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Option Strategy Report: USF

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Despite the final score, the offense was (mostly) firing on all cylinders

Georgia Tech v South Florida Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

For most Georgia Tech fans, the Jackets’ 49-38 loss to the USF Bulls on Saturday felt disappointingly familiar. The loss marked the 10th game since 2012 that the Jackets have lost a game after holding a 4th Quarter lead. While there’s certainly a lot of work to be done on defense and special teams, the offense proved to be a bright spot for most of the game. Tech racked up 595 yards of offense on the Bulls, including 412 rushing yards on 7.2 yards per carry. The offense actually performed better than they did last week against Alcorn State (minus the turnovers), and the despite the loss, Georgia Tech’s S&P+ ranking actually went up by 19 spots.

While blowing a 10-point 4th Quarter lead is inexcusable, the offense performed well enough on Saturday that I’m still optimistic that we can win 8 games this season. Just as I said last week, there a lot of things going well on offense that should give fans hope. Let’s take a closer look at how the Jackets were able to (mostly) dismantle the Bulls’ defense.

USF’s Defense

The Bulls technically came out defensively in a 3-4 scheme (meaning they had three defensive linemen and four linebackers), but the two outside linebackers played so close to the line of scrimmage that it was effectively a 5-1-1.

Above: USF’s 5-1-1 defensive formation

On the first play of the game it was clear that USF’s primary goal was to stop all runs up the middle. The shallow inside linebacker crashed hard inside on the snap, stuffing the hole TaQuon Marshall was looking to run through.

Above: USF’s defense crashes hard inside, holding TaQuon Marshall (GT, #16) to a 1-yard gain

Recognizing this, Paul Johnson decided that if the Bulls wanted to guard against the middle, then he would happily run the ball around the outside. That’s exactly what he did, with Johnson repeatedly dialing up a play we usually don’t see very often: The B-back Speed Option.

B-back Speed Option

The goal of a Speed Option is to quickly establish an option mismatch on the outside, and is best utilized against a defense struggling to guard the perimeter. With USF’s 5-1-1 defensive scheme, a Speed Option essentially becomes a foot race between Tech’s backfield and USF’s linebackers, a race the offense will win every time. The blocking assignments on the B-back Speed Option are as follows:

  • Left tackle Zach Quinney must chip the playside defensive end and then block the shallow inside linebacker
  • Left guard Parker Braun must block the defensive end after the chip from Quinney
  • Motion A-back Qua Searcy must block the playside safety
  • Non-motion A-back Nathan Cottrell must block the deep inside linebacker
  • Wide receiver Brad Stewart must take out the playside cornerback by running a deep go route and then blocking him
Above: TaQuon Marshall (GT, #16) pitches to Kirvonte Benson (GT, #30) on a B-back Speed Option for a gain of 11 yards

The playside outside linebacker is left unblocked and is the pitch key. The blocks are executed perfectly and Quarterback TaQuon Marshall pitches the ball to B-back Kirvonte Benson, who rumbles ahead for an 11-yard gain. It was clear that USF’s inside linebackers lacked the speed and athleticism to shed their blocks and provide adequate run support on the perimeter, so Paul Johnson kept running it outside. The B-back Speed Option was dialed up four times on the team’s first two drives for gains of 7, 11, 11, and 15 yards.

Attacking Through the Air

While the B-back Speed Option was racking up huge gains on the ground, it was also setting up the Jackets’ longest play of the game, an 81-yard touchdown pass to A-back Clinton Lynch. Take a moment to re-watch the above clip of the B-back Speed Option, but this time focus on the movement of the two safeties and the deep inside linebacker. All three players were so focused on preventing the outside run that they never even considered the possibility of a pass. On the following drive, Paul Johnson drew up a play that began just like the B-back Speed Option, but this time with A-back Clinton Lynch running vertical route downfield. By the time the safety realized what was happening, he was standing flat-footed as Lynch sprinted past him.

Above: TaQuon Marshall (GT, #16) passes to Clinton Lynch (GT, #22) for an 81-yard touchdown

Marshall delivers a perfect pass, unphased by the linebacker barreling down on him. As is always the case in a flexbone offense, the ability to complete deep passes keeps the safeties back and opens up more room for the running game.

Time for Tobias

When TaQuon Marshall went down with an ankle injury early in the 3rd Quarter, redshirt freshman Tobias Oliver entered the game for the first meaningful action of his career. A few plays into his first drive, it was clear that Paul Johnson was using a restricted set of plays to simplify things for the young quarterback. In particular, fans may have noticed one play that seemed to show up over and over again: the A-Back Speed Option. As you may have guessed, this play is nearly identical to the B-back Speed Option we saw so frequently in the 1st Quarter, but this time the B-back serves as a lead blocker while an A-back comes in pre-snap motion to serve as the pitch man.

