Tom Allen Has Discovered Offense
And nearly rode it to a nine win season
|Patrick Mayhorn||Aug 19, 2020|
An easy way to gauge the quality of a college football scheme is by looking at how it adapts to change. Because college football is designed around losing a fourth of your roster every season, the best schemes and systems in the sport are able to take that into account and are often built around managing it.
So, when you see a team or coach that consistently produces good or great units, be it offense, defense, special teams or even just a position unit, it’s as good a sign as any that that team or coach is doing something that works, and doing something that would likely work elsewhere.
That’s why Clemson’s defense under Brent Venables, Oklahoma’s offense under Lincoln Riley, Virginia Tech’s special teams under Frank Beamer and Penn State’s linebackers all get so much publicity, and why they’re so frequently mimicked: they’re well designed, and they work really well. When you have consistent success running variations of the same system, it isn’t just the sign of a good coach, it’s the sign of strong foundation. Rigid systems don’t work in college football, at least not in the long term.
There’s not a better example of the latter than Kevin Wilson. Wilson is, in large part, a brilliant offensive mind. He’s coordinated some of the best offenses of the last two decades in college football, creating the power spread with Randy Walker at Northwestern, dominating with it at Oklahoma and reviving it in 2019 with Ohio State to great success.
In between that time, however, Wilson made his mark as the head coach at Indiana, defining the Hoosiers largely as a chaos team that rarely won big games but was seemingly always in them because of his high-flying, fast-paced offense. Indiana put up a lot of points, a lot of yards, and was generally praised for having one of the better offenses in the nation.
It was too unbalanced, though. Too rigid to function consistently. Indiana had some great offenses under Wilson, but often sacrificed its defense to do so, running the offense as quickly as possible to keep defenses on their back foot, only to leave its own defense on the field for upwards of 40 minutes a game. In years without the personnel to fit the system, like 2014 or 2016, Wilson’s offense would stumble. It had firepower and well designed plays, but wasn’t adaptable enough to ever truly thrive in a place without top-end talent. If you’re going to be top-heavy, you better be in the top 10 of whatever you’re good at(think Mike Leach), because anything less is going to create a team that can play everyone close but always comes up just short.
For years, that was how Indiana lived. The Hoosiers caused problems for everyone they played and pulled two bowl appearances out of it, losing both (however, the kick was good).
In an attempt to balance the program, in hopes of finally winning some of those games, Indiana did the football equivalent of dating the opposite of your ex, hiring a low-key, defensive minded coach to replace the high-strung offensive lunacy of Wilson. On the defensive side of the ball, it actually worked pretty well. Allen was good when he was hired by Wilson as DC in 2016, and, despite a step back in 2018, has gradually improved Indiana’s defense to a nearly top-40 unit after years of ineptitude.
Unfortunately, he ran into problems on offense that, while certainly different in result from what Wilson was doing, had a similar core issue. Without diving too deep into that, Allen hired an OC in Mike DeBord that was far too committed to his rigid system, and while that system was tangibly worse than Wilson’s and the numbers backed that up, it was ailed by similar issues of misfitting personnel and unsustainable results in the few cases that he did get his 1990s-ass offense to operate as intended.
Unlike Wilson, however, Allen recognized that he needed to make a change (it certainly helps when your offense sucks in a tangible, noticeable way, which Wilson’s really didn’t for the most part). So, he went out and hired Kalen DeBoer, who, for my money, might have one of the best schemes in the country.
It’s funny to say that, given that I just said that the best way to gauge a scheme is through year-to-year production, because DeBoer spent just a year at Indiana before bouncing for the Fresno State head coaching job. However, because DeBoer was forced to play two starting quarterbacks due to injury in 2019, we can get a pretty good idea of the adaptability of his offense, and hopefully, for Indiana’s sake, Allen picked up on the importance of that.
