Xs and Os on tonight's BCS Championship from the proprietor of the essential Smart Football.
Watching Auburn and Oregon toy with and occasionally fall far behind opponents this season, giving them glimmers of hope before inevitably overwhelming them in a barrage of plays and points, reminded me of Roger Ebert's description of the payoff in those Michael Douglas-Who-Done-It-And-How'd-They'd-Do-It movies. He referred to the plots as the "chessmatch approach" to resolving conflict: The protagonist (Jim Harbaugh, Bobby Petrino, Nick Saban, and so on), thinking he has the upper hand, appears confident that he's finally outsmarted the so-called geniuses Chip Kelly and Gus Malzahn , until a single scene or line of dialogue (some big play or a flurry of 21 points in a matter of minutes) makes it clear that they could not be more wrong. And then, in Ebert's words, "we get a big closeup of him realizing he's screwed."
This is how the drama seemed to unfold on the field, too, as the Ducks and Tigers made habits of scoring quickly and in bunches, usually in he second half. As you watched, it seemed like each offense typically took a quarter or two to crack the opposing defense's code before coming to life, and there is some truth to that – both teams have stormed back from multiple double-digit deficits, including three-touchdown holes against two of the best teams on their schedule, Stanford (which led 21-3 at Oregon in October) and Alabama (which opened up a 24-0 lead on Auburn on Nov. 27). But stats guys will tell you that when your team averages 49.3 and 42.7 points per game, respectively, while playing elite competition week in and week out, scoring 21 points in half a quarter is not a fluke: It's reversion to the mean.
In other words, what those two teams do on offense is simply better than what everyone else is doing, and they either have better players (like Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, or Oregon running back LaMichael James) or their players are simply better utilized and better fits for their specialized offenses. In fact, on first glance – and even after some closer inspection – both teams seem to run the same offense: A no-huddle, run-first spread with a steady diet of misdirection and more than enough in the passing game to make defenses pay for overloading against the run. If ever there was a championship game that announced that there's a better mousetrap out there than the old two-back, smashmouth approach, this is it.
Yet Chip Kelly's and Gus Malzahn's offenses do have differences, some simply in terms of emphasis, others in terms of roots, and these are worth understanding.
Chip Kelly wants to do everything fast. Announcers like to remind you that he runs a no-huddle offense, but Kelly will tell you that's not true; he runs a no-huddle program. The foundation for his offense is less to be found in his playbook (though more on that shortly) than in his practice schedule. And though much has been made about the benefits of being up-tempo during games, the real benefit of being a no-huddle program is the number of repetitions the players get at practicing football, rather than merely doing football-esque things like wind sprints, or spending 20 minutes of valuable practice time on calisthenics (the "stretch period"), or having 10 to 40 players idly standing by while one player gets instruction from his position coach. “In the old days, you could pull aside a guy while they huddled up," Mike Bellotti, the former Oregon head coach who hired Kelly to overhaul the Ducks' offense in 2007, told the New York Times. “You do that now and you would miss five plays."
But don't ignore the plays. Belloti, who plucked Kelly form obscurity in New Hampshire after seeing his brilliance first-hand, calls Oregon's spread a "read offense." Another name for that is option football, though not in the the service academy, triple-option sense. By now, all football fans are familiar with the zone read, wherein the line blocks a normal zone running play to one side and, instead of trying to hold the backside defender through the threat of some John Elway-style bootleg, the quarterback merely reads him to decided whether to give the ball to the back or keep it himself. And, by now, we all know that just doing that alone thirty times a game is not enough. Defenses use a variety of tactics to combat this basic play, including the "scrape exchange," a tactic intended to muddy the read by sending the defensive end crashing for the quarterback while the linebacker "scrapes" to sit and wait for the quarterback:
Among Oregon's preferred responses to this is to simply kick the read over by one man: Instead of reading the defensive end, they read the defensive tackle, or the "three technique":
Note that what works against the normal zone read – the scrape exchange with the linebacker flowing to the outside – is precisely the wrong decision against the zone read off the three technique (also referred to as the "midline"). The defensive end who slants inside will get blocked while the linebacker will simply take himself out of the play. This tactic will take on increased importance against Auburn and its massive (and massively talented) defensive tackle, Nick Fairley, for the simple reason that it is easier to read a man than it is to block him – the adage at the foundation of all read or option based offenses.
Below are clips of Oregon using this tactic against Stanford – there are no long runs in this clip, but when we're talking about the nation's No. 1 offense in yards and points in a game in which it hung 52 on a top-five outfit that didn't lose another game all season, we don't really have to go out of our way to establish the Ducks' bona fides here, do we?
