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Mike Gundy’s space-force

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Mike Gundy has always had a knack for tying his explosive passing attacks to spread run games. The Cowboys’ 2018 rushing attack may be their strongest yet.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Much of Oklahoma State’s perennially explosive offense was established at the turn of the decade when Dana Holgorsen arrived to help boost a 9-4 team that had struggled to leverage a solid run game and senior QB into something better than offensive S&P+’s 48th ranked offense.

Holgorsen brought his own brand of the Air Raid offense that had outscored Oklahoma State that previous season and which he’d been tinkering with since leaving Mike Leach behind in Lubbock and joining forces with Kliff Kingsbury. One of the big stories of that early OSU offense was that while Holgorsen was bringing the Air Raid design to Stillwater, he was coming to a team who’s talent was focused in the backfield and then at the Z receiver position where one Justin Blackmon could be found.

The “diamond formation” was one of the results of that science experiment but the “spread-I” in general was the bigger consequence. Since then, the Cowboy offense has typically centered around two-back spread formations. They’ll play a “cowboy back” that often looks more like a FB than a TE in the backfield and go to work with lead plays in order to suck in defenders to boost their passing attack.

Here’s how their backs have performed this decade in that system:

Gundy’s run game

Year Offensive S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Lead back Production
Year Offensive S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Lead back Production
2010 8th 18th Kendall Hunter: 5-8, 197. Senior 217-1548, 5.7 ypc, 16 TDs
2011 2nd 1st Joseph Randle: 6-1, 191. Sophomore 208-1216, 5.8 ypc, 24 TDs
2012 14th 36th Joseph Randle: 6-1, 200. Junior 274-1417, 5.2 ypc, 14 TDs
2013 36th 43rd Desmond Roland: 6-2, 210. Junior 203-770, 3.8 ypc, 10 TDs
2014 78th 92nd Desmond Roland: 6-2, 210. Senior 176-811, 4.6 ypc, 13 TDs
2015 19th 114th Chris Carson: 6-2, 202. Junior 131-517, 3.9 ypc, 4 TDs
2016 8th 65th Justice Hill: 5-10, 170. Freshman 206-1142, 5.5 ypc, 6 TDs
2017 3rd 30th Justice Hill: 5-10, 185. Sophomore 268-1467, 5.5 ypc, 15 TDs

Trends for the OSU run game

There are a few things that are easy to observe from these numbers, particularly if you know much about OSU’s personnel and staffing over the decade. When OSU has a 1k-yard lead back, the offense is top 15 in the country even if the rushing S&P+ numbers aren’t jaw-dropping.

The reason for that is the degree to which the passing game is built around the run. For the last three years Mason Rudolph has been throwing quick routes and vertical shots on RPOs and play-action with only a few traditional dropback schemes serving the formula. Amazingly, the Cowboys were pretty effective with this setup even in 2015 when Chris Carson and the run game weren’t very threatening and in 2016 when Justice Hill was just starting to get his sea legs for college ball.

The malaise that hit the OSU offense in 2013 and 2014 was papered over in 2013 by a great defense and then in 2014 things really fell apart for them but ended on a high note when they burned Rudolph’s redshirt and he produced a solid ending.

OSU’s run game struggles from 2013 to 2015 correlate to faltering recruiting and turning over the OL coach position a few times which culminated in Gundy firing Greg Adkins after the 2017 recruiting class included only one player, a JUCO signee.

You can also observe here that the best OSU rushing attacks tend to involve smaller, speedy backs like Kendall Hunter or now Justice Hill. Here’s how the ‘Pokes have been unleashing that dimension of late since adding OL coach Josh Henson (formerly of Missouri) and Hill.

Spread, seal, and go

Once you have an opponent spread out, there are a lot of ways to take advantage of the spacing for the purpose of running the football. The Chip Kelly Oregon teams would use get speed moving on the perimeter in order to get the speedy players they recruited into open grass. Urban Meyer would always take advantage of the reduced box to just power straight ahead at the reduced front with power schemes at Florida and then later with tight zone at Ohio State.

Oklahoma State tends to be somewhere in between, utilizing blocking techniques that spread out an already reduced defensive front with the hopes of creating an inside crease for a burner like Justice Hill to operate in. Zone blocking is the foundational piece to their offense but they do a lot within that system.

They ran a lot of inside zone last year, a staple for RPO spread teams that are happy to have their QB throw the ball outside if defenses pack the box with an extra guy to get a free hat to the football. They tended to run inside zone but in a variety of ways to complicate things for the defense when trying to get an extra man to the ball:

The ‘Pokes had trouble blocking OU’s front early in the game and their OL were getting tied up trying to control the DL with double teams or to clear a lane for the FB to get through to find the LBs, who were running free to the football. On this inside zone play they release the guards downhill at the LBs to make sure they get picked off while the FB’s “lead” is basically serving as the double team on the nose tackle.

Additionally, even on inside zone the Cowboys use the “two step to contact” technique, meaning that each OL takes a wide step and then an inside step before engaging with the DL. That widens the overall front and helps them to connect with the DL and then drive them where they want to go while the back reads the blocks and sets things up rather than just firing off the ball and trying to push people like an Auburn or Georgia would. The result is that even an inside zone play like this one can result in the OL moving laterally down the field like on outside zone.

Hill thrived on this play, reading the play side A-gap before having the option to bounce it or more likely, to bend it back into the cutback lane. By the time he was making his read the OL would be into their third and fourth steps and starting to push the defense in whichever direction there was natural momentum which cleared space for him to use his lateral quickness to clown defenders.

The Cowboys also used zone style footwork to run iso schemes, like this counter-iso concept that borrows from the lead zone scheme above in using the FB to execute a “wham” block while the LG executes the “lead” block the FB would normally execute on iso.

In both instances you can see how the OL was able to create natural spacing with their footwork and the double team and then Hill ran wild in that space. You can also see how confused the OU LBs were about whether they needed to follow the FB to the ball or maintain normal gaps against the zone blocking they were seeing.

In the first clip the OU MLB tries to rock back with the FB and Hill cuts through the original zone path. On the second, the LBs follow the zone path but the spacing and cut block on the DL create hesitation and space.

This was effective against good defenses as well, as you see on this more typical looking weak iso play against TCU:

Against Iowa State and the “tite” front they’d use the FB to lead outside where they knew the D was trying to send the ball by packing the A and B gaps with DL:

Get Justice Hill some space to work in, which often just meant preventing penetration and allowing the spacing of the formation to do it’s thing, and very positive outcomes tended to follow for the Cowboys. They had a lot of ways to draw up their basic blocking schemes and use their foundational zone footwork in order to control opposing fronts, confuse keys and gaps, and make life easy for Hill.

The 2018 Cowboy run game

What’s unique about this upcoming OSU team is that this is the first time this decade that they’re bringing back the pieces to execute a strong running game and not a top QB/WR tandem.

Hill is now a junior and backed up by J.D. King, who ran for 469 yards a year ago as the back-up. The OSU OL returns three men with starting experience up front in Marcus Keyes, Johnny Wilson, and Larry Williams and also FB Britton Abbott and his back-up Sione Finefeuiaki.

Their situation in the passing game is fairly promising with a loaded cast of WRs back even after losing NFL-bound James Washington and Marcell Ateman but currently the trigger-man is former walk-on Taylor Cornelius.

Judging by their record over the course of this decade, the OSU offense is truly at its best when the spread run game is clicking and forcing teams to pack it in, making the outside and vertical throws that much easier. With Justice Hill to lean on, OSU’s next QB couldn’t be much better set up to take on the task of replacing Mason Rudolph.