One of the early shocks of 2016’s season for me was when Michigan State took down Notre Dame. The Spartans weren’t particularly good this last season and although Notre Dame clearly wasn’t either I expected the Irish to blow the depleted Spartan defense away with a spread offense loaded with NFL talent.
The actual results were mixed, DeShone Kizer did indeed hurt the Spartans with a 344 yard passing day but Michigan State clamped down on the Irish run game, giving up only 57 yards on the ground. The film was shocking as it revealed that the Irish hadn’t used any RPOs to attack Michigan State’s defense, save for some QB runs that might have been pre-snap reads.
A “spread to run” offense that doesn’t utilize RPOs is always at risk of finding an unblocked sam linebacker crashing the line of scrimmage unblocked from the edge. In that game it was Jon Reschke, who had eight tackles and one behind the line.
But this offseason Notre Dame hired Chip Long from Memphis to come coordinate the offense, and he’ll bring with him a veritable arsenal of RPOs that could pair with Notre Dame’s excellent returning OL and WRs to make for a deadly offense in 2017. Here’s some clips from Memphis’ successful effort against the dreaded Houston defense for a glimpse into how Long’s offense works.
A nasty wrinkle on zone read
On their second play of the game, Memphis hit the Cougar defense with this salty RPO:
It starts out as a split zone play with the H-back cutting across to kick out the edge player to open a crease for the RB, but Houston is in their 4-0-4 three-down front and instead of a DE waiting to be trapped their mike linebacker is charging downhill to blow up the H-back block and spill the ball to the nickel.
To the field, Memphis has their slot and outside receiver running what initially appears to be a basic bubble screen with the outside receiver blocking for the slot. The trap is laid.
What gets Houston into so much trouble on this play is the combination of the QB outside run and the “sucker” deep route by the outside WR. Houston appears to be playing 2-read here, so the safety should see the slot going shallow and get his eyes on the outside WR, but he doesn’t because he’s concerned about helping out against the RB or QB run. The corner is looking to blow up the block on the screen to help the nickel, who’s navigating the threat of the screen with the threat of the QB keeper on the edge.
When Memphis QB Riley Ferguson pulls up and chucks it down the field there’s no one at all to cover the deep WR. After that initial success, Memphis had Houston on their heels.
Taking the free candy on the perimeter
After that early miscue, Houston played more off coverage on Memphis’ WRs and looked to free up their safeties to help more against the run. Riley Ferguson was happy to take the free offerings that ensued on the perimeter:
On this play Memphis knew what they were getting from Houston and set up another zone read play paired with a tunnel screen to the strong side of their formation, but loaded their strength into the boundary. That left the weak side receiver in a ton of open grass running a hitch on a cautious corner in a lot of space. One missed tackle and it was an easy first down.
The QB had potential run reads on either of these plays but also release valves on the outside to throw the ball. Mobility is useful for the QB in this offense, but the main constrain to the Memphis inside run game was perimeter (or vertical) throws, not keepers.
Memphis took Houston’s lunch money on that drive simply by throwing a few hitches out into space for easy yardage.
Avoiding QB runs
Riley Ferguson is a mobile guy, but not that threatening as a runner. In 2016 Memphis preferred that the ball be in the hands of WR Anthony Miller (90 catches for 1434 yards) or one of their other skill players.
Here’s how the zone read with a bubble route looks when Memphis isn’t pulling a fast one with the sucker route deep:
Since they don’t really want Riley Ferguson to have to run the ball, their goal is to threaten the alley enough to create space for Miller or another skill athlete to work in. Ferguson was a masterful distributor in this system, basically playing the part of John Stockton feeding Karl Malone on the pick’n’roll.
Here’s another example on a fourth and one play call:
Another zone-read? No, just a way to draw in defenders and allow Ferguson to get the ball in space to a much better athlete.
A spread offense with tight ends
You might have noticed from these clips that Memphis spends a lot of time in double tight end sets. Daniel Montiel, 6-3, 240 and Joey Magnifico, 6-4, 230 were their two main guys and they spent time in a lot of different alignments.
They’d often flex them out to use them as lead blockers for screens or keep them in line to help in pass protection like on this winning deep shot:
This was a variation on everyone’s favorite route combo these days, dig post. They sent Magnifico on a dig route to hold the safety and create the 1-on-1 matchup for Anthony Miller (169 yards and two TDs in this game) to win deep and inside on the corner. Montiel stayed in as an H-back and helped create a seven-man protection that just barely fended off the Cougars’ blitz and allowed Ferguson to get the vertical off.
All of this was surely very attractive to Brian Kelly, who loves to run the ball, play tight ends, throw deep, and get the ball to his star receivers. Notre Dame hasn’t particularly struggled to move the ball on offense over the last few years but with some RPO updates to their “spread to run” offense they should be able to torch opponents that can’t handle their athletes in space while also minding the run game.
With Notre Dame following Penn State and joining the RPO revolution, it’ll be interesting to see if it helps them navigate their difficult schedule as much as it helped Penn State this last year.