With Carson Wentz’s first-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, evaluators will be looking towards the Big Sky Conference for other talents, and they won’t have to look long. Wentz’s former opponent Montana has a quarterback of their own who is poised for a breakout year, and he has an innovative coach to help him along. Mark Schofield examines the Bob Stitt offense in Montana to see what we can look forward to with quarterback Brady Gustafson this season.
The 2015-2016 college football season kicked off in earnest on an August Saturday, with future first-round selection Carson Wentz and the defending Football Championship Subdivision North Dakota State Bison traveling to Montana to take on the Grizzlies in front of an ESPN audience. While many tuned in to see Wentz for the first time, they came away impressed with quarterback Brady Gustafson, a junior making his first start. The young signal-caller operated head coach Bob Stitt’s offense to near-perfection in Montana’s victory, which came on the final play in a 4th and goal situation.
While many were seeing Gustafson for the first time, it was also a chance to see Stitt’s offense at the FCS level. The former Division II coach brought his up-tempo, single-back offense up a level from the Colorado School of Mines, and did not disappoint. The offense uses a small number of formations, but relies a variety different concepts as well as a frenetic pace – Stitt wants to run 50 plays in a half – to keep defenses on their heels. With Gustafson on many watch lists for the 2017 NFL Draft, and Montana looking to improve on their second-round exit in the FCS playoffs last season, it is worth the time to examine how their offense operates.
Fly Motion and the Fly Sweep
In the first part of this series, we will focus on the ways Stitt’s offense looks to stress a defense horizontally near the line of scrimmage. We can begin with a design that put Stitt on the map – albeit when used by a different team in a big bowl game. In the 2012 Orange Bowl, the West Virginia Mountaineers dropped 70 points on the Clemson Tigers using the “fly sweep” to Tavon Austin over and over again, which prompted a shout-out to Stitt from head coach Dana Holgorsen.
The play is simple in its design. The quarterback stands in the shotgun with a running back to either side. A receiver motions from one side or the other, and is running full speed (and located near one of the guards) when the ball is snapped. The QB can either flip the ball forward to the motion-man on the fly sweep, or run a different play based on his read of the defense. The beauty of this design is that because the ball is tossed forward to the motion-man, if it is dropped because the timing is off, it simply falls to the turf as an incomplete pass.
But as that previous article indicates, many times the motion is window dressing, designed to show the defense the potential fly sweep and then utilize a different concept. As Stitt was quoted in that article “[w]e might run it one time a game,” Stitt concurred, “but we (fake) it all the time as a diversion.”
On this first example from the season-opener against NDSU, the fly motion is window dressing designed to get a defender chasing a receiver, while looking to open up the interior of the defense:
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Montana lines up in one of their standard formations, trips to the left and a single receiver split to the right, using 11 personnel. Gustafson is in the shotgun with a running back to his right. The Bison defense aligns with their base 4-3, and they walk outside linebacker Pierre Gee-Tucker (#47) to the outside over the tight end, who is the inside trips receiver. Prior to the snap wide receiver Chase Naccarato (#5) comes in fly motion, which causes MLB Nick DeLuca (#49) to chase him:
Seeing this, Gustafson puts the football into the belly of his running back, John Nguyen (#20). While the QB might have been better served keeping the ball here, given how the defensive end crashes to the inside, this is a good look at how the fly motion can influence a defense.
They also use the fly motion to set up the passing game. This first example, from Montana’s first-round playoff game against South Dakota State, shows how the offense can attack a defense when they decide to play zone. Using 11 personnel, the offense lines up with Gustafson in the shotgun with a RB to his left, and dual slot formations. WR Ben Roberts (#86) comes in fly motion from the right. Watch as the defense does not send a defender to trail him, indicating zone coverage:
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Seeing this, Gustafson lets the fly motion go past his face and keeps the ball at the snap. He shows inside zone, putting the football in the belly of his running back, but again he keeps the ball and simply flips it to Roberts, who continues toward the sideline on a swing route after carrying out his fly motion. This is a great example of “throwing to grass.” With no defender trailing Roberts, and the slot receivers to the playside releasing vertically at the snap before blocking, there is no one in the flat to stop the WR before he picks up a big gain.
Here is another example of that look from Montana’s first game against NDSU. Facing a 2nd and 10 on their own 39-yard line, the Grizzlies line up with 11 personnel using dual slot formations, and the running back aligned to the left of Gustafson. The Bison base 4-3 defense shows Cover 2 at the snap, and they walk both outside linebackers to the outside:
At the snap Gustafson takes the ball and runs the inside zone read, letting the fly motion receiver pass him. He reads the defensive end, who crashes to the outside to take away the quarterback keep option. But the QB also sees the OLB to the playside, who slides toward the middle of the field in response to the potential inside zone run:
This gives the playside slot WR a better angle to execute a block. With that OLB sliding inside, this creates an opportunity for Gustafson to simply flip the ball to the outside, to his fly motion receiver:
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The slot WR gets a good block on that linebacker, while the outside receiver is able to get a block on the cornerback. The fly motion receiver catches the toss almost seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, but with room to get a full head of steam he cuts upfield for a six-yard gain, and the safety is the player who needs to scream forward for the tackle.
