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The spread offense in short-yardage

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How do spread passing teams handle short-yardage?

Texas v Oklahoma Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

For as long as anyone can remember, Ohio State’s offense has been largely built around being excellent at running the ball between the tackles. Short-yardage situations have been a program advantage, even when the team had explosive passing. Under Urban Meyer, while J.T. Barrett struggled to hit throws down the field in ways that often held Ohio State back, he made ball control and third and four or less remarkably easy for the Buckeyes with his mastery of downhill run concepts like QB split zone or quick POP passes off those runs.

Now the Buckeyes are throwing the ball around with Dwayne Haskins for big numbers but have lost their identity of being able to convert in crucial short-yardage situations and control the ball against good defenses.

Much of this was predictable, I wrote in this space in the offseason that moving to Haskins and higher efficiency in the passing game could allow the Buckeyes to explore a higher ceiling in 2018. What was also predictable was that the Buckeyes were going to need to find a different answer for how to run the ball from spread sets when opponents were going to be selling out to stop it with an extra defender, like in the red zone or in short yardage.

Here’s how drastically things have changed at QB this year for Ohio State:

Barrett vs Haskins

Year Player Passing production Rushing production
Year Player Passing production Rushing production
2014 J.T. Barrett: RS freshman 314-2834, 9.0, 34-10 148-1094, 7.4, 11
2015 J.T. Barrett: RS sophomore 147-992, 6.7, 11-4 146-908, 6.2, 12
2016 J.T. Barrett: RS junior 379-2555, 6.7, 24-7 178-990, 5.6, 9
2017 J.T. Barrett: RS senior 371-3053, 8.2, 35-9 109-714, 6.6, 11
2018 Dwayne Haskins: RS sophomore 315-2801, 8.9, 30-5 26-83, 3.2, 1

Through eight games Haskins has already matched or surpassed J.T. Barrett’s typical passing production but he’s offered up rushing production that Barrett would routinely hit in a single game.

But while the total yardage is about the same, the absence of the QB run game threat has caused real problems for Ohio State beyond the rushing production from that position. The goal with the spread offense is to make the defense cover the whole field, but in short-yardage and the red zone defenses know that they don’t have to.

It’s typical for teams to get cover zero near the goal line or in short-yardage with the defense playing man coverage on receivers and allowing the safeties to focus on the run game. For spread teams that depend on pulling defenses apart with spacing, this is an issue because they may or may not be up for forcing the issue up front when the run game has the defense’s full attention.

Against Purdue Ohio State ran the ball five times on the goal line for a total of seven yards and zero touchdowns. Their base inside zone play ran into real trouble because Dwayne Haskins wasn’t executing the QB run reads to gain a number advantage:

The Buckeyes also tried to throw the ball with rub routes but their timing wasn’t on point and they threw several incomplete balls trying to beat Purdue’s man coverage.

All of Ohio State’s touchdowns came from long passing plays from outside the red zone. There’s potential for improvements in these sorts of routes, a better ball by Haskins on some of their red zone shots means at least one more TD for the Buckeyes, but Ohio State is facing two problems overall. The first is a loss of identity, if they can’t line up and impose their will in the run game then who is this team, exactly? The second is that none of their WRs are big, jump ball threats so they can’t impose their will with size in the passing game either.

What’s most strange is that the Buckeye staff didn’t see these issues looming from knowing their own personnel and devise solutions before the season for handling short-yardage situations. Urban Meyer himself adopted the QB run game in the first place to navigate this issue. This is the guy who won his first title with a FB/QB hybrid that ran for 23 touchdowns and won a Heisman trophy.

The last decade has been replete with examples of explosive spread passing teams that needed a solution for how to pick up tough yardage when the opponent wasn’t spread out any longer. Two down in Big 12 country particularly stand out:

Texas’ jumbo package

The 2008 and 2009 Texas Longhorns had a much better runner at QB than Ohio State does currently. Colt McCoy was the team’s leading rusher in 2008 without qualifications and only 40 or so yards off the mark in 2009 if you remove sack yardage. But the Longhorns learned their lesson about using Colt as a battering ram in his freshman year in 2006 when he was knocked out of a game running a sneak against Kansas State on the road.

McCoy had 14 rushing touchdowns over those two seasons while RB Cody Johnson had 12 in 2008 and 12 more in 2009 despite rushing for a combined 673 yards in those two seasons combined. When the Longhorns needed to convert short-yardage situations where opponents would deny in space to their receivers and load the box, Texas had a solution that allowed them to flip a switch and suddenly become a power running team.

This was Texas’ “jumbo package” which was exactly what it looks and sounds like. They flooded the field with enormous people and just pushed you out of the way.

The left “tight end” was back-up OL Britt Mitchell wearing the #80 so that he could serve as an eligible receiver, Mitchell was 6-5, 305 pounds. The right tight end was in fact a tight end, blocking specialist Greg Smith who checked in at 6-5, 250. The Longhorns would move starting RB Chris Ogbonnaya (6-1, 215) down to H-back and he can be seen screening the edge on these downhill runs. They replaced Ogbonnaya at RB with Cody Johnson, a 5-11, 252 pound bowling ball.

