During the game thread on Saturday, a well-respected member of this blog (pjohn56) asked me to write a post breaking down the new offense and what we're doing differently – presumably to prevent half of Bronco Nation from being admitted to St. Luke's due to strokes and heart attacks caused from a dramatic change to something that hasn't changed a whole lot in 15 years.
I don't have the necessary programs to edit video and draw arrows and stuff on video like AAFORS does when he breaks down 2 or 3 plays for our enjoyment, so I've included base diagrams and explanations to hopefully help everyone out with this.
Before I go hardcore into breakdown mode, let's examine the root of the shift/motion offense that we are all so fond of. When Dirk Koetter installed the offense, it was presumably to create an advantage against teams that were more athletically gifted by using motions to assist the QB in reading the defense, highly specialized personnel packages which made use of specific skillsets that players had (such as wedge blocking), and bizarre formations to confuse defenses. For the Boise State teams that were less athletically talented than most of their opponents at the time, this made sense, and gave them the advantage. In 1998, film breakdown hadn't become the major component of college coaching that it is today. Very few teams spent serious time and resources breaking down opponents in 1998. This changed with hi-def roughly 5-6 years ago.
With the explosion of film breakdown, the motion/shift became less and less effective. The primary advantage of the motion shift – creating a numbers advantage for run blocking – began to dissipate when film breakdown showed that a backside blitz could often chase down the RB from behind. WR's benefited from the motions only when an undisciplined defense compensated with a LB to cover or became more concerned with what Boise State was doing instead of what they needed to do.
The Boise State offense when we played Oklahoma ran the ball 2 times for every 1 pass during that season. We were a power rushing team. Ian Johnson had a huge number of carries in that game (I want to say 40), but everyone forgets that and remembers the explosive passing plays we came up with. We've always been a rush-oriented attack...albeit one that had the ability to put big numbers up with passing.
Moore changed that. His mind was our greatest weapon, and the coaches adapted to fit that. Having his brain on the field was like having a nuclear warhead ready to detonate at any given second – if the defense made any mistake or showed any weakness, he'd find it...and exploit it. This came at the cost of our identity as a run-first team with the ability to strike for the big play when the defense got lazy and started crowding up. We saw the change – our run blocking started to stink in Moore's junior year, but the superior talent and vision of our RB's made up for it.
History lesson's over – time for the breakdown.
You all know that there are basic formations that form the building blocks of every offensive schemes. Each coach then adds variety and modifications to that basic form as they see fit, but the concept is the same: create an advantage either in numbers or in personnel matchups for your team, and trust your guys will execute better than the guys trying to stop them.
In football, offense chooses a base formation and builds from that. Each form has MANY variations and looks that can be used; but every offensive playbook is built from one "cornerstone" formation. The option (particularly the triple option) is based off the wishbone formation, and was the dominant offense in the 1930's-1940's. The QB is either directly under center or 1-2 yards behind (I would call this a half-pistol...derringer, maybe?) center.
Spread offense is based off of the shotgun formations popularized by the Jets back in the '70's. The quarterback stands 6-7 yards behind the center to receive the snap. The picture below is a spread formation with the QB under center instead of at shotgun, but you get the idea. The idea of spread is to stretch the defense sideline to sideline with 4 or 5 receivers to create passing lanes, and is most easily identified by the lack of any sort of tight end on the OL to help with blocking - just five big guys out there to protect the QB. Also known as "air raid."
Modern "pro-set" offenses, as well as most power-rush/smashmouth offenses (see Alabama for demo), are based off of the "I" formation. The QB is almost always directly under center, with the RB 6-7 yards behind and optionally a FB between the two – either directly in the "I" or offset to the left or right. THIS is the formation Boise State's offense has been based off of – the cornerstone – for the last 15 years.
So: where does the pistol fit? Here's a diagram of a basic pistol formation. Notice any similarities to any of the forms above?
