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Watching Film: Missed Opportunities

Breaking down the first two offensive drives from the Wisconsin game

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 30 Wisconsin at USF Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Take a deep breath. Exhale. It’s going to be ok. Wisconsin was a very good football team. In fact, I would imagine they will be, by far, the best team USF plays all year. They are probably the best team that USF has played in the last two seasons.

With all that being said, Friday night was still a disappointment. There was great crowd in attendance and the Bulls had the national stage all to themselves. The frustration from the fans is understandable. The game was a great opportunity for USF. Unfortunately, the theme of the night was missed opportunities.

This week let’s take a look at the first two offensive drives of the game. In my opinion, these two drives are a microcosm of the entire game. There were plays to be made, but the Bulls were unable to take advantage.

USF opens the game with the ball on the 25 yard line. They come out with 11 personnel (1 back, 1 TE) and line up in an Empty formation.

It’s hard to tell exactly what every route was due to the TV angle, but up top you will have a speed out and an inside release vertical. The routes may be mirrored at the bottom with the back running a hitch.

Looking up top the QB can read the number two defender. If he widens underneath the outside receiver, you hit the vertical. If he sticks with the vertical, you throw the speed out.

The corner bails and the number two defender turns his shoulders with the vertical. Barnett makes the correct read and throws an accurate ball to the speed out for an eight yard gain.

The second play USF again comes out in 11 personnel. They come out with two receivers and the tight end as a wing to the right of the formation, and a lone receiver on the left.

The Bulls are going to run toss read. On Toss Read, the QB will read the end man on the line of scrimmage. The wing tight end will arc around him and block the first thing in the alley. The offensive line will block like power. There will be a frontside double team to the backside linebacker, the center will block back, and the backside guard will pull for the playside linebacker.

With the toss action, the playside linebacker may fly out of the box. If he crosses the tight end’s face he can pick him up. The LB vacating would also leave the offense with a free blocker leading the QB if he keeps the ball. Pre-snap this play has a great chance for success. You would appear to have a “hat on a hat” in the box. The safety starts about ten plus yards off the ball but begins to creep up closer to the snap. The QB will be reading the end in the yellow circle. He stays flat-footed, and the quarterback makes the correct decision to toss the ball.

It would appear that the tight end didn’t see the safety creeping up until it was too late. He takes an initial path that would allow him to pin that play-side linebacker in the box. He realizes that the safety is screaming down and tries to adjust his path, but it’s too late. Mitchell Wilcox is a great player and I have confidence that he could make this block on the safety. The missed adjustment to his initial path is a “first true game in new system” kind of mistake. The ball is forced back inside by the safety to his pursuit. If the Bulls were able to get the safety blocked they would have had a footrace between Jordan Cronkrite and the Wisconsin inside linebacker to the open field. You can also look inside and see the scheme if the quarterback was given a keep read the by the defensive end.

So after no gain on what could have been a big play on second down, USF faces a third-and-two. The Bulls again come out in 11 personnel. The Bulls come out in the same formation as the previous play, just flipped.

The center is uncovered, and he is going pull and be a lead blocker for the back between the right guard and tackle. The right guard will block the tackle that is head up/shaded inside of him. The right tackle will block the end and the backside will work it like a true wide zone play. The backside tackle will cut the defensive tackle allowing the backside guard to the second level. Again another play where you have a “hat on a hat” play-side.

The problem with the play ends up being a problem that showed up throughout the night. Wisconsin was able to mostly own the line-of-scrimmage and win one-on-one battles in the trenches. The play initially looks promising post-snap. If the center is able to pull cleanly and engage the linebacker, the back can hit the hole and cut off this block into the open field while the middle linebacker has to run through traffic. Unfortunately, the right guard is unable the get movement and is pushed back by the defensive tackle. You can see the center’s pull path being slightly impeded.

This slight impediment allows the linebacker to meet the block in the backfield instead of beyond the line of scrimmage. The margins are thin against good teams, and this three yard difference is why the back is forced to cut the ball back. The back does a good job putting his head down and getting the first down, but pre-snap it looked like it could have been more.

Following the strong run, USF has the ball on the 35 yard line first-and-ten. The Bulls come out with two receivers to the left and a single receiver and wing/sniffer tight end on the right of the formation.

To the field side, USF is going to run an inverted smash and what appears to be dig-flat to the boundary. Smash typically involves a hitch by the outside receiver and a corner by the inside receiver. Some defenses will run a read version of cover two that can negate the explosive potential of Smash. The corner and safety will both eye the number two receiver. As he releases vertically, the cornerback will sink underneath the corner route making the offense throw the hitch for six to seven yards. Wisconsin may be running a version of that Cover Two Read here, but by inverting the smash USF generates an opportunity for an explosive play.

