Coaches have tricks to win, using formations and wrinkles to try to deceive opponents. Sean Cottrell looks at what’s in the bag Dino Babers brings to the Syracuse Orange.
Ask any coach in the country to describe what differentiates the great offenses from merely good ones and many will mention red zone efficiency. This is especially true in an age where up tempo spread offenses dominate the college football landscape. Many of these offenses are designed to stretch the field both horizontally and vertically to win in space but, when they get down into the red zone where space is harder to come by, struggle to execute.
Just as important as red zone execution, however, is efficiency on 3rd down, as the offense’s ability to establish drives and keep them alive through all types of situations builds confidence in the players while simultaneously demoralizing the defense – to say nothing of getting a new set of downs!
Luckily for Syracuse fans, it appears as if their new head man, Dino Babers, is well aware of these two important factors in an offense. In 2015, Babers’s Bowling Green team finished seventh in the FBS in touchdown percentage from the red zone by converting over 73% of their red zone appearances into touchdowns. In addition, on the season, the team also converted on just north of 50% of their 3rd down opportunities, good for 5th in the country in 3rd down efficiency.
Let’s explore some of the methods that Babers used in both the red zone and on 3rd down that allowed his Bowling Green team to be so successful in both areas.
One of the ways in which Babers was able to create success in the red zone was through the use of pre-packaged plays. A packaged play is essentially an option play that occurs prior to the snap. On each play, the QB will have multiple options based on the pre-snap alignment of the defense.
In the sequence of plays below from the 2015 MAC Championship game vs. Northern Illinois, the Falcons gained 18 yards and a touchdown on three consecutive plays run from exactly the same formation. It is late in the first quarter and the game is still scoreless. The Falcons line up at the Northern Illinois 18 yard line and in 10 personnel with bunch trips to the top of the screen and a single receiver to the bottom. The Huskies have their 4-2-5 nickel package in the game with one additional defensive back on the field. They have six men in the box, one cornerback down low in press alignment over the single WR, and two CBs in off coverage over top of the formation with a safety cheating down between the box and the sideline to provide support wherever the ball goes.
Quarterback Matt Johnson (#11) will have three options on this play, as well as on the two plays that follow. When the ball is snapped, the outermost WR in trips will turn immediately to the QB for a quick screen while the other two trips WRs block for him. If Johnson sees a numbers advantage to the outside, he should take this option and immediately throw the screen. If the defense sends extra defenders outside to defend the screen and the numbers advantage shifts to the inside, he will then look to hand the ball off to the RB, who will run an outside zone play in conjunction with the offensive line.
Before handing it off, however, he will also execute a read option by reading the backside defensive end and, based on his reaction, has the option to keep the ball and take it himself around the backside edge of the defense.
Prior to the snap, Johnson reads the defense and notices the space given up by the corners over trips and the safety who is split towards the middle of the field. If he can execute the screen quickly, he can get an easy chunk of yards before the safety can get to the sideline to even up the numbers advantage.
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When the ball is snapped, Johnson takes two steps back, sets his feet and fires the ball to WR Gehrig Dieter (#4) taking advantage of the free space given to the trips WRs. Dieter then does an excellent job making one defender miss and then carrying two more for four additional yards and the 1st down.
On the next play, the offense hurries back to the line, which is a crucial component to running packaged plays; in addition to being a key aspect of Babers’s offense as a whole, the tempo prevents the defense from making any personnel adjustments in between plays. The offense again lines up in the same exact formation, but this time the defense makes an adjustment. With Bowling Green now on its 8 yard line, the Huskies try to take away the screen option and align three defenders out wide over the trips formation with a safety five yards behind them and five men in the box.
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This time, the numbers advantage moves to the inside as Northern Illinois leaves only five men in the box. This time, however, knowing that the Huskies are anticipating the outside zone, the Falcons throw a changeup: At the snap, the RB and offensive line run a power play as the center, along with the playside guard and tackle, block down while the backside guard and tackle pull out and around on the power play. Johnson reads the backside DE and decides to hand the ball off to RB Fred Coppet (#28) who follows his blockers down to the 3 yard line.
On the final play of this sequence, the Huskies again put four defenders outside over the trips formation leaving only a five man box.
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With the numbers advantage again being inside, Johnson receives the snap, reads the DE, and hands it off to Coppet, who runs the classic halfback dive behind his offensive line and gets in for the touchdown. In a matter of 39 seconds, the Falcons were able to pick up 18 yards and a touchdown and Northern Illinois was helpless to stop them.
While Babers is widely known for his spread option concepts and constraint plays, he also occasionally tries to win the old fashioned way by capitalizing on advantageous one-on-one matchups. On this next play, it is 1st and goal for the Falcons who are down big to their rival Toledo. The offense puts 22 personnel on the field with two backs and two tight ends in an offset, stacked i-formation with Dieter as the lone WR split wide. The goal on this play is to force the defense to bring extra defenders into the box to account for the heavy run formation which should create a one-on-one matchup for the 6’3, 210 lb Dieter on the outside.
The Falcons get exactly what they want as Toledo responds by stacking 10 defenders in the box and leaving their CB isolated on Dieter.
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Prior to the snap, Johnson calmly counts the defenders in front of him, careful not to tip the defense by looking out towards Dieter before getting under center. He calls for the snap, takes a quick two step drop, and lofts the ball into the air towards Dieter on a fade route. The Toledo CB actually played this perfectly, and yet was left helpless as Dieter made a one handed catch in the end zone for the touchdown.
