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How the smashmouth spread took down North Dakota State

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The Bison machine finally met their match in a talented smashmouth spread O from Virginia.

NCAA Football: North Dakota State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 season was an interesting and revealing one for both the North Dakota State Bison as well as college football in general. At the start of the season, after barely surviving two overtime games against fellow FCS powers Charleston Southern and Eastern Washington, the Bison went into Iowa City and took down Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes.

The clearest takeaway from that contest was that the Bison lines were comparable to what you find in the Big 10. North Dakota St pounded the Iowa defense with the run game while stuffing the Hawkeyes’ zone rushing game, outrushing them 239-34. It left such a mark in Iowa City that Ferentz determined to hire North Dakota State’s offensive coordinator Tim Polasek and even made comments about recruiting North Dakota more in the future.

Yet after that drubbing (not on the scoreboard but on the field), North Dakota State went on to have their worst season since 2010 when they went 9-5 and lost to Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals of the playoffs. The 2016 Bison went 12-2 with a home loss in the season to South Dakota St and fell short of capturing what would have been their 6th consecutive FCS championship. They avenged the loss to South Dakota early in the playoffs but went down in the semifinals to James Madison 27-17 playing on their own turf in Fargo, ND.

They were out rushed in that game 201-132 and James Madison went on to win the title with a spread run game that put senior RB Khalid Abdullah at 1809 yards on the year at 6.1 yards per clip with 22 touchdowns.

James Madison had their own pre-conference showdown with a power-5 program when they took on North Carolina early in the year. In that game the Tar Heels won out 56-28, but like the Bison they failed to stop the JMU run game and Abdullah 18 carries for 116 yards, 6.4 yards per carry, and two touchdowns.

The crucial difference between North Dakota State’s triumph over Iowa and JMU’s failure against North Carolina was the style of the opponent. The Hawkeyes had a run-centric, “pro-style” approach to the game and the Bison were simply better in that theater. Meanwhile JMU and North Carolina both utilized spread systems and the Dukes were devastated by Mitch Trubisky at the helm of the Tar Heel passing game. Trubisky went 24-27 with 432 yards at 16 yards per pass with three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

The spread run game faced off against the Bison way in this semifinal game and the results were pretty interesting.

Old school vs new school tactics

With Carson Wentz off to the NFL and replaced by hard running sophomore Easton Stick, the Bison didn’t have a strong enough passing attack to attack the Dukes as North Carolina had done, nor did they have explosive enough skill athletes. The Bison did much of their damage to the Duke secondary throwing to FB/H-back/RB hybrid Chase Morlock, a 6-0 223 pound senior that’ll probably have at least a cup of coffee in the NFL but who wouldn’t break 4.7 in the 40.

Here’s the main defensive look that James Madison used to stymie the Bison:

They’d play conservatively over the passing strength with a deep safety and nickel personnel combining to pattern match and play “three over two” to avoid getting hit there. Meanwhile they’d play ultra-aggressively on the boundary or against the run strength with the free safety lining up with the LBs, just behind them, or at times even on the edge like an old school Sam linebacker.

If the Bison wanted to punish their aggression towards the run game it had to come by throwing outside the hash marks or by attacking vertically with their tight ends. Easton Stick has a long windup (which makes it hard to beat good teams throwing outside the hash marks) and not a ton of experience throwing outside whereas their tight ends and seam passing game aren’t quite on say, Harbaugh’s level.

So between that and effective play from their DL and LBs, James Madison was able to keep the Bison from building their patented long scoring drives.

Meanwhile, they were able to do what so many other teams have failed to do and defeat North Dakota State’s anti-spread run defense. Here’s a glimpse into what makes the Bison so effective against the sorts of spread-run sets that wreak havoc on other defenses:

North Dakota State’s run fits work by having the linebackers key lead blocks and flow to the point of attack while the free safety will drop down and replace them in the cutback lane. In this example he’s filling the B-gap to the play-side of an inside zone run.

Their safety Robbie Grimsley is lightning quick coming downhill late and he shows an alignment before the snap that could just as easily result in him playing Tampa-2 or dropping into the deep middle to play cover 1 (the other two primary Bison calls) as it would him dropping down late into the box.