Perhaps most cleverly of all, they inserted nose tackle Roy Miller (6-2, 300) at fullback. You can see how valuable that was on this clip:

The thinking here was very simple. If you know the defense is going to sellout to stop the run but you need to run it anyways, why not have a package that specializes in ramming the ball in over and against their best run stopping effort? Texas ran just a few plays from this package, the point was just to cover up everyone across the line with double teams and then have Cody Johnson pound the ball in behind Roy Miller.

Consequently, Texas was one of the most finesse-oriented teams in the country between the five yard lines for two seasons. The name of the game was Colt McCoy executing west coast timing routes from spread formations...up until they had to get nasty to force things. Then they’d bring in the extra linemen, the bigger RBs, and import some of the nastiness from Will Muschamp’s defense (in 2009 they’d use NT Lamarr Houston since Miller graduated) in order to flip the mean switch.

The Belldozer

Oklahoma’s “Belldozer package” was one of the most famous short-yardage solutions in college football history. The Sooners were coming off a pretty strong 2010 season in which QB Landry Jones had thrown for 4718 yards while RB DeMarco Murray had rushed for 1214 and 15 TDs but they were facing a problem in 2011.

Murray was heading off to the NFL and there wasn’t another star back waiting to take his place while the main strength of the offense was in the return of receivers Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills and the athletic tackle tandem of Don Stephenson and Lane Johnson. Even at TE they were relying on James Hanna who was more of a receiving threat. Landry Jones threw for another 4k yards that year but OU’s had a two back rotation between Roy Finch and Dominique Whaley, neither of whom broke 630 rushing yards.

No matter, they also had a solution that allowed them to flip a switch from being a more finesse passing team to being one of the most brutal offenses in college football history.

Here’s the play that ran after that helpful infographic from ABC:

That’s “just” QB power, but like with the Texas jumbo package the Sooners had things drawn up to incur maximal damage from their personnel.

Unlike Texas, the Sooners would actually play all skill personnel outside of their OL. Tight ends James Hanna (6-4, 243) and Trent Ratterree (6-3, 248) lined up inline on either edge while the Sooners pulled Landry Jones and the RB in order to play a fullback at the H-back slot and the RB slot. In the H-back slot was Aaron Ripkowski (6-2, 255) and at RB was Trey Millard (6-2, 249). Then they left a wide receiver on the field to hold a defender out wide and to force defenses to leave a CB on the field, because no CB was ever going to be enthusiastic about being the guy counted on to make the tackle.

The key to it all, of course, was the insertion of QB Blake Bell for Landry Jones. Bell was a big man at 6-6, 245 with a real talent for patiently running behind his lead blockers and darting forward through creases. He’d eventually run a 4.8 and post a 33” vertical leap at the NFL combine at 252 pounds, certainly it was hard to stop him from falling forward for some gain.

On that historic night against Baylor captured above, he was a last minute heroic drive from eventual Heisman winner Robert Griffin III from being the main story of the night. The Bears couldn’t stop him at all whether they were running QB power, iso, or QB counter:

The fact that Oklahoma was running their QB as THE short-yardage back made all the difference. On these clips the Bears don’t even address the problem of getting the big Bell on the ground before he found the end zone, they couldn’t even get past the problem of how to get a defender in the way due to the numbers advantage that Oklahoma gained by running the QB in the first place.

Other teams managed to get to the “so how do we bring him down?” stage only to find his 250 pounds and athleticism to be a bridge too far:

Over the 2011 and 2012 seasons Blake Bell ran the ball 104 times for 372 yards at 3.6 ypc and 24 rushing touchdowns along with some untold number of first down conversions. The ypc number would also have been much better if he hadn’t been running into the end zone on 14 of his carries.

The fact that Blake Bell could throw the ball (though not well enough to hold down the QB1 job once Landry Jones graduated) made it more than just a really solid wildcat package, although those often work well enough in these situations. Defenses had to at least consider the possibility that it would be a passing play, which was much more distraction than Oklahoma needed to then run them over.

Specialty solutions

There have been other examples of this as well. Oklahoma State had to figure out how to score in the red zone when their QB was Mason Rudolph and they did it with a QB run package for backup J.W. Walsh in 2015 and then subsequently with the diamond formation that would allow them to flood the field with blockers and create misdirection, angles, and bootleg plays for the QB to keep teams honest.

Texas copied the Belldozer formation with the “18-wheeler” package for the similarly large and imposing Tyrone Swoopes. Michigan is built around being a power run team but they still have short-yardage packages that move FB Ben Mason to RB and get extra blocking on the field to pave a way for him.

For Ohio State to be complaining about defenses bringing unblocked defenders in the red zone is pretty silly in light of years of spread offenses finding creative solutions to this problem. Typically you find them mixing in some double TE sets and watching Dwayne Haskins halfheartedly execute the standard zone-read plays. That they’ve been unable to either build an under center jumbo package to help clear out a path for their talented backs or to find a wildcat trigger-man speaks to how distracted and unfocused that coaching staff has been in light of everything that has happened. There’s little wonder that the whole team seems to lack confidence and physicality, their coaches haven’t done much to give it to them.