The pistol is hybrid of the "I" form and the shotgun. Like the I-form, your running back is 6-7 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Like the shotgun, the QB is not directly under center, usually at a distance of 3-4 yards back (hence "pistol"). In terms of base formation, only two things have changed from the base "I" formation: the QB is no longer directly under center, and there is no longer a fullback to bust the RB to the second level of the defense.
In an "I" form set, you'd have completely different packages for running and passing. A run play out of an I form might have a fullback and two or three tight ends, whereas an I-form pass play may have three receivers (or more) but no fullback.
But in a pistol set, the same formation can be used for both passing AND running. Have a big WR? Motion him across the formation and use him as a fullback or lead blocker. Want to pass instead? Hit the big guy up the seam. The TE can do this, too. The strength of the pistol is in the fact that you can run, pass, or do read option out of the exact same formation – and with the same personnel. One of the weaknesses of motion-shift is that defense had an idea as to what was coming based on three factors: down and distance, the personnel on the field, and the alignment of the backfield. Wait, it gets better: the pistol can be adapted to fit ANY quarterback and ANY personnel grouping imaginable. Have a pocket passer and need to incorporate motions and shifts? Pistol can do that. Have a QB that can run but not pass? There's a pistol for that, too. Prefer power rushing? You're in luck. Want to blend all of that because you are lucky enough to have running backs that are built like Mack trucks in addition to QB's who can run AND pass? Great!!!
The purpose of up-tempo is the same as the purpose of the motions in the previous offense: exhaust the defense. In the past, we had to rely on being SMARTER than the defense and exhaust them mentally to make up for the lesser quality of our athletes. However, we're now on a roughly even field in terms of athleticism with most of our opponents. Now, we exhaust them physically AND mentally. Trying to defend an up-tempo attack is a little bit like being attacked by a swarm of Amazon piranhas: the attack may only last two minutes, but they bite off chunks of you in so many places that it feels like it lasted ten minutes. By the time the late third and fourth quarter comes, the defense is so physically tired that they start making mental mistakes.
The staff and players said the playbook was "simplified." That's not the word I would use. Simplified in terms of players not needing to remember as many terms, personnel groupings, and pre-snap motions/keys – probably. Simplified in terms of available play diversity – probably not, but this falls into the realm of the OC. The idea behind "simplifying" is to make it easier for players to actually LEARN the plays so that they'll know their responsibilities well enough that when they see the card, they don't have to think "wait, what did that mean again?" They just go out and play. If you have to THINK during the play, then you're playing slower than you need to be to execute properly.
What may have been "ZZ top smash post short 22 medium hook statue circus left middle finger" may now be "Eagle 55 West Rock" - where each word/card corresponds to a specific play pattern for each position, and only the QB and center need to know all the specifics. Eagle may refer to the formation for that play. 55 may be the route pattern for the WR group, and so on.**
**DISCLAIMER: To the best of my knowledge, these are NOT actual play names in Boise State's playbook.
The motion-shift concepts that we built on the last fifteen years are NOT dead. Whenever a new offensive system breaks out and becomes all the rage, defensive coordinators will always adjust eventually. Then the offensive coordinators, unwilling to retool the system, look for ways to gain advantages – this leads to motions and shifts. Assuming our coaches continue to come from the same tree (i.e. if Petersen leaves, Harsin or Wilcox or Kwiatkowski replaces him, etc), the motion-shift will always return in some form because it is the next step in adding layers to an offensive system to seek a greater advantage.
I've seen a number of people both here and at broncocountry.com claim that we're not playing an offense that "fits" our personnel. I disagree. We have the right personnel to run – quite literally – whatever the heck we want to run on offense, whether it be spread shotgun, power I, or triple option. Pistol forms just give us the most flexibility.
Finally – the most interesting offense in the world will look boring and uninspired if it runs into a defense that plays lights out or if it's players fail to execute well. The reverse is that the most boring offense in the world looks very creative and interesting if it scores 40 points a night.
Hope that puts some minds at ease. Thoughts, opinions, random play names can be left in the comments.