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How close to greatness is UCF’s spread-iso offense?

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UCF blew away the AAC in 2018 only to come up short against LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. How close were the Knights against the dreaded Tiger D and what’s next for the aspiring national contenders?

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Louisiana State vs Central Florida Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When a defense is facing an intense, spread-iso offense like the UCF attack they have two basic options. One is to carefully match up against the skill talent in hopes of coming out ahead in the 1-on-1s that occur on the perimeter, the other is to flood the passing windows with pass defenders and invite the rushing attack.

Against the year one version of Heupel’s offense at UCF, most teams opted for option one and LSU was no exception. The Tigers overcame a depleted secondary that lost star safety Grant Delpit before halftime and after some initial struggles managed to clamp down on the UCF offense. The Knights finished with only 250 yards of total offense with a dismal 3.2 ypa for freshman QB Darriel Mack Jr on 11-30 passing.

LSU still gave up 32 points, in part due to early struggles to contain the spread-iso offense and in part because of a defensive score by the Knights, but they ended up taking firm control of the game before the end. However, teams looking to mimic their approach may find it difficult and closer study of the game suggests that UCF’s future under Heupel is pretty bright.

Heupel’s path to Orlando

Heupel runs his own take on the Art Briles “veer and shoot” offense. He began to adopt that approach with the 2014 Oklahoma Sooners after seeing Briles’ O first hand, giving QB Trevor Knight RPOs and regular deep shots in order to try and keep defenses from getting enough numbers to the box. It wasn’t widely recognized as a spread-iso system because they spent a good deal of time in 21 personnel from the shotgun, with converted QB Blake Bell as an H-back and working with bruising fullback Aaron Ripkowski and a massive offensive line.

All that beef up front made a way for freshman RB Samaje Perine to run for 1713 yards at 6.5 ypc with 21 TDs. But Trevor Knight struggled to connect with the isolation options to their WRs and threw for only 6.3 ypa with a 14-12 TD/INT ratio. The Sooners went 8-5 and Bob Stoops fired Heupel to bring in wunderkind Lincoln Riley.

The common story afterwards was that Heupel was struggling and needed to go in order for Oklahoma to break through. That narrative was served by Riley’s brilliance and subsequent success as HC but the truth is a little more complicated. Heupel’s offense scored 36.4 ppg while the OU defense gave up 26 ppg and the architect Mike Stoops was fired during the 2018 season after overseeing the development of back to back bottom ranked Ds that arguably cost Oklahoma a national title. No doubt Riley (and Baker Mayfield) improved the Oklahoma offense, but Heupel was more or less a scapegoat.

From there Heupel went to Utah State where he continued to tinker with his take on the system while churning out another strong unit. Then he headed to Missouri under Barry Odom. The Tigers finished 54th in S&P+ in 2016 and then 24th in 2017. They had 1k yard rushers each year while Drew Lock shattered records for passing, breaking through in 2017 for 3964 yards at 9.5 ypa with 44 TDs to 13 INT.

The Tigers struggled to parlay that into wins in the SEC, finishing 6-7, but Heupel successfully landed the UCF head coaching job off that success and took his spread-iso, pass-first offense into the rough and tumble world of the AAC.

Joining the AAC spread offensive circuit

The AAC is basically where up and coming coaches go to audition for P5 jobs. However, the league has it’s own distinctive style that is a little different from other locations around the country. The Big 12 has been infused by multiple defensive coaches in the last several years that made their names in the AAC only to get torched in the Big 12.

The reason for that is that while the Big 12 is a laboratory for spread passing offense, the AAC is where tomorrow’s spread run game schemes are developed. Temple and Memphis paced the league opposite the Briles-influenced veer and shoot squads at UCF and Houston. Memphis did it with Mike Norvell’s TE-heavy version of the spread offense that yielded a pair of 1k yard backs, one of them almost breaking the 2k mark. Temple relied more on defense but did mix in a two-back spread run game that made a workhorse of star RB Ryquell Armstead.

Even against the Briles-influenced spread-iso attacks that litter the AAC, the main challenge tends to be stopping the run. The wide splits of the receivers has often just served to create a wide alley for runners. What’s more, if the offense uses the QB regularly in the run game then it becomes impossible for the defense to get a plus one defender to the box while maintaining even a single deep safety.

