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Spread-iso ball in 2018’s Big 12

A glance at how Big 12 offenses are using spread spacing to create isolations for their WRs and easy reads for their QBs.

West Virginia v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Some people got rather bored of the re-occurring matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals. Game after game came down to trips down the court in which the Cavs would hunt for Stephon Curry with pick’n’rolls until they finally got him switched on to LeBron James and then the King would go to work from there bullying the smaller Curry for layups or easy passes to open shooters when help came. Those people typically hate watching the Houston Rockets executing a similar strategy to allow James Harden to work against an opponent’s worst defender in “iso-ball.”

In today’s spread-iso schemes at the college football level, there’s considerably more variety to the exact same game. Many college spread offenses today are just looking to use spread spacing to tell them where teams are sending help and then they get into the formations and tactics that allow them to isolate one of their better players on the “weak spot” of the defense for easy yardage.

One of the most valuable players that a spread team can have today is not a prototype at a given position but instead a well-rounded receiver that knows how to run a variety of good routes from different places on the field. From there, it’s all too easy to get him on a defender that can’t cover him, especially if the offense can run the ball on a light box and smaller personnel.

Here’s a few big plays from recent weeks in the Big 12 that illustrate some favored spread-iso tactics for getting a good skill player matched up to play “iso-ball” against the weak spots in opposing defenses.

Iowa State’s RPO game to Hakeem Butler

The Cyclones have been playing excellent football since inserting Brock “pump fake” Purdy into the starting lineup at QB. Purdy throws a good vertical ball and also has the “pump fake” available that turns all of their RPO plays into de-facto triple option schemes.

Here’s a look at the kind of RPO concepts they’ve been killing with this season:

Pump fake Purdy takes a careful look at the Kansas defensive alignment before the snap. The Jayhawks are playing the Aztec dime that’s become so popular nationally and they’re using it to get a free defender against the run in the form of that Aztec or middle safety who’s charging downhill. But the Jayhawks area also in an inside-outside bracket on Hakeem Butler to the boundary and that inside robbing safety is coming downhill on run action, leaving the CB to his lonesome on the skinny post.

The run scheme from the Cyclones is a weak iso play, with the OL blocking by inside zone rules except for the RT who’s screening his man and creating a bubble in the B-gap that the TE is leading through. That lead insert triggers the safeties and creates the window for Purdy to hit Butler streaking behind the triggered safeties. Touchdown, Iowa State.

These sorts of plays, along with their similarly effective play-action game and the dominance of the 6-6 yet still speedy Hakeem Butler, have been what have driven Iowa State’s success over the last two years. But pump fake Purdy adds another dimension with his patented pump fake game.

For most teams if the QB pulls the ball from the RB and then doesn’t find the passing window he was expecting for the RPO or perhaps a free blitzes in his face, he’s in big trouble. The best teams can usually hope for in that situation is for the QB to throw the ball away. Not so with Purdy, who is remarkably quick thinking and effective using the pump fake to the original RPO target to create an extra option for himself in the form of scrambling lanes.

The OL is already run blocking and the defense is split between defending the pass option and the RB’s path, so Purdy regularly finds running room if he can get the guy coming after him to leave his feet and leave the gap exposed.

After removing sack yardage, which the freshman hasn’t totally avoided this season, pump fake Purdy has run the ball 46 times for 280 yards at 6.1 ypc. In the analogy of the basketball spread-iso game, this is the equivalent of your lead ball handler having a reliable midrange fadeaway to turn to when things get dicey.

West Virginia’s iso-trips formation

The West Virginia Mountaineers took some weak spots in the Texas Longhorn defense and turned them into ATM slots for their offense last Saturday in Austin. One of their favorite ways to do this was with an iso-oriented trips formation:

Notice the spacing, which is key to this play. The first slot to the field is lined up all the way out to the numbers with their favorite deep ball target, David Sills V, then all the way inside halfway between the RT and the hash marks is TE Jovani Haskins. Then they just run a y-stick route with the TE while the outside receivers set up to run a bubble screen to try and hold the attention of the nickel while the TE is working in a ton of grass to get open on a quick out on Texas’ rather stiff MLB Anthony Wheeler.

There’s no defense for this without either having the nickel bail hard inside to provide an outside bracket and he’s the only player that Will Grier has to read after the snap. So Grier gets his eyes on the nickel and can determine to throw the bubble or the stick based on his response. The solution would have to be Texas bringing that safety down to help the LB bracket the TE, which would leave the Longhorns in man2man coverage on every other Mountaineer receiver. As it happens, all of the other Mountaineer receivers are the guys who’s names you actually know.

Jovani Haskins and fellow TE Trevon Wesco caught seven balls for 60 yards and never failed to pick up at least six yards on any target save for one that resulted in Texas incurring a defensive pass interference penalty.

This kind of spacing can make intentions obvious but it also makes the defensive counters rather obvious. If Texas wanted to react by dropping the safety down over Haskins that was going to become rather obvious and make for a quick read and favorable matchup elsewhere for the Mountaineers. A single mismatch (TE on MLB in space) made for an easy day for Grier and the Mountaineers, who were 7-12 on third down and scored on seven of 10 possessions, ultimately winning the game with this formation:

It’s a similar set up, the three bunched receivers at the bottom hold the attention of the Texas defense while the fourth receiver to that side and then the solo receiver opposite (David Sills V) are isolated inside. To effectively bracket all of the options has to leave something open and it turned out to the QB draw, arguably the least effective option for West Virginia but also so wide open so as not to matter.

Oklahoma’s stick/fade combos

When you know your opponent’s top coverages for a given formation, it becomes a simple game to call plays that attack the weak spots. The QB is barely making progressions any more, just making sure he has the right feel for the defense pre-snap and then making one read and an accurate throw after the snap.

The Sooners are exceptional at giving Kyler Murray clean and easy looks, like on this stick/fade combination from a trips formation:

They were expecting the Wildcats to play a trips coverage that would bracket the no. 3 receiver with the safety. The defender in charge of a no. 3 receiver in a trips formation is nearly always an ILB and spread-tactics love to “put him in the pick’n’roll” much like NBA teams love to make opposing big men extend to the perimeter when they call for high screens.

In this instance that left the field corner and nickel corner in what amounts to man2man on the other slot and the outside receiver. So the Sooners have the no. 3 WR clear things out with a deep route while the outside guy essentially does the same and then the no. 2 WR is wide open running a quick stick or stop route.

They went back to that well later in the game:

This time the Wildcats brought both safeties over, leaving the backside CB in man2man on the backside WR, and Kyler Murray looks it off for some reason and benefits from some bizarre behavior by K-State’s nickel who probably should have picked this and taken it to the house. It’s good ball placement though and more easy yardage for the Sooners.

When these offenses have A) a experienced or otherwise very smart QB and B) any kind of run game, then the whole game comes down to how well the defense can eliminate or cover up weak spots on the back end. Modern spread offenses have a lot of tricks for finding limited defenders and putting them into space for their QB to find them and to do so quickly after the snap and before pressure can come home.

In the Big 12 where these tactics are supreme, if you can’t stop the run from a dime package (like Iowa State) then you’d better be ready to force turnovers and field goals while you light up the scoreboard with your own offense.