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Why fundamentals really are important, especially when defending the option
It seems like every week, when talking about correcting things, we hear Kansas coach Mark Mangino preaching about fundamentals.
By now, it seems cliche. Of course KU needs good fundamentals. Every team does.
Very rarely, though, do we talk about what happens when players don’t play fundamentally sound. We’ll get a small glimpse of that this week in our “Breakdown” blog.
This week’s topic will be Kansas State’s option play late in the fourth quarter on third-and-4. With a stop, the Jayhawks could had forced a KSU punt and still had a conceivable shot at making a comeback with about two minutes left.
True to form, Kansas State didn’t do anything flashy. Instead, the Wildcats pulled out a simple speed option play and executed well enough to get the first down.
Let’s get a little more in-depth.
Like the previous weeks, I have consulted a Division-II defensive assistant coach, someone we'll just call "Coach" in this blog.
Here is the replay of KSU’s option run. You can also click back to this video as you read later in the blog if you need to.
I started off by asking Coach the most effective way to stop the option.
His answer sounded like something straight from Mangino.
“The best way to stop the option is everybody on defense has to do their job,” Coach says. “ ... You really have to play assignment football against the option to make sure you’re going to get it stopped.”
Let’s start with some fundamental talk.
Coach says the K-State offensive linemen are executing “stretch” or “reach” blocking to the right side. This means every offensive lineman is going to first take a step with his right foot, then reach for a defender in front of him. Perhaps not surprisingly, each of KSU coach Bill Snyder's linemen is in step.
“It looks like they’ve been coached up pretty well there as far as their footwork goes,” Coach says. “No false steps. Everybody’s stepping laterally first with their right foot and trying to reach and run hard (to) stretch that line of scrimmage.”
The most important player on this option play for KU is outside linebacker Justin Springer (No. 45).
Coach says that Springer executes what is called a “run-through,” which means he sees a seam and cuts through it to try to get to the quarterback.
“What you tell your linebackers is if he takes that gap and takes a run-through right there, he absolutely, absolutely has to make the play,” Coach says.
Springer’s play is definitely a gamble. If he runs through the seam and doesn’t make the tackle, he completely takes himself out of the play. If he does make the tackle, it’s a loss for KSU and KU will have forced the fourth down that it needs.
Before we continue with Springer, let’s take a closer look at KU defensive end Maxwell Onyegbule (No. 90).
On an option play to his side, Onyegbule’s job is to stretch the play as far out to the sideline as possible. Not only would this make Springer’s job easier, it also would allow KU’s backside players more time to get to the other side of the field to make the tackle.
As we see from this frame, Onyegbule is blocked by KSU’s Clyde Aufner (No. 75).
“No. 75 has him cut off. (Onyegbule) really needs to take his left hand and punch through 75’s right shoulder and get this thing strung out to the sideline,” Coach says. “That way it makes it an easier job for (No.) 45 to get right through there and make a play.”
Coach says Onyegbule doesn’t do a great job of moving his blocker. Instead of being where he is, Onyegbule needs to work his blocker farther laterally down the line of scrimmage (toward the hash), which would force KSU quarterback Grant Gregory and running back Daniel Thomas to have to go more toward the sideline.
Let’s go back to Springer, who has decided on the do-or-die play of a run-through.
Coach points out one main problem: Springer doesn’t take a good line to the quarterback.
“See how he kind of took a bad angle?” Coach says. “He needs to continue to, instead of coming straight downhill right there, he needs to really scrape right off the back of No. 90.”
Instead, Springer comes too far upfield and isn’t able to corral Gregory.
The gamble of the run-through doesn’t pay off. KU has to try to make the tackle on this play one defender short.
Now, KU's defenders are outnumbered.
Take a look. With Springer on the backside of the play, Gregory now only has to worry about two KU defenders. And one of them (No. 41 Arist Wright) should be easily blocked by KSU’s No. 37, Braden Wilson.
This creates a two-on-one situation for Gregory. He and Thomas now are running to the right with only one KU defender to beat: KU’s Lubbock Smith (No. 13).
Even with this ideal setup, K-State still isn't guaranteed success.
Let’s fast forward a bit. Notice No. 37 Wilson doesn’t get a block on Wright. In fact, the KSU fullback doesn’t even really touch Wright.
The problem for KU is that neither Smith nor Wright are in a position to make the play. In short, both players over-run the play.
Perhaps it was because Daniel Thomas ran the ball well all day, but both of KU’s defenders clearly are expecting a pitch. Both players position themselves to the outside shoulder of the quarterback.
“The way that we play it is we try to get the ball pitched as soon as possible, and that way, we can rally and have the rest of our defenders get to the pitch,” Coach says. “ ... You really have to play it inside-out and you have to play assignment football versus the option. It’s going to be hard to tell off the video who’s got the pitch man and who’s got the quarterback, but when you’re running outside like this, you really have to do a good job taking those guys inside-out, because you’re always wary of a cutback in option football.”
Coach says instead of trying to run through Gregory's outside shoulder, the KU defenders should instead be positioning themselves to run through Gregory's inside shoulder.
Gregory most likely sees Smith has gone to the outside expecting the pitch, and he cuts it upfield instead, expecting Wilson to block Wright.
When Gregory cuts, both Smith and Wright have a shot at him.
Neither one can get him to the turf, partly because they are too far to the outside.
There is one more aspect to this play, and that is the reaction time of KU’s linebackers to the running play.
Coach says that Wright does a good job of reading the running play and getting into a location where he can make the tackle. His read is the left guard, and when he sees the left guard firing at him upfield, his correct reaction is to go toward the line of scrimmage, then to move laterally with the running back.
“He gets over there in time,” Coach says. “He just has to break down and make a play.”
One person who isn’t involved in the play but could have been is KU’s backside linebacker Huldon Tharp (No. 34). Notice that he starts the play on the yellow first-down line.
On this play, Tharp’s read is the running back. His footsteps should mimic those of the back. If Thomas goes downhill toward the line, Tharp should go downhill toward the line as well.
Instead, Thomas’ first step is laterally.
See what happens? Just like last week’s “Breakdown” blog, Tharp has taken a false step forward toward the line of scrimmage.
Once again, it costs him, as he gets caught up in a block and also in other traffic because he comes too far forward towards the line of scrimmage.
Ideally, Tharp’s first step should have been lateral, not forward. Instead of running up the 40-yard line, Tharp should be running up the yellow first-down line, which would have cleared him from some of the blockers and other traffic he encountered.
“Now is he going to make the play for a zero-yard gain? No,” Coach says. “But he’s going to be in the mix and have a chance to stop a first down. I’m not saying he’s going to make the play, but he’s going to have a better chance than what he does do.”
It sounds like such a small thing: a true freshman taking one small false step forward at the beginning of the play.
On this play, though, it’s small fundamentals that might have that cost the Jayhawks one last shot at a victory against their in-state rivals.