The Arizona Wildcats under head coach Rich Rodriguez have consistently fielded one of the strongest rushing offenses in the Pac-12. In 2016, they ranked at the top of the conference, totalling 237 yards per game on the ground. This is a combination of both their running backs and quarterbacks’ ability to run the ball, as Rodriguez is seen as one of the pioneers of the zone read play which involves both position groups in the running attack. In 2016, Wildcats quarterback Brandon Dawkins was the team’s leading rusher with 944 yards, and he had the seventh-most rush yards of any FBS QB.
Rodriguez talked about his run game philosophy at a coaching clinic, and how what the defense gives the offense dictates the play call much of the time. While his offense is built around the run game, specifically the zone read play, the pass game also plays a large role, especially with the recent influx of RPO designs into college offenses that can be added to zone read plays.
The Arizona offense has a number of complex designs to run the ball with either a RB or a QB, but at its heart Rodriguez’s offense is built around three factors: “Numbers, angles and grass”
The Numbers, Angles, Grass philosophy Rodriguez bases his offense around is a simple way to prevent overthinking an offensive play call. The “Numbers” aspect essentially calls for a count of defenders in each area of the field. If the defense has a glaring weakness in one spot, then that’s the place to attack.
Rodriguez essentially decides the play based on what the defense gives him in the box. If the offense has the same number of blockers as defenders in the box (i.e. 5 OL vs. 5 box defenders, 5 OL and 1 TE vs. 6 box defenders, etc.) then the offense should run the ball. The offense would have a blocker for every box defender and it gives a coordinator their pick of the play sheet.
Using an example from an Arizona game in 2016, let’s see this situation play out. We’ll start in Arizona’s game against Washington, where the Wildcats face 1st and 10 at their own 25. Arizona runs an empty look from 10 personnel with a single receiver left and trips to the right. Washington responds with a four-man front and a total of five defenders in the box.
So it’s 5-on-5 up front. The “Numbers Rule” says it should be a run. And it is, specifically an inside zone run that goes for 12 yards and a first down.
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Let’s look at what happens if the defense adds a defender to the box, giving them an advantage, but also keeping one more defender in the backfield to defend the pass than the offense has wideouts. This would appear to prevent run defense weaknesses and force a pass against a possible Cover 1 scheme, but Rodriguez has an answer to this numbers question as well.
In the coaching clinic this presentation was given, Rodriguez says of a man advantage in the box for the defense: “You can still run it, if you’re running zone read.”
What does this mean? Rodriguez is saying is that going with a zone read play essentially adds a “blocker”. Whatever the read defender that the quarterback is basing his keep / give decision on does on the play should take them out of contention for a tackle. If the defender (usually a defensive edge) protects the edge, then the quarterback gives the ball to the running back and “blocks” the defender with the initial threat of the outside run. If the defender slides in to take on the zone run, the running back is the one taking the defender out of the play while the quarterback runs the ball. Either way, the zone read adds a blocker to the mix for the offense, reverting the numbers game back to an advantage for a run on offense.
Here we can see Arizona utilize this exact idea in their game against Utah in 2016. The Utes defense has the numbers advantage in the box, with six defenders against five blockers.
Arizona runs zone read here, with the offensive line blocking in unison to the right while quarterback Khalil Tate (#14) opens to his left to read the DE. Pita Taumoepenu (#50) is left unblocked and forced to pick his poison off the edge, as he’s really in a lose-lose situation here. If he defends the possible outside run from Tate, he leaves his teammates in a 5-on-5 situation inside, which Rodriguez knows in an advantage for the offense. If he looks to defend the zone run from the RB, then the edge is wide open for Tate to get to the second level.
Taumoepenu ends up sliding inside against the zone run, and Tate pulls the ball to the outside. Rodriguez’s numbers game works again, this time for a gain of 9.
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The next step in Arizona’s run game philosophy is “angles”. Once you’ve looked at the numbers in the box, Rodriguez’s game plan dictates that if you’re going to run the ball, run it with advantageous angles.
What this means is pretty simple, and it really only applies against four-man fronts. In most four-man fronts, there will be two edge defenders, playing anywhere from defensive 5-techniques out to wide-9 techniques. The key to Rodriguez when calling a run play is interior two defenders, who most of the time will be aligned with one DT as a 3-technique and one DT as a 1-technique. This decision-making process only applies though, when the defense behind the defensive linemen is equal to each side. If they’re overloaded to one side of the field, it makes sense to run it to the other side, regardless of the 1 and 3 techniques. Arizona’s offense is designed around attacking and running to the side of the 1-technique when the defense is equal, because it creates better angles.
