This is part one of a two-part series looking at how the Gulf Coast Offense worked so effectively in 2015-2016 and what went wrong for the USF offense in 2017.
When Willie Taggart first came to the University of South Florida, he wanted to establish a power running offense using multiple tight ends, full backs, and plenty of I-Formations. After two years, he scrapped the traditional power-I offense for one that used his athletes in the best possible way.
In 2014, USF was ranked 119th in points per game. Four games into 2015 and his impending firing if he lost against Syracuse, Taggart switched his style of offense, and it was ranked 40th in points per game. In 2016, his last year in Tampa, USF was in the top five in scoring, putting up nearly 44 points a contest.
Now three years later, after traveling from Tampa to Eugene, Oregon, the Gulf Coast Offense is back in Florida with FSU now set to utilize this high-powered attack.
The Gulf Coast Offense (GCO) combines the idea of traditional power-I blocking and running with the athletes and routes of a spread offense, generally using a Read/Pass Option (or RPO) to attack the match-up that the offensive coordinator feels like he can win.
GCO is centered around an athletic QB and his ability to properly read a defense and decipher the match-up that favors them. The running back has to be able to hit the holes and cut to the open space, while also catching passes out of the backfield and finding green grass. The receivers need to be able to block downfield and have a set of reliable hands.
During the prime of the Gulf Coast, USF and Willie Taggart had all the tools needed to have the eighth ranked offense according to S&P+.
Quarterback Quinton Flowers was a phenomenal athlete, threw a great deep ball, and was incredibly dangerous in space. Running back Marlon Mack was fast and had the balance to hit the hole and juke a defender all in the same motion and he was powerful enough to break a few tackles #MackQuake.
Wide receivers Rodney Adams, Marquez Valdez-Scantling, Tyre McCants, and to a lesser extent, Ryeshene Bronson were all fast enough to get behind defenses and had their share of deep passes caught. They also blocked downfield as well as any receiver group in the country for Flowers and Co.
So how does this offense work?
It’s simply counting the defensive match-ups, then adjusting the play from there to your formation. The first ten or so plays are scripted so once those plays run out, the offensive coordinator—in this case Taggart— will call a formation and a play, and then the QB will either quickly hike the ball, audible to the secondary play, or check to the sideline, where the offensive coordinator will change the play.
Numbers Don’t Lie, Count Your Match-ups
Here is an example of a formation and a play that USF ran vs Syracuse in 2016. During this drive, Flowers was able to run effectively to gain yardage on the ground so the linebackers and safeties were paying very close attention to him. The offense lines up in a double screen formation, with three receivers to the left of QB, and two receivers to the right. The default play here is a screen to the three receiver stack.
When the offense is set, the QB notices three defenders on the right side of the field by the two receiver stack, one linebacker in the box, and three defenders to the left by the three stack.
Numbers wise, the play would audible into a QB dive with a fake to the screen. However the QB notices that one of the defenders on the left is cheating in, and wouldn’t be fast enough to make a tackle within two yards to the line of scrimmage. A first down is almost guaranteed.
The play is called and Adams goes untouched for a 27-yard touchdown due to a bad angle taken by a safety.
Situational awareness is key for the GCO to be effective. Flowers very easily could have taken the ball himself and got the two yards needed for a first down. But he knew that the entire defense was watching him, and the delay the defense would take to see if he would keep the ball or not would be enough for Adams to take the screen pass for a huge play.
A QB run can be extremely effective out of this formation as well. The defenders are worried about the amount of blocking on the outside that the QB can make a play himself. In 2016, USF was playing Navy where they ran a formation with four receivers to right side of the ball, and brought in an extra offensive linemen in place of a tight end. On third and three the formation looked like this:
With four defenders to the right side matching up with the four receivers and seven defenders inside the box, it’s hard to tell what to do in this scenario. The default play would be a wide receiver screen to the running back. However, the QB audibles to a power run to the left side of the formation, noticing that the defense was heavily favoring the right side.
The right tackle pulls all the way over to lead block for the QB, Navy’s defense does a good job of causing havoc and getting off the blocks, but Quinton Flowers is a better athlete and is able to get a first down off a third and three (in the magical Quinton Flowers way).
The next play is the year prior during the 2015 season against UConn, when the attack was beginning to take shape after an impressive outing against Syracuse for Homecoming.
The play starts with a tight formation, with two receivers to the left and the right of the line of scrimmage, and a running back in the backfield. UConn had been effective at shutting down the screen passes and swing passes all game by sending a linebacker to man up with Mack, Johnson, and Tice whenever they were in motion or coming out of the backfield.
Taggart noticed this and called a play with motion to have the linebackers moving before the play starts. The default play here would be a swing pass to the running back out of the backfield, so an offensive formation like this would have a defense playing man, matching up one-on-one with all the receivers.
The running back is motioned out of the backfield, which resulted in the middle linebacker following. When the ball is hiked the formation looks like this...
There are two defenders to the left for two wide receivers, three defenders to the right for three receivers, and since the safety is so far back to cover the middle of the field, there are five defenders that five offensive linemen have to block. This means that if the five offensive linemen do their job, the QB will easily be able to gain the five yards needed for a first down, which the play resulted in a 33 yard gain.
When The Numbers Don’t Match Up, Rely On Your Athletes
These numbers matchups can be done nearly every single play for a GCO, but sometimes the numbers don’t matchup well, which is when you rely on the skill and speed of your athletes to make the plays needed.
An example of this is during the same UConn game in 2015. USF switched its focus in the second half to a run-first style of play. They brought out a new formation called the inverted wishbone/diamond set, which involves three running backs, a tight end and a wide receiver.
For all the old school fans out there, this is how the triple option is ran, with the QB having the option to give to the first RB option, give to the second RB option, or keep it himself. This requires the QB to ‘read’ the defense during the play to decide who the ball carrier will be. USF was able to run this effectively, and used this triple option formation 14 times this half.
This looks like a dead matchup, every player from UConn is within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, so running the ball will most likely result in a short gain, or a loss.
So, Taggart audibles to a play action pass, where the flow of the defense will naturally cause the middle of the field to be open for the receiver on a post route. All the receiver has to do is use his speed to run a post route and the QB needs to deliver the ball in stride. Here is how the play turned out.
Prior to this touchdown, the previous seven times USF was in this formation, they ran the ball. The defense bit on the run almost immediately, leaving the middle of the field wide open and one of the fastest receivers in the country (Rodney Adams) with nothing but green grass and one defensive back trailing him.
As mentioned previously, this offense is explosive, it’s not necessarily about running the most plays, but getting the most bang out of your buck on every play.
In 2016, USF finished 13th in the country in ‘explosive plays’ (which are plays that result in 20 or more yards gained) with 85 plays in this criteria.
Last year at Oregon, Taggart and company were on pace for more than 100 explosive plays during the season before starting QB Justin Herbert was sidelined with a broken collarbone for 7 games.
With a strong core of running backs and receivers, and Deondre Francois coming back from injury, FSU should see this sort of production in the fall.