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Football Strategy 101: Louisiana State vs. West Virginia

How the Tigers can defuse Dana Holgorsen's brilliant offense

The intrigue surrounding Les Miles, Louisiana State’s coach, and Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia’s first-year head coach, has little to do with what their teams have done on the field. When they play each other Saturday in Morgantown the public will know them as football coaches, but also as something closer to memes. There is Miles, The Mad Hatter, with a 10-gallon ball cap on his head and blades of stadium grass dangling from his lips, mismanaging a timeout to call a miraculous fake field goal that wins an SEC road game; and there is Holgorsen, Holgo the Barbarian, stray wisps of quasi mullet fluttering in the wind as he chugs a Red Bull on the sideline, calling a play-action bomb to one of three or four receivers. But that’s the fun side. There are also darker insinuations. Miles’ late-game antics have not always been successful, and there are times when one wonders if the captain is still manning the ship. Holgorsen, for his part, wasn’t even supposed to be West Virginia’s coach. He was hired as an offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting under Bill Stewart, but then over the summer things got weird. Holgorsen was publicly reprimanded by the university after being kicked out of a casino. Then accusations arose that Stewart had been calling the media to “dig up dirt” on Holgorsen. Before long, Stewart was fired for apparently undermining the program and Holgorsen was elevated to head coach, simultaneously becoming (I would hope) the first person ever to get kicked out of a casino and then get promoted as a result.

Both coaches come into Saturday’s game with sparkling résumés. In Les Miles’ case, one need only point to a BCS championship in 2007 and his record in close football games. For Holgorsen, the proof is in the staggering numbers and wins produced by the offenses he has helped orchestrate. He spent nine years at Texas Tech under Mike Leach, including the latter years as offensive coordinator, where the offenses produced 4,000- and 5,000-yard passers and 1,000-yard receivers with an unprecedented frequency. For the past three years, Holgorsen ran his own show as offensive coordinator at Houston and then at Oklahoma State, where his offenses were arguably even better, averaging more than 540 yards and 42 points per game. Nothing was more impressive than the job he did last season at Oklahoma State, which lost most of its starters on offense and still averaged 44 points per game and 10 wins in the Big 12.

Miles and Holgorsen are special not just because they play completely different styles of football than their opponents do, but also because they know when to adhere to football orthodoxy. Miles is sometimes described as some kind of idiot-savant who lucks into wins, but this year’s LSU Tigers are not winning fluke victories. They are employing an efficient combination of a physical if not terribly explosive offense and possibly the best defense in the country.

Dana Holgorsen’s brand of football presents a unique challenge for LSU, and not just because the game is in Morgantown. The reason Holgorsen’s offenses have performed so well is that, despite his seemingly laissez-faire attitude, the coach is a perfectionist when it comes to executing his offense. Stances, techniques, routes, reads, and audibles are practiced until they become second nature. If the Mountaineers offense has an internal slogan, it’s “If you’re thinking, you’re not playing”. So far this year they have averaged more than 430 yards and 42 points per game, more than 60 yards and almost 17 points better than last season.

Holgorsen runs a version of the “Air Raid” offense, which he learned under Hal Mumme, first as a receiver at Iowa Wesleyan and then as an assistant coach at Valdosta State. Mumme liked to say the goal of the Air Raid was to “throw the ball short to people who score.” The offense aimed to put “speed in space” in a way that could allow any quarterback to succeed. Holgorsen’s offenses have been based on the same framework, structure, and practice methods he learned from Mumme and Leach (another Air Raid progenitor), except that the mantra behind it has apparently been trimmed to one word: Score.

The full history of the offense is better recounted elsewhere, but for Holgorsen’s purposes, the Air Raid can be distilled into three principles: simplicity, repetition, and freedom.

Simplicity means that the offensive package — often thought of as the playbook, which for NFL teams could run to hundreds of pages — gets reduced to the bare essentials. For Holgorsen and the rest of the Air Raid spawn, there is no written playbook. Throwing the ball against a variety of coverages and fronts is hard enough, but overloading your players with sight reads, multiple protection schemes, and shifting assignments makes the whole endeavor nearly impossible for 18- to 22-year-old players. This simplicity makes repetition possible. Indeed, Holgorsen installed his core offensive package at West Virginia in a measly three days; the rest of spring practice and fall camp was spent repeating those three days over and over to perfect the scheme, with additional wrinkles judiciously added.

