Big 12 Football: Using RPO in the Redzone

Matty Brown looks at how two Big 12 teams, Baylor and Texas Tech, have used Run Pass Option plays in the redzone this college football season.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Baylor Bears

In Baylor’s more than comfortable 55-7 win against Northwestern, the Bears ran what was essentially the same play twice in the red zone, leading to touchdowns on both occasions. The play has the offensive line run blocking for an inside zone handoff. Meanwhile, the tight end, who is lined up as a halfback, crosses the formation behind the offensive line, as though he is going to seal the edge – as he does in this play:

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Baylor likes to use its tight ends frequently in the run game, often run blocking from the wingback or halfback position.

If the ball is handed off in the first example, then the tight end will set the edge in a split zone look. Meanwhile, the two wide receivers are effectively there to keep the defensive backs away from the play in the event that it is a run. However, it is integral they do not block the defenders downfield unless they are certain the ball has been handed off to the running back, or else they may face a penalty. The same premise applies to the isolated wide receiver, who keeps his eye on the mesh point in order to know whether to run block or prepare to make himself available to his quarterback if the play breaks down.

The ball is thrown if the quarterback, who is reading the edge defender, sees him crashing inside to stop the run. If this read is presented to the passer, he pulls the ball away from the running back and dumps it off to the tight end in the flats – who is often wide open because  the edge defender is playing the run. The quarterback may also execute a box read pre-snap, where he reads the amount of defenders in the box. The greater the number of defenders present in the box, the more likely he is to pass.

4:31 First Quarter, 4th and 4 on Northwestern’s 4. Baylor 10, Northwestern 0.


Baylor first ran this play with 4:31 remaining in the first quarter, facing a fourth down. Before they took a timeout, they came out in a very similar look with the only difference being the side of the quarterback that the running back lined up on. Here, the box read indicates that there are eight men in the box and the Northwestern defense is likely expecting a run play. After the snap, cornerback Keith Watkins II (#3) – who is the edge defender – plays the run as he sees the ball put into the belly of running back Terence Williams (#22). The entire Northwestern defense believed the play was a run, which is understandable given the down and distance.

Recognizing this, quarterback Seth Russell (#17) pulls the ball away from the running back and the handoff fake is executed. Russell, who has read the situation perfectly, has tight end Sam Tecklenburg (#88) wide open for the touchdown.

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8:10 Second Quarter, 3rd and 5 on Northwestern’s 5. Baylor 27, Northwestern 0


The second case of the play differs slightly from the first. This time the formation includes a wide receiver lined up in the slot. The wide receivers also run clearly defined routes: The isolated wide receiver runs a fade, the man in the slot runs a slant and the flanker runs a smoke screen. None of the receivers keep their eye on the mesh point: They will run routes no matter what.

Baylor’s no-huddle offense, which has just run the football for no gain out of a very similar formation, leads to Northwestern’s defense struggling to get into its stances before the snap. This is particularly true of right end Mark Gooden (#55), who is barely set as the ball is snapped. This plays out perfectly for Baylor, as Gooden is the defender Russell is reading. If he crashes down, Russell will keep the football, and vice-versa.

Showing a six-man box, Gooden does indeed play the run. Northwestern, though, has adjusted in comparison to the first example, playing a goal line form of a 3-3-5 defense rather than coming out in a 5-2 front. However, the safety who appears to be responsible for the tight end in the flats if the play is a run fake, Watkins, only comes down to cover the tight end after making one step toward playing the handoff to Williams. By this point, Russell has already released the football, and it is caught by Jordan Feuerbacher (#85), who has enough space to take it into the end zone.

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It is important to consider that this play owes its success, to a large degree, to the fruitfulness of Baylor’s running game. The Bears ran the ball 43 times for 275 yards, averaging 6.4 yards per carry and scoring two touchdowns.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Texas Tech Red Raiders

In Texas Tech’s tough 68-55 loss on the road to Arizona State, the Red Raiders were forced to dive fairly deep into their playbook in an attempt to keep up in this high-scoring shootout. This included an RPO play when they were down 37-27 in the second quarter.

:58 Second Quarter, 1st and 10 on Arizona State’s 13. Arizona State 37, Texas Tech 27


Here, if quarterback Patrick Mahomes (#5) were to execute a pre-snap box read, it would indicate that a running play was a favorable matchup. The Sun Devils’ defense has just five men in the box, and the Red Raiders’ offense has five blockers who will run an inside zone play post-snap. However, Mahomes still decides to pass the football, demonstrating that it is something he saw after the snap that caused him to fake the handoff to his running back Quinton White Jr. (#23) and pass the football.

Indeed, at the start of the play, Mahomes is reading the linebacker, Carlos Mendoza (#43),  who is tasked with covering the slot wide receiver. Mendoza has a heavy focus on the run, and does not even backpedal into coverage. He is responsible for the middle third of the field, yet remains in the same spot for a long time. This leaves huge space in behind for the deep crossing route of slot wide receiver Jonathan Giles (#9). Mahomes sees this, pulls the ball away from running back White Jr. and delivers the pass with reasonable touch. Giles catches the ball away from his frame, eludes the tackle of safety Kareem Orr (#25), and takes the ball into the end zone.

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The RPO has become a staple of up-tempo offenses across the nation. Baylor and Texas Tech are no exception. The RPO gives the offense a unique opportunity to exploit the defense, and always be right. As the 2016 season continues, we can expect to see more RPO wrinkles in each of the teams’ offenses, as well as the rest of the Big 12.

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattyfbrown. Check out Matt’s other work here, such as what RBs to watch in the SECthe Pac 12, and the Big 12, and on Kenneth Dixon and what the Ravens should expect from him this season.

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