The NBA world has been rocked by the introduction of "spread" tactics over the last several seasons with the major shift coming when the Miami Heat won consecutive championships thanks to "small-ball" basketball lineups that confronted opponents with LeBron James playing a "power-guard" position while surrounded by three point shooters.
The spacing that the Heat were able to get on offense made it virtually impossible to handle the freakish, 6'8" 270 James on his drives to the basket. Last year the Golden State Warriors took this style of play to its logical conclusion with a five-out lineup devoid of a traditional big man and loaded with elite shooters and devastating spacing. WIth their "lineup of death" the Warriors took down LeBron James' Cavaliers and are now threatening the '96 Bulls record for most wins in a regular season.
The spread revolution is nothing new to the world of college football, where even the formerly staunch pro-style Crimson Tide are now embracing the trends. However not many teams have been able to take the final step to produce an equivalent to Golden State's "lineup of death" that puts maximal stress on an opposing defense. The way to do this is with the "ultimate spread formation" which combines single-wing run game tactics with spread formations.
Always looking for ways to spread out opponents only to run them over and needing an adjustment to his normally pass-heavy attack in the wake of losing all his good QBs, Art Briles adopted this approach against Texas in Baylor's season finale and then doubled down against North Carolina in the bowl game.
The result? 1045 rushing yards in two games and a bowl victory for a program desperate for postseason success and national recognition. This will unquestionably be dismissed as another clever gimmick from Briles but there are sound principles at play in what Baylor did and it's not terribly simple to stop.
Baylor's single-wing offense
The Bears already have a diverse run game in their "veer and shoot" offensive scheme and it was all too easy to adjust these schemes to feature the QB as the runner rather than the RB.
Ordinarily Baylor's favorite formation is a "spread-I" set with a TE in an H-back alignment where he can allow them to utilize different lead runs and set up their play-action passing game and run/pass option plays (RPOs). Most of the Baylor offense is geared around setting up their deep routes so they can score as many points as possible as quickly as possible.
But without Seth Russell or Jarrett Stidham available to throw and no Corey Coleman to receive their passes, those deep routes could no longer be the ends of an elite offense. So Briles rotated 3rd string QB/WR Chris Johnson, WR Lynx Hawthorne, and their full stable of RBs at the QB position and unloaded a salvo of different run schemes that combine their max spread sets with two-back runs.
Some of the most devastating against UNC included their QB counter play:
What makes these plays so terrifying for a defensive coordinator is that even if the defense cheats a linebacker away from one of the slot receivers to get even numbers up front, there is still a blocker for every defender in the box. That means that a safety is going to have to make the tackle and if the blocks up front go well he'll have to make it in space.
The blocks up front did go well for Baylor, in part because UNC kept moving defenders around in confusion and often lined up their linebackers split halfway to the slot receivers, making them easy marks for the Baylor OL and TEs. And of course, the fact that Baylor was running these plays for shifty RBs like Johnny Jefferson made the problem even worse as the Tar Heel safeties could not be expected to reliably tackle him in space.
Two other main plays kept Baylor going and allowed them to attack the Tar Heels with enough variety to keep them from zeroing in on their run game and shutting it down without committing extra numbers. The first was inside zone, which Baylor ran a few different ways but most notably with an in-line TE and power back Devin Chafin on the field.
When the RB on a zone scheme is good at reading his keys and threatening the primary lane, cutback lane, and outside bounce it causes hesitation for the linebackers, which buys time for the double teams to control the DL and release OL up field to obstruct if not pancake the slow-moving linebackers. When the RB is playing QB and taking a direct snap, the issue is exacerbated.
The other play that really ate Gene Chizik's lunch was the use of tackle-lead plays with pass options attached. You could tell that these typical Baylor plays were the sort that UNC had spent more of their time preparing to stop, although they still did a poor job. Tackle lead is like a combination of power or "slice zone" with the difference being that it's a tackle who pulls across while the rest of the OL blocks down as opposed to a guard (power) or H-back (slice).
This is Baylor's favorite running play from four-receiver sets since it allows them to use a lead run while pulling their most athletic OL and also freeing the QB to threaten opponents with the pass rather than the run. The wrinkle they added here was to run the play with a TE on the field and have him running a POP route. QB Chris Johnson reads the middle linebacker here. If he covers the TE then that means that Baylor's RB is in a 1-on-1 match-up with the free safety who has to arrive quickly or else make a tackle in space.
If the middle linebacker had followed the flow and filled behind the weakside linebacker then the QB throws a quick route up the seam to the tight end. North Carolina opted for the safety v RB option, a battle they routinely lost in devastating fashion.
