NCAA Film Preview: NDSU and Montana

College football season is nearly upon us, and Mark Schofield is hard at work breaking down film for upcoming contests. This is a rematch from last season, which reigning champions NDSU won 22-10 over Montana in the Fargodome, and looks to be a key game in Week 1 of FCS play. Our NCAA Film Preview of NDSU and Montana rolls on with this look at how the Bison can attack the Grizzlies in the passing game.

Many college football fans have Thursday, September 3, 2015 circled on their calendars as the start of the 2015 season. But don’t be mistaken, the season truly kicks off the previous week, when two of the elite programs in the Football Championship Subdivision clash as Montana hosts North Dakota State. Both teams are ranked in the top-15 heading into the season, with the Grizzlies checking in at #12 and the Bison, which start their quest for a fifth consecutive title, ranked in the top spot. The tape from that game is a good starting point to get fans ready for this battle.

Attacking the Edges in the Running Game

The Bison offense did a solid job of establishing the run during the 2014 meeting, rushing the football 55 times for 280 yards, a 5.1 yards per attempt average. The majority of the damage was done on the edges, as North Dakota State used a variety of schemes to give running backs and skill players running lanes in space. This first example is the opening play of the game, as the offense used the jet sweep concept to get a shifty runner some room on the outside.

The Bison open the game with quarterback Carson Wentz in the pistol with 21 personnel on the field and tailback John Crockett behind him. To the right, fullback Andrew Bonnet (#46) and free safety Christian Dudzik (#35) – in the game as a wide receiver – are in slot formation. On the left, tight end Kevin Vaadeland (#85) and wide receiver Zach Vraa (#82) also align in a slot, with the TE to the inside. The Grizzlies have their base 4-3 defense in the game showing Cover 6 in the secondary, with the cornerback across from Vraa positioned in press alignment and the Cover 2 side of the coverage rolled to the short-side of the field. Also note the positioning of right defensive end Tyrone Holmes (#91) in a wide-9 alignment:NDSUMontanaPlay1Still

Prior to the snap, Dudzik comes in motion from the right toward the football, and Wentz gives the free safety the football on the jet sweep heading around the left edge:

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There is a lot to unpack on this play. Starting in the backfield, after Wentz gives Dudzik the football he carries out a read-option look with Crockett in the backfield. This fake freezes three players: Holmes from his wide-9 alignment as well as two linebackers: middle linebacker Jeremiah Kose (#45) and weak-side linebacker Kendrick Van Ackeren (#35). Adding to the deception is left tackle Joe Haeg (#59). At the snap he fires out of his stance with three hard steps in the direction of the MLB:NDSUMontanaPlay1GIF

This simulated block gives another indication that the play is an interior run. But before he executes a block on the inside, the LT peels back to the outside to get in front of the ballcarrier on the sweep. Finally, both the TE and the WR on the outside do solid jobs of executing blocks, and Dudzik rips off a nice seven-yard gain to open the proceedings.

The Bison also did a very good job of attacking the edges out of power-running formations and looks. On this next play, the offense faces a 2nd and 7 at the Montana 48-yard line, and have a rare personnel grouping on the field – 30 personnel. Wentz stands in the pistol with an inverted wishbone formation flanking him: RB Chase Morlock (#25) is to his left while RB King Frazier (#22) is to his right. Crockett aligns behind the QB, while the two wide receivers set up in slot formation on the right. The defense responds with its base 4-3 personnel and show Cover 3 in the secondary:NDSUMontanaPlay2Still1

North Dakota State runs the read option on this play, with a power-running twist. Wentz takes the snap and reads Holmes as the QB and Frazier mesh in the backfield. The defensive end crashes inside, so Wentz hands the ball to his running back. As the mesh develops, both Crockett and Morlock circle around the left end to the outside, while Haeg cuts to the inside to try and take out the back-side OLB. This is a beautifully-designed and executed play. The mesh in the backfield eliminates the defensive end, while the two extra running backs form a nice convoy in front of Frazier. Pay particular attention to the precision from the two RBs and their blocks as they chop down the play-side OLB and the play-side CB at the same moment:

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This angle gives you another look at the convoy in front of Frazier on the carry, as well as how the DE bites on the quarterback:

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Frazier rips off a solid gain on this play, thanks to the design and execution.

