The quest for the National Championship turns on the smallest of things. The Louisville Cardinals had a chance to knock off title holders the Florida State Seminoles but were undone by running their favorite play once too often.
When Louisville hosted Florida State last Thursday night, the Cardinals got out to a fast 21-0 lead over the unbeaten Seminoles. But FSU came storming back, cementing the win by stopping Louisville on a crucial 4th-down play in the final quarter.
Although Louisville started the game with a 71-yard catch-and-run from quarterback Will Gardner to All-American candidate DeVante Parker, they also used a number of short throws ‒ especially to their tight ends on “throwback” passes, which entail the quarterback rolling out and then turning to pass back across the field in the opposite direction of his rollout.
The Cardinals used these passes three times in this game; the first two were successful, but the third, near the end of the game, demonstrated that a team shouldn’t go to the well too often.
Let’s look at the first, successful use of the Louisville throwback pass. After Michael Dyer gained consecutive first downs on runs of 17 and 20 yards in the 2nd quarter, the Cardinals had 1st and 10 at the FSU 32-yard line with the ball on the right hash mark.
Louisville lines up in shotgun with 11 personnel, as shown below. Two receivers are to the left (one wide, the other in the slot) and a third is split to the right. Gerald Christian, the TE (circled in red), is in motion from right to left behind the offensive line. FSU linebacker Matthew Thomas (#7, circled in blue) communicates with the other LB in the Noles’ nickel defense:
Christian stops and sets up at the left side of the offensive line, about six feet behind the line of scrimmage. Thomas (#7) parallels the TE, lining up behind the right defensive end. Thomas should cover Christian on this play:
At the snap, Christian engages with the DE, and the left tackle slides to his left, slipping behind Christian. The RB (circled in orange) also starts to the left. Thomas reads screen: he is expecting Christian to stay in pass protection, the RB to stop for a short pass, and the left tackle to set up a block. Accordingly, Thomas tracks the RB coming out of the backfield:
However, Christian (near the black line, below) disengages from the defensive end and leaks out into a short pass pattern. Thomas is way out of position to cover him. Notice that Gardner has rolled out from the right hash to the left with the defensive line in pursuit:
Gardner pivots, looks to the right and sees Christian wide open, finding him for an easy 10-yard gain and Louisville’s third consecutive first down:
Four plays later Louisville scored the first touchdown of the game.
Now we’ll look at the instance where FSU stopped this play to protect their 35-31 lead in the fourth quarter. The Cardinals have just failed on a pass play on 3rd and 2 (exasperated exclamations of “why are they passing!?” still echo along the banks of the Ohio). Louisville is now faced with 4th and 2 on their 39-yard line, with the ball on the left hash.
This time Louisville lines up in 13 personnel, with three TEs on the line forming a heavy 8-man front, the QB Gardner under center, and a WR split wide right. Freshman TE Charles Standberry is at the right end of the line. Although the formation is different from the earlier sequence, the play design is the same. The Seminoles have nine defenders in the box ‒ six on the line of scrimmage ‒ preparing for a run:
After Standberry “falls down” at the snap (probably on purpose since he dropped immediately after the snap and without contact), the left side of the defensive line ignores him and penetrates past him. Standberry then gets up (circled in red) behind the defensive line and heads deeper into the flat on a pass route. He has defenders all around him, including LB Reggie Northrup (#5) and DE Desmond Hollin (#43). Notice Gardner has rolled out again, this time from left to right:
Standberry gets by Northrup and is briefly open, beyond the sticks and in position for the first down. But Hollin (circled in blue) ‒ who stayed home instead of pursuing the QB ‒ sees Standberry and covers him:
Since Hollin is covering Standberry, Gardner needs to make a pass with delicate touch, over the defender but not too far for his target:
Standberry lays out and gets a finger on it, but the over-the-shoulder catch is too tough to complete:
FSU regained possession and scored a quick TD to ice the game.
For Louisville, this play had paid dividends earlier in the contest. But at this stage of the game, with a chance to knock off the #2-ranked team in the nation, perhaps Cardinals head coach Bobby Petrino should have thought things through. In this instance, should you run the ball instead? If you throw it, do you target a freshman as your receiver? If you do run this design again, will FSU recognize it?
The Seminoles did indeed recognize it, and showed that they wouldn’t get fooled again on the same play.