One of the more intriguing revelations to come out of my survey into the Appalachian State upset victory over Michigan back in 2007 was this quote by then QB coach and now HC Scott Satterfield:
"The game has evolved since then," Satterfield says. "Most everyone is doing some version of the spread now. The defenses have tried to catch up, and to a certain extent, they have, by putting more speed on the field. We've kinda gone back to running the football and a little bit more slowing the game down and limiting the offensive possessions for the other team, and that's helped us since we moved up to the FBS level. But the game is always evolving."
In 2016 App State nearly pulled off another big upset in their season opener against the Tennessee Volunteers. However their approach on offense bore as many similarities to the Michigan team they beat in 2007 as it did to their own winning style from those days:
Confuse and clobber
Back when App State was beating Michigan they drew a major advantage from the fact that the spread offense was the thrust of their package while the nickel defense was a limited component of the Wolverine system.
Nowadays that’s not going to be the case, defenses are being designed to handle a wide array of spread formations and tactics. The advantage is actually to be gained by putting bigger blockers on the field and making defenses loaded with athletes that shined in 7 on 7 camps prove they can line up and handle complex run fits against scrappy tight ends and fullbacks and then tackle physical runners.
But the offenses these days that put fullbacks and tight ends on the field don’t just dust off playbooks from the 80s and 90s, they have plenty of modern flair mixed in. Take the play above:
The Mountaineers are in a “tackle over” unbalanced set with the right tackle lined up outside of the left tackle, which throws off the Volunteers as they try to get lined up and matched up properly. Then App State combines a jet sweep on the back end, with a pair of tight ends lead blocking on the edge with a traditional outside zone run to the opposite end of the formation.
The OL are being used to block DL while the TEs are freed up to find and connect with targets on the second level, the WR is running a sweep and the RB is running a normal off-tackle run. For the Mountaineers, everyone is in position to thrive at the simple things they practice every day but for the Volunteers there’s a lot to suss out to create similarly familiar matchups and assignments for their own players. The DE trying to play the edge against a right tackle rather than a TE is in a particularly tough spot.
Here’s another “confuse and clobber” offense executing a similar tactic against Clemson’s legitimately elite defense:
North Carolina State’s specialty was using two or even three RBs at a time, similar to what Wisconsin was doing a few years back with Melvin Gordon. “Fullback” Jaylen Samuels is receiving the sweep here, flex RB NyHeim Hines is out wide as a receiver, and then traditional RB Matthew Dayes is lined up in the backfield.
Samuels and Hines are essentially hybrids and have been developed to obtain the ball in a variety of different ways. Here’s an example of NC State running West Coast route combos from a two-back spread set with all three running backs still on the field:
Samuels the fullback is running a hitch route, the main tailback Dayes is running to the field flat, and then the flex RB Hines is running what initially appears to be another flat route to the boundary. Clemson has this really well zoned up with the slant route on the boundary doubled, and the flat routes well covered. What they haven’t anticipated is the NC State flex RB running an angle route on Brent Boulware and then having a free run with the safety otherwise occupied. This use of versatile hybrids is perhaps a throwback from OC Eliah Drinkwitz’s days at Boise State but it fits well within their bigger sets and heavy use of unbalanced formations.
It’s just hard to be sure before the snap which of the running backs is going to end up with the ball and where.
Appalachian State has also been strong at mixing in one of the main benefits of Pistol and Shotgun alignments for the QB by utilizing the spread-option game from their big sets.
The Hurricanes actually struggle to get this right between the optioned DE and the linebackers but their dominant DL and aggressive safety play makes up for it with the nickel and strong safety outnumbering the Mountaineers and swallowing up the zone run after a respectable gain. However, note the fact that the field safety had to make the tackle, if that guy isn’t capable of making the play within that window of time you’re looking at real trouble here limiting explosive gains on the ground.
It’s consistently difficult for opponents to get enough defenders to the point of attack on these plays, in part because they often can’t be sure of where the real point of attack will prove to be. These are sort of like RPO plays (run/pass options) except that the QB doesn’t have to make complicated reads or get his feet set to throw, everything happens via easy hand-offs and pitches.
The main idea with this style of offense is to use a variety of formations, sweeps, and multiple ball carriers to obscure the fact that the offense is ultimately just blocking a few base run schemes and to provide easy constraints for the offense to punish the defense with. Rather than using the option, the spread, or the passing game to protect the base runs the offense uses confusion.
Maximizing a market inefficiency
It used to be that when people thought about prototypical football players they thought of guys like running backs and fullbacks. Elite, physical runners and big, burly blockers who lived for the contact of the game. But nowadays the game is increasingly dominated by QBs that can process and make decisions under fire and then deliver the ball down the field through the air to receivers who are processing and making decisions on the fly.
It’s not too terribly difficult for a program like Appalachian State or NC State to load up with multiple solid running backs, nor to find blocking fullbacks and tight ends. It’s even possible to find really good ones because they no longer have as much value at the bigger universities that are only looking for TEs that can run routes.
There could probably be some advantage gained by recruiting good tailbacks and then using something like the I-formation, which is no longer common at all, to feed them the ball. That and great defense is more or less how San Diego State has been winning the Mountain West the last few years. However, that’s not what these teams are doing. Instead they’re utilizing even more old school sets like the old Wing-T combined with modern shotgun, pistol, and spread-option tactics to feature multiple ballcarriers at the same time.
Not only are those players and tactics accessible for a smaller school, but they have the added benefit noted by Satterfield above. Running simpler, up-tempo offense was always properly the purveyance of the blue blood programs. The philosophy of an up-tempo spread is truly to determine the game’s outcome by giving your own, well-drilled athletes as many opportunities as possible to out-execute their opponents while the spacing of the spread raised the stakes of every play.
Slowing the game down, limiting possessions, and trying to win through scrappy execution of unique tactics is much more an underdog strategy and the “confuse and clobber” offenses aim to do just that.
Confuse and clobber with blue blood talent?
Matt Canada was utilizing the “confuse and clobber” philosophy at Pitt before Ed Orgeron hired him to LSU. The ironic thing about that staff addition was that LSU had been trying to be the team that still featured a tailback in a 70s or 80s style offense and it simply wasn’t cutting it. So they’re maintaining an emphasis on old school physicality while adopting modern tactics under Matt Canada.
LSU often has a deep stable of fantastic running backs but have rarely been able to make defenses worry about more than one of them at a time, a problem that likely won’t exist anymore under Canada’s direction.
Whether or not it matches the brutality of facing elite talent in an up-tempo spread, LSU should be pretty brutal in their own right by being able to nail down execution of the inside zone and power run schemes with a dozen accoutrements.
Canada won’t allow teams to focus simply on getting numbers to the point of attack against Derrius Guice and then hoping to punish them with the right timing on a play-action bomb. Instead he’ll always add one other stress point across the line of scrimmage with another premier athlete getting the ball, perhaps combined with an unbalanced set designed to force the defense to have to pause and think.
The LSU defense in the spring game doesn't even seem surprised by this 4th and 1 jet sweep off inside zone to the fullback, but they still struggle to get fit to stop both the Guice inside zone run AND the FB sweep.
The application of football strategies tends to occur slowly through trial and error rather than through foresight of best fits. It took the bigger schools a while to adjust to the notion that the spread offense could actually help them leverage their advantages and any strategy for physically imposing your will with the run game will always be popular. So if this works out well for LSU, it may not remain an underdog strategy for long.