By mixing in RPOs where the QB was actually throwing the ball outside the Bears managed to scare UNC away from loading the box and daring them to beat them by throwing quick passes and bubble screens. That allowed the Bears to instead beat them doing what they knew they could do well in this game, run the ball between the tackles with their veteran OL and multiple healthy backs.
North Carolina's failures
The main failure of North Carolina was not adequately preparing for Baylor's single-wing approach, instead taking it for granted that with a healthy Chris Johnson Baylor would throw their normal offense at them. Based on that assumption, UNC's game plan was designed to first and foremost take away the deep pass. Normally that is exactly how you want to approach the Bears but for this game it revealed a lack of foresight and context awareness on the part of Gene Chizik and the Tar Heel staff.
Baylor didn't want to throw the ball to win in this game, they wanted to run the ball, and their game plan was designed to allow them to do that as much as possible. A better game plan from UNC would have taken into account Baylor's injury situation as well as the fact that they'd already tipped their hand by running this offense against Texas.
In terms of specifics, the Tar Heels erred in where they dared Baylor to beat their safeties. In a cover 4 defense facing a spread offense like the Bears' use, the game will generally come down to how well the safeties tackle. The choice the defensive coordinator has to make is which players he's going to ask his safeties to tackle and in what settings they'll have to do so.
One option would be to trust the safeties to make tackles on the perimeter against perimeter screens and passing plays while loading up the box with linebackers. You could call this the Michigan State option:
The linebackers stay in the box and do what linebackers do while the DBs align tightly enough so that they can get players into position to fill behind the linebackers all while deferring stress outside and deep.
Baylor normally frustrates this approach by sending the slots on vertical routes and forcing the safeties to be hesitant and mindful that coming downhill too fast can get them beat for six points in a hurry. But in this game, UNC really needed to make Baylor prove they could still beat them with the passing game while utilizing a converted WR as their primary passer.
This approach used to be the no-brainer choice for stopping these attacks but then teams proved that they could beat you outside throwing bubble screens or deep routes to track stars or teams struggled when a run would break through the wall and there'd be no one left to make a tackle.
The other option is to make sure that the perimeter throws aren't too easy while asking a safety to replace a linebacker and clean things up against the run from a deeper alignment with leverage. This was primarily the option that North Carolina chose:
Now you are counting on your safety coming downhill fast and with good leverage to replace a linebacker and make tackles before runs get out of hand. This can work and be a good way to force a spread-option team to work their way down the field slowly and patiently, but only if the defense has certain traits.
To begin with, the players who are left in the box need to be very good at squeezing creases closed. You can't ask your safety to fight his way through the wash if the DL are getting blown off the line by double teams, the linebacker isn't taking on blocks well, and there are multiple interior gaps for the RB to attack.
The safety will necessarily be coming downhill pretty fast so if the back has space to make a cut or change direction that safety is going to end up looking pretty ridiculous if he loses leverage because someone up front didn't funnel the ballcarrier into the correct alley.
Additionally, even with good play up front this is a very demanding task for a safety and not many are up for it. Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson looked good in this role until he was asked to make the tackle on Tavon Austin. LSU will mix in this tactic at times and they rely on Jamal Adams to be the guy, he looked good doing it until he faced Alabama and Derrick Henry.
North Carolina's safeties didn't even make honorable mention on the All-ACC team, they were not up for the challenge against Baylor. They needed some help in the form of their DC setting them up to chase passes executed by RBs and WRs where the spacing requires accuracy and timing from the passer rather than stopping good ballcarriers who are running behind blockers that can make the spacing work to their advantage.
The future of the single-wing spread?
Undoubtedly when Baylor gets healthy at QB this offseason they'll go back to emphasizing their vertical passing game rather than embracing the single-wing although their principle of always ensuring they have a numbers advantage to run the football will be true in either instance.
However, you have to wonder why more teams don't design their offenses to utilize the QB as a featured runner with lead runs in this fashion. The main obstacle is the health of the QB as it requires a pretty big and tough runner who can still execute a passing game to negate the "Michigan State option." Perhaps the ideal QB for this system was Cam Newton, who carried the ball 264 times for 1473 yards back in 2010 en route to a Heisman trophy and national championship.
With nothing else to lose and only one game left on the schedule, Clemson will probably continue to use Deshaun Watson in this fashion, although his lighter frame probably wouldn't withstand a full season of this approach.
In the same way that Golden State found themselves with the perfect roster to run five-out offense in basketball, it's only a matter of time before some team determines to find the QBs to make this style of spread offense work and win another championship in college football. There are bad answers and there are decent answers but there are no good answers to this approach, just ask North Carolina.