The disguise of his alignment makes it harder for teams to pinpoint the corner to his side of the field that’s left in press-man coverage without safety help when he drops into the box. In the example above Grimsley gets downhill in enough time and in the right position to make the tackle at the line of scrimmage. Incidentally, this is the kind of structure and run defense that Michigan State needs to play in order to get their own unit back on track.

But even the sturdy run D of the Bison ran into problems against James Madison simply because the spread reduces your margin for error and the Bison made a few key errors. You can tell from the clip above that it puts a great deal of stress on the defensive structure to depend on a safety, ostensibly your final line of defense, to serve a role in building the wall up front. The play that broke the Bison serves as a perfect example:

It’s another spread-I, two-back run that triggers free safety Robbie Grimsley’s involvement for ND State.

The issue here was two-fold. Part of the problem is the wide space that the weak side linebacker has to navigate with the DE forced wide by his own aggressiveness and the effective kick out block by the pulling guard. That LB (redshirt senior M.J. Stumpf) was trying to spill the ball outside to Grimsley, who’s typically aggressive fill had him basically parallel to Stumpf and ready to make a tackle for no gain. However, Stumpf is not successful in bouncing the play and Grimsley is then too far upfield to reverse course and make the tackle, leaving the Bison with no safety to clean things up.

What’s more, strong safety Tre Dempsey strangely over-committed to a bubble that the Dukes hadn’t really been throwing much all day and he’s unable to arrive in time to help. I’ve noted before that this field safety position can be a huge difference making spot against a spread offense by negating some of the costs that are inevitably incurred by minor mistakes elsewhere. Dempsey is a very good safety but he didn’t achieve that result here.

Complexity vs simplicity

The Bison don’t really need to change anything about what they’re doing. They’ve won five titles in a row and probably would have won another had they proved victorious against James Madison in this game and that wasn’t far from happening. Quarterback Easton Stick was a redshirt sophomore in 2016 with two more years to grapple with the Bison passing game and learn how to better wield the passing game constraints on their run game, which is strong every year.

Meanwhile their secondary returns all four starters and their DL returns three out of four, so they’ll be even less prone to costly mistakes in the future. Even this year it took a very strong JMU team and a South Dakota St team with some NFL players to force the errors that broke them in 2016.

What’s notable though is that their style involves a somewhat complex and execution-driven scheme on both sides of the ball. The Bison need to be plugging in redshirted upperclassmen to most of their starting roles every year to make their system work properly, neither their offense nor their defense are conducive to plugging in electric young athletes.

Meanwhile the smashmouth spread employed by James Madison or North Carolina ditches complexity in exchange for simplicity with the spacing of the offense creating margin for error. If you have an explosive running back the easiest way to set him up to land big punches is by spreading your opponent out and then out executing them at the point of attack with simple schemes that your team can execute consistently, like the counter run. Even if you don’t always win those execution battles, you can do enough damage when you do to make it worthwhile.

Yet that same desire to simplify things in order to plug in young athletes every year and have a revolving door of high level talent means that executing complicated, chemistry-dependent schemes is increasingly difficult for the teams pursuing these strategies. One of the factors that set Clemson apart this last year was that they were returning nearly every major component of their starting offense from the prior year.

The direction this is heading in is that offenses are becoming simpler as the spacing of the spread formations limits the need for complex strategies to gain leverage for ballcarriers. At the same time, defenses are becoming more complex because avoiding explosive plays from spread offenses requires thorough mastery of multiple defenses at every level. Teams need to have enough defensive complexity to avoid getting targeted with precise calls yet still be simple enough to allow the players to be fast, confident, and sound on every play.

That favors teams that feature older, developed defensive rosters like North Dakota State can boast. Which happens to coincide with an offense that has less margin for error due to its own complexity.

The challenge for the next decade is for more teams to master a combination of simpler, smashmouth spread offensive tactics that can light up the scoreboard with detailed, developed defenses that can hold up against a similar strategy.