Dana Holgorsen has earned a reputation for himself by fielding offenses that light up the scoreboard and put up monster stats. He doesn't do this by playing small ball; picking up a few yards here and there. He does it by creating explosive plays. Big plays happen when the offense exploits a weakness in the defense or a defender or two blow their assignment. In the first quarter of the Orange Bowl, the West Virginia offense completed a 34 yard pass to a wide open receiver. This play is an example of how the offense can create explosive plays by exploiting a weakness in the defense.
The play that will be analyzed can be seen here:
This play was created by exploiting 4 primary factors:
1. Situation (Down and Distance)
2. Ball Position
The first factor is probably the biggest one on a football game meta-level. The final 3 can be chunked together into one thing.
EXPLOITING THE SITUATION
In a previous post I covered down and distance strategy. The goal for the defense is to get the offense into a manageable 3rd down situation (3rd and 7 +). The way to do that is to limit gains on first down to 3 yards or less. This is why the running game is so important to the offense because it can keep the offense out of difficult third down situations.
This play occurred on first down. It is in Clemson's best interest to keep the West Virginia offense from gaining more than 3 yards. In order to do that they can't be overly worry about the big play. This does not mean you allow the big play, but that you get defensive calls in that are more aggressive towards the run. Because of this principal, Clemson would most likely be run conscious in this particular situation. "Run Conscious" meaning probably in a base front with zone coverage.
BALL POSITION, FORMATION, PERSONNEL
These next three factors work together.
The ball is on the hash, it is on or around the hash approximately 80% of the time. Modern defenses are even more concerned with ball position because opposing offense have become more creative in utilizing it. The hash is such a concern that many defenses will call coverage strength to the field the majority of the time. One of the few things that will keep a defense from calling its passing strength to the field is trips formations.
This brings us to our next factor. Holgorsen uses a trips formation on this play. Defending trips involves a varied plan of attack in and of itself. When you combine the formation with the ball position a very particular set of circumstances need to be considered. First, the trips are into the boundary. This is not a common occurrence for the defense. Most defensive trips schemes are built on the premise that the offense is running trips towards the field. Boundary trips is in the back of the defensive coordinators mind, but does not call for concern like field trips does.
How does boundary trips effect the defensive thought process? First there is one WR with a ton of field to work with. This makes you think twice about putting a corner one on one with him. Second there is more space to work with for outside running plays, option or stretch being the most probable in this situation. Third, the constricted area that the 3 WR's have makes many trips side passing plays not likely. Finally, the offense can still out-flank the defense albeit with less space. This is still a cause for concern, because if not properly aligned, the defense can be hit for a 5-10 yard running or passing play easily despite the lack of space.
Because of this the defense still needs to align properly to avoid getting out-flanked while being concerned (even more so) with weak-side (field side) runs or passes.
The defense has the classic trips problem, but magnified to the open side. Which side has priority? The trips or open side? One of the things some defenses factor in is the alignment of the back. However, in this particular formation this is no help, because he is aligned directly behind the QB.
Finally the personnel is a cause for concern. In this particular play one player is the main concern. The single side WR Stedman Bailey #3 does not have the most catches on the team, however, he leads the team in yards per reception, yards receiving, and touchdown catches. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that he is doing it on big plays. Bailey's alignment is a concern as well. He is in a position to run a quick out, comeback, fade, or anything else. His alignment opens up a large range of potential routes.
Putting it Together
Factoring all things together it is probably in the defense's best interest to free the field side safety up and have him help on the run and with coverage on Bailey. Calls like Solo or Mable would not be ideal for this situation.
They opted for a basic 4-2 front alignment and the backers are not overly cheated one way or the other. This is considered typical for this formation. The secondary is showing a two shell, which could mean anything. This could be a disguise for any number of things. The alignment that stands out is the boundary side corner. He is aligned outside the #1 WR 7 yards deep. He is not likely to come down into a 1/2's concept. Plus if the corner was playing a 1/2 concept he would need the field side safety to cover #3 vertical or a backer( vs this play that would not have been a good idea either). He appears to be getting ready to bail out.
They end up playing some type of 1/4's concept to the trips side with a 1/2's concept to the open side (could be a bracket).
WEST VIRGINIA'S PLAY
It appears that the QB might have been (don't know for sure) looking towards Bailey 1st on some type of Air-Raid "Choice" concept.
Upon seeing the double coverage, the QB would work his progression back to the trips side. This is where Dana Holgerson's play call most clearly exploits the situation. If he gets Bailey one on one, then great, throw him the ball (he actually still gets behind the double team). If they double cover him, then he has a play that will exploit the likely coverages that a defense would run on first down.
If you look at the routes, this play type can be effective versus most first down defensive calls. It really hurts Clemson's quarters concept.
The H vertical route draws the Strong Safety's attention. He cannot play the post route by the Z because the H would be wide open. The corner cannot get into coverage of the H or Z because of his outside alignment. The only thing the defense could have called to be solid versus these routes is a 1/4's bails (pure zone). That is not a sound call on first down.
This play makes the corner irrelevant and forces the SS to make a decision. He chooses to cover to the H (wise choice) and allows the z to come open on the post.
The defensive coordinator had to recognize the possibility of these play types, so he must of had a plan for them. Many defense's use backers to play wall technique on the first route to work towards the middle of the field, this forces QB's to throw high balls that give DB's time to break on it.
So where were the backers?
Its was a first down situation, and the offense showed run first. The play action kept the backers from assisting in coverage. You can't blame the backers either. Its first down, Division I linebackers are taught to play run first especially in a 1st and 10 situation.
The play action draws the backers up and because of the coverage called the Z is able to get wide open. What other zone coverages could cover these routes effectively and keep the defense from covering Bailey 1 on 1? Besides pure zone quarters, none really without linebacker help
I am not gonna draw them all up, but think about it.
1/2's: Who is gonna cover the post? There is 3 vertical routes to stress the safeties.
Cover 3: The H is gonna open on the seam with no-one to jam him, unless you play a mable tech and drop the SS down. I already discussed that this is a bad idea considering the other things the offense could do in this situation.
Special: Same problems that Clemson had, the SS is in a tough situation.
This play shows how the defense can be manipulated on 1st down. Given the situation, formation, ball position, and personnel the defense will be influenced to do certain things. If the offense understands what the defense will do, then they will be able to create big play opportunity. This shows why Holgorsen has been successful