Freedom is the final element. Holgorsen allows his players a staggering degree of freedom at the line, not just to get out of bad plays but also to find the right ones. This is rather shocking: Sure, maybe Peyton Manning or Tom Brady have the green light to make these calls, but college kids? In Holgorsen’s offense, however, it makes sense. The quarterback must succeed for the team to go, and he knows his own strengths better than anyone, including the coach. Moreover, there are things that only the quarterback can see at the line. He’s right in the action; he can make adjustments and respond to the defense in ways his coach, who’s stuck on the sideline, cannot. Many spread, no-huddle teams nowadays have their offenses line up and then look toward the sideline to receive additional instruction. This allows coaches to get a look at the defense, but defenses also make adjustments during this time, so the offense rarely gains the upper hand. The Air Raiders skip that step and rely on the quarterback to make smart decisions. So far, West Virginia’s Geno Smith has done an excellent job — good enough to average 336 passing yards with seven touchdowns, 8.5 yards per pass attempt, and only one interception this season.

Holgorsen has found ways to modify the basic Air Raid framework and fit it to his liking. For starters, while Leach used four wide receivers and a single running back on nearly every play at Texas Tech, Holgorsen’s offense uses more variation, specifically in the number of running backs. Holgorsen’s “Diamond” backfield set involves a single running back behind the quarterback and two blocking backs to either side of the quarterback, one of whom often motions to one side or the other. Its purpose is to force the defense to cover the inside to protect against a power run, thereby opening up individual matchups on the outside.

Another wrinkle Holgorsen has used is “early” motion to a running back, who lines up next to the quarterback, but just before the snap begins to run full speed toward the sideline (often on the opposite side of the quarterback, thus interfering with the defense’s keys). If the defense doesn’t react, Holgorsen often calls a screen pass to the back. He also uses this set to amplify traditional Air Raid concepts. For example, one of the staples of the offense is the “Y-Cross,” in which the slot or “Y” receiver runs a deep crossing route across the field. The goal is to flood the weak side of the formation. Many defenses rotate to take away the strong side of a formation because that’s where the receivers are; as soon as they do that, Y-Cross can hit for a big play on the backside. The play has been adopted widely by NFL coaches, and it’s one of Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s favorites.

On the play, the split end, or “X,” runs a vertical route to draw deep coverage. The Y receiver splits the two near linebackers — under the strongside linebacker and over the top of the middle linebacker — and then to cross the formation. He’s looking to either break away from man-to-man coverage or find a window in the zone. The running backs check first for a blitz, but if there is none, they run their routes. In this instance, they run flat routes to either side to give the back extra freedom to get open. On the backside, the flanker, “Z”, runs a “Dig” route, meaning he runs straight upfield for 10 yards then breaks to the post for five before sprinting across the field at 15. He, too, will look for open space against zone coverage or run away from man-to-man defense. The quarterback reads the side of the cross, from the deep route by X to the cross by Y to the flat to his left. If those receivers are covered or if the defense rotates to the weak side, the quarterback knows he can look to the dig.

Holgorsen’s version gives a few different looks to the defense. Namely, the running back to the quarterback’s right goes in “early” motion just before the snap to the left, while the runner to the quarterback’s left fakes a run. The quarterback’s job is to sell the play-action fake to hold the safeties and linebackers — and to hopefully get a bigger play. The traditional Y-Cross has big-play potential but is really a ball-control play. In Holgorsen’s offense, there are ball-control passes and kill-shots, and with this one, he’ll settle for ball control but he’s looking for the kill.

