NCAA Big Gain: Gustafson’s Improbable Pass

College football kicked off Saturday afternoon in Missoula, Montana, with an instant classic between two Football Championship Subdivision powerhouses. Carson Wentz and the #1 ranked North Dakota State Bison traded scores with the Montana Grizzlies for the entire contest, and the visitors held a four-point lead with 1:39 remaining. With their backs against the wall, Gustafson’s improbable pass on fourth down is Inside the Pylon‘s NCAA Big Gain of the week.

Quarterback Brady Gustafson and the Montana offense took over at their own 20-yard line and went on the move but faced a pivotal 4th and 10 at the Bison 44-yard line. Head coach Bob Stitt has something of a reputation as an innovative genius and this play stands out for both its design, and execution.

Gustafson stands alone in the shotgun with 10 personnel in the game in a 3X1 alignment, with the trips formation to the left side of the field. The Bison have a 4-2-5 nickel in the game showing a single-high safety look: the other safety cheats down and is shadowing the trips side of the formation. Both linebackers show blitz, one in the A Gap and the other outside the left tackle:


At the snap, NDSU rolls this coverage into Tampa 2. This is a coverage that was first heavily used by Tony Dungy and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When offenses began to attack the middle of the field between two high safeties using three and four receiver sets, Dungy’s scheme asked a linebacker to drop into that deep middle and disrupt that zone.

Of course, having a linebacker like Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks helped. Here is the coverage the Bison use:


Tampa 2 requires the linebacker to recognize any vertical route from the #3 ‒ or inside ‒ receiver and run with that route. On this play, that’s exactly what the Grizzlies implement. They initially show a bubble screen to the trips, with the #2 receiver floating to the sideline on the screen action, while the other two receivers run vertical routes:


Redshirt-freshman Reese Carlson (#85) is the #3 receiver on this play and he runs a vertical seam route. Sophomore Tre Dempsey (#3) is the safety shaded to the trips alignment, and as he drops into his zone, he tries to split the difference between the two vertical routes.

Junior linebacker MJ Stumpf (#41) attempts to run with Carlson and get under the seam route, but Gustafson has just enough room to drop in a perfectly-placed throw:

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From this angle you can see Stumpf recognize the vertical route and turn to run with it, but the throw is just over the LB’s outstretched right arm:

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There’s no shame in not being Derrick Brooks, and Stumpf plays this was well as can be expected. Gustafson and Carlson connected to make the big play, and sometimes you just have to be gracious in defeat.Montana-NDSU-kick-down-the-door

For the Grizzlies, their work was not done. Although the Bison defense hung tough, the Grizzlies chipped away yardage to get into scoring position. It took a 1-yard run on 4th and goal with mere seconds left to finally score the game-winning touchdown. But it was this play – with its design and perfect execution – that kept the game-winning drive alive.

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 and images courtesy ESPN.

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