Of course Chip Kelly has answers to your answers. If you try to scrape inside for the midline (same concept as above, except the unblocked defensive tackle squeezes down on the inside handoff instead of the end, while the linebacker still scrapes for the quarterback), then Oregon switches it again, by using the outside zone with the midline read:
Of course, everyone knows Oregon wants to run the ball; the Ducks averaged over 300 yards per game on the ground this season, and Auburn knows better than anyone how foundational the run game is to everything Oregon does. And yet, Hall-of-Fame defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin knew it, too. Kiffin, you may recall, is usually credited as the innovator behind the vaunted "Tampa Two" (a normal two-deep defense where the middle linebacker retreats to be the centerfielder), and, in his one season on his son's staff at Tennessee, did an excellent job against Florida's prolific spread attack, led by Tim Tebow, by going to some "bear" fronts. Kiffin's charges at USC didn't fare so well against Kelly, though, as the Trojan defense yielded 599 total yards and 53 points in October. LaMichael James racked up over 200 yards rushing in that game, but it was also one of Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas's best efforts, with over 280 yards passing and four touchdowns in the Duck win.
One of the cat-and-mouse games Kiffin and Kelly played was with the backside safety. Kelly would line up in trips – that is, with three receivers to one side – and look to run the ball, with the constant threat of the quarterback pulling the ball out to run to the backside. This combined threat of both inside and outside runs, with the overload of three receivers to the right, forced Kiffin to overload his defense to the trips side and keep a safety deep. To help against the run, however, he often dropped his backside safety near the line to help in run support. Kelly's response was simple: Run four verticals straight up the field, letting the innermost receiver to the three-receiver side work across the field to the backside. If the now-single deep safety played to the trips side, the reciver who crossed was wide open; if he ran with him, the other slot receiver was open:
When James and Thomas have established themselves in the zone-read game, big plays off play-action are like shooting fish in a barrel.
Gus Malzahn, like Chip Kelly, came to his current school preaching "speed-speed-speed, ludicrous speed": Malzahn literally wrote the book on making the up-tempo, no-huddle the core of an offense's "philosophy." But it's another book that, when combined with the no-huddle and the modern spread, gives Auburn its unique approach with Cam Newton.
As Malzahn recently explained to Sports Illustrated, when he was promoted from defensive coordinator (!) to the head spot at Hughes High School in Arkansas in the early nineties, he bought The Delaware Wing-T: An Order of Football and "went by it word-for-word." The book, a coaching classic, described the Delaware Wing-T in ways any coach could understand and install, and it was the perfect training for modern football. The offense is built around misdirection, leverage, angles and fakes, and is designed to both spread the ball around and utilize players in ways that maximize their talents. That the offense was under center and used two true running backs and a halfback rather than the multiple formations, shotgun and multiple receivers Malzahn would come to favor is detail, not primary substance.
As I've previously explained in this space, Malzahn's offense truly came together for the college level (it was already an incredibly effective high school attack) once he meshed with co-offensive coordinator Herb Hand at Tulsa, a veteran of Rich Rodriguez's offenses at West Virginia. Malzahn began using more reads and zone plays, but the core of his offense remained wedded to the idea of combining his Wing-T roots with a more modern spread design. Last season I described Malzahn's "Truck Sweep," – nothing more than the Wing-T's "buck sweep" in new-age wrapping – which Ben Tate rode to over 1,300 yards rushing in 2009. That play is still in the arsenal and a key tool, but we all know who Auburn's number one weapon is in 2010: Cam Newton.
This season, Malzahn chooses one of three goals for each run playcall: a) Let Newton run it; b) Let Cam Newton read it, i.e. either he runs it or someone else does, depending on what Newton sees from the defense; or c) Make the defense think Newton is going to run it while giving it to someone else. When you have a talent as great as the Heisman Trophy winner at the center of your system, the temptation is to install too many plays and overload your players, especially your linemen. But, like Kelly, Malzahn prefers to keep it simple, a lesson he learned early on:
Malzahn had no coaching tree pedigree, so he learned by watching high school coaches, particularly Arkansas legend Barry Lunney Sr. As a third-year coach at Hughes High School, Malzahn had between 200 and 300 plays. Lunney advised him to pick three or four, get them to where the players could run them perfectly, and then add another play in year four. "That's some of the best advice I've ever got," Malzahn said. "After that I went back to basic football. Even though today everybody thinks we have a lot of plays, we really don't have that many. But we try to use window dressing, unusual formations and pace." How basic is Auburn's offense today? Malzahn said it has only about four base run concepts and six base pass concepts, with wrinkles off each one.
