Several weeks ago, we published an in-depth analysis piece of Geoff Collins’ defense. It’s only fair to do the same for Jim McElwain’s offense, right? I thought so too.
I watched some tape from a few different Colorado State games over the past few years to get a feel for McElwain’s offense, and I found one particular drive against Air Force last year that I thought really captured the many strengths (and yes, a couple of weaknesses) of a typical Jim McElwain offense. So let’s briefly set the scene: Air Force kicked off, the ball went through the end zone and CSU got the ball on its own 25 yard line to begin the game.
Play #1: 1st and 10 on CSU 25
It’s the first play of the game, so McElwain wants to call for a pass. And hey, I like it. It’s a breath of fresh air after the four years of being ultra conservative on offense Gator fans got sick of under Will Muschamp. But the Air Force defense isn’t playing conservative on this particular play, either.
I’ve highlighted two CSU offensive linemen on this play; center Kevin O’Brien is on top, highlighted in gold, and right tackle Sam Carlson is on the bottom, highlighted in green. It’s an even matchup in the trenches; six CSU blockers, and six Air Force pass rushers. At least, that’s what the CSU offensive line thinks. Unbeknownst to them, Air Force linebacker Connor Healy (blue arrow) is about to make it seven.
The two highlighted linemen, Carlson and O’Brien, jump out of their stances and go out to meet Air Force pass rushers Sam Byers and Troy Timmerman, respectively. O’Brien, the center, was lured to the outside by Timmerman. This creates a wide open A-gap for Healy to shoot through. Meanwhile, Carlson sort of collides with right guard Fred Zerblis (no, it’s not just Gators and Noles who do that), so neither of them are going to be of any help. CSU tailback (and Alabama transfer) Dee Hart, would normally be counted on to pick up the blitz here. But he has his hands full with Air Force cornerback, Dexter Walker, who blew past Nolan Peralta, the CSU tight end. At this point, you can tell that Mac’s blockers aren’t going to grade out too well on this play, and you can probably predict what’s about to happen, as Healy’s now got CSU QB Garrett Grayson dead in his sights.
Mac’s offensive line lost this one. Colorado State’s offensive line wasn’t really that good anyway in 2014 (including surrendering an incredible eight sacks against Utah State), but they really got off on the wrong foot in this game by failing to even get a hand on Healy, and giving him a free shot at their star QB Grayson. Eight yard loss for the Rams.
Play #2: 2nd and 18, ball on CSU 17
After a passing play blew up in his face on first down, McElwain decides to try again on 2nd and forever. Only this time, he’s not going to rely on his offensive linemen to do the blocking; the seven blockers he’s got on the line of scrimmage is nothing more than a clever smoke screen. It’s actually going to be a screen pass to one of the best receivers in the country, Rashard Higgins, highlighted by the green arrows. Air Force has gotten a little bit cocky about their success on the pass rush on the previous play, so they’re going to try their luck again, stacking the box with ten defenders.
The Air Force DB highlighted in silver is Christian Spears, and his eleventh hour diagnosis of the play turns out to be crucial, because McElwain out coached Air Force on this one. Nine of the eleven CSU starters are located inside the tackle box, so that’s the part of the field Air Force is assuming they’re going to have to defend. But immediately after taking the snap, Grayson spins to his right and fires a screen pass to Higgins. McElwain has isolated his best playmaker and gotten him the ball in space; Spears and fellow DB Jordan Mays (highlighted in blue) are the only two players on the entire field with even a chance of tackling Higgins. And if CSU WR Xavier Williams is able to do his job- lay a nasty block on Mays- the number of Air Force defenders capable of stopping a touchdown will be reduced to one.
Success. Williams completely takes Mays out of the play. McElwain knows his offense line is a weakness, but he made that weakness irrelevant by designing the play to be as far away from them as possible. On the same note, he knows that Higgins can fly, so he deserves praise for drawing up a play that relies on one thing to be successful- Higgins’ speed. Even if the block by Williams had failed, there would still be the matter of tackling Higgins, who is pretty shifty. This is an all around excellent coaching job by McElwain, and the well designed play is executed to perfection.
The block by Williams was executed to perfection. That means that this particular play has been reduced to a track meet. It’s Higgins vs. Spears, and the footrace to the sideline is on.
Take another look at the rest of the field. Not only is Spears the only one with a chance to tackle Higgins, he’s also the only one with a chance to even lay a finger on him. Mays has been blocked into irrelevance, and the defender on the top of the screen (number unclear) has neither the speed nor the angle to even dream about catching Higgins. I’ll praise Mac again: as a coach, if you’re able to limit the amount of defenders who have a possibility of making the tackle to one, you’ve done something right.
