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Vertical spread teams and tiny defenses: Trends to watch for in the bowl games

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Vertical passing and tiny defenses were two of the big winners from the 2017 season, now they go and face off against new foes in the bowl season.

Oklahoma v Oklahoma State Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

One of the major positives of bowl games is watching all of the “styles make fights” matchups between different teams from across the country. Granted, the teams don’t always take these games terribly seriously and many coaching staffs are busy moving locations or putting together early or transition recruiting classes rather than game planning for their opponents...

Nevertheless, there are tons of bowl games out there that will put some of college football’s emerging strategic trends and tactics to the test in new settings and that’s always worth tuning in to observe. Some of them are also coming from teams with everything to play for, so you can actually count on seeing some good battles.

The vertical smashmouth spread

Smashmouth spread offenses tend to diverge these days down two pathways, depending partly on coach and maybe moreso on the skill set of the QB. The first is the offenses with a dual-threat QB, like the Dan Mullen offenses at Mississippi State with Dak Prescott or Nick Fitzgerald, or Urban Meyer’s squads at Ohio State. These teams want to control the ball and set up third downs in which defenses are outnumbered at the point of attack due to the QB run game, ensuring conversions for the offense.

The other are teams with a strong pocket passer behind center, like the Chad Morris SMU offense of this past year, who run the ball early and often with two-back run game concepts but unto the ends of throwing the ball down the field.

Here are four examples of teams that followed the pocket passer path and who have upcoming bowl games.

Vertical smashmouth spreads

Team Pace Offensive S&P+ rank PPG Top RB Top 3 WRs
Team Pace Offensive S&P+ rank PPG Top RB Top 3 WRs
Oklahoma State 80 plays per game 4th 46.2 (3rd) Justice Hill (1347 rushing yards) James Washington (1418 receiving yards), Marcell Ateman (1049 receiving yards), Jalen McCleskey (635 receiving yards)
SMU 77 plays per game 8th 36.2 (16th) Xavier Jones (1019 rushing yards) Trey Quinn (1191 receiving yards), Courtland Sutton (1017 receiving yards), James Proche (816 receiving yards)
Toledo 72.5 plays per game 13th 38.5 (10th) Terry Swanson (1319 rushing yards) Diontae Johnson (1279 receiving yards), Jon'Vea Johnson (675 receiving yards), Cody Thompson (537 receiving yards)
West Virginia 76.2 plays per game 17th 34.2 (22nd) Justin Crawford (1061 rushing yards) Gary Jennings (1030 receiving yards), Ka'Raun White (986 receiving yards), David Sills V (980 receiving yards)

As you can see, each team was throwing the ball down the field early and often in every game which led to tons and tons of points and plenty of touches and yardage for all of their wide receivers while the RBs still up up typical lead back numbers. The QBs who led these teams were all guys that could make quick reads and reach receivers down the field from the pocket, but the reads were often pretty simple and boosted by run-action that sucked in defenders.

This is the same plan of action that Penn State followed to a Big 10 championship in 2016. College football defenses are designed to stop the run and will tend to do so by committing numbers but these offenses are designed to punish that with the vertical passing game and to do so early and often. With any kind of efficiency on the deep shots the offense ends up forcing the opponent into a shootout played in the 30s and 40s where they may not be terribly comfortable.

The trick to beating this style is to force these teams to score by running the ball down the field and converting in the red zone. Most of these teams practice their run game primarily as a way to punish a light box and not as a way to force the issue on third and two or first and goal. They load up their rosters with fleet wide receivers and may or may not be good at shoving at forcing the issue with a multiple tight end set or dual-threat QB.

Oklahoma State is facing Virginia Tech, who tend to take a “stop the run first” approach. SMU had to play Louisiana Tech without their coaching staff from the season and it went predictably terribly. Toledo is facing a ball control, run-centric Appalachian State team which should provide a nice contrast in style. West Virginia is playing Utah, another ball control team, but they’ll do so without starting QB Will Grier.

Oklahoma State vs Virginia Tech is the most intriguing game to watch in terms of this struggle between modern college defenses and the vertically oriented smashmouth spread.

Tiny defenses

Tiny defenses have been an emerging trend in college football, particularly this season and in the Big 12, as a response to offenses like the ones listed above. One of the trends and takeaways of quarters defenses is that they allow a defense to get a +1 to stop the run or a given route combination based on what the offense does after the snap. Offenses like the vertical smashmouth spread listed above are looking to take advantage of that by creating run/pass conflict with RPOs or old-fashioned play-action and then punishing the isolated defenders.

If your defensive strategy depends on always having a numbers’ advantage and offenses are using space to isolate you, the answer is to get faster so that the space can’t hurt you. Even for the blue blood programs, getting faster necessarily means getting smaller, so the result is a lot of tiny defenses.

But of course, once teams start recruiting and developing their defenses so that smaller packages get their best players on the field, they then start to look for ways to combat bigger offenses without taking their stud littles off the field. Unsurprisingly, the move to more speed still works against bigger offenses.

The ultimate example can be found in the performances of the Washington schools against the Stanford Cardinal. Stanford has struggled since Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck left to build a good complementary passing attack to their perennially powerful run game. This year they found that they could still be explosive on offense without a particularly effective throw game by doubling down on their “Ogre” formations and featuring RB Bryce Love.

The danger in facing a guy like Love is that he’ll get behind your defenders and break away for a long run, so you don’t necessarily want to load up the box and remove your deep safeties, but if there are eight blockers up front you don’t really have a choice.

Well if your strategy depends on getting a +1 defender to the ball and you’ve gone small to ensure that outcome, you now have two advantages against a big team that wants to load the box. One is that you have that many more guys on the field with a realistic chance of running Bryce Love down if he breaks loose, another is that you don’t necessarily have to load the box since you’ve chosen defenders that have enough speed to fill run defense assignments from depth.

Love’s two worst performances on the year came against Washington State and Washington, the former of which was led by a 6-2, 252 pound defensive tackle and a 6-0, 214 pound inside linebacker playing behind him (freshman Jahad Woods). Love took 16 carries for 69 yards against Wazzu at 3.4 yards per carry. Washington played their 2-4-5 nickel package against him, which is spear-headed by 6-0, 222 pound middle linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, and held Love to 166 yards on 30 carries. Still a good game but his second worst of the season. The big win for Washington was preventing Love from picking up the big gains that buried other Stanford victims (but Washington still lost).

Stanford is going up against another tiny defense from the TCU Horned Frogs, who's middle linebacker and leading tackler is the 6-1, 213 pound Travin Howard. TCU is unlikely to move away from playing small but will instead just load up the box.

If the offense doesn’t have a blocker to account for a guy that’s parked close to the line of scrimmage, it doesn’t really matter if the defensive front is filled with undersized guys, they can still force you to throw the ball. The offense can maul most of the defenders but the extra man will be right there to make the tackle and there is speed everywhere to limit the damage if the RB finds a crease. Pair this with an explosive, up-tempo vertical spread and you can really put an opponent in a bind as they try to trade deep shots with four yard rushing gains.

If the Frogs shut down the Cardinal and win this game it’ll be a large, public mark in favor of tiny defenses moving towards. If you aren’t worried about getting run over by the Ogre what’s left to be afraid of? You might as well flood the field with smaller guys and then force people to try and read complicated coverages and throw against them.

Two of the biggest strategic trends in 2017 were an increase in the number of offenses moving the focal point down the field and the number of defenses relying on speed and numbers to dictate to offenses. The bowl games will feature a few of these styles battling it out against more traditional strategies, it’ll be interesting to see what people make of these trends when revealed on the big stage.