Creating one-on-one matchups for receivers is a simple concept used by all coaches in different ways but, in this case, it also happens to be a concept that Syracuse might really benefit from in 2016. Prior to his departure from Syracuse, former head coach Scott Shafer put an emphasis on recruiting big bodied WRs. This could be something that Babers can take advantage of and get WRs like Steve Ishmael (6’2, 202) or Jamal Custis (6’5, 224) singled up in the red zone.
The final red zone play we will analyze highlights one of the major staples in Babers’s offense and came in the Falcons 2015 season opener down in Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. The Falcons line up in the shotgun on Tennessee’s 11 yard line with 12 personnel with both tight ends on the line of scrimmage and a WR split to each side of the formation. Tennessee, expecting run, stacks nine men in the box leaving both Bowling Green WRs in single coverage on the outside.
When the ball is snapped, the Falcons will execute a run / pass option (RPO) by reading safety Stephen Griffin (#26) to the backside of the play and either handing the ball off or throwing it based on his reaction.
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At the snap, the offensive line blocks for an inside zone run play while Johnson reads Griffin on the backside. Griffin reads the offensive line and begins to scrape inside to fit his gap on the zone run while Bowling Green TE Hunter Folkertsma (#88) leaks out into the flat. Johnson, seeing Griffin flowing with the zone action, pulls the ball out of the RB’s gut and quick fires the ball outside to Folkertsma who makes the catch and dives into the end zone for the touchdown.
One of the keys to Babers and the Falcons effectiveness on 3rd down throughout the 2015 season was their ability to keep a balanced approach while keeping defenses off balance. With Babers’s spread attack wreaking so much havoc through the air, many don’t realize how much the run game contributed to their success. The aerial attack would often get them a lead, but it was the offensive line and RBs that closed out games. Even when defenses knew they were trying to run the ball though, the Falcons did a great job of keeping them honest with more RPOs.
The next sequence of plays, from the MAC Championship game, is a great example of that – and something that Babers often used to help bolster the run game.
The sequence starts with a Bowling Green first down from its own 48 yard line, nursing a 21-0 lead early in the 3rd quarter. They have 11 personnel on the field in a 3X1 alignment with a slot formation to the wide side of the field and one WR to the boundary. Northern Illinois puts seven defenders in the box, line three defensive backs up over the Falcon WRs leaving a single high safety over the top.
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At the snap, Bowling Green runs the power play again blocking down on playside defenders with the center, guard, and tackle while the backside guard and tackle pull around to the playside and make a path for the Coppet to pick up three yards.
On 2nd down, the Falcons come out in the same formation but then motion TE Derek Lee (#83) across the formation. The Huskies again put seven men in the box and play a Cover 1 with man coverage on the Bowling Green WRs.
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At the snap, the Falcons run a wham play leaving the playside defensive tackle unblocked and allowing him to penetrate the line of scrimmage. Before he can make a play, however, he is met by the backside guard pulling to wham him and kick him outside while Coppet runs right behind the guard and picks up another four yard gain.
There was nothing special about the last two plays except for the fact that it is now 3rd and short and the Huskies really need to make a stop to get the ball back and get back in the game. With Bowling Green up 21 points, only needing 3 yards for another first down and having run the ball on the last two plays, the Huskies might get a little aggressive on the 3rd down trying to stop the run. Babers has the Huskies exactly where he wants them to be and takes advantage of their aggressiveness with an RPO play.
The Falcons again line up in the same formation, and the Huskies keep seven in the box but back off their secondary into a four man shell over the top, while still keeping them close to the line of scrimmage to be able to get downhill and stop the run.
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Johnson calls for the snap, puts the ball into the stomach of the RB who is now running the power play back in the other direction, and makes a quick read on the middle safety. The safety reads the run and takes a few steps downhill, which is just enough movement for Johnson to make up his mind. He pulls the ball back from the RB’s stomach and fires the ball just behind the safety to WR Roger Lewis (#1) who beats his man on a quick slant and goes the distance to put the Falcons up 28-0.
This was just one sequence within this game but Babers liked to do this often, especially when Bowling Green had a lead. They would run the ball on 1st and 2nd down, get into a short 3rd down situation and then let the defense decide how they would like to be beaten. There wasn’t one play or concept that Babers did to make Bowling Green so successful in the red zone and on 3rd down but, rather, a myriad of them. Overall, though, it is Babers’s ability to keep defenses on their heels and attack where they aren’t that led to much of his success at Bowling Green and his previous coaching stops. In a conference with national powers such as Florida State, Clemson, and teams like Louisville, Miami, and North Carolina fighting to get to the next level, it will be difficult for Syracuse to find success often in 2016. While they may be behind those teams from a talent perspective heading into the year, Babers will do his best to make up the difference while bringing an exciting brand of football back to the Carrier Dome.
Follow Sean on Twitter @PhllyDraft. Check out more of Sean’s work here, such as on what Dorian Green-Beckham can do for the Philadelphia Eagles, how coach Bronco Mendenhall gets to the quarterback, how Carson Wentz did in his first preseason game,what Justin Fuente brings to the Virginia Tech Hokies offense, and on Mark Richt and the triangle offense in Miami.
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