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Spring Game Amuse-bouche

Ever since Bryan Harsin was announced as our offensive coordinator I’ve been jonesin’ to go back and watch some of their games from last season and take the time to break down some of what they do.
Harsin cheese
"Research me, Scott. You know you need it."

Alright that’s not really the truth, what I really wanted is for someone else to watch a bunch of film and write up a nice article for me to peruse at my pleasure. I’m ambitious in theory, lazy in practice. This week I got a hold of their game against Nevada (who was a top 20 team at the time) and since it appears that no one is willing to inform my opinions for me (I’m looking at you, Scipio Tex… if that’s even your real name!), I was forced to write up some of the things I saw that got me excited.

By the way, if you haven’t already read the widely heralded article at Smart Football published before the 2010 season on the Bronco offense, quit your job or wife or whatever and read it immediately. Otherwise, I don’t think you can credibly call yourself a fan of college football (and your overall approach to life will be openly mocked).

There’s plenty to talk about from the Nevada game but I’m going to focus on a two-play sequence from the Boise State offense in the second quarter. To set the stage: Nevada has just scored it's first touchdown and is desperately trying to stop the bleeding on defense (they have already given up 17 to the Broncos). Don’t feel too bad for the Wolfpack because they eventually came back and upset Boise State in overtime.

On a 2nd and 1 from their own 24, Boise State lines up in a 3 Wide set w/ an H-Back who just motioned from the left side of the line to the right.
Drag Pre-Snap
The motion and alignment help Boise State correctly diagnose that the Wolfpack Defense is aligned in a two deep (waayyy deep) zone with no obvious blitz threats. They have been gashed several times already in this game and if they are going to die, they want it to at least be a drawn out scene.

At the snap of the ball (below) the offensive line fires off for what looks like an outside zone run to the short side of the field. The H-back comes across the action to pick up the unblocked backside defender to open up the possibility of a cutback to the weakside (Texas installed a variation of this last year from the Twins look). The Nevada defense is in read and react mode. Notice that if the play makes it to the outside, the corner back is the only player who will have outside leverage and that has to be his first priority.
Drag Sell
The line has sold the run so well (above) that I have to believe that the zone run is packaged with this play.

At the point when the handoff should occur (below) the entire left side of the defense is fully engaged in stopping the run (and some of them don't seem to ever figure out that it isn't a run). Notice how the shielded fake hand off serves two purposes: it sells the run for just a little longer and it segues Moore's footwork into his rollout. Also the H-Back who we thought was coming to open up the backside cut is now tasked with buying Kellen Moore a few more moments to deliver the football. I heart dual functionality.
Drag Transition
After the fake, Kellen Moore works into his rollout and looks downfield, but he already knows where this play is probably going. They are going to capitalize on exactly the space they have created with the run fake and that is what I love the most about this play. Often times I see play action used to little effect because it doesn't target the players that it is designed to create indecision for. For instance, if you have two deep safeties sitting in cover 2 and you are trying to use a play action pass to throw a go route to your wide receiver, you haven't really done yourself any favors other than possibly buying a little extra time to deliver the ball. That safety was playing pass first all the way… the play action didn’t even make him blink. However, if you manage to draw three of the shallow zone defenders in a cover 2 toward the line of scrimmage (because you fucking sold that run fake like a champ) and you drag your receiver right into those compromised zones, then you might have something cookin’.
Drag-Oh Shit
There is exactly one defender who still has a chance to make a play. If #52 drops hard into his middle zone right now he might have a chance to affect the outcome. But he doesn't have any idea that the route is developing behind him. He takes a half-hearted shot at pressuring the quarterback instead. But with the H-back already in position to defend Moore, the only thing the defender can really do is prevent a QB scramble.

When Moore plants to throw the ball, there is no one near him (courtesy the execution on the play action fake and play design) and no one near his target (courtesy the same).
Drag-Room to Operate
When Austin Pettis caught this ball and turned upfield, he probably had to put down a brief fit of agoraphobia before gaining another 15 yards and almost fumbling away all that Boise had earned.
Apparently Nevada saves practice time by repping punt returns in the middle of their cover 2 drill.

The next play Boise State lines up in almost the exact same formation flipped to the other side of the field. The H-back motions from a flexed alignment all the way across the formation to the left side and he is trailed by the Nevada nickel back (man defense, blitz likely). Notice the alignment of the H-Back in relation to the defensive end. He has not aligned to gain outside leverage on the end, the H-Back is clearly aligned a as pass protector or possibly as a late releasing receiver.
Off Tackle - Pre snap
The H-Back's completed motion triggers the start of an A gap blitz from the Nevada linebacker who is trying to time his arrival with the snap. Remember the context, Nevada just got scorched right across the middle sitting in a read/react defense where Kellen Moore never even felt a hint of pressure. What would you call as a DC?