Take this play and its built-in adjustments, multiply it across 10 or 15 other plays, and there’s Holgorsen’s offense: Simple, heavily practiced, and adaptable. This aspect is very similar to the Mumme/Leach Air Raid, but the Holgorsen system has its differences. Leach’s offense was dynamic, but often felt like death by a million shallow crosses — short, crossing patterns by receivers running in various directions. But all those quick, breaking routes can give away the play’s intention. If a receiver breaks for a shallow within his first or second step, the defense can adapt to the play by double-covering other receivers. On the other hand, if every pass play looks the same — the receivers begin almost all plays by running vertically up the field — then the defense has nothing to key, and the likely result will be an open receiver. The biggest change Holgorsen made to the Air Raid playbook has been to eschew the shallow crosses (he still uses them sometimes, but mostly as adjustments) in favor of routes that push downfield. Several Air Raid disciples tweaked the offense with more shallow routes — that is, by being more spread. Holgorsen went the other way. He brought backs into the backfield, added play-action fakes, and made his pass patterns all look the same. And now the Air Raid is even deadlier.

Les Miles may be intense and mercurial, but underneath all that is an offensive mind. As a player at Michigan, he was a lineman; his entire coaching career prior to becoming a head coach was on the offensive side. With LSU’s defense, Miles sets the basic plan and execution, but defensive coordinator John Chavis handles the details.

Chavis prefers to run a standard 4-3 defense, and with the talent available at LSU he has been able to do that on most plays. So far this season, the Tigers have held Top-25 opponents Oregon and Mississippi State hundreds of yards below their rushing averages. LSU will probably start off against West Virginia with a similar defensive scheme. But Holgorsen’s offense chews up conventional defenses; Smith and his receivers will find the gaps in a zone or break down man-to-man coverage. Indeed, many a defensive coordinator has seen Holgorsen’s offense drop video-game numbers on them by thinking that all you need to do is “hit a guy in the mouth” a couple of times and the whole thing will fold. That’s not to say that being physical with the offense isn’t part of the plan — it surely is — but Holgorsen and his staff do such a good job preparing for a variety of looks and adjusting to new ones that no defense, not even one as talented as LSU’s, can expect to show up and win.

But Chavis is not without answers. For years, he’s had a package in his game plan that seems perfectly designed to deal with Holgorsen’s wide-open assault. Chavis and his players call it the “Mustang package.” The difference between his normal defense and the Mustang is personnel: It includes three linemen, two linebackers, and six defensive backs, many of whom roam and shift before the snap to disguise their intentions. It’s a similar defensive look to one that other coaches have used to contain Holgorsen’s offense. Most recently, in the Mountaineers’ first game this season, an overmatched Marshall team managed to give West Virginia some trouble with a package very similar to Chavis’ Mustang.

So what’s the blueprint? First, it’s not to have too much of a blueprint. The advantage of so many players moving around is that there are endless options for blitz combinations of four, five, six, or even seven defenders, and just as many possibilities for pass coverage. I expect LSU to test West Virginia early by bringing pressure and playing straight man-to-man behind it. But Smith should have some solid answers against these blitzes. Instead, I think Chavis will need to use a zone blitz. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the zone blitz, but unlike many football concepts, its name actually describes it accurately: The defense “blitzes” by rushing extra defenders and plays zone coverage behind it. The beauty of the zone blitz is that it isn’t an aggressive defense. The most popular — and useful — zone blitz is the “fire zone,” which, along with rushing five defensive players at the quarterback, employs a relatively conservative coverage with three deep defenders and three underneath defenders.

For Chavis, the fire zone’s permutations are endless. There will be six zone defenders and five rushers, but which players blitz and which stay back will be the riddle for West Virginia to solve. With three deep defenders, LSU should be safe from long touchdown passes. The defense’s weakness is the amount of open field the underneath defenders must cover, particularly the two who cover outside and to the flats. In the early days of the zone blitz, the defense caused enough confusion to mask this flaw. Quarterbacks literally could not believe a defense was blitzing and playing zone behind it. But now, no one — and certainly not Holgorsen or his quarterback — will be surprised by the tactic. For it to work, LSU has to run it the right way.

As offenses have gotten better at recognizing the zone blitz and finding its holes, defenses have improved the techniques their pass defenders use. The most important tactic is used by the flat defenders, or “SCIF” players, which stands for “Seam-Curl-Flat”. The days of having zone defenders turn and run to spots on the field are long gone. Instead, these defenders have to be fluid and reactive; they have to adapt their zone coverage to the receivers. The formal name for the tactic is “pattern matching.” It’s typically taught by having the defense prepare for specific combinations of routes they expect to see from an offense. This way, zone defenders learn to cover actual receivers, not air.