Here is one more example of the Bison using a power-running formation and personnel group and still attacking the outside in the running game. NDSU faces a 1st and 10 just outside the red zone, with Wentz under center and 31 personnel on the field. Frazier and fullback Jedre Cyr (#30) form an i-formation in the backfield. On the right side of the formation, the Bison have a TE/FB wing with Vaadeland and Bonnet with a receiver to the outside. The Grizzlies counter with their base 4-3 showing Cover 3 in the secondary:NDSUMontanaPlay3Still1

Bonnet comes in motion from right to left just prior to the snap, aligning in a wing just outside LT Haeg:NDSUMontanaPlay3Still2

The play gets off to a tremendous start thanks to the block down by Bonnet on Holmes. The fullback knifes the DE to the turf:

NDSUMontanaPlay3Still3

As Bonnet takes down Holmes, Haeg and center Jesse Hinz (#76) pull around the left edge while Wentz gives Frazier the football with Cyr leading the way:NDSUMontanaPlay3Still4

Haeg and Hinz execute cut blocks on two linebackers as they try to flow to the football. Hinz gets Kose to the turf, while the LT knocks Van Ackeren off his spot but fails to take him to the ground. But Cyr finishes the job. Holmes stays with the play and tracks down Frazier from behind ‒ tremendous effort from the DE ‒ but he cannot prevent a five-yard gain on first down:

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These three plays are just some of the ways that the Bison attacked the outside while keeping the football on the ground. Given their success in 2014 with this approach, expect to see similar plays August 29th.

Montana’s Trio of Talented Linebackers

Another reason why you might see the Bison continue to attack the edges in the running game is the trio of linebackers that Montana returns in 2015. Van Ackeren, Kose and strong-side linebacker Herbert Gamboa (suspended for this game) were first-year starters in 2014, and all three are solid defenders who were very stout against the interior run game during last year’s meeting. With a full season under their belts, expect this trio to again perform very well.

This play is an example of solid linebacker play from the group, especially Van Ackeren, a transfer from Hawaii. The Bison face 2nd and 10 and have Wentz under center with 21 personnel on the field in an information pro right – with the TE and the Z receiver to the right of the formation. The Grizzlies have their base 4-3 in the game showing Cover 2 in the secondary, with Van Ackeren standing as the SLB on this play shaded to the TE side of the field – the strong side of the offensive formation:NDSUMontanaPlay4Still1

Prior to the snap the TE “trades,” shifting his alignment from the right side of the formation to the left. Trade is one of many shifts or motions that offenses uses to adjust the strength of their formation prior to the snap. With defenses often basing coverage, blitzes and other schemes on the strength of the offensive formation, offenses often try and shift or adjust their strength prior to the snap to try and confuse a defense or get a defender out of position. On this play the TE changes his alignment from the right side to the left prior to the snap. There is not enough time for the defenders to flip their alignments, so Van Ackeren now becomes the WLB for this play:NDSUMontanaPlay4Still2

NDSU runs the lead to the strong-side of its formation, now the left. But the defense, led by MLB Kose, collapses on that side of the line, and the running back is forced to make a cut to the weak-side of the play. But Van Ackeren does a tremendous job of scraping with the flow of the play and not overcommitting, so when the RB cuts back, the now-WLB is there and ready:

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On this play, Gamboa shows of the athleticism developed in years playing safety before converting to linebacker. On this 1st and 10, the Bison have Wentz under center with 31 personnel on the field, with a power i-formation in the backfield. Montana counters with its base personnel in its standard 4-3 alignment, with Gamboa on the right side of the defense across from the TE:NDSUMontanaPlay5Still1

North Dakota State runs a power lead right at Gamboa, with Crockett getting the handoff from Wentz while Cyr leads the way. Both the center and left guard Adam Schueller pull in front of Crockett as well, with the LG trying a cut-block on Gamboa at the point-of-attack. Despite being outsized, the LB wins the battle and holds this to a minimal gain:

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From this angle you can see the old DB technique come out in Gamboa. As Schueller fires out at the linebacker’s ankles, the defender fires his hands towards the guard’s body, using his upper body to shield his legs from the blocker:

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This prevents Schueller from making contact with Gamboa’s legs and taking the linebacker to the ground. Gamboa is then able to scrape off the blocker and stop this play from gaining any more yardage.

Finally, one more example of sound linebacker play, this time from Van Ackeren against the read option. Given Wentz’s athletic ability, the Bison like to work in read-option plays on occasion to give him a chance to make plays with his feet. On this play NDSU has 12 personnel on the field with Wentz in the shotgun and Crockett standing next to him. The two wide receivers set up in slot formation while the two tight ends align in a wing to the left. The Grizzlies have their 4-3 in the game with Van Ackeren set up to the dual TE side of the formation:NDSUMontanaPlay6Still4

Prior to the snap, the outside WR comes in jet motion toward the football. In response, both Kose and Van Ackeren walk toward the line of scrimmage, signaling a blitz:NDSUMontanaPlay6Still2

With the left side of the line blocking down to create a potential hole for the quarterback, Wentz has two options. He can give the football to the receiver on the jet sweep, with Crockett and the two tight ends blocking to the outside to potentially lead the way for the RB. But if the line creates a big enough hole – and the linebacker and defensive end collapse on the WR ‒ Wentz will keep the football and run right through the B-Gap:NDSUMontanaPlay6Still3

Here, Wentz keeps the football. As the left side of the line blocks down to the inside – collapsing the defensive line – Van Ackeren explodes through the B-Gap and is in position to tackle the WR should he get the football. But the QB keeps the ball and springs toward the hole created by his line. But the LB is quick to recover. Watch as he is athletic enough to work back to the runner and hold Wentz to a minimal gain:

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These plays give an idea how Montana was able to slow North Dakota State when the Bison tried to run in the interior. While the Bison were able to attack the edges in the running game, the Grizzlies defense – led by this trio of linebackers – was very stout against the run on the inside and will be a key matchup in the opener.

