Thoughts on Auburn’s 22-19 win over Oregon in the BCS title game

Four thoughts on last night’s game:

  • Nick Fairley gets the game ball. As I predicted, the differences in the game were Cam Newton’s ability to do things no one else can do — convert short yardage plays, scramble for big plays on third down, and generally as reader/decoy to open things up for McCalebb and Michael Dyer — and Auburn’s superior defensive line, particularly Nick Fairley. Fairley was incredible throughout. Maybe most importantly, he didn’t tire out like we all expected. Much of this was because Oregon failed to get in their tempo for much of the night, as they couldn’t get consistent first downs and thus couldn’t sustain that tempo, but Fairley deserves a lot of credit for just being able to be on the field and keep his energy at a high level. Not easy for such a larger human. Yet the images that stick out to my mind are those where he completely destroyed Oregon’s attempts to read him on the midline option by blitzkrieging both quarterback and runningback and arriving at the option mesh point before the read could be made. I spoke with some coaches after the game who figured what Chip Kelly obviously did: if we can’t block him, let’s read him, except Fairley, when unblocked, took out everyone. A great performance. (And when Oregon got tired of that and tried to block him and read someone else, he split the double-teams. He’ll be a top five NFL draft pick, if not one or two.)
  • War Daddy

  • Stick to the plan. Oregon and Chip Kelly, however, did themselves no favors by coming out of the gates with a lot of funky stuff they’d never shown this season. I get that you want to do something different for Auburn — and that you’re Chip Kelly, a very bright guy — but that team averaged 49 points a game on the outside zone with a read from spread sets, and the Ducks came out with a bunch of three back sets with a triple option look off the inside zone. Now, Auburn’s defensive coordinator Ted Roof came out with a lot of fire zones and zone blitzes from the field or wide side to take away the stretch plays, but I’m still shocked that those runs weren’t a bigger part of Kelly’s gameplan.  It didn’t help that Darron Thomas, Oregon’s quarterback, struggled with his reads (though for good reason — see above).
  • Malzahn and Cam. Gus Malzahn (oh, I’m sorry, I meant “Guz”) called an effective game, and Cam Newton made some special plays. It wasn’t a Vince Young-esque domination, but Cam did things no one else can do. He also made three very costly mistakes: the shorthopped goalline pass to a wide open receiver on fourth down, the late fumble, and, to my mind, the worst, the overthrow when Gus had called a great double-move and his receiver was wide open. Only the last one really stung because it would have blown the game open in the third quarter while the Tigers led 16-11, but the kid played great. And from the second half on, Malzahn relied on the inside zone with a bubble screen to the opposite side — where Dyer got most of his yards and Cam Newton a lot of simple throws — and of course called that post-dig/wheel route combination for several big plays, including the touchdown. Sometimes you don’t have to be fancy to call a good game; you just have to call the right plays for the situation.
  • Defensive special? A lot of the commentariat claimed this was a defensive game — and most of my points above indicated faults I found with both offenses. But these two teams combined for nearly 1,000 yards of offense — 968 in fact — and featured multiple turnovers and goal line stands. I thought it was pretty entertaining, as it’s more fun to watch good coaches deal with good players and issues than it is to watch one of those steamroller-where-is-the-defense games. Those who tuned out because “there wasn’t enough scoring” can’t be faulted, but you can still appreciate what the teams are trying to do, and thus why a performance like Fairley’s was so unreal (i.e., yes he went unblocked, but that was intentional and it’s what he then did that was so impressive). It was a fascinating — though slightly sloppy and erratic — title game.

Deconstructing: Oregon’s and Auburn’s offenses as spread revolution

My breakdown of Oregon’s and Auburn’s offenses in anticipation of tonight’s BCS title game is up over at Yahoo!. Check it out.

Also, hat tips and thanks to Brophy and the Offensive Breakdown site for some great info (especially to Brophy for the image on the power scheme). Check out great info from both sites on Malzahn’s offense here and here.

