 team — that limped its way through the season and had to win its final two games to even get to a bowl games, versus a Rutgers squad that began the year 7-0 but finished 9-3, partially undone by mistakes and inconsistency on offense (yet still having had a good year, overall). The game should be close — Virginia Tech is a slight two-point or so favorite — and both defenses ought to deliver solid performances, something often lacking during bowl season as more teams move to no-huddle spread attacks.

On offense, however, it’s a bit of a different story. Virginia Tech had high hopes for its offense, led by quarterback Logan Thomas, but the Hokies offense — and Thomas in particular — has been a big disappointment. Virginia Tech’s offense has never been known for being explosive, but their average yards per play fell by roughly half a yard, while their turnover margin swung from positive to negative. But despite those struggles I think the game will be won or lost on the other side of the ball, in the matchup between Rutgers’ offense and Virginia Tech’s defense.

Rutgers coach Kyle Flood was promoted from offensive line to head coach following Greg Schiano’s departure to the NFL, and Flood, a no non-sense kind of guy, clearly wants the foundation of his team to be his offensive line and especially his running game. Much of this is by attitude, but it’s also by necessity, as quarterback Gary Nova has been nothing if not inconsistent. Against Temple, Nova completed 63% of his passes and threw for four touchdowns but — one week later, a game I attended in person — he threw a season high 46 times and six interceptions against Kent State, the Scarlet Knights’ first loss of the season.

But the problem for Rutgers wasn’t just Nova’s inconsistency, it was that teams began to be able to take away their running games. Flood’s offense is designed to be essentially a pro-style system; if you go just by formations and a superficial look at plays, the college team they most resemble on offense is Alabama. And the foundation of their attack is nothing fancy: the outside zone play, complete with a tight-end and a fullback.

It’s a play that Flood has lectured on at coaching clinics for years and, when Rutgers’ offense is rolling, you’ll see lots and lots of outside zone.

OZ

Rutgers runs it the same way most NFL teams do, which is essentially the same way the old school Nebraska teams used to run it under Tom Osborne (the diagram above is from Milt Tenopir, Nebraska’ legendary offensive line coach). There are three keys to Flood’s outside zone:

  1. The runningback’s read;
  2. The technique of the “uncovered lineman”; and
  3. Where the fullback “inserts” into the defense.

First, the runningback’s read. The runningback’s job is to align seven yards deep — deeper if he’s really fast — and head for the tight-end’s position. He’s actually reading the first down lineman from the outside, typically the defense end. If that defensive end heads outside, the runner will make one cut and head vertical. If the defensive end comes inside, the runningback is to head outside of him. But Flood is adamant that this is a north-south play: if the runner’s read would tell the runningback to turn his shoulders away from the line — i.e., to run parallel to the line of scrimmage in an effort to get to the corner — the rule is not to go to the outside and instead to cut it up and get what yards are there. They do not want the runner trying to turn it into a footrace to the sideline with heavy pursuit; the edge is only there if the runner can hit it still running downhill.

Indeed, the runningback has to have patience on this play, and the Rutgers staff tells him the key is to be “slow to the line, and fast through the line.” He must use patience to set up the blocks but explode through the line once he’s made his cut and his decision; generally, Jawan Jamison, Rutgers’ leading rusher, has done a nice job of this.

One interesting note is that almost all teams teach the runner to have a second read on outside zone — the second down lineman. This comes into play if the defensive end jumps outside; technically the runner is then supposed to look at the next down lineman (the defensive tackle, most often) and read his movements. But Flood, in his clinic lectures, is dubious of this. He says if the back makes his first read a coach has done a good job of teaching him, and has rarely seen a back actually make his second read — at that point it’s all instinct.

The importance of the read can’t be undersold. No matter how good the blocking is, if the read isn’t there, the play won’t work.

Second, the uncovered lineman. I’ve previously discussed basic zone running rules; Flood uses them too. The “covered lineman” — the guy with a defender directly across from him — has the easier job. Subject to stunts and movement, he primarily needs to focus on blasting the guy in front of him (with great technique, of course). The uncovered lineman has a tougher challenge, and Flood says his job is the toughest to teach. He has to create the double team by helping his teammate on a defensive lineman, before one of them — usually the uncovered lineman — slides off for a linebacker. The hard part is teaching him to focus on the double team first, as if he comes off the ball looking for the linebacker, the offense won’t get any movement on those defensive linemen and you often miss the linebacker anyway.

The key is to create the double team and then let the linebacker come to you, as he will press the line as the runningback approaches.

Third, where the fullback inserts into the defense. For the most part, Flood and his staff teach the outside zone one way, as the linemen work on combination blocks and sliding up to the linebackers. But they also like using the fullback, and they use him to create different looks for the defense. Specifically, the base outside zone typically has the fullback leading the way on what is commonly known as “BOSS” blocking — back on strong safety — but Rutgers’ calls “Force,” because the strong safety is usually the force player. This is simple: outside zone to the right, fullback runs to the right and tries to send the strong safety into next week, clearing the path.

But they use other variants as well, and this changes the other combinations. For example, they may “Arc” the tight-end, which has the tight-end block the strong safety while the fullback blocks the strongside linebacker. Another scheme they really like is what they call “insert,” a common NFL tactic, which actually has the fullback set away from the play and he blocks the weakside linebacker, while the backside tackle simply turns out on the defensive end. This is a good tactic to help the backside tackle who has a tough job to try to block that fast flowing weakside linebacker. Below is an example of an insert scheme from the St. Louis Rams (on the inside zone, not outside zone). Watch the backside H-back fold up to the weakside linebacker, creating a big lane for Steven Jackson:

Rutgers uses this same concept. The only thing that changes is that the line knows that, whoever the fullback has, they will change who they “rotate” to on their combination blocks. If the fullback has the strongside linebacker, they are rotating up to the middle and weakside linebackers; if he has the middle linebacker, they will rotate up to the strongside linebacker and the weakside linebacker. The Scarlet Knights always identify the middle linebacker at the line and will make calls — often calling out the jersey number of who the center or fullback has — just to be sure everyone is on the same page. You can see some examples below of Rutgers running a variety of outside zone variations against Arkansas.

It’s a good plan. But it’s not foolproof, as without a consistent passing threat — and Rutgers’ receivers are physically impressive, though also inconsistent — teams have stacked the box against them, forcing Nova to pass. And in the game against Kent State, they had a very difficult time getting their linemen assigned to the right defenders, as Kent State ran a multiple defense, including lots of 3-3 stack sets with three down linemen and three linebackers directly behind them, as the above adjustments were more difficult in practice than on paper. Virginia Tech, despite inconsistencies of their own, should pose a big challenge. Although as I discussed in my book, the Hokies defense under Bud Foster has evolved a great deal over time from a true 4-4 eight-man front to more of a quarters based approach, the great website The Key Play has pointed out that Virginia Tech has gone back to some eight-man fronts and even some 4-4 looks to get extra hats on the line to stop the run and pressure quarterbacks.

I’m not entirely sure who will win — my gut tells me to listen to Vegas and pick Virginia Tech, but I think Rutgers plays awful tough, and I do think Flood is an excellent coach — but it will be a fun, very physical game. The story might not have the ramifications of the BCS game or a game between conference champions, but, as one of my old coaches used to say: as long as you win your last game, it’s been a good season.

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The Russell Athletic Bowl kicks off at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, December 28 in Orlando. You can watch the game on ESPN or online at http://es.pn/RUTGvsVT. More information about the game is available at RussellAthleticBowl.com or via @RussellAthBowl on Twitter.

**This is a sponsored post.