Attacking Cover 2 with 12 Personnel

In 2014 the Grizzlies were a base 4-3 team that primarily relied on Cover 2 (and variants) in the secondary. One of the coverages that Montana worked in was Cover 6, often based on the position of the football on the field. On the short side of the field the defense ran a Cover 2 look, with the cornerback in press alignment and the safety along the hashmark. This is often a strategy employed at the collegiate level, with the defense anticipating that the offense will try and attack the short-side of the field.

In their meeting last season, the Bison looked to work against this Cover 2 by using 12 personnel. Using two tight ends reduced the chances that the defense would adjust by bringing nickel personnel into the game – thereby increasing the odds that Montana would be in its base Cover 2. Here are two examples of how the offense attacked Cover 2 using this personnel set.

First is a standard Cover 2 beater that seeks to high-low the cornerback. Wentz is in the shotgun with 12 personnel in the game. The offense has an inverted slot formation on the left, with slot formation to the right. Each slot formation has the tight end on the inside. The defense has base personnel in the game, in a 4-3 alignment with the defense showing Cover 6. With the football on the left hashmark, the secondary on the short side of the field shows Cover 2 alignment – to the short side of the field as expected:NDSUMontanaPlay7Still1

The route used here is a smash route concept, with the slot receiver running a corner route while the outside receiver runs a short hitch. The idea here is to high-low the press CB, read him and “throw off the corner.” Here is the play-art with the zone coverages shaded:NDSUMontanaPlay7Still2

Wentz reads the press corner here, shaded in purple. If he squats on the hitch route, then the quarterback throws the corner route to the tight end, attacking that deep outside soft spot of the coverage. Sometimes cornerbacks, recognizing the play, try to split the difference between the corner route and the hitch route, trying to get underneath the deeper pattern. In this case, the QB needs to simply take the short route and see if his receiver can break a tackle for additional yardage. One of the biggest mistakes a QB can make in this situation is believing he can thread the throw between a CB sitting deep and the closing safety ‒ trust me, I made this mistake one time too many in my college career and it likely cost me my job.

Here, the CB squats on the hitch route, and Wentz throws the deeper pattern perfectly:

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The QB shows off his arm strength here as well, drilling this throw in just as the TE makes his cut. The replay angle provides a good view of the throwing window created when the press cornerback squats on the hitch route, and the tight end works behind on his deeper pattern.

Another way the Bison worked against Montana’s Cover 2 was using the four verticals concept – a standard in most collegiate offenses. The reason most teams have this scheme in their arsenal is that it can be used to attack a variety of coverages. You can use it to attack Cover 3, with the QB reading the free safety, influencing him with his eyes and throwing to one of the inside two vertical routes. In this case, the Grizzlies run Cover 2, with the outside cornerbacks not in press coverage but aligned in catch-man alignment:NDSUMontanaPlay8Still1

Wentz is under center with 12 personnel on the field, in a standard 2 X 2 alignment with a receiver and TE to each side of the field. With this formation against Cover 2, the quarterback’s reads are likely as follows: He will check the short-side wide receiver on his vertical route quickly. Cornerbacks in Cover 2 schemes are taught to “sink” against vertical routes, staying with the receiver and trying to help the safeties. If the CB fails, the QB might have a shot at an easy throw to the outside. Once the quarterback recognizes that the CB is sinking with the vertical route, you work back to the two inside seam routes, trying to find one of the TEs in that soft area behind the linebackers (zones shaded in yellow) and in front of the deep safeties (zones shaded in blue):NDSUMontanaPlay8Still2

Given that the cornerbacks start in catch-man alignment (zones shaded in purple), Wentz has no chance to strike quickly on the outside. But he is able to find his next option, TE Luke Albers (#88), in that sweet spot:

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The replay of the completion gives you a good look at the soft spot of this coverage, behind the linebackers and in front of the two deep safeties.

Given that the Bison return a number of experienced tight ends for the 2015 season, look for North Dakota State to use 12 personnel again on August 29th to attack Montana’s Cover 2 schemes.

These are some of the concepts the Bison used in their victory over the Grizzlies last season. While things can change from year-to-year, given the success North Dakota State had last season you can be sure the offense will try similar plays early in the rematch. But if the Montana defense – led by this talented group of linebackers – has some answers, the Bison might need to expand the playbook a bit if their drive for a fourth consecutive title is to get off to a winning start. In the second half of this preview, we will look at how the Bison slowed Montana’s offense last season, and see what the Grizzlies need to do to get a talented duo of playmakers more involved in the rematch.

Thanks to the astute readers at the Bisonville forums for catching our mistake that Gamboa is suspended for this game. We apologize for the error and the suspension has been noted in the text above.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

Video Courtesy of GoBison.com and SidearmSports.com

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