It’s rare that games are decided by one schematic wrinkle. There’s three phases of the game and hundreds of plays.
Saturday’s Missouri-South Carolina matchup might be different, though. The game could well boil do to one question: To read or not read? More specifically, which linebacker should Tigers’ quarterback Drew Lock be reading, and where the heck will he be lining up?
Despite Barry Odom’s disastrous defense, the game will be decided by Josh Heupel’s supposedly high-flying offense. I say supposedly, because Heupel’s unit has been little more than a mirage in his one season and one game in charge.
The Tigers ran the quickest offense in the FBS last season, averaging 17.8 seconds in plays per time of possession. That style blew away non-power five opponents. They couldn’t keep up with the speed, and couldn’t deal with SEC caliber athletes one-on-one. Heupel’s unit blitzed them, averaging 63 points per game.
The same was not true against actual competition, however. Against power-five opponents the Tigers averaged just 20 points per game. They’re like the school bully who doesn’t want to pick on anyone their own size.
They dropped 21 on the Gamecocks in last season’s matchup, but gave up 31 points, and lost.
Sure, they’ve put up a ton of yards and points against minnows, but those numbers have mostly been empty calories.
The offensive principles that Heupel has lifted from Art Briles and the rest of the Big 12 are genuinely intriguing to a schematic geek like myself. I like innovation. I like difference. And I like a school in Missouri that’s trying to find and expose a market inefficiency. But there’s a fundamental flaw in the current incarnation of Heupel’s system when he’s goes up against outfits with comparable or superior talent.
It’s not supposed to be this way. Heupel’s system is fashioned to even the playing field. It’s built on a series of run-pass options (RPOs — no-win plays for a defense), predetermined, and half-field reads. The ball is snapped, out in an instant, and the battle in the trenches is rendered null-and-void as the side plays what’s tantamount to a 7-on-7 game outside.
It doesn’t stop there. The quirks – or gimmicks, depending on your perspective – keep coming. They’ll often use “sleeper” receivers, another innovative tactic lifted from the old Baylor playbook.
Given that the quarterback is reading just one player, or at most one-half of the field, the receivers on the other side or not given a route at all. They just hang around, wait for the play to be over, run up to the line as quick as possible, and get on with the next play.
There’s method to the madness. The “sleeper” receivers will rotate, while the opposing defensive backs do not. In theory, the DBs should fatigue as they try to keep up with the non-stop pace, while the receivers get to remain fresh. That’s a pretty seismic advantage for an offense that wants to ride its quarterback’s Sunday arm to big shots down the field.
And then there’s the receiver split. They’re what’s known as “extreme plus” splits, with guys hugging the touchline.
That naturally unloads the box, helps reveal coverages, and forces the defense to cover the entire width of the field pre-snap, which, in turn can lead to larger holes in certain coverages, and usually assures a two-deep safety look against weaker opponents — that’s good for the run game and helps the offense attack the middle of the field in the passing game.
It’s all predicated around the spread theory of pace and space; taken to its literal extreme. Its intent is to make life exceedingly easy on the quarterback: Catch it, read a guy, throw it to one of our guys in space, or hand it to a back. Rinse, repeat, all at a crazy speed against a tired defense that’s consistently revealing its coverage to you.
It’s how Baylor’s quarterbacks put up video game numbers under Briles, but have failed to find any longevity, let alone success, at the next level (RGII aside).
It’s a system that should help turn quarterback Drew Lock into a star name by putting up all kinds of gaudy stats.
There’s a big issue, though, particularly when it comes to the one-read/RPO element of the attack. While it can level the playing field, it also means that the defense only has one thing to take away.
Lock’s numbers last season against power-five opponents are a pretty jarring indictment. When it came to playing sides comparable athletes, and smart coaches, Lock was often left staring and waiting for one receiver to come open last year, rather than bouncing onto another read or two, as would be normal.
Shut down that one read, and you’ve pretty much shut down that play, given that Lock isn’t any kind of threat to take-off and run.
Now, that’s easier said than done, particularly when it comes to RPOs. But it beats having to cover five different eligible threats all at once on both sides of the field. It’s partly why Lock completed just 55 percent of his passes last season.
Mizzou’s most used RPO — and a favorite for almost all teams across the country— is a basic inside-zone run tagged with a bubble-screen. The quarterback reads a linebacker. If he attacks the line of scrimmage, the quarterback throws the screen. If he drops into coverage, the quarterback hands the ball off to the running back.
It’s basic, but mighty effective. There are more exotic RPOs, but the one above works to illustrate the point.
Those RPOs and single-reads will decide the game on Saturday.
Muschamp seemingly showed in Week 1 how he plans to battle these kinds of one-read-and-go offenses: Muddy the read. Defenses have been doing this forever against traditional option attacks, including zone-read quarterback options. Now, the trend is to muddy the read on run-pass options.
The Gamecocks linebacking corps moved a lot against NC State last week, mostly on third downs. Like, A LOT. And they moved late. They showed one look when they intially lined up, then morphed to a different one before the ball was snapped. This compilation will give you a look at the variety of pre-snap fronts and subsequent movements they ran in week one.
Let’s highlight one:
The initial look — with 14 seconds on the play clock — is a four-man front with a linebacker overloading the weakside of the formation (away from the running back).
Whatever protection call or RPO read the quarterback was set to make would be dictated by that initial look. However, as the clock ran down, the linebackers flipped. First, the overload linebacker walked to the middle of the formation. Then, as the quarterback recognized the movement and attempted to make an adjustment, the linebacker initially lined up over the right guard, walked down to overload the strongside of the formation.
The QB was left with no time to adjust his protection or look over to the sideline — as is common these days — for any advice. Were this a read play rather than a traditional dropback pass, the quarterback may well have been in trouble as he tried to figure out on the fly which linebacker he was supposed to be reading.
Saturday will show us whether Heupel’s simplistic one-read style can work against a complex defense that likes to move and bluff.
If Drew Lock gets flummoxed by who he’s supposed to be reading, or misreads the linebacker’s movements, the Tigers offense will grind to an unwatchable halt. It also means that their defense will be back on the field with little more than a minute’s rest, and the pattern of blowing away inconsequential opponents while struggling against the ones that matter will roll on for another year.