The next in our series of football X’s and O’s continues with our in-house football guru, jmlittle.
Over the past ten years, the sea change in college offense is attributable to one philosophical tsunami: the spread offense. The meteoric rise of the offense itself and the concept of spreading out defenders along the line of scrimmage to run the football can probably even be traced to one single day in history: November 4, 2000.
On a cold Chicago evening in front of a few more than 47,000 fans, the spread offense came kicking and screaming into the world and was delivered into the waiting hands of Northwestern University’s head coach, Randy Walker, and it was the University of Michigan who would bear the labor pains. Michigan started the game with nine offensive players who would land on NFL rosters, including four first-round draft picks, and Northwestern was seriously overmatched from a talent standpoint.
The Wildcats defeated the Wolverines, 54-51, and rolled up 654 yards of total offense, including 332 yards rushing, against the team that would ultimately tie to win the conference. The Wolverines had not surrendered a single point in the previous two games following a heartbreaking 32-31 road loss to Purdue. How could it happen?
Walker employed a balanced shotgun attack that spread the field from sideline to sideline and opened up running lanes for its small, talented running back, Damien Anderson. This shootout was hailed as a victory for the little guy, and the Davids of the college football valley started poking around Northwestern for a few smooth stones.
That year, Florida State University led the nation in total offense behind a classic, dropback passing game led by Heisman Trophy winner, Chris Weinke. Within two years, though, the top ten offenses in America looked like this:
2000 2001 2002
1. Florida St. 1. BYU 1. Boise St.
2. Boise State 2. Florida 2. Hawaii
3. Northwestern 3. Marshall 3. Marshall
4. Purdue 4. Fresno St. 4. Texas Tech
5. Miami FL 5. MTSU 5. Toledo
6. Nebraska 6. Idaho 6. Miami FL
7. Tulane 7. Hawaii 7. Purdue
8. Idaho 8. Miami FL 8. Southern Cal
9. Air Force 9. Nevada 9. Bowling Green
10. Clemson 10. Stanford 10. Illinois
By 2002, the spread had landed, and seven of the Top 10 teams in Total Offense were shotgun, horizontal stretch offenses (spread or Run-and-Shoot), with teams like Texas Tech (Mike Leach), Toledo (Gary Pinkel), and Bowling Green (Urban Meyer) making their first appearances.
By the year 2008, all ten of the Top 10 teams in Total Offense fell into that category.
In the year 2009, Texas A&M has certainly adopted components of the no-huddle, spread offense, but may not have quite jumped in with both feet. When you have an offensive coaching staff with a predominantly pro-style offensive attack, how can you adopt the tenets of a very successful collegiate offense without sacrificing what, for you, are rock-solid, core concepts?
Why not just split the difference between what you know and what you want?
The Bunch Formation
(Thanks to trojanfootballanalysis.com for the graphic.)
The bunch set illustrated above (Ace Trips Rt. Bunch) is really nothing new to football, but Texas A&M is employing it in what I perceive to be an original way: A&M is cutting the field in half.
In using this formation, A&M is creating a spread offense to one side, and a more traditional, reduced formation on the other. Sound complicated? It’s really not. In the formations you’ll see below, A&M is putting a tremendous amount of stress on the one-receiver side of the defense by splitting its X-receiver out very wide. On the Bunch side, A&M is creating a run defense dilemma for the defense by putting three blockers within a very small space. Voila!—spread on one side, smashmouth football on the other.
The defense is faced with a Hobson’s choice: Defend the real estate between the X-receiver and the Left Tackle with a weakside linebacker, or leave him in the box to defend the run to the side of the Bunch. You’ll see how A&M exploits this dilemma in a moment. First, you’ve got to understand one thing. A&M has five running plays: Inside Zone, Counter, Power, Toss, and Draw. It can run all five of these plays from any virtually formation in which it lines up.
A&M’s core offensive concept, however, is Inside Zone. Almost every professional and college coach will tell you privately that they would love to run inside zone fifty times a game if they could win that way. In two games, A&M has totaled almost half of its 2008 rushing yardage, and the inside zone play is alive again. With the addition of an excellent inside runner in Christine Michael and improved offensive line play, A&M is heading back in the right direction.
Aggie Bunch – Inside Zone
Here are four looks at A&M’s Inside Zone series out of Bunch:
This is the kind of consistent running game Texas A&M has been seeking for quite a while. So, what makes it go? Two things, really.
