The Colorado Buffaloes experienced a resurgence in 2016, as they won the PAC-12 South and had their first 10-win season since 2001. There are, obviously, multiple reasons for the return of the Buffs to national prominence. Head coach Mike MacIntyre entered his fifth season in Boulder after steady improvements each season, the defense had four players drafted (plus an additional four as undrafted free agents) and the offense had just 13 turnovers on the season. The Buffs passing game under co-offensive coordinators Darrin Chiaverini and Brian Lindgren thrived in 2016, earning quarterback Sefo Liufau a Reese’s Senior Bowl invite following an impressive final season under center. One way the passing game excelled under Chiaverini, Lindgren, and Liufau was by scheming open and then attacking the middle of the field. The Buffs utilized a variety of play action looks in 2016 to open things up for Liufau over the middle which created throwing lanes, open receivers, and room for yards after the catch.
While play action in general can often help teams throw the ball, the Buffs were especially impressive in how they designed their plays specifically to fool defenders. It was far more than the quarterback putting the ball in view of the linebackers, as Colorado pulled lineman, disguised the mesh point, and moved the pocket during the play action phase to really open up throwing lanes.
This first example from Colorado’s 2016 game against the Michigan Wolverines is a prime example of the creativity in the Buffs’ play design to leave the middle of the field open with play action.
Faced with a 2nd and 7 on Michigan’s 40-yard line late in the first quarter, the Buffs have 12 personnel on the field, with a tight end alone on the left, an inverted slot formation on the right, and a running back on either side of Liufau in the shotgun (one of the backs is a tight end playing as a fullback, thus the 12 personnel listing).
Colorado runs just a two-man route combo, with slot receiver Shay Fields (#1) running a dig route over the middle of the field and outside receiver Bryce Bobo (#4) running a hitch. The play action fake will go to the tailback to Liufau’s right, Phillip Lindsay (#23). However, to further confuse the defense beyond the play fake, Colorado will bring tight end/fullback George Frazier (#5) across the front of the fake as though to secure the backside of the run play. This accomplishes two different things for the offense: Firstly, it further sells the run fake to Lindsay by showing a lead blocker. Secondly, it blurs the view of the mesh point from the linebackers and defensive backs, making it more difficult to decipher whether it’s a run or pass play. Looking at the end zone view in the image below, you can see how Michigan defenders would find it difficult to quickly read who has the ball on this play.
The play fake by Liufau, coupled with the “screen” by Frazier, leads to linebackers Jabrill Peppers (#5) and Ben Gedeon (#42) being pulled into the box and opening the middle of the field for a throw to Fields. The linebacker who was shaded toward Fields in space, Mike McCray (#9), also freezes under Fields’s dig route because of the play action and is subsequently slow to recover and defend the route.
The play action fake affected all three linebackers enough to leave Fields wide open in the middle of the field and Liufau hit him square in the chest. With McCray and the safety chasing him, Fields is able to turn upfield and gain a total of 18 yards and a first down.
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The extra wrinkle that the Buffs added to their play action fooled all three linebackers (including two players drafted in the first four rounds of the 2017 Draft in Peppers and Gedeon) and opened the middle of the field for a relatively easy throw and catch. The simplicity of the other back “screening” the linebackers from seeing the actual ball fake was one of the most common designs Colorado used in 2016, and it wreaked havoc against opposing defenses.
The next creative play action design in the Colorado playbook involves pulling offensive linemen to confuse defenders. In Colorado’s game against Arizona State, the Buffs have 10 offensive personnel on the field facing a 1st and 10 from their own 25 toward the beginning of the second half. Colorado has a double slot formation, and will run a tosser concept to the left of the quarterback.
This play is a great example of how effective the deception the Buffs used in 2016 was. On this play, they pull left guard Gerrad Kough (#68) across the formation, mimicking a power run play while Liufau puts the ball out from the shotgun formation for a ball fake. Lindsay, the running back next to Liufau in the shotgun, doesn’t even turn toward the fake, but instead goes right into pass blocking on the outside. However, the key linebacker in this play – Salamo Fiso (#58) – is still fooled by the pulling guard and vacats the intermediate middle of the field.
In the video below it’s clear he’s being asked to read the offensive guards as run / pass keys here, as the second Kough pulls Fiso flies forward to stop the “run.” This leaves another wide open throwing lane over the middle, and Liufau hits slot receiver Devin Ross (#2) for a 10-yard gain and a 1st down.
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The final deceptive play action design the Buffs utilized with some regularity was a fake toss play. In this example (as with most times they ran this fake toss) the Buffs are in shotgun with 10 personnel against Michigan. The design relies on the running back bubbling out as though going for a toss play, the quarterback exaggerating a fake pitch, and the backside guard pulling to the playside.
Colorado pulling the left guard, Gerrad Kough, is designed to fool the second level defenders, as it looks like he will get out in front of a toss sweep. In reality, he will only move to pass protect in the right C gap, as the center, right guard, and right tackle all block down to the left.The two linebackers in the box on this play – Gedeon and McCray – both bite on the fake, flying toward Lindsay on the fake toss.
Meanwhile, the slot receiver Shay Fields (#1) runs a deep crossing route across the vacated middle of the field. The man in coverage against Field, Jabrill Peppers (#5), sees the beginning of Liufau’s toss fake when he jams Fields at the line of scrimmage.
Liufau hits Fields in space with room to run, resulting in a 21-yard gain. While this play was called back for holding on the center, it’s still a great example of how dangerous the fake toss design is for opposing defenses.
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Expectations Moving Forward
While the loss of Liufau is obviously going to cause a few bumps in the road for the Buffs’ offense, it looks like they should be able to stay the course Chiaverini and Lindgren put them on last season. They return nine starters on offense, including preseason first-team All-Pac 12 OL Jeromy Irwin (starting LT last season, moving to RG this year) and preseason All-Pac 12 second teamers RB Phillip Lindsay and WR Shay Fields. While the new starting quarterback in Boulder will have some big shoes to fill, the Buffaloes’ play action designs should help ease the transition. Not to take anything away from Liufau, but the throws outlined above are all relatively simple and open because of the creativity in Chiaverini and Lindgren’s designs. Colorado will likely regress in overall record this season with such sizable losses on defense, but expect the running game with Lindsay and the creative play action game across the middle of the field to continue to thrive moving forward into 2017 and beyond.