Editor's Note: Each week, John Harris will draw up a play(s) that changed the game for a team. This week, West Virgina vs. Marshall and Northwestern vs. Syracuse.
In the second quarter of the West Virginia-Marshall matchup, the Mountaineers showed exactly why this offense can be as dangerous as any in college football this season. The Mountaineer offense had little trouble moving the football against the Thundering Herd defense, a unit that is trying to find a replacement for All-America DE Vinny Curry, led by three transfers in the secondary. That said, it's not difficult to envision West Virginia taking advantage of an inexperienced unit.
In the second quarter, West Virginia had a 13-7 lead, but was on the march into Marshall territory. The Mountaineers had a first down after an 18 yard #13 Andrew Buie run and came out in a trips formation out of the gun.
The play call for West Virginia is "stick draw". Now, that's not exactly what they call it, but that's what it is. It's a post snap read 'option' play for QB Geno Smith #12. This is a hybrid run-pass option that you'd think doesn't, or can't, "go together", but with the run part being a draw, this hybrid series works incredibly well because linemen don't fire off the ball to go downfield, instead pass setting as required on a simple draw play. The read for Smith is the LB near to the #3 WR and you'll see how it comes together as I draw up the routes.
#1 WR to the trips side runs a take off to clear out the boundary and take CB and/or S with him. #2 WR to the trips side runs a bubble screen into the boundary, while the #3 WR runs a "stick" route, sprinting up to 5-6 yards and turning around.
Simple combination, but made even more complex with the read involved. The linebacker in the circle below has a decision to make. He can drop, sprinting right now into the lap of the stick route or he can read the QB and play the potential of a run play, in this case a draw. The #3 WR will widen the stick route if he sees the LB on a dead run his way.
The read is simple. Smith takes the snap and shows pass, but he's staring right at that linebacker. If he leaves to play underneath the stick route, he'll hand it off on the draw. If the linebacker has eyes for him and stays home, he'll throw the stick route right now and pick up 7 yards like it's stealing.
On this play, the Marshall linebacker bails out as soon as Smith shows pass, turns his head and runs like a banshee to the #3 WR. Making it worse, the nickel back (N) takes off on a dead sprint to the bubble screen as well. Now with the backside linebacker out of the box, the Mountaineers are in perfect shape. The Marshall defensive line reads pass and got caught in a stunt on the right side, taking inside linebacker #11 clearly out of the middle of the field into the B gap on the right side. Center Joe Madsen and the right side of the OL just rode the Marshall's stunt right out of the way, while left guard Josh Jenkins pinned Marshall's DT inside and left a gaping hole in the B gap on the left side.
Buie #13 had as many lanes as he wanted but he found that B gap and then sprinted past the secondary untouched 24 yards to the end zone. More and more teams are running the 'stick draw' and Smith has mastering it while under Dana Holgorsen's tutelage. His read was perfect, but it was also easy. He saw the back numbers on both the ILB and the Will, so it was easy to know the 'draw' was the call and all Buie had to do was run to space.
More and more teams are incorporating the hybrid offensive play into their playbook and it's the next evolutionary piece within the spread offense revolution.
I always loved the trips formation as a coach because I felt like I could take advantage of teams in a number of ways.
And, it's #3 that the Northwestern Wildcats used on the game winning touchdown to beat the Syracuse Orange on the road in the Carrier Dome. Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats jumped out to a huge lead over Syracuse, only to have Ryan Nassib and company come racing on back to take a 41-35 lead late in the fourth quarter.
On third down late in the 4th quarter, backup QB Trevor Siemian scrambled for a short gain but got hit late out of bounds to give the Wildcats a first down inside the ten at the nine yard line with just under a minute remaining.
The Northwestern RB motioned into the backfield to create a trips open set as noted above. Syracuse decided to bring zone pressure inside - they played man on the perimeter but blitzed a LB in the middle, but dropped a DT into the slant passing lane.
Northwestern answered with double slant/post corner route, a sort of bastardized version of a smash route, but has a built in pick route as well…so to speak.
With Syracuse in man, there really is no good way to cover this route properly. #1 and #2 receivers to the trips side drive hard at their defenders then bend in on the slant or in route, creating a sort of pick for #8 Demetrius Fields.
There are a couple of ways, I suppose that Syracuse could've reacted to the route combination. One would have been to "banjo" or "bracket" those two routes, but you typically don't do that to a trips side. But, had the safety "swapped" his responsibility with the nickel back, who was actually a linebacker #35 Dyshawn Davis, the safety would have played underneath the corner route, making that a difficult throw to the corner. But, had Syracuse done that there is no way that Davis would've been able to get his hips turned to run with the slant by the #2 WR who would've crossed his face with a lot of real estate across the middle of the end zone. Easy as pie throw. But, Syracuse made the decision to lock on across the board and force Siemian into what they thought was the toughest throw to make - the corner route by having Davis stay with Fields no matter what.
But, Fields had the linebacker Davis on his inside hip the whole way, giving QB Siemian a distinct advantage. He could throw it to a spot at the back corner of the end zone and only his guy was going to catch it because Davis was trailing the entire way. As such, Siemian dropped a dime on Fields who got the requisite one foot down in the back of the end zone for the game winning TD.
Two teams using trips formations in completely different ways and paying off on two completely diverse pass/run packages. It is what makes football great and it's how it happened on a Saturday afternoon in September.