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 Grizzlies can attack the Bison in the passing game.
The college football season kicks off in earnest August 29, as two Football Championship Subdivision rivals square off. Defending national champion North Dakota State travel west to take on Montana in a rematch of an early-season clash last year, won by the Bison 22-10. For the visitors, this game is the first step on what they hope will be a march to a fifth consecutive national title. But for the Grizzlies, this rematch is a chance to knock their rivals down a peg and establish themselves as title contenders. In Part 1 of this preview we focused on the NDSU offense against the Montana defense, and in the second part we’ll flip the script and take a look at how the Grizzlies’ offense matches up against the Bison defense.
A New Triggerman
Redshirt junior Brady Gustafson has taken over the reins of the Montana offense, following the graduation of Jordan Johnson. Gustafson attempted only two passes in 2014, in a game against NCAA Division II Central Washington, not completing either. Johnson left campus as one of the more prolific passers in Grizzlies history, and the three-year starter capped off his collegiate career by throwing for 2,784 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2014. The senior led Montana to the FCS playoffs and an opening-round win over San Diego before the Grizzlies lost to Eastern Washington in the second-round. Gustafson has some big shoes to fill in this offense as he takes over as the starter.
One of the new quarterback’s biggest tasks in the season-opener will be handling the defensive pressure applied by the Bison. In their 2014 meeting, NDSU used a variety of blitzes and stunts from its defensive front to move Johnson off his spot and force him into a number of early adjustments and throws. The Grizzlies return two linemen who saw significant playing time last season, center Robert Luke and left tackle John Schmaing, but some new faces will contend with what the Bison do on defense.
On this first play, the Grizzlies face a 3rd and 6 late in the second quarter, and have Johnson in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field. Montana has a tight bunch trips to the right and a tight slot left. The Bison have 4-2-5 personnel in the game, and cornerback Jordan Champion (#5) walks up to the edge of the defense in a linebacker’s alignment:
Just prior to the snap, linebacker Carlton Littlejohn (#38) walks up between the left defensive end and the left defensive tackle, showing blitz, while Champion backs off the line of scrimmage:
At the snap Littlejohn and Champion both drop into coverage, and the Bison send just the four down linemen after the quarterback, but they force a quick throw and get a shot on the quarterback. A stunt by the left end and the defensive tackle open up a nice rush lane for the defensive end:
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Johnson releases the football before he takes a shot from the DE and the Grizzlies move the chains. The end zone view shows how the Bison generated the pressure and forced the quick throw:
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Off the snap, defensive tackle Brian Schaetz (#61) is lined up as a 3 technique DT just on the outside shoulder of right guard Ben Weyer (#70). Schaetz crashes through the B Gap, forcing Weyer to shuffle and turn his hips to the outside to try and pick up the defender, creating a gap between him and the center. Because Schaetz gets off the ball quickly, right tackle Devon Dietrich (#71) extends his left arm to the inside and initiates contact with Schaetz to slow the defender down, hopefully giving Weyer time to recover and finish his block.
On the outside, DE Brad Ambrosius (#97) begins this play in 7 technique well outside Dietrich’s right shoulder. As the RT extends his arm to slow down Schaetz, Ambrosius flashes across the tackle’s face, aiming for the lane created by Schaetz as the DT crashed down inside. Weyer’s block on Schaetz takes the defensive tackle to the outside and into Dietrich ‒ giving the crashing end a free shot at the quarterback. Johnson is able to get the football out just before he takes a shot from Ambrosius. It takes a great play from the QB – and some guts – to convert this 3rd down. Better execution up front might have given the quarterback an extra second on this play, and resulted in an even bigger play for the offense.
This next play is the same stunt, just on the opposite side of the defensive line. The Grizzlies face a 1st and 10 late in the game, trailing by 12. The offense has Johnson in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field, in dual tight slot formations. The defense has its base 4-3 defense in the game, showing a soft Cover 2 coverage:
On this occasion, it is linebacker Travis Beck (#52 – lined up at defensive end) that cuts to the inside after the snap, forcing Johnson to scramble shortly after the play begins:
As with the previous play, the defensive tackle cuts into the B Gap between the guard and tackle at the snap of the ball. The guard blocks to the outside, riding the DT into the left tackle. Beck comes off the line and initiates contact with the left tackle, but then cuts to the inside through the A Gap, flushing the quarterback out of the pocket to the right:
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Johnson tries to find his running back on an outlet route out of the backfield, but because he is flushed from the pocket, he soon finds himself in the path of Ambrosius yet again. The QB is unable to deliver an accurate throw because of the pressure, and the pass falls behind the RB and incomplete.
In addition to stunts, the Bison used a number of blitz schemes to force the quarterback to escape the pocket or get rid of the football quickly and slow down the Grizzlies running game. Below, Montana has its QB under center with 12 personnel in the game, using slot formation to the right and a wing tight end alignment to the left. The Bison have their base 4-3 personnel in the game, showing Cover 2 in the secondary:
Beck is the outside linebacker to the two tight end side of the formation. Just prior to the snap, one of the TE comes in motion across the formation, setting up trips to the right:
Beck slides his alignment to over the football in response. Watch as the linebacker explodes through the hole at the snap of the football:
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The left guard is able to corral Beck ‒ somehow ‒ but the linebacker’s blitz penetration forces the running back (Travon Van, #8) to make a cut in the backfield. This slows down the play and allows the rest of the defensive front time to surround the ball carrier and bring him down behind the line of scrimmage.
