Xs and Os from the proprietor of the essential Smart Football. As part of the Doc's Big 12 Week..
This is the year for Mike Gundy and Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have their sights set on winning the Big 12, and if not now, when? They return an experienced, prolific 3,000 yard passer in Zac Robinson; a 1,500 yard rusher in Kendall Hunter; and the best receiver in college football, Dez Bryant. Left tackle Russell Okung is a likely All-American and top draft pick. With that kind of talent, of course, whether OSU achieves its highest goals will depend on the defense. But how Oklahoma State coordinates its offensive circus is worth considering.
Over the last three years, OSU's offense has quietly morphed into one of the Big 12's -- and the country's -- best. On one level, the credit all goes to Mike Gundy, the Cowboys' current head coach, who was offensive coordinator under Les Miles. But that's not entirely true. Before stepping in as offensive coordinator, Gundy spent several years at OSU in the mid-90s, stopped briefly at Baylor, and then served under Ron Vanderlinden at Maryland from 1997 to 2000, where the Terrapins failed to have a winning season. (Ralph Friedgen followed Gundy as the Terps' offensive guru and the offense immediately took off.) This is not an enlightening search, until we look at who Gundy hired upon becoming head coach in Stillwater: Larry Fedora and Gunter Brewer.
Fedora and Brewer are both alumni of one-back, pro-style spread offenses. Fedora, offensive coordinator for Oklahoma State from 2005-07 and currently head coach of Southern Miss., coached the triple-option at Air Force before going spread full-time at Middle Tennessee State and later Florida, where he eventually pushed Ed Zaunbrecher's spread aside and took over as offensive coordinator under Ron Zook. Brewer, the current Cowboys' offensive coordinator, cut his teeth in the late '90s coaching the one-back spread at Marshall under Bob Pruett, where he helped mold Chad Pennington into a first-round pick. In any event, Gundy's first year in Stillwater was messy, and Fedora and Brewer were able to impress upon Gundy -- whom Fedora described as a "two-back guy" -- into taking on the spread stuff full-time.
But make no mistake, OSU is not Texas Tech -- OSU might be spread, but it is absolutely a run-first team. Indeed, the Cowboys have led the Big 12 in both rushing yards and yards per carry for each of the last three seasons, including compiling over 3,000 yards on the ground in both 2007 and 2008. So, before addressing the Cowboys' Dez Bryant-infused passing game, it's best to begin where they do: With the run.
Running away with it. Like most teams that spend plenty of time in the shotgun, OSU's go-to play is the inside zone off the zone read. Their rushing arsenal, however, focuses on about five plays in total: The inside zone, outside zone, power, counter, and option. The option they use is primarily the "speed option" -- a fast-attacking outside play where the quarterback can decide whether to keep or pitch the ball. True, most spread teams use this play, but what is interesting is how and when OSU uses it.
For starters, Zac Robinson is a true rushing threat with 1,400 yards on the ground the last two years. Second, the Cowboys make a point of running the option right at blitzing teams; in fact, it's one of Gundy and Brewer's go-to plays to deter the zone blitzing that's so ubiquitous in college football today. The play itself is simple: The line blocks like outside zone, with each lineman either hitting the outside shoulder of the guy across from them or helping to double team up to a linebacker. The offense leaves an outside guy unblocked, typically the strongside linebacker. The quarterback takes the snap and runs right at the unblocked defender's outside shoulder; if the defender stays wide, the quarterback cuts it up; if the defenders attacks the QB, the QB pitches it. The outside blocks are simple as well: The receivers are more concerned with getting in people's way than with any crushing outside block
Note below how in the second clip the defense is blitzing guys from the outside; once Robinson pitches it there is no one there to tackle him.
Counter this. OSU also likes a very simple counter play where the end-man on the playside (either the tight end or tackle) does a little pass-set to invite the defensive end to rush upfield and into him. He then uses that leverage against the defender to push him outside. The rest of the line blocks "down," meaning they step away from the play and double-team up to the linebackers. The backside guard pulls and leads on the first defender who shows up, typically a linebacker; the running back, after a counter step, cuts upfield off his block.
OSU does a great job getting extra mileage out of this by going to play-action off the counter look. When most people watch a game on TV they figure out if it is a run or pass by watching the faking in the backfield. Defenses, however, typically watch the linemen -- the line gives it away just about every time. The old saying is that on run plays linemen have "low hats," but they have "high hats" on pass plays; in other words, to pass block linemen stand upright, while on run blocking they are down and looking to drive the defenders. Linebackers and safeties thus watch to see if they can where the linemen's "hats" are.
One way to counteract this, however, is to make your play-action look as much like a run as possible. Sometimes that's done with better technique, but there is maybe no better way to disguise your play-action as a run than to actually use the same blocking for scheme for both. For example, the Cowboys fake their counter play a lot, and they use the exact same action by the pulling guard for both -- it is often quite deadly for defenders who bite on the fake. Indeed, Gundy and Brewer got this from the masters of play-action, Tom Moore and Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts. In the video below, watch the left guard: He pulls around and on the complete opposite side that he began. The runningback's job is to fake his counter steps but then pick up any blitzes. And, the success of the play is evident: the safety flies up, thinking run, Dez Bryant goes streaking by everyone, and most people wonder, "How did he get so open?"
Passing fancy. There's more to say about the Cowboys' passing offense, but for now it's enough to take a peek at one of their go-to "possession" passes -- the scat. As the diagram below shows, it's a simple but nifty play: The outside receiver runs a fade route, while two inside receivers begin ("stem") their routes inside to about five or six yards. They then stop and face the quarterback. Against zone, these receivers settle in the open space between defenders, but against man they plant their feet and sprint away from the defender guarding them. The runningback, tight end, or slot receiver will head to the flat. The quarterback reads these two underneath guys: If the flat defender widens, the scat receiver is open in the window; if the flat defender drops to take away with pivot or "scat" route, the quarterback just drops the ball off in the flat. This is also a go-to play for OSU against the blitz, because all these routes happen fast and right in front of the QB. (See here for cutups of NC State with Philip Rivers at QB and Norm Chow as offensive coordinator running this package. H/t Brophy.)
Off this route, Gundy and co. will often adjust the route of the outside receiver -- Dez Bryant -- when the defense begins to jump those underneath routes. But let's not kid ourselves. Last year Bryant had over 1,400 yards receiving and 20 touchdowns. The next best guy was senior tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who had 472 yards. The Cowboys' best pass play last year was often "Just throw it up to Dez":
A spectacular play it is, but it did not serve them well enough down the stretch and in big games. With Big 12 defenses focused on Bryant, it will be up to the run game -- and the other receivers, and the playcallers -- to find ways to succeed without lobbing it up to No. 1. I'm not sure how that will go, but it ought to be fun to watch.
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Chris Brown writes the strategy and philosophy site Smart Football. You can reach him spreadattack at yahoo, etc.