Anatomy of a Drive: Boise’s Onside Comeback vs. Colorado State

Anatomy of a Drive is back! The weekly examination of what makes a football drive click heads west young man to Colorado. Sorry for the late publication, the life of an astronaut/test pilot is rarely predictable. Neither are Mike Bobo’s Saturdays in the Mountain West.

Two weeks ago his Rams lost in a snowstorm at Wyoming 16-13. This week Boise came to Fort Collins, and the Rams had the Broncos right where they wanted ’em, up fourteen with under three minutes to play. We wouldn’t be here if it ended that way.

You’ve heard the phrase “take what the defense gives you,” modern football is predicated on that idea. The days of the irresistible force vs. the immovable object are by in large gone.

As former Houston coach John Jenkins, he of the flaming golden hair who turned the SWC on its ear with his passing offense, “we get the chalk last.” What coach Jenkins meant was that no matter the defense’s response, the offense could adjust and thus stay one step ahead.

Brian Harsin’s Broncos put on a clinic centered on taking what the Ram defense gave them. The result was a tying touchdown and an overtime win. It all started with a tremendous onside kick.

Almost all special teams coaches teach their front line hands team that if an onside kick is coming in hot, they let it through. The ball is odd shaped and tends to act oddly, especially when booted by a skilled technician. The second line typically contains a defensive back or receiver with the best hands on the team.

The kicking team’s rules are obviously different, as they send some guided missiles into the front line in a violent game of red rover/bowling. The kicking team usually sends one man, or gunner, behind enemy lines to make a play on the kick.

The kick is vital; ideally, the second bounce will kick up high enough to give the gunner a chance to make a play on the ball or at least cause enough chaos to allow for a recovery.

Here Boise’s kicker executes a pitch-perfect onside kick. The ball covers ten yards quickly and takes a near fifteen-foot high trajectory on the second bounce and into the leaping arms of the Boise gunner. This isn’t luck. This is flawless execution from several different elements of the onside kick team. It’s beautiful and it sets up Boise in the catbird seat for a game-tying drive.

In light of taking what the defense gives, let’s talk about pre-snap reads. Exciting.

Most, if not all coaches, teach quarterbacks to go through a progression, pre-snap, to look for tells that the defense is giving away to indicate coverage. Generally, the progression is:

  1. Is the middle of the field open (can you see two safeties playing at similar depth) or closed (is there one safety with the other walked up into the box)? If the middle is open, i.e., two safeties, the coverage will almost always be even: cover two zone, cover two man, or quarters. If the middle of the field is closed, you’re almost always going to get an odd coverage: cover 1, or thirds. Are there exceptions? You bet. Defensive coordinators are tricky little devils, and they will disguise and move pieces all to grab the chalk last, but we’re narrowing the possibilities.
  2. Next are the corners, who tell you a lot by their alignment or stance. Quarterbacks look at leverage or where the cornerback is lined up in relation to the receiver. Inside leverage gives a man tell if they’re lined up outside it’s a zone tell, and lining up straight up or over the top gives a man key. Their depth is also a key. If they’re lined up on the line of scrimmage that’s a man key. Deeper alignment can mean zone. Look at their hips, are they square to the receiver or open towards the ball. Where are there eyes? Are they looking in at you or the receiver?
  3. After looking at the cornerbacks, the next step in the progression is the line, and many of the same leverage/alignment/body keys are used here for linebackers or standup defensive ends. Lastly, the quarterback will identify his hot read/route. In other words, is somebody blitzing, and if so, from where and what is my hot throw to counter the blitz.

Do all that in four seconds and you can play college quarterback. Well, you can read alignment and keys, we doubt you’ve got the arm strength or mobility.

1st and 10 Clock Stopped, CSU 45.

We talk a lot about the critical nature of the first play in a two-minute situation. You have to get moving, get the car out of the driveway and get into a rhythm.

Here, pre-snap the middle of the field is open, two safeties, notice the slot corner on the boundary or short side is shifted to play inside leverage with his feet. The bottom corners are giving man keys. This looks like a mirrored combo but the Boise quarterback, Brett Rypien likes the boundary here because of the depth of the boundary coverage.

The outside boundary receiver runs a go and tries to get onto the shoe tops of the outside corner. The slot runs an out and finds space where the outside receiver clears, and it’s a simple thrown and catch. The receiver gets out of bounds. Is it a huge play? No, but the play starts the ball rolling. Now Boise is moving and into their pacing, plus they’re ahead of the chains.

2nd and 4, Clock Stopped, CSU 39.

Again, the middle of the field is open, but we’re going to see a 2-zone with pretty good coverage of the boundary side trips route combination. Here’s where Rypien is excellent; he sees the zone drops and the crowded nature of the route area, he goes through his progression, doesn’t force a throw and checks down to his back who has ten yards of green grass to deal with.

It’s a bad scenario for the Rams with a good runner in the open field. What’s lost in this is the throw, it’s a nuance, but Rypien gives Alexander Mattison a great ball, upfield, into the numbers and a chance to run. The Broncos now have a first down with two timeouts at the Ram 30.

1st and 10, Clock Running, CSU 33.

The benefit to having two timeouts and the ball deep in Ram territory is that Brian Harsin has the entire playbook to work with. The Rams are on their heels. Harsin takes what the Rams are giving here, the safeties are deep, expecting a pass, it’s a two-minute drill after all.

This is an excellent run block for the Broncos and a backbreaker for the Rams. The left side of the Boise line collapses the Ram line, and Mattison gets 25 yards down to the five.

2nd and Goal, Clock Stopped, CSU 5. 

Have we mentioned we love an offense that uses a tight end? We were going to say we love tight ends but some of you fifth graders would lose your minds laughing. Focus.

While Rypien is going through his pre-snap progression, he sees a zero blitz look, coverage taking outside leverage, no safety help. Now he’s gotta find his hot route. In this case, it’s Jake Roh, the boundary slot receiver.

One of the best ways to beat a blitz is to throw into it. One catch, on a zero blitz against an empty set, the Broncos don’t have the protection manpower to account, so the blitzer is the responsibility of Rypien. Let’s translate that; he’s going to take a hit.

He does, but he stands in like a champ and makes a great throw to Roh on an out route. Bingo, Boise’s made up fourteen points in two minutes all thanks to a tremendous onside kick and taking what the Rams gave them.

Boise went on to win in overtime, further sinking Colorado State’s hopes. A few weeks ago the Rams were an outside contender for a New Year’s six bowls. Three losses later they’re trying to get their bearings. Boise continues to assert itself as the class of the Mountain West.

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