Meaningful football is back! John Donovan isn't! Both of those things should give all of us great satisfaction. With John Donovan gone, Joe Moorhead, purveyor of the hurry-up-no-huddle (HUNH) spread offense, steps into the offensive coordinator duties. He will bring with him some concepts that have never been seen here before at Penn State. One of those is the run-pass option (RPO) concept.
First, some housekeeping. With bscaff moving on from BSD, I decided to take the job of trying to give you all the same quality film rooms that he did. As you can see, I'm starting off things a little differently than he did, as instead of focusing solely on Kent State or a specific opponent, I figured that with such a new offense for Penn State's standards, at least the first two weeks would be spent breaking down some important concepts. Let me know your feedback on this idea in the comments. If you want me to go back to the old way of focusing on upcoming opponents, I absolutely will. As for myself, I might not be on Scaff's level of knowledge, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but I do have a longstanding passion for film. My father's favorite story to tell people about me is when I was seven or eight years old, one summer, I was up way past my bedtime in the living room watching the 1987 Fiesta Bowl on ESPN Classic, this writer's favorite channel as a kid. He discovered me downstairs in the living room watching the game at 2 AM, and when he asked why I was watching a game that happened 15 years ago, I responded "I never got to watch it, Dad!" I love watching film and looking deeper into the game. I also have a passion for HUNH offenses like the one Penn State is running now under Coach Moorhead, so I'm pretty excited to talk about it with you guys.
Now, let's talk some football.
First, what is an RPO? In this context, it's a play where the decision to run or pass is made after the snap, based on the initial reaction of one or two defensive players. It is true that Penn State, as well as nearly all of the college football world, has been running plays that the decision whether to run or pass was decided at the line of scrimmage, in which the decision to hand off or throw a quick passing route like a slant, hitch, or bubble screen was based on the pre-snap alignment of the defense. Those plays are typically referred to as 'check-with me's, because typically the decision to either hand it off or throw will be made by a coach, meaning that the quarterback "checks" with the sideline for the decision whether to run or pass. That's not a new concept by any means, and Penn State ran it a lot under both O'Brien and in the Donovan era. However, the concept of post-snap RPO's is relatively new to big-time football.
Some would say that Gus Malzahn of Auburn was the first to really start running RPO's during his time as a high school coach in Arkansas and then taking it to the college ranks. Arguably the most famous RPO play was also run by a Malzahn-coached football team; Auburn had given the entire SEC fits with their run-pass options all year, and beat a lot of teams more talented than them because teams could not figure out how to stop it. In the final week of the 2013 regular season, Cinderella story Auburn had the ball and was driving late in the 4th quarter against two-time defending national champion and undefeated Alabama, with a trip to the SEC title and potentially the national championship game on the line. Let's take a look:
Auburn had just ran for a first down on a 3rd and 2 inside power play, and rather than use one of their timeouts, elected to stay in their personnel of one running back, three wide receivers, and one tight end, commonly 10 (one running back, one tight end) personnel. Alabama is in a very generic 4-2-5 even look here. All game long, Auburn had exposed Alabama by testing Alabama cornerbacks' ability to make the correct run-pass read and make plays in the run game.
Here is a good look at Ha Ha Clinton Dix's, the safety on the left of the screen, starting position.
Right after the fake to Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne, you can see that Alabama is in some serious trouble. Auburn's ability to run the ball up the middle by spreading out Alabama and getting a numbers advantage, as they did on the previous play for a first down, has made both the weak side defensive end and the weak side linebacker collapse towards the middle.
Clinton-Dix has done a nice job up to this point, and right now his positioning is perfect. That will be short-lived.
Alabama's Xzavier Dickson, the weak side end who presumably had edge responsibilities here, actually does a nice job at least making Marshall change his path somewhat given that he was sucked so far in, but it's too late, like the Titanic after it hit the iceberg, there was no saving this. As you'll see in the second picture, Clinton- Dix not only commits to Marshall once he sees that Marshall has kept the ball, he commits to him recklessly, totally abandoning his responsibilities, and taking a terrible angle while doing so. This leaves a 2-on-1 on the outside with Nick Marshall running at Alabama corner Cyrus Jones, all while Cyrus Jones is responsible for Auburn receiver Sammie Coates.
As you can see, Clinton-Dix has abandoned his deep responsibilities, and Cyrus Jones has already committed to stopping Marshall as well. At this point all Auburn needs to do is lob a pass to Sammie Coates streaking down the sidelines and they're going to tie the game.
