College football features some inventive and creative offensive schemes every weekend. At Washington State mad scientist Mike Leach deploys some of the most interesting to study, as Mark Schofield breaks down the film.
On Saturday night the UCLA Bruins have a chance to keep pace with the Utah Utes in the Pac-12 South. To do this, they will need to knock off the visiting Washington State Cougars. Mike Leach’s team has surprised so far in the 2015 season and enter this contest with a 6-3 record, with a 4-2 mark in the conference. Quarterback Luke Falk triggers the Wazzu Air Raid scheme and has completed 353 of 503 passes for 3,736 yards and 33 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. When you look at Leach’s offensive scheme, two concepts stand out: the mesh concept and the Y-Cross design, and these are concepts that the quirky coach has been using since the 1990s.
Here is a basic look at the Mesh design, taken from the 1999 Oklahoma Sooners playbook, when Leach was the offensive coordinator:
In this example, the offense runs the concept using 21 personnel in a pro right formation, with the X receiver and the tight end (Y receiver) crossing underneath on the “mesh.” The Cougars usually run this play with 20, or even 10, personnel as they do on this play against California. Falk is in the shotgun with 10 personnel on the field in a “doubles” alignment, meaning the offense has slot formation on each side. The two inside receivers will cross on the mesh:
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Notice how on the play design it is noted that the inside receivers will continue crossing upfield if they read man coverage, but will sit down in underneath soft areas should the defense play zone.
As Robert Lewis (#15) and John Thompson (#85) cross, they both read zone coverage so they cut off their routes and sit in underneath in the soft areas of the zone, looking for the football. Edge pressure forces Falk to climb the pocket, and the two receivers then work toward the outside on the scramble drill. The QB finds Lewis for a nice gain after extending the play with his feet.
With the basic structure identified, we can now look at some of the variations and other elements Leach adds to this concept. Notice on the playbook sheet, under the QB reads, it states “If middle is open give Z a post.” If the quarterback surveys the defense and sees the middle of the field open, either in Cover 2 or perhaps Cover 0, then he can adjust the Z receiver’s route from a corner route to a post route and try to exploit the open area of the field.
Against Oregon, the Cougars face a 3rd and goal on the Ducks’ 7-yard line and Falk stands in the shotgun with 10 personnel on the field. The offense begins the play with trips formation, but sends Lewis in motion to the left, giving Washington State a doubles look before the snap. Oregon has their 3-3-5 sub package in the game. Notice the positioning of the two safeties at the snap:
The playside safety is cheated over the slot receiver, standing on the goalline. The backside safety aligns just inside the end zone, but outside of the hashmark, having slid to his right in response to the motion from Lewis. This opens up the middle of the field. Washington State runs the mesh concept, with Dom Williams (#80) and River Cracraft (#21) crossing underneath. But with the middle open, Falk looks for Z receiver Gabe Marks (#9) on the post:
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The receiver establishes inside leverage, and Falks hits him in the back of the endzone for the score.
Returning to the play design, notice that under the playcall (Blue Right 92 Mesh) there are tags listed. Those indicate potential routes that the other receivers on the field could be assigned or “tagged” with. One of those is the “return” route, which is a curl route in Leach’s scheme. Here is what it looks like in action.
Washington State faces a 2nd and 9 against California on the Golden Bears’ 28-yard line and line up with 10 personnel and Falk in the shotgun. The defense has a 3-2-6 sub package on the field and show blitz before the snap, with a linebacker and two nickelbacks on the line of scrimmage in blitz posture:
Tyler Baker (#26) and Thompson run the crossing routes to mesh underneath, but on the outside, Tavares Martin Jr.(#12) is tagged with the return route, executing a deep comeback on the sideline. At the snap, California drops the blitz defenders and plays a soft Cover 2 with both cornerbacks in off man alignment. Martin snaps off his route to the sideline, and Falk delivers a well-timed and accurate throw:
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Unfortunately for the Cougars, Martin cannot secure the reception.
Finally, we can look at another adjustment to the basic design, and that is the addition of a wheel route. On the previous touchdown to Marks on the post route, after Lewis comes in motion to the left, he runs a wheel route, bending toward the sideline. Not only does Washington State add this pass route to receivers, they can use it with running backs as well.
Here, the Cougars have 10 offensive personnel in the game for a 2nd and 10 at the Oregon 36-yard line. They line up in their doubles formation, with running back Jamal Morrow (#25) standing to the left of Falk in the backfield. The Ducks have a 4-2-5 nickel package in the game, showing Cover 3 before the play. Prior to the snap, Martin comes in jet motion toward the quarterback and will run a swing route to the left on this mesh design.
Marks is the outside receiver on the left and he runs a post route. This draws the coverage away from the sideline, opening up space for Morrow on the wheel route:
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Falk hits his RB along the sideline, and Morrow is not knocked out of bounds until he is inside the Oregon 10-yard line.
While this uses the tight end on the crossing route, Leach and the Cougars generally run this out of slot formations with the inside receiver running the over route. But the concepts remain the same. Here, Washington State faces a 2nd and 10 on their own 25-yard line against Oregon. They line up with Falk in the shotgun with 20 offensive personnel on the field, using slot formation on the right and a single receiver split outside on the left. Oregon has their base 3-4 defense in the game, and they show Cover 2 before the snap.
Cracraft is the slot receiver on the right and he is tasked with running the crossing route. Notice on the playbook image there is a notation for the Y receiver to settle in the first zone after the Mike linebacker. Here, the Ducks have only two linebackers on the field, so when they drop into their zone coverage, Cracraft throttles down in the zone between the two LBs. This is exactly where Falk finds him:
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The QB places this throw right between the two LBs, and the slot WR is waiting for the football in that soft area of the coverage. The easy pitch-and-catch gives Washington State a fresh set of downs.
Here is another example of this design against California. The Cougars line up with 20 personnel, again with slot formation on the right and a single receiver split to the left. The Golden Bears have their 4-2-5 nickel in the game and walk the extra DB down into a linebacker’s alignment on the weakside of the offensive formation:
The Golden Bears drop into zone coverage here but, initially, linebacker Jalen Jefferson (#7) opens his hips to the slot WR, showing a man coverage look. Cracraft continues across the middle of the field, working behind the second level defenders but remaining in front of the safeties. Falk is able to find his slot WR lurking in the soft area of the coverage:
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Lastly, one more example of this concept, now out of the doubles alignment:
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Washington is the slot receiver on the right and he runs the crossing route. Falk tries to hit a route along the sideline, and the pass falls incomplete.
These are just two of the ways Mike Leach looks to attack a defense. But with the various formations and adjustments that the offense can make with these two basic designs, the Cougars can show a variety of different looks at a defense. You should expect to see the Mesh concept, as well as the Y-Cross design a lot on Saturday night.
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 the Pac-12 Network. Playbook images courtesy of James A. Light.