With the corner appearing to read number two, he will bite up on the speed out by the number two receiver. By biting up, the corner leaves a ton of space behind him.

The outside receiver will stem inside and then get vertical running right at the safety. In Coach Bell’s offense the receiver could run a post, a corner, a curl, a dig , or any variety of routes off this stem. It’s hard to tell exactly from the TV angle, but the bottom receiver run the exact same stem as the number one receiver up top. The receiver on the bottom breaks inside, while the receiver up top breaks to the corner into a ton of open space. The receiver runs a great route and provides USF with one of their few one-on-one wins of the evening. You can see the cornerback trying to get back in the play, but if the corner route is run at the correct angle he will have no chance.

The receiver runs a great route and puts himself in prime position to make a play. The corner is nearly ten yards away from the receiver and the safety is trailing. Barnett make the right read and throws a great ball. If the wide out is able to catch this ball, he may be one broken tackle away from a touchdown. Unfortunately, he is unable to bring the pass in and the ball falls harmlessly to the turf.

After the incompletion, the Bulls have a second-and-ten. They stay in 11 personnel with two receivers to the left of the formation and an in-line tight end and receiver to the right.

USF is going to run the ball to the left, with the backside tackle pulling for the play-side linebacker. By putting the tight end on the line, USF forces Wisconsin to play their end/outside linebacker outside of the tight end. This leaves the right tackle uncovered allowing him to pull. The tight end will step inside protecting the puller’s gap. The right guard will block back on the defensive tackle to his side. The center will climb to the middle linebacker, while the left guard blocks down on the defensive tackle to his side. The left tackle will block the end/outside linebacker and invite him upfield to widen the hole. The pulling right tackle will take on the play-side linebacker. Again, pre-snap, USF has a hat on a hat.

You can see a similar problem to that of the third down run. The puller is knocked off his perfect path by a guard being pushed back into the backfield. The deviation he must make in his path slows him down enough for the play-side backer to begin to fill. The yellow line shows where the play is designed to hit. If the tackle is able to have a flatter pull, he would be in the hole ready to engage the linebacker beyond the line of scrimmage.

Instead, the linebacker is able to engage the tackle behind the line of scrimmage. The linebacker does a great job and basically cuts the puller. He creates a pile in the hole and the back has nowhere to go. If this collision happens two yards further downfield, the back has a chance to cut off this block and run into space.

On the ensuing third-and-ten the receiver appears to be running a hitch/curl at the sticks but he slips and falls down. The throw falls incomplete and USF is forced to punt. The USF defense returns the favor and makes Wisconsin punt after a short drive. The Badger’s punt initially hits at the 28 yard line, but the returner elects to let the ball bounce and it rolls down to the 10 yard line. USF will start the next drive backed up.

The Bulls open their second drive of the game from the ten yard line. They come out in 11 personnel with two receivers to the left and a tight end and receiver on the right.

The Bulls are going to run a play action off jet sweep motion. This motion causes the nickel to the field to blitz the motion. This may be an automatic check that Wisconsin makes on the front side of this motion, or the nickel may have just reacted to the fake. Either way, he will be taken out of the play by the motion. The tight end will run a vertical route occupying the eyes of the corner and safety to his side. The two receivers to the top will be running a curl by the outside receiver with a post by the inside receiver. This creates the same effect as the Mills play we discussed before the game.. However, instead of “high/low”ing the safety, this concept will “high/low” the linebacker. The curl will hold the linebacker allowing for space to the post to be open behind him. The back will release out to the left to widen the other linebacker out as well, creating a huge void in the middle of the field.

USF gets exactly what they want from this play schematically. You can see the field nickel flying up to the motion. The tight end is occupying the eyes of the corner and safety at the bottom. Up top, the number one receiver has inside leverage on his corner and you can see the linebacker to that side begin to widen. The number two receiver now has a free release at the safety because the nickel was compelled to attack the motion. The other inside linebacker has eyes on the tailback.

In the next picture you can see that the nickel has run all the way past the line of scrimmage to the motion man. The linebacker up top has bitten up on the curl, and the other inside backer is ready to run out left with the back. There is a gigantic throwing window being opened up by the play design. You can also see the Wisconsin defensive line begin to push offensive linemen back into the QB’s lap.

