When fans watch #10 ranked Oklahoma State kick off their 2017 college football season in a rivalry game against Tulsa, all eyes will be on the offensive duo of quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington. The connection between the pair is integral to the Cowboys’ fortunes. If Washington is isolated, particularly to the field side, you can expect Rudolph to throw the hot route – be it an intermediate out, comeback, or go route. This also extends to shorter passes such as slants and fades.
In addition to this, Head Coach Mike Gundy’s playbook features low-risk wrinkles that keep defenses honest. Creative misdirection is used to quickly get the ball into the hands of the Cowboys’ best playmaker, giving Washington the opportunity to showcase his run-after-catch ability. Furthermore, this builds rhythm and enhances chemistry between Rudolph and Washington.
Bubble Screen RPO
This first play type is one that dominates the Big 12 conference; the run/pass option. As is customary, Oklahoma State runs the play up-tempo with no huddle, leaving the defense scrambling to get properly aligned when defending this 3rd and 1.
Kansas State is only leading by 6, and with 14:06 left in the second quarter, there is still plenty of football to be played. The offense is lined up in a shotgun offset spread formation featuring 10 personnel. Based on the six-man-box look the defense gives them, a run up the middle would be inadvisable as they possess only five blockers.
Instead, the area for the offense to attack is the perimeter, where they have a two-on-two look. This situation gets even better when it becomes apparent that the defense is showing Cover 1 off man coverage. Effectively, James Washington – catching the bubble screen – will have to make only one man miss to pick up the first down, and that defender is 7 yards away from the slot receiver. Plus, by being lined up to the boundary side, the ball will reach its target quicker – leaving the defense with less time to react and the offense with less space to block.
The offensive line run blocking, as well as running back Chris Carson (#32) all-but-running an inside zone, means that the two linebackers making up the six in the box are solely keyed in on the run. It maintains the crucial two-on-two aspect of the play:
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Rudolph makes the correct decision to keep the football and tosses it out to Washington’s bubble route. The receiver makes an excellent catch with the pass well in front of him, maintaining his focus well despite the incoming defender. A good downfield block from the outside receiver, cowboy back (hybrid tight end and fullback) Blake Jarwin (#47), leaves Washington with just one man to beat.
That player is cornerback Duke Shelley (#8), who does a good job recognizing the screen and coming downhill quickly. However, Washington, with the ball in his hands, quickly flashes his elusiveness and explosiveness. He manages to make Shelley overstep and lunge into the tackle. The Cowboys comfortably pick up the first down.
The play, which stressed the defense horizontally, set up the very next snap: A fake wide receiver screen that went to Jarwin up the seam for a touchdown.
Fake Pitch Screen
Disclaimer: This play design made me jump out of my seat. Oklahoma State’s running game features pitches to their backs for certain outside runs. That is what this play-fake exhiliratingly relied upon.
The offense is facing a 1st and 10, down by 3 with plenty of time remaining in the game. This, coupled with their 12 personnel and strong left pistol formation, makes a pitch to the left believable from a defensive perspective.
Indeed, Texas’s defense has six in the box and they blitz five with both of their off-the-ball linebackers playing the run aggressively as well. Rudolph fakes the pitch to the running back, which forces the entire defensive front to flow down to the left:
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This leaves Washington, who was isolated anyway, with even more room on the right. As Rudolph turns into a throwing platform, Oklahoma State’s right tackle Zachary Crabtree (#60) and right guard Larry Williams (#56) do an excellent job oozing in the opposite direction of the flow toward the second level. Rudolph delivers the pass to Washington’s comeback route, with the receiver deserving credit for the way he works back to the ball.
His next task is made much easier by the excellent job that Crabtree does. He saves Washington from having to evade the closest man by getting out to defensive back Sheroid Evans (#1) and cut-blocking him out of the play. This leaves Washington with one linebacker, Chad Whitener (#45), to beat and acres of space down the sideline.
Washington transforms the short pass into an explosive gain, halting Whitener with body feints. As the linebacker desperately tries to break down and attempt a tackle, Washington explodes away from Whitener down the open sideline until he is eventually pushed out of bounds by safety Jason Hall (#31), but not until he’s run for 38 yards.
It is worth saying that this is rather ‘boom or bust’, and it is very dependent on the pitch being a reasonable threat. For instance, with 8:36 remaining in the third quarter, Texas’s defense combatted a fake pitch screen from a different formation far better, stopping it for no gain. To disregard the play for that reason would be short-sighted though. This is all about keeping a defense honest by capitalizing on over-pursuit and thus increasing hesitancy.
On this play, the offense is down by 10 with 13 seconds left in the third quarter. They are in desperate need of a spark on 1st and 10 to aid their chances of a comeback. The Iowa State defense responds to the opposition’s pistol full-house formation with a 4-3 stack front and eight men – including one defensive back – in the box:
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The Cowboys motion cowboy back Blake Jarwin (#47) to the right, which sees the Cowboys linebackers shift to that side and the front become even more weighted to the strong side. A run play to the right – behind the two cowboy backs – is evidently the likely play call. Indeed, the offensive line and the two cowboy backs block this play like a stretch play to the right. Credit to them for selling it well.
As Rudolph hands the ball to running back Barry Sanders (#26), the entire Iowa State defense flows downhill to that side. As Sanders continues to carry the ball, even weakside defensive end Mitchell Meyers (#58) is fully committed to pursuing the ball carrier.
As Washington runs an orbital motion into the landmark for the end around pitch, there is only one Iowa State player who stands a chance of forcing this play back inside: weakside linebacker Willie Harvey (#7).
However, Harvey’s body has also already started moving toward the fake stretch, and outside contain is almost futile seeing as seven defenders are out of the play at this point. It is here that the sheer dynamism of Washington carrying the ball is on display as he takes it directly to the opposite side of the flow. He is constantly accelerating as he weaves through traffic, reading his blocks expertly.
Wide receiver Brandon Harris (#15) gets the job done on a crackback block on safety De-Andre Payne (#1). Payne is coming downhill fast as the alley defender, and Harris’s interference results in him taking a terrible open-field angle on the ball carrier, causing him to lunge into the tackle and miss completely. Harris does an even better job leaking onto Harvey, who he completely removes from the pursuit. The offensive line does well too, with LT Keegan Pullis (#77) showing fantastic athleticism to get to the second level, where he shields cornerback Nigel Tribune (#34) away from Washington.
The ball carrier is eventually rocked by cornerback Brian Peavy (#10). Still, by this point Peavy has had to come across the field to make the tackle, and Washington – thanks to intelligent play design, sound execution, and raw pace – has picked up 16 yards untouched.
Again, the play is based in misdirection. Its very success is dependent on the defense flowing to one side of the play and over-pursuing. Oklahoma State scored on the drive, going on to come back and win the game 38-31.
Going Out with a Bang
The misdirection wrinkles such as the ones analyzed in above will continue to be a part of the Cowboys offense this upcoming season. These will help take the lethal Rudolph-Washington connection to the next level. Both players are seniors in 2017 and are viewed as potential first round picks. They are going to go out with a bang. That’s something all college football fans outside of Oklahoma and the Big 12 can look forward to…