This is part three (you can read part one here and part two here) in a series of posts that aims to examine some of the tactics and adjustments Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord made in his game plan for the Northwestern Wildcats in the Outback Bowl. The Vols offense was very successful and the Vols won big, 45-6.
In something that didn’t go unnoticed by many Vol fans, Jones and DeBord put together a series of plays from an under center (!) I-formation. Anyone who follows Vol football knows that this is unusual. The Vols quarterback is almost always in the shotgun, except for maybe a goal line or short yardage play.
One of the unique things about bowl games is that coaches get a full month to prepare for a single game. This means that offensive coaches will undoubtedly put it some new looks that they’ve not shown before in an effort to attack a defense.
This formation, which Northwestern certainly wasn’t expecting, was a way for DeBord to dress up his base concepts. The Vols didn’t run any new plays, but the formation was able to make things more complex for the defense, because they were dealing with a new look.
Washington State head coach Mike Leach gave a great quote on this theory a number of years ago. “There’s two ways to make it more complex for the defense. One is to have a whole bunch of different plays, but that’s no good because then the offense experiences as much complexity as the defense. Another is a small number of plays and run it out of lots of different formations. That way, you don’t have to teach a guy a new thing to do. You just have to teach him new places to stand.”
Leach’s quote illustrates what DeBord is doing here. Instead of teaching his offense a brand new play and making things more complicated for them, DeBord just gave them a new place to line up in order to confuse the defense. For the Vols’ players, this was a very simple adjustment. For the Northwestern defenders however, this was a brand new look.
So what was the formation? The Vols lined up with three receivers, a running back in the backfield, and a quarterback under center. The tight end would motion into the backfield and line up as a fullback, offset to the strongside.
The first play the Vols used from this formation, early in the second quarter, was a version of the inside zone play. This is the most commonly used run play for the Vols. Since he had a fullback in the backfield, DeBord made a slight adjustment. although they blocked it slightly different. The adjustment is called lead zone.
The line blocked just like they normally would, but Ethan Wolf, the fullback, became the lead blocker. Wolf was assigned the most dangerous defender, the playside linebacker. He led the way for Hurd, running through the hole and blasting the linebacker. This adjustment is called lead zone.
Hurd was able to run behind Wolf’s lead block, through some arm tackles, for a gain of 12 yards.
The next play the Vols ran from the I-formation was the lead draw. Just like with the lead zone, the Vols took a base run concept and strengthened it by letting the fullback become the lead blocker on the playside linebacker.
This is just like the normal draw play that the Vols often use. The linemen drop in pass sets to set up the draw. The tackles and guards simply must keep the four defensive linemen from getting to the back, while center Coleman Thomas must work to the backside linebacker. The fullback simply gets to lead up on the playside linebacker, just like on the previous run. The block by Wolf wasn’t great, but Wolf got just enough of his man for Hurd to power through for another first down.
The draw action served to build off of the first play, the inside zone. After the Vols ran the ball the first time they went under center, Northwestern appeared to be expecting pass the second time around and the draw was wide open.
Next, DeBord went to a play off of the lead draw action. He combined a play action with a four verticals route concept. The intended receiver was Alex Ellis, who lined up in the backfield as the fullback.
DeBord went back to the four verticals concept that we looked at yesterday. If you’ve not read the article about why four verticals and the play action game was effective against the Wildcats’ coverage, I highly suggest you go back and do so in order to better understand the following (link here).
Northwestern was in their base quarters coverage for this play. However, Ellis confused the safeties by aligning in the backfield.
When an offense lines up with two backs and only three receivers, especially an offense like Tennessee’s that rarely uses two backs, the last thing the defense expects is four verticals.
The free safety is technically responsible for any vertical route from the fullback. However, because the he is in the backfield and not the line of scrimmage, the fullback is not considered a vertical threat. The free safety mentally moved on to his secondary responsibility pre-snap, doubling the split receiver.
DeBord also knew Northwestern’s linebackers would be selling out on the run after the Vols previous success running from the I-formation. This would mean they couldn’t help in the passing game.
Dobbs faked a handoff on the lead draw. Ellis ran through the hole as if he was the lead blocker, but bypassed the linebacker ran right down the seam. One linebacker rushed into the backfield, while the other hesitated because of the fake. By the time the free safety realized that Ellis was running deep it was too late. Ellis was wide open for the big play.
As a side note – this play doesn’t happen without Jalen Hurd. He saw the blitzing linebacker coming free and abandoned his run fake to make the block. Hurd was able to get a good enough block to keep Dobbs clean to make the throw. This is great awareness to recognize the free rusher and know to go make the block.
The fourth and final play the Vols ran from this formation also served to build off of the first two inside runs. On the first play of the second half, DeBord called for the outside zone.
I can’t imagine the timing of this play call was a coincidence. DeBord wanted the Northwestern coaches to get together with their players at halftime to discuss this formation. This would be the first chance they would get to sit down and talk through adjustments to the formation they had not prepared for prior to kickoff.
The first thing different about this play is that it is not technically an I-formation. Rather than motioning into the backfield as an offset fullback, Wolf motioned across the formation to a wing position, just outside the offensive tackle. Northwestern, fully expecting the I-formation and an inside run, didn’t have time to think after Wolf’s motion. The ball was already being snapped.
The Vols ran outside zone to the strongside. Part of Northwestern’s adjustment was to check into a run blitz with the nickel back coming off the edge. This played right into the Vols’ hands, as Wolf was able to easily kick him out.
Prepared for the inside run, the strongside defensive end stunted inside to the B gap and was easily blocked by right guard Dylan Wiesman. Right tackle Chance Hall reached outside and had a great angle to seal the linebacker inside. Hurd had a huge running lane between Hall and Wolf and made it 10 yards downfield before a defender laid a hand on him.
Overall, what I love most about these plays is how they all build off of each other. The first, an inside run, set up the next, a draw play, which set up the next, a fake draw play. Finally, the inside run action on the first three plays set up DeBord’s final play, the outside zone. DeBord intentionally called them in this order. He knew the defense wasn’t prepared for this formation. This caused uncertainty, and the uncertainty lead to big yards for the Vols. On these four plays, the Vols totaled 56 yards, an average of 14 yards per play.
The beauty of this series of plays is that Jones and DeBord kept it simple for their own guys. None of the four plays were new. All are staples of the base offense; the fullback’s alignment simply led to very slight adjustments to his assignments. What was business as usual for the Vols was unusual for the Wildcats, and the resulting confusion enabled some big plays. In a game where Northwestern had a month to prepare for the Vols offense, DeBord gave them a look they could not have possibly been prepared for.
Thanks for reading. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series covering the Outback Bowl. Keep checking back in the coming weeks and months for more articles. I’m really excited about the future of Football Concepts.
If there are any subjects of interest related to film breakdowns, whether they relate to a team (Tennessee or otherwise) or a specific play/concept, please comment below and let me know, and I will look into them.