Sometimes one player can take over a game when they find an advantageous matchup. That’s exactly what happened for Mississippi State wide receiver Fred Ross against Texas A&M, as Mark Schofield explains.
When the initial college football playoff standings were announced this week, the biggest surprise was the inclusion of Texas A&M at the number four spot. While the Aggies entered this week at 7-1 (with their only loss to Alabama on the road) and 4-1 in the conference, some were surprised that Washington had been left out of the final four. Nevertheless, TAMU and their fairly favorable late season schedule seemed to put them in position for a chance at a title run.
Someone forgot to tell Mississippi State.
Led by their relentless ground game the Bulldogs knocked off the Aggies 35-28. While their ground game was solid, quarterback Nick Fitzgerald played a big role as well. The sophomore QB ran for 182 yards and two touchdowns, but also threw for two scores. On both of the passing touchdowns, Mississippi State was able to get receiver Fred Ross isolated on single coverage, leading to big play opportunities.
Facing a 1st and 10 on their own 40-yard line early in the second quarter, the Bulldogs line up using 11 personnel and put Ross (#8) wide to the left with wide receiver Malik Dear (#22) in the slot inside of him. The offense uses a wing look to the right, and running back Aeris Williams (#27) stands to the right of Fitzgerald (#7), who is in the shotgun. The Aggies have their 4-2-5 nickel defense showing Cover 1 in the secondary:
As you can see from the rotation, Donovan Wilson (#6) was in the slot over Dear, but he drops to the deep safety spot, while Armani Watts (#23) moves from the deep safety position toward the right side of the offense. The backside cornerback drops from press coverage into an off man position as well. All this movement leaves cornerback DeShawn Capers-Smith (#26) on an island with Ross.
The Bulldogs use a max protection scheme here, with Fitzgerald faking a sweep to Dear before choosing from two vertical routes, including one from Ross:
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Looking at the replay angle, you can see the jam from the cornerback initially, but Ross breaks free from the contact and works to the outside before accelerating vertically. As the WR turns on the jets, he is able to outrun the defender and get the separation he needs. This, plus the pre-snap movement that put the defender on an island with Ross, puts the offense in position for the big play:
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That touchdown extended MSU’s lead to 21-7, but the Fitzgerald to Ross connection was not done for the day. Later in the second quarter the Bulldogs face a 2nd and goal on the Aggies’ 7-yard line. Again they use 11 offensive personnel, but this time they start with three receivers to the right and Ross again alone to the left. On this play, they motion Williams out toward the right as well, giving the offense four receivers on that side of the field. Again, this puts Capers-Smith on an island with no help to the inside:
The CB is stuck between a rock and a hard place, just look at his feet presnap. He is expecting a fade route, and has his feet staggered to give him a head-start on the turn to the back corner of the end zone. But he also knows that he has no help to the inside as well, so the slant route is a possibility. When the ball is snapped, he decides to slowly backpedal straight back, rather than jam and try and force Ross to one side or the other.
Ross takes advantage – of both the formation and the decision(s) from Capers-Smith – and gets inside immediately on the slant route:
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The replay angle gives a good look at how the CB was left alone, and without many good options:
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This score pushed the Bulldogs’ lead to 28-7, and they withstood the second half rally from the Aggies to salt the game away. With the win Mississippi State improved to 4-5 on the year, keeping them in bowl contention, while the loss from TAMU erases any national championship dreams. But these two plays illustrate how pre-snap movement and formation can often put a cornerback on his own, without any good options to choose from.
Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his other work here, such as how Alabama passes to attack the flat, Seth Russell’s processing speed, or how LSU runs play action.
All film courtesy of ESPN.