Film Study: Five Concepts That Stood Out Across College Football Last Weekend

By Kyle Jones on September 28, 2020 at 1:35 pm
Kansas State freshman running back Keyon Mozee made one of the more unlikely plays of the weekend during the Wildcats' upset win in Norman.
Kevin Jairaj - USA TODAY Sports

For many of us, last Saturday felt kind of...well...normal.

Ohio State Football Film Study

Though it was technically already week 4 of the 2020 season, there were 30 contests played across the FBS, many of which featured conference opponents in Power 5 leagues squaring off with one another. While not every game was noteworthy, there was plenty of excitement for college football fans who are handy with the remote control, as two teams in the top ten went down and a couple of others survived close calls - all within the span of a few hours.

Even though the rest of the staff has kept you up to date on all the headlines throughout the weekend, those of us in the Film Study basement offices at 11W HQ have emerged with a few plays that caught our eyes.

*Note: This list is by no means exhaustive, so if you saw something similar from these or another game, feel free to add it in the comments.

Playing Defense in the Big 12 is hard, but it doesn't have to be 

Many Ohio State fans have delighted in seeing Alex Grinch struggle to turn around the defense in Norman, OK. The former Buckeye coordinator left Columbus after one rocky season in which his name was attached to Greg Schiano's magnum opus, and while the Sooners finished second in the conference in total defense last fall, cracks in the foundation remain.

As you probably know by now, Grinch's defense collapsed in the second half last Saturday, allowing Kansas State to engineer a stunning comeback from 21 points down that featured a number of big plays. While Lincoln Riley called out his defense's tackling ability (or lack thereof) following the game, fundamentals weren't the only thing that failed the Sooners that afternoon.

Down three scores and backed up on their own 20 late in the third quarter, KSU was forced to be aggressive. Though they had their regular 11 (1 Running Back, 1 Tight End) personnel on the field, allowing the Sooners to match with their base defense, the Wildcats lined up in an empty look with running back Keyon Mozee (#6) split out wide to the boundary (the bottom of the screen).

Typically, these formations are meant to give the quarterback a clearer picture of the coverage pre-snap, as the defense will show their hand based on how they align over that split-out back. If a cornerback lines up across from the back, then the defense will be in zone. If a linebacker follows the back out there, it means man-coverage.

As QB Skylar Thompson lined up behind center, he could see linebacker Brian Mead (#38) lined up across from Mozee instead of the corner, giving a strong signal of man-coverage. As the ball is snapped, Mozee simply takes off on a vertical route downfield to clear out space for the rest of the route combination.

But Mead doesn't simply turn and run with the running back, he drops into a zone, as the middle linebacker is actually responsible for the deep 1/3 of the field to that side in a Cover 3 Match scheme. As Mead hedges to help on the quick out route, Thompson sees Mozee running uncovered downfield as the lumbering linebacker tries to recover.

Asking a linebacker to play a deep zone isn't unheard of, but it is rare. Players like Isaiah Simmons and Pete Werner aren't on every roster, and even when given such responsibility, it's almost always in the middle of the field where they're surrounded by true defensive backs. 

Whether Grinch had too much faith in his linebacker or simply tried to bait the opposing QB, it was a gamble that didn't pay off. Kansas State would score on the next play, kick-starting their comeback and possibly ending the Sooners' hopes of returning to the CFP.

Tom Herman Still Likes Designed QB Runs

ICYMI: the Texas head coach and former OSU play-caller likes to use his quarterback's legs as much as his arm. Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett, and Cardale Jones racked up 3,367 rushing yards in his three seasons in Columbus, and while current Longhorn QB Sam Ehlinger doesn't tote the rock quite as often as those three did, he's certainly more than capable.

With Texas Tech was busy showing Chris Ash how difficult it can be to play defense in the Big 12, Herman, and Mike Yurcich (yes, the fourth former OSU assistant we've mentioned already) had to keep pace with the Red Raiders. To do so, they gave Ehlinger a number of Run/Pass Options to keep the defense guessing.

One particular combination that stood out was this combination of a Stick concept - in which the tight end just sits down on a quick, five-yard hitch route while a vertical route next to him stretches the defense - and a designed QB draw.

While Ehlinger likely could've hit the tight end (#80) on the Stick route, he recognized that the defense was rushing just three and dropping eight into coverage, meaning the draw would be wide open. He patiently waits for the defense to drop, then follows the lead blocks of his center, left guard, and running back, all of whom release downfield like a screen pass and clear the way for the QB-turned runner.

This 24-yard gain would be Ehlinger's longest rush of the afternoon, but Herman and Yurcich dialed it up multiple times with success throughout the game, including in overtime as they finally outlasted the Red Raiders 63-56.

Nick Saban is the original king of Simulated Pressure

In recent years, Simulated Pressure has become the latest trend at the highest levels of football. Dave Aranda's LSU squads were the most notable and celebrated, but the concept of lining up as many as six or seven defenders near the line yet only rushing four while dropping the rest into coverage and sewing confusion for both the quarterback and his protectors has become more common.

The Tennessee Titans excelled at them under the guidance of longtime Patriots assistant, Dean Pees, leading many to believe the Buckeyes will incorporate more of them when former Titans assistant Kerry Coombs takes charge of the defense this fall. But like most defensive concepts in the modern age, this concept was initially perfected by Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. 