If you need to open a hole to one side of your offensive line, it’s much easier for an guard to block down on a 1-technique rather than trying to reach block a 3-technique. There is more room for them to gain the angle from the side and control the defender to wash them out of the play. In the picture below you can see the angle advantage running toward a 1-technique has for any offense compared to attacking the 3-technique.
You can see the kind of angles running at a 1-technique creates in this example from Arizona’s game against BYU. The Cougars essentially have an even front here, but the two edge defenders are both in 2-point stances. Inside, the Cougars have a 1-technique and a 3-technique against the Arizona OL. To the offensive left is the 1-technique, and to the offensive right is the 3-technique. Arizona runs inside zone to their right, with the left guard tasked with blocking the 1-tech and the right guard taking the 3-technique.
The LG for Arizona is able to gain a superior angle on the BYU 1-tech, the LT takes on the blitzing LB and the edge defender is too wide to make a play on the RB.
The result is a big touchdown run from RB Nick Wilson, largely due to the ease with which the LG was able to wash the 1-technique inside and out of the play.
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The above situation dealt with “even” or four-man fronts, where Rodriguez believes the angles are there to attack a 1-technique. However, when a team runs a three-man or “odd” front, there usually aren’t angles to attack, as most odd defenses are based in a 3-4 Okie front, with a 0-technique nose tackle and two 5-techniques over the offensive tackles. If the numbers tell you to run, but the angles don’t dictate which way, what should you do?
You run to the grass. All else being equal, if you’re running the ball and the angles don’t dictate which way to run, then you run to the wide side of the field (aka the field side). When facing an odd front, there aren’t the same angles to attack the defense as those present in an even front. Just look at the image below of Colorado’s 3-4 Okie front, where there is a 0-tech with two 5-techs, and there isn’t a clearly better way to run the ball.
With the wide hash marks used in college football, there is much more room running to the field side rather than the boundary side. It’s a pretty simple concept to run to the wide side of the field if there isn’t a clear advantage for the offense one way or another, especially for a team like Arizona. The Wildcats are a spread-based team that highly values athleticism on offense, and more often than not, their athletes will win in space, thus running to the grass.
Using an example from the same 2016 Colorado game as the image above, you can see Rodriguez decide to run to the wide side of the field when Colorado presented no advantageous matchups or angles up front.
Colorado is in a 3-3-5 defense, with a safety dropped down over the slot receiver in a hybrid outside linebacker / strong safety role. They have a 0-technique nose tackle directly over the center, with a 5-technique defensive end, outside linebacker/safety, and an inside linebacker to either side of the center. This presents a totally equal defense against Arizona’s front, with no advantageous angles.
Arizona then, sticking to the numbers, angles, grass run philosophy, decides to run to the wide side of the field where the grass is. It’s an outside zone run, and running back Samajie Grant (#10) gets in the open field for a huge gain.
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Pass Game Implications
Arizona is a run-first offense, and if the numbers or angles are there, they’ll more likely than not run the ball. However, their run game philosophy has a few passing game implications, and they’ve incorporated the air game into their spread offense well.
Going off the “numbers” running rule, Rodriguez had one tidbit to add on the passing game. If the defense has two more players than offense in the box (i.e. 5 OL vs. 7 defenders) then they’re running Cover 0 and you have to throw the ball. While a run-first coach, Rodriguez understands that if the defense is going to load the box and run man coverage with no safety help, you need to be able to consistently pass the ball and make them drop more players into coverage.
The other thing Rodriguez has incorporated into recent years is post-snap RPOs off zone read plays. As discussed above, Rodriguez believes you can run the ball if the defense has one more box defender than you have blocker if it’s a zone read play. He’s added RPO plays to this distinction, where if the quarterback keeps the ball he then has the option to run it himself or throw it a receiver, usually on a bootleg design with receivers flowing to the sidelines.
Here’s an example of Arizona building RPO designs into the numbers game, from their game against BYU.
The Cougars defense has seven in the box, showing blitz, against Arizona’s five linemen and one tight end. They run a zone read play, with QB Anu Solomon (#12) opening to his right and reading the outside linebacker. The OLB and blitzing ILB both hesitate for just a moment at the exchange, causing Solomon to boot outside. The QB is under pressure immediately, but is able to get a pass off to tight end Josh Kern (#17) who ran a quick flat route as part of the RPO design.
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Arizona’s run-first philosophy has led to be one of the most prolific run games in the entire Pac-12 conference. While the team itself has struggled in recent years, the 2017 Wildcats look poised to once again dominate on the ground behind quarterback Brandon Dawkins and a healthy Nick Wilson, just so long as they stick to numbers, angles, and grass.