Gaining leverage on overhang players and access to the “alley” against odd fronts

[Ed. Note: The piece below is by Mike Kuchar, a defensive coordinator and researcher with the new site, X and O Labs. Mike previously wrote a piece for Smart Football called “Breaking Down Boise,” about Chris Petersen’s Boise State offense.]

Defenses across the college and prep ranks have been forced to adjust to the rise of four receiver spread formations.  Commonly referred to as “sub” personnel, our researchers at X&O Labs have found that many four defensive line teams have shifted to three down linemen structures to match speed with speed.  What started out as nickel packages has grown into an every down defenses.   Coordinators are replacing one of their defensive linemen with linebacker/safety hybrids to combat speed and defend the width of the field.

After surveying over 2,000 college and prep coaches, we’ve found that the most difficult challenge when facing odd front teams is finding a way to occupy the alley defender (usually an outside linebacker or drop safety).  Often taught to be the force player, it’s this overhang player that can cause problems for offenses wishing to push the ball to the perimeter.  Sure, it’s offensive pedagogy to attack the B gap bubbles vs. odd front teams, but it’s only a matter of time until defenses try to take that away by slanting or stemming to a four-down front pre-snap. Eventually, you’ll need to get to the perimeter, so why not save time by getting there immediately?  Our researchers at X&O Labs have sifted through feedback, and we’ll show you how to do just that below.

Case 1: Using Tight End Structures, Particularly 11 or 12 Personnel

Even if you don’t have a tight end in the program, start to develop one.  Over 80 percent of coaches polled by X&O Labs attack odd defenses by using various tight end formations. Whether by using 11 personnel (one tight end, one back), 12 personnel (two tight ends, one backs), or 21 personnel (one tight end, two backs), the tight end is pivotal in the run game.

We’ve all seen how productive spread offenses like Oregon, Boise State and Florida have been within the last three years.  What separates those teams from traditional spread teams is the implementation and execution of the tight end on normal downs.  According to our research, using a tight end in spread personnel accounts for two valuable advantages:

1.      It changes the structure of the defense: No longer can that safety/linebacker play in space, which is exactly what he wants to do.  Now he’s forced to cover down on a bigger, stronger opponent giving you leverage to get to the alley.

2.      It provides for an instant mismatch in the run game: Many of these hybrids don’t like to get their hands dirty.  These types, who usually weigh in the 180-210 pound range, are forced to balance up and fit in the framework against bigger tight ends.

X&O Labs’ Coaching Analyst, Mike Canales, who is also the associate head coach and offensive coordinator at the University of North Texas, contributed heavily to this Coaching Research Report.   Canales has modeled his spread scheme after studying a ton of what Oregon does to attack the perimeter with their speed sweep and option series.  “Anytime we’re going to get odd fronts, like we do when we play Louisiana-Monroe, we need to make some adjustments to our scheme,” said Canales.  “Teams are going to give you a six-man box, regardless of what you’re putting on the line of scrimmage.  Handling that overhang player with a six box is a bitch.  You can’t stay in 10 personnel with no tight ends because those slot receivers aren’t big or strong enough to handle safety types one-on-one, so you need to get into 11 or 12 personnel to force the defensive coordinator’s hand.”


Oregon offense installation videos

Brophy has a full collection of Oregon installation videos, i.e. video cutups showing the plays for teaching purposes. Check them all out here.Very useful stuff.

And, to pile on unnecessarily (though it’s fun), contrast this statement by Gregg Easterbrook:

[In Oregon’s offense, p]ass patterns are minimal, which keeps the quarterback’s mind from melting under the pace. Oregon runs hitch screens, then occasionally fakes a hitch screen and sends a receiver on the fake side deep. That’s it — that’s the blur offense passing tree.