Next, you see all the space the post route gets to run into. It’s hard to tell exactly where the other safety is in this picture. Regardless, Barnett makes a good throw under duress and the wide receiver has won the route.

All that’s left to do is to finish the play. The receiver ran a great route and got separation. The QB makes a good throw with pressure starting to come into his lap. The other safety has entered the picture now, but he has no chance to make the play. Unfortunately the receiver is unable to make the catch. This is another play where if you have a catch and one broken tackle you probably have a touchdown. The ball again falls harmlessly to the ground and shows up in the stat sheet as a play gaining zero yards, when it could have been so much more.

So you take a shot on first down, and the ball falls incomplete. Now you have second-and-ten and need to get into a third-and-manageable situation. The Bulls stay in 11 personnel and come out in the tight end nub trips open formation we spoke about before the game. This is a very difficult formation to defend and the Bulls have and advantageous look here from the Badgers.

USF is going to run OUTSIDE zone to the left. The offensive line will all step left looking to win the gap to the play-side. Just looking at how Wisconsin is lined up, the play looks to be in great shape. The formation has gotten the end/outside linebacker out over the number three receiver. USF has six blockers for five players in the box.

This should be a great play. However, outside zone is a difficult scheme to master. It requires a ton of time to perfect because the line has to move perfectly in sync both physically and mentally. Depending on the defensive look, you may have to climb to the second level immediately, help another lineman on either side of you, or try to reach somebody by yourself. And you aren’t exactly sure what it will be until you see the defense line up. When I coached in college, we ran a ton of outside zone. The scheme seems simple, but the details are incredibly complex. That why you will often hear coaches at higher levels say that the offensive line group is among the smartest on most teams. These guys have to recognize and react to different defensive looks in perfect unison. This is something that takes time and repetition, but once it is mastered it is nearly unstoppable. Those Denver Broncos teams that had a 1,000 yard rusher every year no matter who the back was: almost exclusively outside/wide zone run game.

Wisconsin decides to add to the difficulty by slanting their line to the field. Even with the movement by the Badgers, zone run game should be able to account for movement by the defense if run correctly. You can see that the center quickly climbs to the second level. He was uncovered at the snap and the lineman in his play-side gap has slanted away from him.

The left tackle and guard are dealing with the slanting down lineman to their side. The right guard (Donovan Jennings) has been beaten to his spot by the slanting lineman to his side. The back’s track is the yellow line, but the early penetration makes him cut back. If the back is able to stay on the yellow line, you can see the huge hole he will have to run through.

Jennings lost his one-on-one battle, but Cronkrite makes a great cut back and gets vertical. Wilcox does a good job washing the slanting end down inside, allowing the back to get outside of him. Cronk puts his head down and gets five yards out of the play to get USF into a manageable third down. Again, there could have been so much more.

On third-and-five, the Bulls get a pre-snap penalty (false start on LT William Atterbury) pushing them back to a third-and-ten from the ten yard line. USF comes out in 10 personnel (1 back 0 tight ends) with three receivers to the left of the formation and one to the right.

The Bulls will run all curls. The outside curls will both extend past the first down marker and the curl by the number three receiver will be a little shorter. If any of the receivers do not get the ball right out of their break, they will be free to expand into open space.

Post-snap you can that the number two and three receiver up-top are occupying the inside defenders with their routes. The routes being at different depths allows the quarterback to work off those two or, as is the case here, work the outside curl. You can see that the outside curl is wide open.

Barnett makes the correct read and delivers a great ball to the open Jernard Phillips for first down.

The next play USF comes back out in 11 personnel. They run the TE nub trips open formation with the three receivers to the right.

The Bulls will again be running OUTSIDE zone into a great look for the play. You have six blockers for six defenders.

A small miscommunication between the center and guard kill this play before it has a real chance. Post-snap, you can see that the guard climbs immediately for the linebacker and the center is unable to reach the down lineman that was between them. The center gets blown back into the play causing the back to cut back. If the guard was able to slow down a little and help the center, he still would have been able to climb to the backer. Now it’s possible that the center made a call telling the guard he didn’t need any help, but he gets beaten to his spot by the defensive lineman. This is a communication error that can be fixed in practice.

The beauty of zone is, that even with the center getting blown back, the play still has a chance. The backside does a pretty good job cutting the defensive tackle and blocking the end. The guards are both climbing to linebackers and if they get those blocks, the play still has a chance. You can see a crease in the middle of the line. Unfortunately, the linebacker to the right of the formation was able to make the guard miss and get back in on the play.

Instead of possibly a big play on first down, the linebacker that avoided the guard gets free in the hole and makes the tackle for a minimal gain.

