SEC Film Room: Alabama flourished vs. UGA because of Lane Kiffin and new QB
Seven years removed from the “Black Out” game, and Alabama came to Athens and delivered the same type of early blowout it did back in 2008.
UGA came into Saturday’s contest versus Alabama the favorite, both by the AP Poll and by Las Vegas, which spotted Bama 7.5 points after getting handled by Ole Miss in Tuscaloosa just two weeks prior. But both Vegas and the polls — as well as myself, who picked Georgia — were dead wrong about this one and the game ended 38-10 in favor of the Crimson Tide.
So what happened? Vegas doesn’t miss that bad that often, and though favored teams can crumble any week, was UGA really that bad, or was Alabama that good?
We saw the Crimson Tide’s offense start to gel near the end of that Ole Miss-Alabama shootout, and that can be attributed to Jacob Coker now taking the reins at quarterback.
There are two key components to how Alabama was able to impose its will against UGA offensively and those were: The progression of play calling from offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and the surprising poise of Coker.
Progression of Play Calling
Alabama’s three sets for offense come in either the shotgun, pistol or under center. For most of the season, shotgun has been Bama’s primary set at 60 percent of the offensive snaps. But in their first four games, they were using the pistol look to run the ball more than they were a traditional handoff under center — I assume this was to keep the snap chemistry similar between the quarterback and center.
However, Ole Miss really threw a wrench in the pistol formation, bringing its success rate down to just 28 percent as opposed to Bama’s season average of 51. The reason for this was because the Rebels were familiar with which pistol look had play-action potential, and they were rarely fooled when it was called. This made Kiffin re-think his game plan, and that is what we saw versus Georgia.
Kiffin’s philosophy for this Alabama team is: Establish the run, hit them with play action, thin out the box, then use pulling offensive linemen to run the ball again — this time with more space. I’ll explain how Kiffin was able to do exactly that against the Bulldogs.
The screenshot above is a standard shotgun formation. You have your three wide receivers, tight end off the line of scrimmage, but for this conversation the main note is the running back adjacent to the quarterback.
Just because college offenses aren’t running the ball out of the I-formation anymore, doesn’t mean it’s a guaranteed pass whenever the quarterback isn’t under center. Alabama still uses the shotgun formation to run the ball up the middle. In fact, they had a 4:1 run/pass ratio on its first 16 plays of the game.
The next image is of the pistol formation. The pistol serves as a hybrid between under center on shotgun, and can be advantageous to run-heavy teams who still need to keep their tempo up in today’s college football by positioning the quarterback closer to the line of scrimmage. That helps in a few ways.
The first advantage is easier communication with the offensive line. Next, the ball is in the quarterback’s hands faster than it would be in a shotgun set. And finally, all handoffs will occur two or three yards closer to the line and allow the running back to get a few steps of momentum before getting the ball.
Those are all great, and they worked well for ‘Bama in the early part of the season, but now teams are catching on.
On the above 3 & 1, the Tide stack the line with big bodies, go in the pistol formation, and UGA still stops them. It’s tough to fool anyone or vary at all without the threat of play action because there’s only one gap a back can really go through. This is what they didn’t expect Ole Miss to recognize as well as they did, and it’s also why there wasn’t much offensive action from Alabama early on in this game.
However, that lack of big plays may have actually been a part of Kiffin’s plan.
The image above is Alabama going under center, but more important than that, let’s examine UGA’s defense.
The Bulldogs are trying to match up with Alabama’s three wide receivers, but they’re still playing three defensive linemen and three linebackers close to the line in case running back Derrick Henry gets the handoff. Up to this point, there hasn’t been much trickery from under center.
This play happens to be a play-action. It works perfect, but not just because it picked up the first down. It was perfect because of the chain reaction it caused.
The play action freezes both of the middle linebackers, and the corner on the outside. By the time they realize Henry doesn’t have the ball, they’re frantically trying to drop back into their zones. As the receivers’ routes progress, the defense is confused and wide receiver Calvin Ridley gets open for the first down.
But I told you that’s not the only reason that play action was a success. Here’s where it really paid off.
This time they do hand the ball of to Henry, but notice how spread out the box is now that Coker has completed a few passes on them. UGA isn’t able to attack the line of scrimmage at full speed like they did to start the game because the Bulldogs had been burned a few times by play action. This opens up the spacing for blocks and Henry shoots the gap.
When you have to take defenders away from the box, that’s where Alabama can hurt you. Everyone knows Alabama likes and prefers to run the ball. The challenge every week is, how can Kiffin open up the run when everyone expects it? The progression of his play calls helps keep defenses off balance.
Coker’s been through a lot to get to this point, but it seems all that time as a back up (both at FSU and Alabama) has paid off in the little things. He’s not going to be the guy with the cannon arm or the downfield speed, but there is much more to playing the quarterback position than just physical traits.
I was pretty impressed with how Coker managed that game. He completed the few passes he needed to early on, and because he didn’t force anything as the game progressed, the playbook was then opened up for him.
One of the areas I think Coker showed great poise is in how he baited the defense with his eyes when UGA lined up in zone. Here’s what that looked like.
Looks like blown coverage, right? Well, if we slow it down, there’s another reason Ridley’s that open, and that reason was Coker.
There’s play action, so the linebacker stays down, but before Coker throws the ball, he glances his eyes towards the receiver in the flat for a split second. This fools both the corner and the linebacker, and Ridley is gone up the sideline with no trailing defender.
The next play is similar.
This time, there was a blitz coming right at Coker, but instead of just dumping off the easy pass (which the safety thought he would do), he glances at his receiver coming out of the backfield, fools the safety into over committing and completes another pass to a wide-open man.
Those plays are designed for that type of trickery, but not every quarterback has the poise to do it, in fact, I’d say most don’t. It’s the little things that make a great quarterback. Coker impressed with the little things on Saturday.
UGA dropped the ball when picking up on Kiffin’s game plan, but now the tape is out. Coker’s next test is a team who can implement a great zone blitz. The Bulldogs looked undisciplined in coverage, and even without their offensive turnovers, they gave up too many big play to keep it close.