With this video:

Visual evidence of the evolution of the spread offense

Compare Woody Dantzler running the Clemson Tigers offense under coordinator Rich Rodriguez:

…with the new school spread from Oregon, coached by Chip Kelly:

It’s not quite fair to draw major conclusions off comparing just these two teams, coached by different guys, but I see some themes that emerge:

  1. A wider variety of sets. Clemson uses only a couple of formations — mostly two-by-two with four receivers — while Oregon uses three receivers and a lot of sets with H-backs and tight-ends. Indeed, if there’s one change I can point to about the newest spread offenses is that they are less spread. Guys like Chip Kelly and Gus Malzahn use tight-ends as often as pro-style teams, though they integrate them into their offenses in slightly different fashion.
  2. A wider variety of reads. Much of the development in the spread run game has been to counteract advanced defense reactions to the zone-read, like the “scrape exchange.” A lot of Clemson’s runs aren’t reads at all, and rely on the surprise element of having the quarterback run at all, whereas Oregon employs significantly more deception and movement in the backfield, and the reads go well beyond the old “read the defensive end” of the zone read. Instead, they include reads of the defensive tackle and the outside linebacker for bubble screens built into the play.
  3. Increased polish of footwork and fakes. Chip Kelly does an excellent job of coaching his quarterbacks and runningbacks to carry out their fakes and to emphasize them, whereas with Clemson everything was so new the threat alone was often enough. (Rodriguez’s teams, especially at West Virginia, got very good at this as well.)
  4. Increased emphasis on “power” schemes. In the spread’s nascent days, almost all the runs were based off the inside and outside zones, with a few simple reads. And Rodriguez’s teams still emphasize the zone, much like some pro teams do. But other teams, including Oregon, have meshed spread principles like QB reads and an integration of slot receivers and a focus on angles and leverage in blocking with traditional “power” schemes, like the “Power O” and “Counter Trey.”

Those are the major themes I notice. Feel free to add your own in the comments. One thing I will add though is that the Clemson clip contains my favorite play out of those shown in the videos above — the “play-action” pass from no-back where the quarterback dips down as if it was a QB Draw and instead fires a pass downfield. Call it the predecessor to the “jump pass.

Thoughts on Brian Kelly as Notre Dame’s next coach

briankellyPeople somewhat rightly criticize Notre Dame and its fans for what they perceive as an outsized view of the team’s importance: In the cable TV/internet age, the NBC contract isn’t anything that special; the so-called “echoes” have slumbered in an ancient sleep for decades; and the Notre Dame head coaching job — now taken on by Cincinnati’s Brian Kelly — is so fraught with pratfalls and these oversized expectations that it’s foolish to even take the job.

But, if the job comes for you, there’s really no way you can turn it down unless you have something pretty special lined up, i.e. Urban Meyer at Florida. Indeed, even if success there, under present circumstances, is elusive, the reward remains among the highest that football can offer: immortality. Even Notre Dame’s failed coaches remain part of the public psyche; I don’t remember many of the names who coached Oklahoma during the lean years, but nearly every football fan can recall Gerry Faust. But, rightly or wrongly, winning a national title at Notre Dame ensures your legend.

So I think Kelly was right to accept the job. The more interesting question is whether Kelly was the right ma

n for it. Given the choices this year, I’d say yes. I liked the “fit” of a Gary Patterson more than Brian Kelly in South Bend, but I think he’ll succeed. A few unconnected thoughts:

  • In terms of recruiting, Kelly has done an excellent job getting talent into Cincy, and will continue to recruit many of the same areas.
  • This might be heresy, but schematically I don’t find Kelly that interesting. Now he’s a spread guy (which plays to my preferences), and he’s been doing it a long time (so he has a pedigree), but I think much of the talk about Kelly as an “offensive genius” is misplaced. He runs a very simple, and even at times simplistic, spread offense. That’s the bad news.
  • The good news is that really doesn’t matter. The Irish just got done with a guy who was pretty convinced of his schematic brilliance, and likely the sooner ND can get beyond just winning the scheme battle and win some actual ones on the field, the better. And with this is the fact that Kelly is an excellent teacher, which is what really matters.
  • And don’t get me wrong here, his scheme isn’t bad. His staff gameplans very well and they put their kids in position to succeed, which is really all that matters. You’ll see some fun stuff from quads — or with four receivers to the same side — but otherwise everything is pretty basic. Yet I liken it to when Holtz arrived at Notre Dame. No one perceived him as an offensive guru, but for what they did at the time, relative to everyone else in college football (and with some very good players), it was sophisticated enough. I think it will be similar for Kelly: If he gets good players in he’ll do a great job of teaching them, and as a result the offense will succeed.
  • Which brings us to probably the scariest similarity with Weis: Kelly needs to find a good defensive coordinator, and I’m not sure who that will be. This need to find an offensive guy to whom that entire side of the ball can be dumped on sort of the Sword of Damocles that hangs over all the offensive obsessed gurus. Charlie Weis never figured it out; Steve Spurrier never won a national title until he got Bob Stoops in as defensive coordinator; Urban Meyer’s first championship at Florida, the championship game last year, and much of his success this year was driven by the great defenses of Charlie Strong (who is now at Louisville); and in the NFL the New Orleans Saints have gone from bubble playoff team to undefeated with the introduction of some new faces on defense and a new defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams.

    So more than any single recruit, I’d want to know who Kelly is going to hire as his DC. Had Weis’s defense been better this year it’s likely that he’d still be in South Bend. (And once you go to the revolving door, it becomes hard to get settled, as it takes awhile to get the program up to speed. It’s hard to transform a defense with a few weeks of spring and fall practice.)

  • All this, however, obscures the bottom line: Brian Kelly has won everywhere he has been. He turned Grand Valley State into a title winning team; he resurrected Central Michigan, where Butch Jones has continued much of that success; and in Cincinnati he has led the team to three of the best seasons in school history — maybe the best — in back-to-back-to-back years. I agree with the commentary that Notre Dame is best off hiring a guy who has succeeded at the college level. With Weis I think the goal was to sort of emulate Pete Carroll’s success at USC, but it didn’t work. And the Notre Dame job is fraught with all the issues that plague all college head coaches, but, often enough, on steroids. A little time in the meat grinder can only help.

Hopefully no one takes my criticisms too harshly. As I said, the bottom line is that Kelly is a winner, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be able to do that at Notre Dame. I’ll definitely watch more Irish games next fall.

Thoughts on the spread and run and shoot offenses — Hemlock’s comment

[This is part of an ongoing back and forth between me and a friend of mine who goes by “Hemlock.” He was a D-1 coach at a Big 12 school (among other places) and now is pursuing a PhD in non-football related matters. He’s a spread offense/run & shoot guru, and has a lot of great thoughts on these offenses, their role and future in football. Below is his comment; I will have a response out soon.]

I broke into coaching when I was still in high school. As a player, I had long read the writing on the wall and knew that playing on Saturdays and Sundays was not in my future. This was not painful for me since I knew all along that what I really loved about the game was its technical side. As it so happened, one day early in the summer I read an article in the local paper that a rival HS had hired a new football coach. This coach was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill gym-teacher-will-you-also-coach-football guy, but instead one whose primary focus was on coaching: he was there to coach football first, not teach during the day and collect a check. What also made him unique was his commitment to the real run and shoot offense, not what Tiger Ellison and Red Faught had their success with — a modified wing-t type offense — but the real thing run by Mouse Davis with the Detroit Lions and John Jenkins at the University of Houston. On a lark, I called the school and asked to meet with the coach.

He agreed to take me under his wing as a sort of high-school version of a graduate assistant. Much like a college graduate assistant [Ed. Note: Most colleges take a graduate student as a grunt-level assistant, which is still the best way to break into coaching at the college level; not many guys start as a full-on assistant coach], in this capacity I pretty much did what nobody else wanted to do. The trade off for me, however, was that I was exposed to the real ‘shoot — the real deal. Not only did I learn the schemes and the playbook, I learned the entire run and shoot culture, the deep grammar undergirding the offense. And, as an added bonus, I was learning it from the very people running it in college and (then) in the NFL.