The blitz is well timed and hits the line just as the ball is snapped and the offensive line settles back to form a pocket.
Off Tackle - Sell
As Moore receives the snap (above) you can see the Nevada front is in full pass rush mode. The defensive end is attacking the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. The corners are in good position to take away any quick routes and the outside linebacker has good position to limit any hot route to the slot. The problem is that Nevada has just been rope-a-doped for the second play in a row because this isn’t a passing play.
Off Tackle - Oh Shit
Marvel at how beautifully the offensive line has transitioned into run blocking just as the Nevada front makes contact (above). They are on their toes and with forward lean. Notice where the defensive end who started off with outside leverage and contain responsibilities is now: completely locked up by the offensive tackle, leaving the H-back free to get downfield and get a hat on the nickel back. That means that the defenses best shot right now is the middle linebacker who is roughly even with Bronco running back, Doug Martin. It’s not an impossible task if he takes a good pursuit angle, he may be able to use the sideline to his advantage to save the defense’s bacon. Just one other issue… the backside guard has released his defender (who has no chance to make a play) and is on a mission to stamp out the defense’s last hope. The running back and the linebacker are in a footrace and the defender has to run his leg through an obstacle course. Place your bets.
Off Tackle - Footrace
Foswhitt… Donald Jr., who was your money on?

As Doug Martin turns the corner (above) he sees the three things that running backs don’t mind waking up next to: plenty of space, upfield blockers, and lots of clear running lanes. Our lone viable defender has had to widen his pursuit angle to avoid the guard and he’s a few steps off the pace. Conclusion forgone.
Off Tackle - TD
Yep. He scores.

So you’re saying, "Well that’s nice and everything but it’s not the first time someone has put together a 2-play scoring drive." You’re right. This sequence of plays was sexy, and Boise State had plenty of plays that didn’t result in huge offensive gains. But I wanted to share my appreciation of why these back to back plays did work so well.

Boise didn’t gouge the Nevada defense on these plays because they are better athletes. In both cases the offense gathered information pre-snap and then called plays to work the defense against itself. Every detail in alignment and in the first few moments post snap was designed and performed with the defense’s point of view in mind. The offense sent a coordinated message that the defensive athletes are trained (mentally and physically) to react to in a certain way. Two plays in a row from the same alignment, Boise State’s utter devotion to the red herring pulled the defense into a trap just as the offense was making a well-timed transition into the second act of the play: in which our beloved defense dies a most horrible and gruesome death. Standing ovation.

Last season I wrote a few times about the need for the Longhorns to be more balanced on offense. In particular, I posited that they needed to use play-action passing and draw plays to create more indecision for the defense… that in order to give the offensive line a fighting chance they needed to blur the reads and create some level of confusion for the defenders. Much like Lady Gaga, Boise State’s offense thrives on ambiguity. These aren’t trick plays for them or gadgets; this is part of their offensive philosophy. That is: give the defense conflicting information from play to play and even within the same play (all the while collecting as much intelligence on the defense as possible from play to play)… disguise your intent so often that even when you reveal your intent from the start, the defense can’t trust it.

Incidentally, I think if the Spring Game were an actual game the most compelling story line would be the information war between Manny Diaz and Bryan Harsin. Harsin uses his pre-snap shifts to gather information on alignment and to gain quick leverage advantages. Diaz created a defense with simple roles that allows the defensive front to move a lot pre-snap and still maintain integrity (we hope). Harsin tries to detect whether the linebackers are in read/react or attack mode and then use it against them. Diaz’s defense is predicated on mixing a very aggressive front line of defenders with a read and react field behind it and he hides which players will be the attackers and which will be the reactors. Like I said, it would be a fun matchup, particularly if the players were further along in the two schemes. As excited as I am for Saturday’s Sunday's game, I know that it won’t really be a strategic battle. It’ll be a staged show but it will still be informative.

Top on my list of things to watch:
1) How coordinated is our offensive line? Can they sell their fakes with anything near the creditability of the Bronco line I just watched?

2) How is the secondary adjusting to the shift to zone coverage? Have we figured out how to defend the seam in cover 3? Can we really get away with a 3-3 zone? How susceptible are our underneath zones to exactly the sort of exploitation we saw in the Drag play above (crossing routes)?

It’s hard to say if any of those questions will be answered, but if nothing else it will be football in April and that’s never a bad thing. Hope you enjoyed. It may have been a little more than a mouthful.