This year's Tigers are much like last years Rebels. Ole Miss went 2-10 in 2011, fired the briefly successful Houston Nutt and then in 2012, hired Hugh Freeze, installed a fast-paced offense and went 7-6 with a bowl win. Auburn went 3-9 in 2012, fired the briefly successful Gene Chizik and then in 2013, hired Gus Malzahn and installed a fast-paced offense, hoping to reach at least 7-6 with a bowl win.
Even the head coaches themselves are quite similar. They both use spread-to-run offenses emphasizing pace and misdirection. They both got their head coaching starts at the high school level. Both have become head coaches at SEC schools in a under than a decade since breaking into the college ranks. The visor is their hat of choice, and Steve Spurrier is a fan of both coaches.
They have collaborated so much in the past that it will be hard for one to outsmart the other. The game should come down to execution on the field. What will be interesting to see is if either Malzahn or Freeze will out-think his own team, getting too far from the staple plays.
Two of the staple plays for both teams are the zone read and inverted veer. These plays have been prominent in college football for five to 10 years, so defenses have found answers. But offenses have since found ways to attack those defensive responses, and on goes the evolution of football strategies.
Offensive Test No. 1: Read Option
"Read option" is the term I use to describe any play where the quarterback reads a defender while threatening a handoff to the running back. "Read option" is unfortunately redundant, but the alternative, "zone read", only applies to runs with zone blocking, thereby excluding the inverted veer, which can implement many angle-blocking schemes.
Perhaps Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan best describes the rationale behind reading a defender rather than blocking him. On trying to game plan around Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul:
So when I prepare for these guys, I have to sit all week thinking, How are we going to handle this guy that nobody in the NFL is capable of handling on his own? What's going to be our plan? Normally we put two or three [blockers] on him. Now, you know what my plan is with the zone read? Let's put nobody on him. Let's have not one person on our field touch their best player, and let's just have him sit there.
The zone read is one play that reads the defensive end. At the snap, the quarterback reads the play-side end man on the line of scrimmage, usually defensive end or an overhanging linebacker. The running back aims for the middle of the defense. If the defender takes the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball and escapes outside. If the defender goes wide to contain the quarterback, the running back keeps the ball and runs behind an offensive line zone blocking a defense with one fewer player in the box.
This is a great play for Auburn this year with two "up the middle" backs in Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne. Additionally, Nick Marshall has the speed to get outside when necessary.
The inverted veer is similar, but the quarterback and running back swap directions. The running back crosses in front of the quarterback on the mesh. If the defender goes wide to chase the running back, the quarterback takes it up the middle. When the defensive end stays home to help against the quarterback run, the running back can easily get to the edge, hopefully with great receiver blocking on a corner or safety.
This is a great play for Ole Miss this year. Quarterback Bo Wallace (6'4, 209 pounds) is big enough to gain yards running behind the offensive line, while running back Jeff Scott (5'7 167 pounds) is better suited to find running room outside. Think Cam Newton and Onterio McCalebb in 2010, only not as prolific as that dynamic duo.
Defensive Answer No. 1: Linebacker Scrape Exchange
Of course, there are ways for defensive coordinators to counter the read option. If the offense gains an advantage by making a defender wrong every time, the defense can take away that advantage by having the defender force a specific read by the quarterback. The defender will still be wrong, but the defense as a whole can be prepared to make up for it.
Ideally, the defense wants to force the lesser-talented runner to get the ball, usually the quarterback. One way to do this, particularly against the zone read, is the scrape exchange. The defensive end always crashes down the line of scrimmage, taking away the running back's path. This forces the quarterback to run outside. If done correctly, it also prevents the offensive tackle from reaching the backside linebacker who scrapes (or slides) over to take away the quarterback's path.
Offensive Test No. 2: Arc Blocking
If the defensive end and linebacker are exchanging responsibilities, the easy answer for the offense is to read the linebacker instead. But, as mentioned above, one major reason to use the read option is to avoid having to block a great player at defensive end. This is where the arc block comes in handy.
With the use of an H-back or tight end, the offense can neutralize the scrape exchange by actually blocking the linebacker. The defensive end is still left unblocked, but when the quarterback takes the ball outside, he is protected from the scraping linebacker because of the extra blocker.
Defensive Answer No. 2: Cornerback Blitz
When Gus Malzahn, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones reintroduced the Wildcat formation to modern football while at Arkansas, it created a frenzy that even reached the NFL through the Miami Dolphins two years later. With a running back in shotgun, both offensive tackles on one side of the line, and the quarterback out wide, the formation alone caused defensive headaches. The threat of an outside run stretched defenses wide, and once they were too wide, the inside runs opened up.
Eventually, defenses found that they could contain the outside run with one player, the play-side corner. Because the the quarterback was split out wide, and a running back was receiving the snap. The threat of a passing game was greatly diminished, and the corners weren't as necessary for pass protection. Even the backside corner could provide cutback support.
In a similar fashion, the cornerback blitz can help contain the read-option plays. While the linebacker scrape exchange can confuse offensive players by making them change who they read, the cornerback blitz can confuse them by making them guess who to arc block. The H-back could block the blitzing corner instead of the scraping linebacker, but making this decision after the snap is probably too difficult.
Offensive Test #3: Packaged Plays
If the cornerback is threatening a blitz, it's the perfect time to start using packaged plays. Of course, these plays are so versatile, they can be used against most defenses. This is just the next step in the new option football.
A packaged play is like a read-option play, but multiple reads (both pre- and post-snap) determine which runs or passes are executed. Last year against Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl, Ole Miss actually ran one play from one formation five times for 48 yards and a touchdown in 71 seconds. The same play contained the two runs of a read option and three or four different passing routes. Combined with the hurry up no huddle, packaged plays are particularly deadly.
Both Malzahn and Freeze are well aware of the strengths and weaknesses presented by these strategies, so it will be interesting to see how far they take this chess match.
More from College and Magnolia:
- Wednesdays with (Oscar) Whiskey
- College football viewing guide: Conference shake-up edition
- Auburn Tigers in the NFL: Week 4
- Undercover Barner: Bye week observations
- The College and Mag Show, Episode 5