On this next play, a corner blitz forces Johnson to get rid of the ball quickly. The QB is in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field, with slot formation to the right and a TE/Z pro alignment to the left. The Bison have their base personnel on the field with Cover 2 showing in the secondary:
The Grizzlies run a snag-triangle concept on this play. The TE executes a vertical release and runs a deep corner route while the Z receiver runs a snag route breaking over the middle. The running back executes a quick out to the left side of the field. This concept is designed to attack three levels of the defense while flooding the outside part of the field, forming a triangle between the three routes::
If the defense stays in Cover 2, Johnson will have a high-low read on the outside between his tight end’s corner route and the flat route from his running back. However, the Bison don’t stay in zone coverage – they blitz the cornerback to the play-side and rotate into Cover 1 at the snap of the football:
Without the blitz, the corner route to the tight end would be a nice option for the quarterback, as the pattern would take the TE toward the sideline and away from safety help. But because of the blitz, Johnson cannot wait on the deeper route ‒ or even the snag route, which breaks open ‒ and is forced to get the ball out of his hands quickly. The defense does a good job of rotating, and while Van makes the first defender miss, he is tackled quickly thereafter and held to a short gain:
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North Dakota State used blitzes and stunts to speed up Johnson’s decisions and move him from his spot, while also disrupting rushing lanes in the run game. If Montana can do a better job containing pressure, the Grizzlies return a pair of playmakers on the outside that pose tremendous threats in the passing game ‒ wide receivers Jamaal Jones and Ellis Henderson.
Jones, a senior, led the Grizzlies with 1,044 yards on 67 catches and eight touchdowns in 2014. He had four games with more than 100 yards receiving last season, including a season-high 146 yards on only five catches in Montana’s win over UC Davis. He also tallied nine receptions for 139 yards in the Grizzlies narrow regular-season loss to Eastern Washington.
The receiver is an explosive vertical threat, and his one catch in last year’s meeting is a perfect example of what Jones can do in the deep passing game. Johnson lines up under center with 22 personnel on the field, with the second tight end and two running backs in an inverted wishbone behind the quarterback. NDSU has its base defense on the field showing Cover 2 in the secondary. Note the position of the opposite safety, in the white box:
Montana runs play action, with Johnson faking the halfback lead to the right side of the formation. On the outside, Jones runs a deep post pattern:
The run fake works to perfection, sucking forward not only the linebackers but also the press corner across from Jones. By over committing to the run, the CB fails to get a jam of any kind on the receiver, allowing Jones a completely free release off the line of scrimmage. The run fake also draws the opposite safety a few steps forward ‒ noted in the white box:
As the still depicts, 10 of 11 defenders are at or near the line of scrimmage and the receiver already has these 10 players in his rear-view mirror. With the opposite half-field safety stepping forward on the run fake, the play-side safety has no help to the inside on the post route ‒ even though he expects some. Jones simply runs away from the play-side safety to the inside and is wide open:
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The safety – Christian Dudzik (#35) – does a good job of recovering after the catch and tracking down Jones, but not before a 72-yard gain setting the Grizzlies up with a 1st and goal situation.
One of the tremendous stories in college football this season is the return of Jones’s roommate to Montana ‒ and the football field. Ellis Henderson caught four passes for 52 yards against NDSU last season, but it was the last game he played in 2014. Shortly after that game Henderson withdrew from Montana, citing a stomach illness. But the receiver was struggling with depression and was even contemplating suicide. He has returned to school and was granted full eligibility from last season, as well as a waiver of academic requirements because of his illness. His return to the field is an inspiration to those who struggle with mental illness and a real boost to Montana’s offense.
On this first play, Henderson displays his pure speed. Montana faces a 3rd and 12 late in the first quarter, and lines up with an empty backfield and Henderson in a bunch trips formation to the right. The Bison respond with their 4-2-5 defense showing Cover 2 Man Under in the secondary:
The Grizzlies run a quick screen to Henderson on the outside. The receiver catches the football behind the line of scrimmage, turns on the jets and explodes upfield, nearly gaining the first down in the process:
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While Henderson’s speed is worthy of note, this next play provides us with the first “whoa” moment of 2015 ‒ albeit on a play from last season that you may have missed. Montana faces a 3rd and 8 just before halftime, and Johnson is in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field with tight end trips to the right, and a receiver split left. NDSU responds with its 4-2-5 personnel and run Cover 3 in the secondary. Henderson is the outside receiver in the trips, and he runs a deep post. Johnson takes a shot on the route, and somehow, some way, the receiver does this:
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The free safety is draped all over the front of Henderson, and the ball is thrown to the back of the defender but Henderson manages to extend his arms over the defender’s shoulders, secure the football with his hands against the safety’s shoulders, and pull in the reception.
This is an amazing play, pure and simple.
These two receivers and roommates are tremendous weapons for Montana’s offense. If the offensive line can handle the blitz and stunt schemes the Bison run, Gustafson could get the ball to these two receivers who have big play potential on each snap. These receivers – and the defense led by Kendrick Van Ackeren and Jeremiah Kose – give Montana a chance to start 2015 off with a win.
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