Above: Tobias Oliver (GT, #8) runs for 12 yards on an A-back Speed Option

The Speed Option is a great play call for a young, inexperienced quarterback because on each play there is only one read to make: pitch the ball or keep it. Oliver led the Jackets on three straight touchdown drives that in total consisted of 21 plays, a staggering 13 of which were Speed Options. While the Bulls defense was somehow befuddled by this painfully simple playcalling for the entire 3rd Quarter, by the middle of the 4th Quarter they finally had the Speed Option figured out.

The Crucial 4th Quarter Drive

Up by 3 points with 12:00 remaining in the 4th Quarter, the Jackets began a drive at their own 39-yard line, hoping to score a touchdown and potentially put the game out of reach. On the drive’s first two plays Paul Johnson called two more Speed Options, but by now the Bulls had it figured out. Completely disregarding the possibility of a run up the middle, the entire defense flooded to the outside on the snap, stopping the Jackets for nearly no gain on both plays.

Above: Tobias Oliver (GT, #8) pitches to Jordan Mason (GT, #24) on a B-back Speed Option for a loss of 1 yard

During an injury timeout prior to 3rd down, Paul Johnson made the decision to send TaQuon Marshall back into the game at quarterback. Many fans after the game criticized this move, arguing that Tobias was playing great and should have remained in the game. While I agree that Tobias was playing great, I think putting Marshall back in the game was the right call for two reasons:

  1. Paul Johnson has more trust in TaQuon’s passing ability. TaQuon was trusted to throw the ball 18 times on Saturday, while Tobias was given zero passing opportunities. From this stat alone it makes sense that Johnson turned to TaQuon on 3rd & 9, which he converted with a 21-yard pass to Clinton Lynch.
  2. The defense had figured out how to stop Tobias Oliver on the Speed Options. Putting TaQuon back in the game opened up the entire playbook again, and it was clear after Marshall returned that the defense was much more worried about the potential of a pass than they were before.
Above: Jordan Mason (GT, #24) takes the Zone Dive handoff for a gain of 6 yards

Following Marshall’s 3rd down conversion, the USF defense was noticeably less aggressive in their run pursuit. With the linebackers standing flat-footed on the snap, Tech rattled off three straight Zone Dives to B-back Jordan Mason for gains of 7, 6, and 6 yards. If not for an unfortunate Qua Searcy fumble, I firmly believe the Jackets would have found themselves in the endzone on this drive, putting them up by 10 points with less than 8 minutes remaining.

We don’t need to analyze the rest of the game, which was frustrating to say the least. After the game, lots of fans were understandably upset and some even called for Coach Paul Johnson to be fired. I’d just like to remind everyone that we’re only two weeks into the 2018 season and there lots of positive things happening on the offensive side of the ball. As fans, the best way for us to help the team right now is to trust that the coaching staff will work hard this week to address the defense and special teams issues. If we only win 5 or 6 games this season, then a discussion about a potential coaching change may be worth having, but right now the best thing we can do as fans is to support our players and coaches.

Up Next: Pittsburgh

Last year against the Pittsburgh Panthers, the Jackets pulled away late to secure a 35-17 victory in Atlanta. The Panthers used a 4-3 defensive scheme that proved largely ineffective at slowing down Tech’s flexbone attack. The Jackets racked up 484 yards of offense, including 436 yards on the ground for 6.5 yards per carry. B-back Kirvonte Benson was particularly effective with 196 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The game shouldn’t have been as close as the final score indicated, but B-backs Benson, Jerry Howard, and Quaide Weimerskirch combined for four lost fumbles which kept the Panthers in the game.

Above: Pittsburgh’s 4-3 defensive scheme in 2017

This year, Randy Bates has taken over as Pitt’s defensive coordinator after Josh Conklin left in the offseason to take an FCS head coaching position. Prior to joining Pitt, Bates spent 12 seasons as the linebackers coach at Northwestern. The last time Bates had to game plan for a flexbone offense was in 2011 when Northwestern gave up 381 rushing yards in a 21-14 loss to Army. Footage from that game wasn’t available, so we’ll have to wait until Saturday to see if he implements a new defensive strategy or sticks with the Panthers’ 4-3 scheme we saw last year. Either way, this week is a critical test for Georgia Tech as they try to bounce back from a heartbreaking loss and snag a victory in their first conference game.