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When running the dang ball goes wrong: How Miss St showed Clemson the way to stop Alabama

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Alabama’s RPO spread offense is designed to make defenses choose to yield space for their running game. But what if defenses accept that trade?

Mississippi State v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There was one game during the 2018 season that foreshadowed Alabama’s eventual struggle with Clemson. Not their issues with the Tiger offense, which have been a consistent theme of the Nick Saban era, but the struggles of their high octane offense which was supposed to allow them to keep pace in shootouts and failed to do so in the final. The Crimson Tide picked up 443 yards on the day at 6.1 yards per play against Clemson but managed only 16 points to show for it.

That foreshadowing contest was the Mississippi State game, where the Tide had a couple of long scoring drives early but finished with only 24 points against the Bulldog defense. Of course, the Tide barely needed any of those points due to their own defense shutting out the MSU offense, but some of the issues and Dog defensive philosophy were consistent with the approach later adapted by Clemson. The Dogs would finish no. 1 in defensive S&P+ on the season, boosted in part by their performance in this game, and Alabama would cruise until the final. Most of college football was unaware that anything truly important had happened.

The Mississippi State gameplan

After Tua Tagovailoa took over for Jalen Hurts, Alabama went all in on the RPO spread offense, maintaining their emphasis on using TEs in H-back alignments but adding RPOs to the formula. Tagovailoa is particularly good at throwing the glance RPO, which undid the Georgia defensive gameplan in the 2018 title game, and the Tide expanded their RPO and play-action game in the 2018 season leading to Tagovailoa throwing for 3966 yards and 43 TDs.

The following playoffs revealed Nick Saban’s embrace of RPOs was largely about allowing the Tide to run the ball from spread sets. They put three different RBs over 100 carries on the year and ran the ball 42 times for 200 yards on the Sooners and 37 times for 148 yards on Tigers in the final. To revisit my summary of the RPO spread offense from a few weeks ago, the Tide could hit the full gamut of constraint plays on their different runs:

For the vast majority of their season, Alabama faced defenses that focused on trying to stop the run. That led to lots of open RPOs and play-action opportunities for their speedy WR group and consequently four of them had at least 700 receiving yards and Devonta Smith nearly made five with 693.

Mississippi State did things differently. They surmised that they couldn’t survive allowing Tagovailoa to throw open slants, screens, and downfield shots to their WR corps and instead chose to take away the easy pass options and force Alabama to beat them by running the football. That would seem to be exactly what Nick Saban wants, and it is, but that doesn’t mean he’s right.

The game mostly looked like this:

Alabama is running power from a “nub trips’ formation with the TE to one side and all three receivers to the wide side of the field. The Bulldogs defend it by playing off on the receivers and even dropping their middle linebacker to deny a slant or hitch from the Y receiver before he worries about the run game.

Mississippi State would always have at least one of their three safeties (nickel, free safety, or strong safety) playing flat-footed against the run but they’d sit in the RPO passing windows before crashing to stop the run.

They were trusting their front six defenders to hold up against Alabama’s five OL and TE without needing an extra man hanging around waiting to quickly track and tackle the RB before he found open grass. The risk was always that the front six would give up too big of a crease and the RB would find running room. That tended to be how things played out, like in the clip above. The Dawgs weren’t good enough up front to stop Alabama’s exceptionally potent rushing attack from gobbling up yardage. The Tide ran 45 times for 142 yards and two scores, much of that coming early in the game before Mississippi State started playing more Over fronts after realizing their nose couldn’t command a double team.

The Dawgs also kept mixing up who’d be the DB that would play the run more aggressively to keep Tagovailoa from getting a pre-snap read on who to key after the snap for the “handoff or throw” decision. They ran a lot of simple nickel blitzes with the strong safety spinning down to cover the slot and repeatedly “tricked” Tagovailoa into throwing the bubble to the slant, although often only for the Bama wideouts to make a good play anyways.

This play is dead to rights with an unblocked corner coming free to make a stop but it’s just hard to tackle Alabama’s skill players when they have any space to work in. The Bulldogs kept mixing up the coverages and moving their safeties around while forcing Alabama to think and scrap their way down the field.

The changing calculus of defending the spread

Everyone likes to say “it’s all about stopping points now, not yardage” but not everyone actually draws up their defensive gameplans as though that’s their goal. Defenses hate giving up rushing yardage and aren’t always patient enough to give up first downs in hopes of making a stop somewhere before the goal line.

On the power run above, Alabama tried to follow it up by running outside zone on third and one the very next snap. They fumbled the handoff, leading to a Mississippi State recovery, and the drive was over. That’s the best play for defending good RPO spread offenses unless you have multiple NFL DBs that can play man coverage and allow you to easily and obviously outnumber the box.

You need to have the overhangs sit on the pass options while the QB puts the ball in the RB’s belly and slow play things before they start backpedaling into pass coverage or flying down to stop the run. Or you can utilize modern dime defensive structures and have one guy sitting on the mesh while everyone else drops deep.

The more rangy the defenders the better this works, hard-charging safeties allow the defense to sit on the pass options and still get defenders to the point of attack before things open up for the running game. The cost of this approach is that it’s harder to shut down the run game and you ask more of the front, but the benefits are that you don’t make it easy for a skilled passer and fast wideouts to drop 50 points on your head.

Mississippi State made Tua Tagovailoa make post-snap reads and beat coverage, Alabama ended up turning the ball over twice and seeing a few other promising drives stall and others get stuffed by negative plays. It’s much harder to score lots of points when opponents make you drive the length of the field and execute on third down and the red zone. You can’t out execute Alabama even most of the time, but where do you want to be out-executed? In the box by their blockers with safeties coming to clean up mistakes after solid gains? Or on the perimeter or down the field where points are at stake if Jaylen Waddle breaks free or Devonta Smith runs by a cornerback?

The Bulldogs got shut out, making the relative success of their defense pretty academic, and they gave up too much too early before they sorted out their front to avoid making it too easy for Alabama to drive down the field with the run game.

But Clemson followed the same basic gameplan in the playoffs:

It’s first and 10 but the Tigers are essentially in dime personnel here, with nickel Isaiah Simmons playing as a sort of hybrid weakside linebacker, strong safety K’Von Wallace playing down as a nickel, and then extra safety Denzel Johnson replacing Wallace back at strong safety. They drop the strong safety deep, play coverage on all of the pass options, and ask free safety Tanner Muse to drop down and help limit the damage from the run game.

Consequently Alabama ran the ball pretty effectively and marched up and down the field, but Tagovailoa struggled to make consistently good post-snap reads leading to turnovers and the Tiger defensive front stopped other drives in the red zone.

Alabama embraced the RPO spread offense as a best practice for doing what they’ve always wanted to do, run the dang ball. They tried to dabble with the spread in hopes it would allow them to maintain their formula, but in reality it’s steadily pushing the game in the very direction Saban has been trying to avoid.