In pattern-matching zones, there are four levels of priority: (1) hot, (2) seam, (3) curl, and (4) flat. The first step refers to a “hot” or quick read by the quarterback. With this, the defender is reading the quarterback’s drop — if the quarterback takes a quick drop (three steps from under center or one step from the shotgun), the defender expects a quick throw to the inside receiver at five or six yards. Indeed, one of Holgorsen’s favorite plays is the “stick concept,” which has the slot receiver run six yards downfield and turn around to face the quarterback for a quick hit. If the quarterback takes a deeper drop, the defender moves to the rest of his decision tree.1 One of the deadliest plays for a defense like fire zone, with a single deep safety, is four verticals, where four receivers run straight downfield looking for the ball. While the play may look like the offense just decided to go “bombs away,” it’s far more nuanced. Holgorsen’s offense isn’t looking for the deep pass, but instead wants to hit receivers in the gaps between defenders, at around 16 to 22 yards. Thus, the first responsibility for the SCIF defender is to play the seam. If the receiver releases vertically, the defender must divert him to destroy the route’s timing and spacing. If he succeeds, the defender must run with the seam route for 14 or 15 yards, where he will pass the receiver off to the deep safety. If the receiver continues deep, the defender moves to his curl responsibility, meaning he will slide to defend the area that would be occupied by a receiver on a curl route. If no receiver threatens, then he expands to defend the flat.

If the inside receiver doesn’t release straight upfield but instead breaks inside or outside in the first five or six yards, the SCIF defender must react differently. If the receiver runs to the outside flat, the defender drops into the curl area. If the ball isn’t thrown to the curl area, the defender can flow to the flat to defend there. Finally, if the receiver breaks inside early, the SCIF defender will bump and reroute the receiver so the inside defender can pick him up. Next, the SCIF defender returns to his assignment of covering first the curl and then the flat.

One final point to make about the fire zone blitz is that it is not meant to be overwhelming. The goal of an old-fashioned “bring the house” blitz is to flood the offense with more pass-rushers than they have blockers. A zone blitz sends only five rushers, and most offenses have at least five players in pass protection, so a zone blitz can’t overpower an offense through numbers alone. Instead, it’s designed to work against the protection scheme, either by confusing the blocking assignments, overloading a particular side, or simply by getting a good matchup. It’s this last possibility LSU’s Chavis seems most likely to exploit, specifically by forcing one of West Virginia’s diminutive running backs to step up and block a future NFL linebacker. LSU knows it’s got better players than West Virginia, and it also knows that the Mountaineers’ best chance to win is to get in an offensive rhythm and exploit the gaps in whatever defense LSU plays against them.

West Virginia’s offense is much improved under Holgorsen, and this game is a sign of bigger things to come. But let’s be realistic: This will be only Holgorsen’s fourth game coaching the Mountaineers, using a system whose real strength comes in developing players over time through years of repetition. And West Virginia is a very young team. Of its seven total yardage leaders, only receiver Devon Brown is a senior. Both starting outside receivers are sophomores, and the backfield is littered with true freshmen. More important, the offensive line is a work in progress, with several underclassmen starters, four well-touted recruits redshirting this season, and more in the pipeline. This offense is set to peak next year. For now, however, there will be some hiccups, and that’s not what they need against one of the top teams in the country. Holgorsen is a brilliant offensive coach, but his Mountaineers probably can’t beat LSU right now.

Regardless of this game’s outcome, however, the trend looks clear. These are two teams that will be setting the agenda in college football for years to come. What’s most encouraging is that the agenda they’re setting is not some retread of the conventional wisdom. Both Miles and Holgorsen are brave enough to bring something unique to football, a sport that often values conformity above all else. Here’s to two coaches who aren’t afraid to innovate and are succeeding because of it.

Chris Brown runs the website Smart Football . Follow him on Twitter: @smartfootball.


Previously from Chris Brown:

NFL Strategy: Beating the Blitz
Draw it up: Cam Newton’s Debut

Draw it up: Bills Breakdown

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Filed Under: LSU, Teams, West Virginia