Both have incorporated such looks into their defenses over the past two decades, and Saban's 2020 vintage appeared to be executing them flawlessly on opening night.

A variation of a traditional Zone Blitz, Sim Pressures sends pressure while dropping into a conservative coverage behind it, thus hedging the risk. The difference is the coverage isn't modified to incorporate fewer defenders on the back end, as it still rushes just four while dropping seven like any traditional coverage structure.

On an early third down against Missouri on Saturday night, the Crimson Tide showed a fairly aggressive, six-man box against a four-receiver set of the Tigers. Linebackers  Christian Harris (#8) and Dylan Moses (#32) lined up over interior gaps, showing blitz behind a four-man front.

Mizzou gambled, sending the running back out on a quick wheel route and leaving just five blockers for six rushers. But 'Bama didn't send six, or even five. Moses and end Will Anderson Jr. (#31) drop off in coverage while Harris and the three remaining linemen overwhelm the left side of the line. 

The QB has nowhere to go with the ball as the running back is covered by the dropping blitzers and the offensive line struggles to identify who, exactly, is still rushing. Harris runs unabated through the A-gap for one of the easiest sacks you'll ever see. 

Saban has countless blitzes like this in his nearly 1,000-page defensive playbook, and in a year where clean execution may make the difference between winning and losing, the legendary coach has his squad playing at a high level already.

Kylin Hill: Receiving Back Extraordinaire

Mike Leach didn't disappoint in his return to the SEC. The Air Raid architect brought his offense back to the south for the first time since acting as Hal Mumme's offensive coordinator at Kentucky and setting records with Tim Couch more than two decades ago.

In his debut at Mississippi State, the pirate pulled off a major upset by walking into Death Valley and upsetting the defending champs, tallying over 600 yards passing. LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini had no answers in his first game back in Baton Rouge, as the same concepts that found so much success in Pullman and Lubbock continued to work for Leach.

But unlike his previous stops, the cupboard wasn't left bare by the previous regime, as Dan Mullen recruited plenty of talent for Leach to work with. While Leach found his own QB in Stanford grad transfer K.J. Costello, first-team All-SEC running back Kylin Hill remained in Starkville after a breakout 2019 campaign in which he rushed for 1,350 yards.

Hill held a fairly traditional role in Mullen's offense last fall, and only caught 18 passes for 180 yards. Leach had far different plans for the dynamic playmaker, though.

While the Bulldogs' head coach leaned heavily on old Air Raid favorites like Mesh and Four-Verticals, Hill played a prominent role as a receiver out of the backfield. Though he rushed just seven times for 34 yards, Hill caught eight passes for 158, including a 75-yard wheel route that finished in the end zone.

The concept was classic Leach, with two receivers running Mesh: dual crossing routes over the middle and outside receiver breaking in on a ten-yard dig behind them. As Jet motion drew the eyes of the defense, Hill leaked out on a wheel route in front of it, entering the area vacated by the two receivers to that side, and giving Costello a wide-open target.

From there, Hill looked like a shifty running back in space, easily breaking a tackle and racing to the pylon for six.

Leach has had decent running backs in the past, but Hill may be the most dynamic. How often he carries the ball may depend just as much on how the defense chooses to defend the Bulldog aerial attack, but in an era in which catching the ball out of the backfield has never been valued more, Hill's NFL prospects may actually improve with fewer rush attempts.

Georgia Southern's Full-House backfield

The Fun Belt has lived up to its moniker thus far in 2020. As one of the few leagues to begin play on time, conference members have upset Power-5 opponents and shined during once-rare nationally televised games. No team has embodied this more than the Ragin' Cajuns of Louisiana, who entered the weekend ranked 19th - the highest ranking ever for a Sun Belt member - thanks to an upset win over Iowa State to open the season followed by an overtime thriller against Georgia State one week later.

Georgia Southern hoped to spoil their home debut, however, with a spread-option attack which finished in the top ten in rushing each of the last two seasons under coach Chad Lunsford. Unlike the single-back systems many are used to in the modern era, Georgia Southern operates primarily out of the shotgun with two running backs split on either side of the quarterback, executing a plethora of old-school option concepts with a modern flair.

Occasionally, however, the Eagles will go a step further and bring a fourth player into the backfield to create a diamond set. From here, Lunsford's offense essentially turns into an old-school wishbone team, providing the QB with not only three options but a lead-blocker outside as well.

While all the backfield commotion distracts the defense in the example above, the offensive line simply blocks an inside zone play to create a seam for 185 lb Matt LaRoche, who plays the part of a traditional fullback in the triple option. Though he stepped out of bounds, negating the touchdown, this run set the tone on what would be a long day for the Ragin' Cajun defense. 

In what was perhaps the best finish of the day, the Eagles found the end zone with less than a minute to play. Down 17-16, Lunsford went for two and converted, giving the visitors a one-point lead. 

But it wasn't enough. Louisiana drove the length of the field and kicked a game-winning field goal, keeping their record unblemished. For the Eagles, though, they showed an ability to creatively move the football, earning them a spot as a must-watch for those who crave pure option football.

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