It’s pretty clear that Spears is about to catch up to Higgins and make the tackle. But he severely misjudges just how fast Higgins really is.
This, girls and boys, is what’s called a horse collar tackle. It’s less than legal and more than dangerous. However, when you so grossly underestimate how fast the guy you’re chasing really is, you kind of have to grab whatever you can. Luckily for Air Force, it didn’t get called. Gain of 21, and first down Colorado State.
Play #4: 2nd and 10, ball on CSU 39
After an incomplete pass, it’s now second and ten for the Rams. McElwain decides to call for the game’s first running play, a handoff to Dee Hart to the left side of the line.
CSU has seven guys up front to block, including one who hides out of the view of the camera. Air Force counters with a five man front. Seven on five should favor the offense. But the guy I highlighted in blue, Air Force linebacker Jordan Pierce, recognizes the play and starts creeping up into the box. At first glance, this play looked promising. But by the time the snap reached Grayson’s hands- the moment I’ve screen shotted- Pierce has tiptoed from the blue “A” in the midfield logo up near the line of scrimmage, and has set Hart dead in his sights before he’s even been handed the ball.
Colorado State’s offensive front may have outnumbered Air Force’s defensive front seven to five, but they’re still losing the battle on this play. Hart has had the ball for roughly three quarters of a second in real time, and already he can see that the hole he was designed to run through doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, Pierce is biding his time. He’s waiting to see where Hart is going to try to go, and as you can see by his stance, he’s ready to explode in the direction that Hart commits to.
Hart waits about two and a half seconds of real time, nothing opens up, and then his patience runs out. He decides to try to save face by simply lowering his shoulder into the mass of humanity that’s crowded the line of scrimmage. That’s not the worst idea in the world, but given how weak his offensive line is, it’s not a great one, either. Pierce sees his chance, throws himself at the pileup, and looks for Hart.
Pierce gets to Hart and drops him after he pushes the pile for a yard, making the play a failure. That’s embarrassing for the offensive line, considering the numbers. But that’s not a bad coaching job by McElwain at all. He knows what he’s going to do when he really needs to pick up yards- get the ball to his playmakers in space. The previously illustrated play- the screen to Higgins- was proof that it would work. But he can’t call screen plays on every play, or that’s what Air Force will defend on every play once they catch on. He needs to keep the Falcons’ defense honest, and run the ball up the middle every now and then so that he can sucker them into playing eight or nine guys in the box more often- and one of those times, he’ll take advantage of the mismatch his receivers present. Breaking a big play here, on a second down and ten barely a minute into the game, is not a priority. This play is about putting thoughts in the minds of Air Force defenders and coaches. And as you’ll see later in the drive, it works.
Play #5: 3rd and 9, ball on CSU 40
Now it’s third and nine. Picking up yardage here is more important than it was on the previous play, because now if they don’t get a first down, the drive is over. McElwain understands the increased importance of gaining yards on this play as opposed to the second down play, so he calls a play designed to showcase the biggest strength of his team- Rashard Higgins.
As you can see, Higgins (in green) is a lot bigger than the guy covering him (Justin McCowd, in blue). OK, so they’re not standing fully upright, but Higgins is 6’2 and McCowd is 5’10. McCowd’s only chance to cover him is by using his speed. This is another example of great coaching by McElwain: he knows where he has a mismatch, and on a play that’s critical to keep the drive alive, is going to take advantage of it.
By taking his first step forward after the snap, McCowd is setting himself up for failure. He’s simply not big enough to play Higgins aggressively. This is going to be even easier than McElwain was hoping for.
Higgins does a little jitterbug fake to the sideline to get free, plants his foot in the ground, and he’s beaten McCowd before he’s even passed the line of scrimmage.
By the time McCowd has turned himself around, Higgins has already created some separation. He could have beaten McCowd by a mile, but as you’re about to see, that’s not the purpose of his route.
Higgins slows down from a full sprint to about 65% speed, just enough to let McCowd pull within a yard of him and making it easier for him to complete his route. The 50 yard line- one yard beyond the line of scrimmage- is his target. As soon as he reaches midfield, he slams on the brakes and peels back to make the catch. Had the route been a fly pattern, he could have beaten McCowd by five yards or more, but he had the patience to slow down and let McCowd catch up to him so that when he executed his sudden about face, McCowd would fly past him. This wouldn’t have happened had he went full speed, but McCowd didn’t know that, so he went full speed. He also didn’t know that the ball was already on its way to Higgins.