I learned the offense, but I also became familiar with the familiar reservations coaches had about it. Indeed, in staff meetings someone usually stated that we could run our same four-wide schemes but with a tight-end or even with two running backs in the backfield. After all, wasn’t the “K-Gun” that the Buffalo Bills ran back in those days the run and shoot with tight-end? Didn’t they also run the choice route?

Then as now, coaches gave a whole litany of reasons explaining their desire to change the true, four-wide receiver run and shoot offense into one with another tight-end or another runningback — to unspread the spread. More often than not, these guys would say that the run and shoot would be better if you could just “run the ball downhill with more authority”. Even then I always found these arguments flawed. As a budding scholar today, one of the principles I live by is the belief that you craft your questions around the issue before you. That is, you understand the premises and foundations of the project or topic you are researching and do not ask questions that seek answers to “Y” if the topic is “X.” It’s all about establishing and understanding the terms of the debate. People who say, gee, the run and shoot is great except you can’t run the ball enough — or say the same thing about the Mike Leach/Hal Mumme Airraid offense — do not understand the whole point of the offense, the questions it seeks to answer, and the method it uses to pursue those answers. Let’s look at a few of the major questions.


True spread, apexing

An interesting article out of CBS Sports:

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -The spread isn’t dead, but Missouri coach Gary Pinkel says the offense isn’t thriving like it was in recent seasons in the Big 12 and the rest of college football.

Defenses appear to be catching up to the dinking and dunking of the quick-pass offense, meaning it might not be long before a new fad crops up.

“It’s not based on empirical evidence, but I just sense so many people run versions of the spread offense – even I-formation teams – that people are getting better at defending it because they see it all the time,” Pinkel said Monday.

Pinkel’s comment came two days after his Tigers’ spread was limited to 99 yards passing in a 41-7 home loss to third-ranked Texas. Missouri, which had been averaging 405 total yards, generated 173 against the Longhorns.

Oklahoma and Nebraska also have shown a knack for slowing down the spread, but no one is doing it better than Texas of late.

The Longhorns have allowed an average of 166 total yards and 2.9 yards per play in their last four games, each against spread attacks.

Texas coach Mack Brown has made the recruitment of anti-spread defenders an emphasis.

He said all players in the secondary, safeties included, must be able to be shut down receivers in man coverage. Linebackers have to be fast and able to cover running backs or receivers coming out of five-receiver sets. The linemen all must be effective pass rushers so the need for blitzing is reduced.

So if the spread goes away, what will be the next hot offensive trend?

Maybe it’ll be the spread option, a descendent of the triple-option that Tom Osborne used at Nebraska to hammer opponents for 25 years.

Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads tried without much success to defend Navy’s spread option when he was defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh two years ago. The father of the spread option, Paul Johnson, was coaching Navy then, and the Midshipmen rolled up 497 yards.

Johnson now coaches 11th-ranked Georgia Tech, which ran on 71 of 79 plays while beating Virginia Tech 34-9 last Saturday.

“I don’t care what level of football,” Rhoads said, “that offense has a chance to be successful and it could indeed be more commonplace as we move forward.”

Texas’ Brown said he’s not so sure fans would accept the spread option because they have been so accustomed to the excitement of passing offenses.

There also is another drawback, he said: “Would you be able to come from behind if you got down three touchdowns?”

