Winning football games is often about adjustments and adjustments to adjustments. Philip Kibbey breaks down a key adjustment Stanford made on defense to hold on for a win.
The Stanford Cardinal entered the 2016 season coming off of one of their best seasons in school history, finishing third in both the final AP Poll and Coaches Poll. One of their strengths last year was head coach David Shaw’s defense that ranked third in overall yards allowed and fourth in rushing yards allowed in the Pac-12. That unit would be tested by Kansas State in the season opener in Palo Alto.
The Wildcats’ head coach Bill Snyder is as an offensive innovator who Urban Meyer credits with inventing the zone read. But for Snyder, the only constant is change. He has successfully navigated the Big 12 using the triple option, speed option, zone read, and spread offense concepts. Like many great coaches, he adjusts his offensive scheme to his personnel. But if there is a common thread among Snyder-coached offenses, it is that he uses the threat of the quarterback running to set up the pass.
That common thread held true against Stanford. Down 17-6 with around 5 minutes left in the 3rd quarter, Snyder started mixing option-based concepts into the game. One such play was the speed option. But it was only run twice, because Stanford was prepared for it the second time, with outside linebacker Joey Alfieri quickly adjusting and stuffing the play for lost yardage.
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The speed option is a simple concept that can yield explosive results. Although in this game Snyder ran the speed option out of the shotgun, it can be run from under center as well.
The play hinges upon the QB reading an unblocked defensive end or OLB and deciding whether to pitch it to the running back or keep it to take off upfield. On the side of the line where the option will develop, the offensive tackle (and tight end if run to the strong side) immediately break to block at the second level, leaving the defensive end in a 4-man front or OLB in a 3-man front unblocked. The QB then reads this unblocked defender. If the defender heads straight toward the QB, the ball is pitched to the RB who will attempt to turn the corner and head upfield. If the defender moves to seal off the RB and the outside lane, the QB will keep it and scamper upfield in the crease created between the OT / TE and the WRs. The play is efficient and a staple of many college offensive systems.
The first time it is run in this game comes at the end of the third quarter. Kansas State is facing a 2nd and 4 from the Stanford 33-yard line down 17-6. They line up with 11 personnel with two WRs split wide to the right and the tight end lined up with the offensive line on the right as well. A single WR splits out left and the quarterback, backup Joe Hubener (#8), is in the shotgun with the RB to his right. Stanford counters with their 3-3-5 nickel package showing a single-high safety.
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As the ball is snapped, the right tackle and TE break for the second level, looking to seal off the middle linebacker and any defender moving toward the play. This leaves Joey Alfieri unblocked. The OLB bursts into the backfield and heads straight toward Hubener, who upon seeing this, quickly pitches the ball to the RB – who now has nearly 10 yards of empty space to run through. The result is an easy 10-yard gain for the offense.
The next time we see this play is with 6:54 remaining in the 4th quarter with the same score, 17-6 Stanford. Kansas State is pinned back at their own 10-yard line, facing a crucial 3rd and 1. If the Wildcats want any chance at a victory, a conversion is needed and the drive finished off with a score. The offense comes out with the same exact formation and personnel, but this time starting QB Jesse Ertz (#16) is manning the offense. Snyder decides to run the speed option to the weak side, hoping to quickly get the RB out in space on the pitch to pick up an easy third down conversion.
But this time, Stanford is prepared.
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As the ball is snapped, defensive end Eric Cotton (#80) shows great burst off the line and puts the left guard on skates back into the QB negating any chance of Ertz keeping the ball. However, Ertz still has the pitch available to the RB. But this time, Alfieri is ready and immediately recognizes the speed option, sitting between the QB and RB to ensure that the RB, even if he received the pitch, would not gain the edge. The result is Ertz pulling the ball back and looking for an outlet on the backside of the play. But there is none to be found and he is sacked.
Great defensive performances are predicated on players recognizing plays and making the necessary adjustments, especially on those that are designed to pick up big yards in a hurry. If Alfieri would have attacked the QB on the second play, Kansas State would have likely picked up a first down and had an opportunity to march down the field to pull within one score. But the sack resulted in a punt that allowed Stanford to control the field position battle as the game clock wound down, helping to ensure that their lead would never be relinquished.
Follow Philip on Twitter @ITPPhilip. Philip Kibbey has written about the Patriots tipping the Broncos’ defense, taking advantage of a miscommunication by the defense, and inflection points.
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All video and images courtesy Fox Sports 1.