Time is the scarcest resource in football, and like Kelly's frenetic practices, designed to get maximum repetitions, Malzahn knows that college kids can only master so many things – so let them master something and he'll deal with the defensive coordinators. But how can you run for nearly 300 yards a game with only four run plays? Cam Newton might be your first answer, but the second one is that Malzahn knows which plays are expensive.
Auburn's pass/run play is the same one you see across college football and in the NFL, the "Power O" play. It's a very simple play: The playside of the line "blocks down," getting a cascade of double-teams and crushing the linebackers to the middle and weak sides of the formation; the fullback or some other blocker "kicks out" the defensive end, opening a crease for the runner; the backside guard pulls and leads the way into the alley; and the running back cuts off the guard's block. (See here for how NFL teams use this play from traditional I-formation and two-back sets.) Malzahn installs it just this way:
But then, he doesn't stop. Once installed, he can give his offense a variety of wrinkles off this play, all while keeping the blocking – the most crucial part – the same. For example, Malzahn uses the power from spread sets, in the same way a pro team would, but then with a simple call, that simple "Power O" play can become an entirely different play – Auburn's best play this year, in fact: The inverted veer.
The veer is a type of option designed to read the playside of a defense. From a spread set you read the defensive end, with one runner inside him and another outside of him. Normally, the running back goes inside and, if the defensive end crashes down for him, the quarterback steps around. On the inverted veer, the running back runs wide and, if the defensive end widens, the quarterback sprints inside:
I previously described Cam Newton's success on this play in this space back in September, when it was a new wrinkle installed to take advantage of Newton's athleticisim. But its novelty has hardly impeded its effectiveness, as Newton racked up many of his greatest plays this season on this simple read play, off blocking installed at Auburn on day one, en route to shredding the notion of the SEC as a defense-only conference:
Against Oregon, these power and read plays will be of increased importance because the Ducks' defense is known more for its speed than size: The goal will be to get them flowing one way with reads and misdirection before overpowering them at the point of attack. You know, the the old Wing-T philosophy.
Of course, no one knows how the national championship game will play out, exactly. I wouldn't be shocked if both teams don't look a bit sloppy in the first half, while the pundits at halftime try to explain why the two best offenses in the country don't look like themselves. But don't worry: There's always reversion to the mean, and, though they might take turns delivering their barrages, I expect the second half to live up to the hype. My prediction is Auburn 38, Oregon 35, based on the fact that I think Auburn's defense matches up relatively well with the Ducks' offense, which is more likely to run into trouble against the Tigers' stout defensive line than to repeatedly burn the Auburn secondary. Oregon will come out with lots of lateral runs and passes, and maybe a few fake screen-pump-and-go type passes, but Auburn will weather the storm, and Cam Newton will do what he's done all season.
The ramifications of this game will linger, as it is an epochal game for offensive football, not unlike the 2006 Rose Bowl between Southern Cal and Texas. There, the spread – even a very simple one – officially took the mantle from the old guard and ushered in an era where the notion of "spreading the field to run" was no longer reserved for the underdog. If the dawn of the spread offense in the 1990s and early 2000s was like the rise of the personal computer, where Microsoft, Apple, and IBM had led the way (sometimes unintentionally and to some extent by just being there at the right time), then Chip Kelly and Gus Malzahn – two coaches who five years ago were coaching at the University of New Hampshire and Springdale High in Arkansas, respectively – appear to be playing the Google and Facebook roles: Smarter, more driven, more singleminded and even more ambitious than their ideological predecessors.
And the lesson these new offensive gurus can teach, both for the college game and (hopefully) for the pros – and definitely for high schools – is that the broad, schematic changes are over, and now it is time to take the spread's lessons of combing reads and fakes with the modern passing game and to look for advantages elsewhere, whether it's in Oregon's practice schedule and top-to-bottom no-huddle philosophy, or in Auburn's old-school Wing-T in hip spread clothing. And for anyone who doesn't evolve, well, get ready for your closeup: You just got screwed.
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Programming note: Join the Doc at 8:30 p.m. ET for a BCS Championship live blog.
Chris Brown writes the strategy and philosophy site Smart Football and also contributes to the New York Times' Fifth Down blog. You can reach him at chris at smartfootball.com, or follow him on Twitter.