I don’t think that the spread option or flexbone will become that popular. (Though a part of me wishes it did, just to hear the NFL guys long for the days when colleges were producing QBs who threw it forty times a game from the shotgun. Didn’t know how good they had it.) But I think Mack Brown’s comments are instructive: If he can get top talent at every defensive position, and each of his defenders is better than the guy across from him, what do you gain by spreading him out to get a one-on-one? The answer is not much. Indeed I discussed this a few years ago:**

The offense has arguably become the opposite of an equalizer, it has become an amplifier: if you are talented you can really rack up the points because no one can cover Vince Young, Ted Ginn or the like one-on-one. But if you’re not, you just get sacked and no one gets open.

This is not to say that all “spreading” is out. I think there’s been a real change in the game, and athletes in space is never going out of style. I do think there already is a theme of contraction where certain players, like H-backs and the like are useful because they add blocking dimensions (both for running and pass protection) and can still leak out into pass routes. The spread stuff will be gobbled up into the whole but will still be present. But I think Pinkel is right that it doesn’t pay to just be four and five wide every single play. You become too predictable.

**FN: I looked back at that January 2006 article and saw that I said this: “(If I had to predict something [to be the wave of the future] I would say the jet/fly offense, but it has not caught on as much as I’d thought.” Was I right? Hello Wildcat!

(H/t Blutarsky.)

Smart Notes 9/25/09

The “ski-gun.” I’ve been getting a lot of questions about a funky shotgun triple-option offense run by Muskegon, MI high school. (“Ski-gun” or “skee-gun” refers to Muskegon.) It’s basically Paul Johnson’s flexbone triple option offense run from a pistol set. They use a shallower pistol-gun set than does Nevada, but that’s because Nevada is more focused on traditional runs than with the quick hitting veer. Below are some clips of Muskegon’s triple: first the give reads, second the QB keeps, and third the pitches.

– Clock mismanagement. The commentary after the Dolphins lost to the Colts was partially about how much time of possession matters (my view is not that much, but I have more to say on it later), but even more about the ‘Phins awful clock management at the end of the game. And it was bad.

The biggest issue was they had no sense of urgency. I do not like teams that scramble and run around frenetically, but they were very lazy about it. They wasted a lot of valuable seconds, and there is little reason the game should have ended on second down from where they were on the field. They also spiked the ball unnecessarily. As I’ve said before, in college a spike is almost never necessary, except to get your kicking team on to the field. In the NFL, because the clock doesn’t stop except on out of bounds, incomplete passes, timeouts, and the two minute warning, a clock play might be necessary if there is a gang tackle and time is flowing off the clock, etc. But I’m still very skeptical because I firmly believe you can call a play with the same amount of communication as necessary to indicate a spike play. In this case though the Dolphins bad clock management overshadowed their improper spike because they ran out of time rather than downs.

How can you get better? Here’s the best drill I know of for being ready for the two-minute drill. It should be used to finish practice at least once a week, and I know of a team that ends every practice with it. The ball is placed on the practice field at either the 5 or 10. The quarterback and first team take the field; the coaches line up on the sidelines, just as if it is a real game. (You need a manager or ref to set the ball.) The point is to replicate the game-like scenario. You can use it against no defense but it is best I think to go live against the first or second team defense (and work on that planning as well), but don’t use any tackling to the ground. (I.e. routes, blocks, etc are fully speed but no tackling.)

The offense then runs its plays but, after every play, regardless of the play’s outcome, the ball is set 10 yards ahead, i.e. to the 15 or 20 and so on. The coaches signal the play in (or the quarterback does), the players deal with the time management, and the coaches keep a stopwatch.


Smart Notes 8/18/2009

The quadruple-option, now with video. I have updated my recent post on spread-option stuff to include video of the “quadruple option” I explained there — where the quarterback can hand it the runner inside, take it himself, or throw it to a receiver in the flat or downfield on a fade. People noted some understandable skepticism regarding whether linemen might get downfield. Remember, there is a two-yard cushion or safe harbor for them. Anyway, I found video of this concept from the Calgary from the CFL.

Canadian football is pretty wide open. But this is a good look at the concept, even if the QB does inexplicably pass up an inciredibly wide-open guy in the flat.