1. What you need to notice is that, in all four clips, A&M has a numerical advantage at the line of scrimmage. They have eight blockers (five OL, plus 3 WR) working against seven defenders in the box. However, they especially have a numerical advantage on the weak side away from the bunch, where they are 3-on-3 and have a blocker for every defender (Hat-on-a-Hat).
2. A&M has 11 personnel (One back, one tight end) on the field at all times. This usually brings an extra defensive back into the game for the defense, and the problem is exacerbated by Utah State’s playing two high safeties, since that’s one more defender who won’t have a chance to make the play at the line of scrimmage.
Here, instead of playing a weakside linebacker between the left tackle and the receiver all the way out past the hash on the numbers, Utah State leaves its defensive end to play contain all by himself.
A&M’s response is to run inside zone. The play is designed to hit inside the offensive tackle and create cutback lanes to the inside. A&M’s left tackle will reach block the defensive end gaining width and trying to create a hard corner for the running back. The interior offensive linemen will try to create width with the defenders along the line of scrimmage and open up running lanes for Michael.
So, if this is really what you want to do out of this formation, how do you prevent opponents from adjusting to it?
Do you remember that weakside linebacker we were talking about before? I found him. Utah State has made an adjustment here and has aligned its WILL linebacker between the X-receiver and A&M’s left tackle. What does A&M do here? Run the same play? No. A&M’s going to run Power here to the front side of the Bunch where it now has a numerical advantage as a result of Utah State’s adjustment. Therein lies the Catch-22.
Here, A&M is going to pull its backside guard, Evan Eike, to the frontside to enhance its numerical advantage.
A&M will miss a block on the frontside that, if made, would have gotten Christine Michael out the gate for a huge gain; as it was, however, Michael was tripped up for a short gainer. So close.
A&M goes misdirection here, pulling its frontside guard and Jamie McCoy out of the bunch to spring Cyrus Gray to the field for a nice six yard gain. They won’t get enough of a hard kickout block from Matt Allen to hit the play up inside as intended, but it works out all the same.
Texas A&M really likes the toss play with its personnel, and with good reason. This was a play that was extremely productive for A&M in Week One against New Mexico and even last season in 2008. Mike Goodson was able to hit this play under center and out of the shotgun for some of his best runs of the season.
A&M goes toss to the boundary here with Christine Michael, gets a nice cut block on the frontside from Baker, and picks up the first down.
Gotcha – End Around
This one definitely falls into the “special play” category and is an excellent example of creating a tendency to destroy one.
Utah State had, undoubtedly, seen A&M run toss out of this look against New Mexico and would have been ready to run to it and make a play. It was one of A&M’s most productive offensive plays. Sherman, anticipating this, had not run toss in the game yet and was ready for Utah State to overplay it.
The Utah State defense did exactly that, played right into his hands, and gave up a monster play on the flip end-around to Uzoma Nwachukwu for 39 yards and the touchdown. Michael Shumard is going to pull out in front of this play, show some athleticism in getting downfield, and take out two defenders with an excellent block.
EZ outathletes the defensive end who will stay home against misdirection and who is also the only defender who had a chance to make this play.
Great timing, perfect play call, great execution.
Mixing it Up – Zone Flood off of Bootleg
Believe it or not, this is the exact same play that found EZ all by his lonesome for the long touchdown late in the football game. A&M had already run it very early in the game, but out of the bunch formation.
The objective is to flood the zone between the hash and the boundary to the side of the bootleg. It’s going to happen very quickly in this video, but you’ll see that there are three different receivers in routes at three different levels.
A&M is going to fake the counter to the left here. Johnson will boot off of it, and McCoy will come back to the right flat for an underneath route.
Here, we’ll find Howard Morrow intermediate and EZ deep. The ball should have been completed at the deepest level to Uzoma, but you get the idea. A&M will come back much later in the game to what looked like a very good play, and Utah State will lose track of Uzoma in the deep zone.
The entire purpose of the play is to force the deep defender between the hash and the boundary to choose between the deepest route and the intermediate route. If you make the right decision as the defender when you are in Cover 2 or Cover 3, you’ll prevent a touchdown and give up a 15-yard pass. If you guess wrong, it’s six points and the school song. It’s a good zone beater and a nice concept.
A&M has a terrific little package out of its bunch set that lets the Aggies use spread running game concepts on its weak side zone play while staying within its overall offensive system. This is a good example of the coaching staff’s adaptation and improvisation to improve on its running game and overall approach to offensive football.