The impressive thing about DeBoer’s offense as it functioned in 2019 is that even with two wildly different quarterbacks in Michael Penix Jr. and Peyton Ramsey, it was largely the same system. A lot of coaches would made wide, sweeping changes on the fly, while attempting to simplify for whoever didn’t initially win the starting job. That’s a fair approach (and one that actually won Ohio State a national title in 2014), especially if you don’t trust your backup, but DeBoer didn’t see the need to, because his offense is already constructed to be friendly to quarterbacks.
That’s because it’s built around the easiest pass for a quarterback to make: the wide receiver screen. With RPO tags on the inside to force linebackers into the box, Indiana’s base outside run play wasn’t a run at all, it was this. A quick hitter to speedy receivers like Whop Philyor served the exact same purpose as an outside zone handoff, except it didn’t require great blocking up front to run. DeBoer’s bet was that you could still stretch a defense and create space in the middle with screens, as you would with outside runs, without needing to actually block some of the big, heavy Big Ten defenses like Michigan State or Penn State.
When you do this, instead of blocking six or seven defenders in the box, you only need to distract those guys, and then on the outside, you just have to win one or two blocks. To assure success doing that more often than not, Indiana surrounded Philyor with sturdy, physical receivers like Ty Fryfogle, Nick Westbrook, Donovan Hale and Peyton Hendershot. Having those guys as targets downfield was a plus, but the biggest role that they played on the offense was as blockers for the speedy guys like Philyor, David Ellis and Stevie Scott. This was Indiana’s short game, especially when defenses loaded up the box to stop the run.
Because the perimeter blocking was so good, this worked well against zone and man defense, making it one of the better rushing attacks in the country, even though it isn’t technically a rushing attack at all. When facing off-coverage, Indiana would expand into short hitch routes, which had the same basic principle as the screens, but just made it a little bit easier to pick up big yards if there was a missed tackle.
This was a base that could work regardless of quarterback. If the defense sagged off, Indiana knew it had five yards, and could usually turn it into first down if Philyor had anything to say about it. Penix and Ramsey are very different players (even down to handedness), but you aren’t going to find a college quarterback that can’t throw this pass, and there will always be big receivers willing to block on the outside.
Against man, the idea is still pretty much the same. Blocking becomes more important and a guard is asked to kick out to get involved, but the players put into conflict and the of attack is identical to that of a screen against zone.
Where Indiana’s offense really starts to shine is the next stage, when it builds off of those screens to create the rest of the system. After gashing Michigan State all day with bubble screens to Philyor out of bunched trips, with that RPO tag in the backfield, Indiana shows that look again here.
Michigan State doesn’t fall for it completely, but the threat of the screen and of the RPO is just strong enough to hold the defense in place for an extra step, and that extra step is all that Penix needs to have Philyor open in the back of the end zone off of a wheel route.
The Hoosiers did this with Ramsey too. After having success throwing halfback swing routes and screens early in the game against Penn State, they threaten it here by motioning a wideout through the backfield and into a swing route. The defense is running a fire zone blitz, with two high safeties and three linebackers underneath in coverage.
The swing route freezes No. 6 underneath and pulls one of the deep safeties, No. 29, over to the sidelines. As soon as he flips his hips, Ramsey just has to deliver a catchable ball to Fryfogle, on a seam route right into the space that No. 29 was supposed to fill. This is the kind of play that you can make when you have a strong, consistent offensive base, and when you understand how that base can manipulate a defense.
Later in the game, again under the threat of a swing pass, Indiana takes advantage of another overreaction. Penn State is running man this time with two deep safeties in zone, and the Nittany Lions play this to stop both the swing and a potential threat to the seam, but Indiana is never looking to attack the seam. Ramsey is just reading the linebackers and safeties. If they shade to cover the swing pass (they do), he takes off on a draw to the other side of the field. Simple reads, with easy-to-make plays to keep your quarterback from being overwhelmed.
That’s how you build an offense that can be sustained regardless of personnel and talent level. Indiana would do well to continue this look even with DeBoer gone, because this is a system that is going to work for a long time, especially as the Hoosiers seem to be moving up in the recruiting world.
For DeBoer, this is a system that’s going to get him a very big job, very soon.
Up next: Frank Solich Is Still Firing The Pistol