Faced with another second-and-long, the Bulls come out in 10 personnel with two receivers to both sides of the formation.

The Bulls are going to run a screen to the outside receiver. The number two receiver will release vertical to get his defender to bail and the go block the corner. The center and both guard will release on the screen looking to create an alley for the receiver to run through. The left tackle will invite his rusher upfield, eliminating him from the play. The back will run to the right as if he is running a flare screen to that side. The quarterback will look to the right and then come back and throw the screen to the left. This fake to the right coupled with the backs route takes the linebackers out of the play.

The play looks to be in great shape immediately post-snap. The safety bailed when he was pushed vertically by the inside receiver. That receiver is in perfect position for his block. The linebackers have completely displaced with the fake to the right. Everything is going to plan. Well almost everything. The defensive tackle over the left guard does a good job recognizing screen. He also grabs the left guard’s jersey and holds him slowing him down.

You can see how the hold pulls the left guard off track. If he was able to get out cleanly, he would already be out in front of the receiver making the block on the nickel. You can also see the center turning back for the linebacker and the alley that was being formed by these two blocks.

The guard being slowed down by the hold creates a traffic jam near the hash. The receivers track is supposed to be the yellow line. You can see the receiver looking to get back outside where he may have been able to hit the sideline. Unfortunately, the defensive tackle that made the clever hold does a great job getting out to the hash and makes the tackle for a three yard gain.

USF then has a third-and-six to extend the drive. The come out in 11 personnel with two receivers to the right and a wing tight end and receiver to the left.

Its hard to say exactly what USF was running here, because the Wisconsin nickel blitzes. I believe this blitz caused the inside receiver on the right to break hot and run a slant. If I had to guess he would have been running a 15-yard crosser and the Bulls would be running a flood concept.

A flood concept “floods” an area of the field with receivers. Typically you will see one receiver take the deep part of that area, one the intermediate, and one the short. If I had to guess, that would be the initial playcall. Regardless, the field pressure causes the wide receiver to break off his route. Again, due to TV angle, I’m not sure what the outside receiver to the bottom of the screen did.

Pre-snap you would think that the corner up top will run with the vertical. If the end/outside linebacker blitzes you have the tight end running an out with a ton of leverage on the inside linebacker. If he doesn’t blitz, you have an end/outside linebacker covering your dynamic tight end with a crosser coming behind all that.

You can see the nickel pressure coming from the field. The end/outside linebacker drops but now he is covering the tight end. The inside receiver at the bottom will break hot but Wisconsin has some guys in the area making for a tough throw. The line does a great job picking up the nickel pressure. Unfortunately, you can see the end at the bottom of the screen is about to gain leverage on the tackle. This is what stops the play from being successful.

You can see that the tackle loses his one-on-one while the tight end wins his matchup. Barnett does a good job escaping pressure and finding the tight end.

This is a throw he would like to have back. It’s not an easy throw by any means, but Barnett is talented enough to make it. The throw sails a little behind the tight end and the pass falls incomplete. You can also see the space at the top right corner of the screen that the receiver would have been attacking if he wasn’t forced to break hot.

The rest of the game was similar to the first two drives offensively. The ideas and scheme were there, but the offense struggled to win one-on-one match-ups against a very talented Wisconsin defense. It also seemed like just about every bounce went the Badgers way. Most teams will have games like this almost every year, you just hope it isn’t against the best team you are going to play that season. I believe this Wisconsin team is the best team the USF will play all year. The Bulls made plenty of mistakes, but many of them are correctable.

Final Thoughts

The scheme is different than 2018, and no matter how many practices you have, nothing beats live game reps. There will be mistakes early in the season, and as the season goes on you will see those eliminated. The old cliché is the “football is a game of inches”. It’s true. The margin for error in football is thin. When you play a team like Wisconsin, these mistakes will rarely go unpunished.

While you can be frustrated with the missed opportunity Friday night, you should be able to see that USF will be in good shape if they can fix these small mistakes. And please stop talking about last season. If you thought the Bulls were running the same schemes they did last year in the game on Friday then may I suggest you switch to baseball. I hear the Wild Card race is really heating up.

On a totally separate note, I wanted to commend the four players (Blake Barnett, Patrick Macon, Billy Atterbury, and Kirk Livingstone) that came and spoke with the media after the game. These guys just finished a grueling game, that I have no doubt they were disappointed in. They all came out and answered every question thoughtfully and showed accountability. They showed great maturity and USF fans should be proud to have these players be representatives of their university.