The ball is hidden behind the CBS Sports Network logo in this screen shot, but I chose this exact frame to illustrate just how badly McCowd has been burned. He not only got beaten vertically, but now Higging has beaten him to the sideline, too. He’s literally stumbling around trying to figure out what the hell to do as the ball is just a few feet from Higgins’ outstretched hands.
Higgins makes the catch and probably has the first down, but just to be safe, he stretches out toward the sideline. To his credit, McCowd did a good job recovering and making the tackle. But it’s too late- Higgins has the first down and more. Again, this play was a mismatch from the get-go. McElwain realized he had it and exploited it for the second time in the drive.
Play #6: 1st and 10, ball on AF 49
It looks like Air Force hasn’t learned their lesson about putting a 5’10 corner on a 6’2 receiver yet, so Garrett Grayson is going to give them a second lesson on why this is a bad idea. In the Falcons’ defense, 1st and 10 isn’t such a critical down for CSU, and so giving the ball to Hart isn’t such a farfetched possibility. Jordan Pierce remembers the success he had the last time Hart carried the ball, and licks his chops as he walks up toward the line.
Indeed, McElwain realizes that Air Force is expecting a run, so he calls for a play-action pass, with Higgins as the primary target. This removes the potential for his weak offensive line to be a liability. All they have to do is keep Grayson on his feet for three seconds, and the play is nearly guaranteed to work because of the aforementioned mismatch Higgins vs. McCowd is.
It works. Jordan Pierce bites on the fake, McCowd gets no safety help and now it’s just up to Higgins to beat him.
CSU’s offensive line does allow a Connor Healy through the line to take a free shot at Grayson, but they did enough to keep him on his feet long enough to make his throw. Pierce has been suckered out of the play, and now it’s just a matter of Grayson making the throw to Higgins over the much smaller McCowd.
McCowd actually does a good job covering Higgins on this play, but the size advantage Higgins has on him, plus the accuracy of the ball Grayson throws, would make great coverage irrelevant. You can’t defend the perfect pass, and when you’re four inches shorter than the guy you’re covering, the throw can afford to be a little less than perfect.
As it turns out, the pass is near perfect. Higgins pulls it in. Gain of 31.
Play #7: 1st and 10, ball on AF 18
McElwain’s really got Air Force on their heels now. He’s in the red zone now, and decides to go back to what works- a quick pass to a receiver in open space.
Highlighted in gold is slot receiver Charles Lovett. Higgins is at the top again in green, but this time Air Force assigns a safety to spy on him, and help the overmatched McCowd. So, no problem, says Garrett, I’ll just go to Lovett, who nobody expects me to throw it to. Look at the three Air Force defenders closest to him. That’s a pretty big cushion, and Grayson is going to notice it.
Yet again, the offensive line does a really bad job blocking, as Grayson’s about to get clobbered from his blind side within a second and a half of taking the snap. Yet again, it’s not going to matter because McElwain has again funneled the game away from them and into his skill position players. Look at the room Grayson has to get the ball to Lovett.
Lovett makes the catch all by himself, and gets to the 12 yard line before an off screen defender brings him down. Gain of six.
Play #9: 1st and goal, ball on AF 8
After a four yard run by Dee Hart that picked up a first down, the Rams have a first and goal at the 8. McElwain calls for a pass play to try to finish off the drive right here.
Highlighted in green is Grayson’s ole reliable, Rashard Higgins. But it’s what his teammate in gold, Joe Hansley, does that makes the play work. Air Force DB Jordan Mays (highlighted in blue) realizes he’s outnumbered on the outside and looks around as if to say, “you expect me to cover both these guys? Good one, coach! Oh wait, you’re serious-” and then the ball gets snapped, and he’s officially on his own.
The routes assigned to Hansley and Higgins were beautifully crafted. Higgins, on the outside, is running a slant, while Hansley, on the inside, is running a corner. Their paths will cross and then they’ll continue off on their routes in opposite directions, leaving Mays to have to pick one of them to try to cover.
But instead of running a route, Hansley simply runs right into Mays, screening him off and giving Higgins the room he needs inside for his slant route and Grayson the window to fit the ball in.
Mays somewhat recovers and tries to jump the passing lane, but it’s too late. He’s been beaten thanks to the great block by Hansley, and Grayson’s got his favorite target open. Now all he has to do is throw the touchdown pass.
Mays was off balance in the previous frame, while Higgins was running his route full speed. This frame gives you a better indication of just how open he was. Pitch and catch. Beautifully designed play by McElwain.
The result? Helmet slaps, congratulatory words and gratitude from other CSU players, and the scoreboard at the top changes color to the green of Colorado State and flashes the word that symbolizes the ultimate success of a drive: touchdown.
And McElwain likes it.