The wide splits and vertical nature of the passing game make it impossible for a credible deep safety or any of the three defenders covering a receiver to realistically play a major role in run defense. Against a 2x2 set the problems become even more pronounced with virtually no one in the box to clean up for missed fits by the LBs.

The UCF team that Heupel inherited from Scott Frost was designed to run a spread-option system built in emulation of the Chip Kelly and Mark Heflrich offenses back at Oregon. There was tons of speed, a few hybrid skill sets, and a quick thinking and moving QB in McKenzie Milton who thrived when using his legs.

Teams tended to play Heupel’s year one version of his offense with an eye towards stopping the lethal run game and not without good reason. The Knights had four returning starters on the OL, a solid blocking TE, and then Milton and three different RBs who got 70 or more carries on the year. So teams tended to opt in for the seven man front illustrated above with an eye towards trying to match up outside on the Knights’ passing options.

This was year one for UCF in this new offense, the first time that Milton was asked to take vertical shots against man coverage, and also a year that concluded with true freshman Darriel Mack Jr starting at QB for most of the “war on I-4” season finale against USF and then the entirety of the AAC championship game against Memphis and the Fiesta Bowl against LSU. Here’s how their three main WRs performed in that context:

X: Gabriel Davis (6-3, 219). 53 catches, 815 yards, seven TDs.

Y: Tre Nixon (6-2, 180). 40 catches, 562 yards, four TDs.

Z: Dredrick Snelson: 43 catches for 688 yards, five TDs.

Against the two highest rated defenses in the conference, Cincinnati and Temple, the Knights faced the single-high, seven-man front strategy. Neither defense held up at all.

The Knights started taking vertical shots to X receiver Gabriel Davis running adjustable routes outside on the second drive before finishing with a slot fade here to Snelson. The Temple defensive structure quickly broke down and they gave up 312 passing to Milton at 9.5 ypa as well as a smooth 188 rushing to Greg McCrae at 11.8 ypc.

Cincy matched up better against the Knight wideouts so Heupel took things up a notch by regularly flexing his speedy RBs in and out of the formation and throwing to them for a couple of scores against the Bearcat LBs helplessly chasing them in space.

Milton threw for 268 yards at 10.7 ypa with three scores in this one. Cincinnati held UCF to 3.7 ypc on the day and 134 rushing but still went down hard, 38-13.

The nature of this scheme is that much of the plays and focus is on the run game with the passing game largely consisting of taking deep shots on favorable matchups once teams commit numbers to the box. There aren’t a wide array of passing schemes to master, just a few that can serve to quickly bust up a defense that can’t keep up.

The big test against LSU

Facing freshman Mack rather than Milton and fielding multiple blue chip, NFL-bound DBs, Dave Aranda made the decision to maintain his normal aggressive approach in order to cover up the UCF offense.

The Tigers stayed in nickel with sophomore safety Jacoby Stevens tasked with playing over the TE and serving as the seventh defender in the box while Delpit (and later Todd Harris, Jr) served as the nickel on the slot and CBs Kary Vincent Jr and Terrance Alexander matched up outside. LSU’s goal was to carefully contain the ball in the box with Stevens and outside linebacker Michael Divinity Jr serving as the overhangs that would force the ball inside to their three DL and ILBs Devin White and Patrick Queen. The plan worked and those two backers lead the team in tackles and limited the UCF run game to 130 yards at 4.3 ypc.

But you’d expect LSU to mostly hold up in the run game where they had big DL and star linebackers to get off blocks and limit gains if only the overhangs could keep the ball contained inside. The whole trick of the veer and shoot offense with it’s ultra wide splits is to deny teams from having overhangs in the first place so that the alley is open to the run game. Against a team like UCF, the price of maintaining overhangs is yielding 1-on-1 matchups outside in the passing game.

But the Knights just weren’t quite ready to make the most of them.

They had an excellent shot at defeating LSU and repeating as 13-0 “national champions” had they had a little better timing and hands in the passing game. The Tigers gave up the 1-on-1 matchups and did not dominate them to the extent that the box score suggested, UCF simply couldn’t capitalize on their many opportunities.

Next season two of the top three WRs are back and Mack seems likely to have a chance at the no. 1 reps for the foreseeable future while Milton recovers from his gruesome knee injury. Milton was really catching on to the passing game but Mack has an even stronger arm, with either signal-caller the Knights could potentially make a leap in 2019 throwing against 1-on-1s on the perimeter. UCF isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and Heupel will get another shot at the nation’s leading box-loading defenses again in 2019.