While part two of this series will focus more on the vertical passing game, I want to illustrate just one example of how fly motion is incorporated into the downfield part of Montana’s attack. On this snap against NDSU, the Bison are in Tampa 2 coverage, meaning MLB DeLuca is required to turn toward the eventual three receiver side and get vertical at the snap to try and cover the intermediate zone in the middle of the field, to help the two-deep safeties:
The Grizzlies use fly motion here, with the left slot WR coming across the formation before the snap. They run three vertical routes on the play. Watch as the combination of fly motion, with a potential inside zone run, stresses the MLB:
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DeLuca is a step late getting into his zone drop, which allows the slot WR to run a seam route attacking that zone between the two deep safeties. With additional vertical routes on each side of the formation to the outside, the deep defenders widen. And with the MLB a step late, he cannot prevent the big completion.
Because of the near-legendary status of the fly sweep, Stitt and his offense can use the threat of that play to set up other opportunities in both the running and passing game.
The Screen Game
In addition to the plays using fly motion, Stitt’s offense makes very effective use of the screen game to stretch defenses from sideline to sideline. The first way is with the tunnel screen, although Stitt adds a few tweaks to this basic design that look to delay the reaction of defenses trained to sniff out these plays. When teams run a tunnel screen to trips, for example, defenders are taught to recognize blocking movements by receivers and seek the screen man. So rather than have his receivers simply block the defender across from him, the two inside receivers to trips show the defense a switch verticals look at the snap:
Stitt calls this the “Rub” tunnel screen. Effective against even man press coverage, this is how the designs looks in action. With the football in the red zone, the Bison defense shows blitz, with straight Cover 0 across the board. To the trips side the CB and the nickelback are in press man coverage, while the safety aligns in off man coverage over the #2 receiver. Montana runs the rub tunnel screen, and it sets up perfectly:
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The inside trips receiver releases to the outside to block the CB over the target, while the #2 receiver flares to the inside of the field to block. The movement works exactly as designed, giving the offense solid blocks on two of the defenders, and forcing the unblocked defender to make a play.
The only problem is, the ball needs to be caught.
Like many college teams, Montana utilizes a number of packaged plays in the screen game, setting up a bubble or tunnel screen to both sides of the field, or perhaps a bubble/tunnel option to one side, with a simple RB screen to the other. On this first example against NDSU, the offense sets up the tunnel screen to the right, with a simple RB screen to the left:
This also has the same “switch” design as the rub screen. The outside receiver blocks to the inside, while the slot receiver release vertically. This has a two-fold effect. First, the vertical route runs off the OLB and occupies the playside safety. Second, when the outside WR crashes to the inside, he draws the CB inside, while the MLB is in position for a crack block from the receiver:
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As you might also notice, in these screen designs none of the linemen release downfield. Stitt’s reason for this is that defensive linemen are often very well coached and athletic, so when the offensive linemen release to block in the screen game, their counterparts are usually perceptive enough – and quick enough – to track these plays down from behind.
Here’s another look at this design, although this time the Bison sniff it out:
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The defense does a good job this time of passing off the receivers. The CB stays on the outside WR as he cuts inside, then passes him off to the MLB and rotates back to the outside, picking up the RB and preventing him from picking up the first down.
But the Montana offense also gets the running game involved when they show screen. First, they can use the RB himself on these plays. On their first offensive play against South Dakota State, the Grizzlies line up using trips to the right with 11 personnel. The running back stands to the right of Gustafson in the backfield. The Jackrabbits have their 4-2-5 defense aligned in Cover 2, and walk the SLB outside between the right tackle and the #3 receiver. Notice how this creates a natural bubble over the left guard and left tackle in the box:
At the snap the offense shows a bubble screen to the trips side, but given the presnap alignment shown by the defense, and how the DE crashes outside at the snap, Gustafson simply hands the football off to his running back, who exploits the presnap bubble for a solid gain on first down:
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While Gustafson will never be confused for more athletic running QBs, the design of Stitt’s offense still gives him opportunities to pick up yardage on the ground based on defensive alignment before the play. Here is how this works. On this example the Grizzlies face a 2nd and 9 on the Bison 39-yard line. They line up with Gustafson in the shotgun and trips to the right. By this point in the game NDSU has switched to their 4-2-5 defense, and they show Cover 2:
This gives Gustafson the interior ratio he wants. Now the defense has five defenders in the box, and with five offensive linemen in front of him, he has a “hat on a hat.” So the QB simply takes the snap, waits for a beat, and then tucks the football upfield on the quarterback draw:
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As stated at the beginning of the article, Montana pulled off the upset over NDSU on the final play of the game. During that drive, they weren’t afraid to use this design for Gustafson. Facing a 2nd and 10 on their own 31-yard line with just over a minute left, the offense lines up with trips to the left, and sends the RB in motion to that side. Again, Gustafson gets the ratio he wants up front, and with his five ready to block their five, the QB takes the snap and attacks the defense:
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Gustafson picks up six-yards, helping set the stage for the thrilling conclusion.
Having covered some of the methods Stitt’s offense attacks a defense horizontally, we turn to the vertical passing game in part two, where we will see some of the downfield concepts that Gustafson will implement in the coming season.