This is a great example on so many levels. Yes, it is rare that you will have a complete and total breakdown like what Alabama did on this play. However, what this play properly illustrates is the mental pressure that a team using RPO's applies on defenses throughout a game. Alabama had been hurt in the run game, a rarity for a Crimson Tide defense, and most of the damage was done on these plays because it put Alabama players in positions where they had to make an uncomfortable decision between trying to make a play because they're sick and tired of giving up 5+ ypc in the teeth of their defense or keeping their assignment and continue to give up chunks in the run game. Couple this with not being able to consistently huddle, get organized and make substitutions because of Auburn's tempo, and it's really not surprising that Alabama's defense completely broke on this play after a long four quarters. Auburn was definitely not as talented as Alabama or a few of the other teams they beat that season, yet because of superior scheming and a little luck, a team that was 3-9 the year before came within one defensive stop of bringing home the national championship, and the backbone of their success was an offense relying heavily on RPO's.
You're probably wondering why I'm talking so much about Auburn. First off, there are a few different kinds of HUNH offenses, and they can be broken down into three main categories:
The first is one with a lot of Air Raid principles. This is the offense that Texas A&M has been running. The second is one based on a lot of zone running schemes, such as what Oregon has been running, first under Chip Kelly and then under Mark Helfrich. The final main category of HUNH offenses is the one that Auburn featured in this 2013 SEC championship season which is based in power run principles. You'll see a lot more lineman pulling watching 2013 Auburn than you will watching 2013 Oregon. Moorhead's offense will not use pulling as much as Auburn's, but it will certainly be more towards the power run based HUNH offense that Auburn runs more so than the other two.
Let's look at this Spring's Blue-White Game for a textbook example of great execution of RPO by Penn State and starting quarterback Trace McSorley, and talk about some of the things that you can take away from different angles of film.
Here we get a wide sideline view. This view is typically used by coaches and scouts to evaluate the play of wide receivers and secondary players, as well as to see pre-snap alignment across the board. Here, Penn State's offense is base 10 personnel with the field side (the side with more room relative to where the ball is positioned presnap) serving as the strong side of this play and the boundary side serving as the weak side. The corners are playing 8-9 yards off of the receivers, something to keep in mind as we go through this play.
Here is a traditional end zone view. This view is used by coaches and scouts to evaluate the play of running backs and offensive linemen for the offense, as well as defensive linemen, linebackers, and sometimes safeties for the defense. Quarterback play is typically analyzed using both orientations. You can see that the Penn State defensive front six has shifted slightly towards the strong side of the offensive alignment, in this case the field side. However, the biggest thing to look at in this picture is Koa Farmer, who is creeping up towards the line of scrimmage pre-snap. While the final decision will be made post-snap, if McSorley sees Farmer creeping up pre-snap, his post-snap decision is made a lot easier.
Here are two pictures taken about a second after the snap, and right after McSorley makes the final read on whether to hand this off to Mark Allen for an inside power play or whether to throw it. As you can see, it's not a particularly hard choice for Trace. From the sideline angle we can see that Chris Godwin has Garrett Taylor in one-on-one coverage at the top of the picture. Taylor is going to be a fine player, but Godwin is one of the premier receivers in the nation. Not many corners are going to win this battle.
The reason he has one on one coverage is because Farmer has bit hard on the fake to Mark Allen. His key is most likely the right guard Derek Dowrey. Once he sees Dowrey down block, his life of playing football tells him that this means a pulling lineman is coming to that gap and that this is surely going to be a run play. Von Walker is actually in pretty good position here, as he has correctly filled the gap. You'll notice that Andrew Nelson is pulling all the way from his position at left tackle near the 5 gap to the 2 gap on the other side of the line.
With Farmer sucked in and Taylor already giving Godwin an eight yard cushion off the ball, there is nothing that can be done at this point by the defense to prevent a first down, and in this case, a touchdown, from occurring other than hoping that the offenses makes a mistake.
However, the throw is right on target from McSorley to Godwin, a refrain we all hope to hear frequently this season, and Penn State is going score its first touchdown of the Blue and White game on an RPO.
Hopefully coach Moorhead won't need to show all of his concepts this weekend, as Penn State should not need them against an overmatched Kent State team. However, expect RPO's to be a huge part of Penn State's offensive attack this season.