Ahh, I love the smell of football in the morning! For those of us football junkies that view opening day like a kid views Christmas morning and having to wait an extra week to open our presents after seeing them lying there under the tree, Saturday’s contest couldn’t come soon enough. Oh, and what a glorious opening game it was. With all the focus on Kurt Roper, Jeff Driskel, and the offense, to say they delivered would be an understatement. While there were a few miscues here and there, overall the new offense was everything I’ve been expecting and hoping for since Roper was hired and I started dissecting film of Duke. If what I’ve seen on film is any indication, Saturday was just the beginning.
For an offense that was decidedly “vanilla,” what Roper did show us on Saturday was a sampling of plays that are either building blocks for future wrinkles, or that our players like, are especially comfortable with, have success with in practice, and that we intend to run often. One of those plays was the 4th and 2 conversion on the first drive of the game from Jeff Driskel to Dunbar.
Air Raid aficionados watching the telecast would have immediately recognized the play as a slight variation on the staple Mesh concept coming straight out of the old BYU playbook developed by and adapted by LaVell Edwards and Doug Scovin from Sid Gillman’s core ideas of stressing a zone defense both vertically and horizontally past its breaking points, and including man coverage beating route combinations. This Mesh play would later be adopted, slightly modified, and used extensively by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach in their creation of the Air Raid offense.
In the Mumme/Leach version (which Roper’s version is closest to), the duo combined a pair of crossing routes over the middle of the field with a corner route and both backs check releasing and flaring out of the backfield. You can see it below, straight out of Leach’s 1999 Oklahoma playbook, where Leach served as offensive coordinator. Interestingly, the very reason Leach got hired at Oklahoma was because of the difficulty Bob Stoops had in defending their offense at Kentucky while he was at Florida despite having superior personnel.
Muschamp had this to say about the play after the game: “We felt like we were going to see pressure in man-to-man, so we ran what we call a mesh concept and hopefully pick off a defender. Jeff reads it well. It’s one of his routes he likes to run. That again is where I think Kurt really does a nice job of thinking about players, not plays, and what do they feel comfortable with. That’s something that Jeff really likes.”
Once you understand how the play works, you can see why Kurt and Jeff are both so fond of it. You get a triangle stretch out of the corner/shallow/flat combination that can break nearly any zone coverage, along with a man-beating rub with the crossing receivers in a high traffic area.
The crossing receivers are actually often coached to high five when they fun the route in practice to get the spacing down. They’ll read the defender lined up over the opposite side crossing receiver. If he stays put, the receiver knows it is zone and they will complete the rub and then sit down in the hole and wait for the ball, turning toward the shoulder they receive it on. If he runs with the opposite side crosser, they will continue on to the sideline. The Z will set the depth (working to about 6 yards deep) and the X will rub underneath. Regardless of coverage, the quarterback’s progression remains the same.
Driskel will work the triangle stretch first, deep to shallow, before moving on to the backside should time permit. Of note is that Roper does not check release the back and runs this play as a pure 5 man protection, thus getting the back and B-back into the flat as quickly as possible to maximize the stress on the defense. This means the quarterback is responsible for any 6th rusher.
In this case, the motion and tendency from film study reveals probable man coverage and the linebackers crowding the line immediately pre-snap reveals that the Eastern Michigan is indeed rushing 6, meaning one rusher won’t be blocked. With that in mind, what results is a nearly perfect execution by the Gator offense, and especially by its quarterback, Jeff Driskel.
After a low snap, the first thing Driskel does a nice job of getting his eyes on the flag route by Pittman. Due to the outside leverage and depth of the corner, he knows before the end of his drop to move on to Dunbar on the shallow cross.
This is one area where Jeff has made a clear improvement. Even a year ago, Jeff still struggled with getting through a read before the receiver got into his break, but notice that Pittman is still vertical and 2 yards from his cut by the time Driskel has hit the end of his drop and moved on to his #2 receiver in the progression. So much for that knock about locking on to receivers! At this point, Driskel sees and recognizes exactly what he needs to see.
One great thing about the rub routes over the middle is that there are a lot of bodies that can become tangled up with defenders, and some of them aren’t even players. In this case, the umpire gets tangled up with the ECU defender chasing Dunbar, resulting in him coming wide open as he clears the rub.
At this point, Driskel decisively and quickly gets the ball out to Dunbar. The pass was slightly behind, but Dunbar was so wide open, it really didn’t matter. One other thing worth calling attention to is how Driskel did a nice job of sliding back in the pocket with a recognized free rusher through an interior gap, ensuring he had adequate time and room to plant his foot and deliver the football while keeping himself upright.
Plays like this are a perfect example of what Kurt Roper brings to the table. It is quick hitting, versatile, puts our athletes in advantageous positions, has built-in hot reads, and essentially cuts the field in half for Jeff Driskel. It was used at least one more time against EMU, and my suspicion is we’ll be seeing this concept with regularity, on the order of 2-5 times a game dressed up in different formations and personnel groupings, just because his quarterback likes the play and runs it well. This commitment to running what his players understand best and execute well is something Roper learned early on from Cutcliffe, and is perhaps the biggest reason to expect Saturday’s success against EMU to continue.