Last week Thursday night the BYU Cougars helped to kick off the college football season. They opened — for the first time ever — by playing in ‘The Holy War’, a bitter, in-state rivalry game with the Utah Utes. From a Tennessee perspective this game went perfectly. A close score for much of three quarters led to an aggressive approach from BYU. This prevented the Cougars from being vanilla in their game plan, and may have given the Vols’ coaches valuable information on tendencies. The stout Utah defense provided a model for forcing critical errors from the Cougar offense. And, to top it all off, a weather delay extended the game causing greater mental and physical stress to the BYU team. Volunteers fans could almost taste a 3-0 start to the season.
Then, Saturday happened. The Tennessee Volunteers suffered — as we all know and experienced — a devastating loss at the hands of the Georgia State Panthers. After the game, head coach Jeremy Pruitt attempted to provide some perspective. He said, “the sun’s going to come up tomorrow, and we’re going to get ready to play BYU.” A tense week of practice has followed, and now it’s game day again on Rocky Top.
So, what can we expect in tonight’s battle of 0-1 teams, each in desperate need of a victory? Let’s take a look.
Before we discuss the BYU offense we need to take a look backward briefly at the Tennessee defense. To better understand how BYU will attack the Vols’ we should ask the question: what did Georgia State do well against the Vols’ to help them pull the upset? The answer is that Georgia State picked up chunk yardage on early downs. David Ubben, who covers Tennessee athletics for The Athletic, outlined this very well in his article from earlier in the week.
One of the plays Georgia State ran very well last week was the ‘Pin & Pull Sweep.’ This play involves both gap and zone scheme principles. The play-side uses ‘Pin & Pull’ rules, meaning that if an offensive lineman is not covered by a defensive lineman he will pull, and if he is covered he will perform a down block to pin the defender to the inside. On the back-side of the play the offensive linemen use outside zone blocking rules. For the sake of time I am simplifying the scheme, but you get the idea. Below is an example of Georgia State running the Pin & Pull Sweep against Tennessee.
The next question I would be asking, if I were BYU, is: do we have any similar plays in our playbook that we could use to have success as well? As it turns out the answer is a definite ‘yes.’ BYU ran the ‘Pin & Pull’ sweep against Utah quite a bit, and they did so very effectively. Here are a couple of examples of BYU running the exact same play against the Utah defense one week ago.
As you can see from the examples above the direction of the play is toward the three-man surface of the offensive line. In other words, in the direction of the tight end — this player, along with the offensive tackle and guard, account for the three man surface. BYU, however, has multiple variations of this play beyond the simple hand-off, which will make them much tougher to defend. One such concept is a simple read of the the back-side defensive end. Earlier this week Coach Pruitt compared BYU quarterback Zach Wilson to Texas A&M legend Johnny Manziel. While Wilson may not be quite that electrifying, he is still able to make you pay defensively with his legs. Below is an example of Wilson running the ‘Pin & Pull’ Read.
With the defensive end shuffling down the line, and cornerback bailing with the wide receiver, Wilson is free to pull the football and run for a nice gain on first down. BYU also showed RPO’s off of the ‘Pin & Pull’ concept as well, with Wilson pulling the football and flipping it out to a receiver in the flat rather than running himself — pay attention to the three receivers in Clip #3, above.
Given BYU’s success with the play, and Tennessee’s difficulty stopping it, it is safe to expect a steady diet of this concept later tonight. Which brings up the next question: how does the defense stop this? In the second half Utah did a nice job of slowing this play down using their defensive alignment.
The Utes went into a one-high safety look by rolling down their strong safety into the box, which positioned seven defenders across from six offensive linemen. This made the numbers more favorable for the defense. The Utes were able to sit the back-side defensive end and take away any quarterback keep without being out-numbered to the sweep side. The strong safety as the force defender managed to identify the play quickly and was fast to fill while maintaining outside leverage. This forced the running back to cut back inside where there is pursuit resulting in a loss of yards.
Contrast this defensive look with Tennessee’s defense in the Georgia State example above. Tennessee had an inside alignment with their defensive end and a two-high safety shell. Rolling a safety down toward the tight end, and getting into Cover-1, is one way the Vols’ could adjust to shut down a staple play in the BYU offense.
Next, we will take a quick look at the BYU passing attack. Quarterback Zach Wilson is young, and extremely talented. The Cougars try to get the ball out of his hands quickly and simplify his reads, unless they face a third and long. A key in tonight’s game will be shutting down the running game and forcing third down and long. A great example of Wilson’s arm talent, and getting the ball out quickly, is what I call their ‘All Slants’ play. Often on third and medium BYU will align in a trips formation and each receiver will run a slant. Below is a great example — albeit, not on third down — of Wilson on the ‘All Slants’ concept.
It is much easier to apply pressure to Wilson when he has to perform drop back passes. Not only is Wilson young, but his offensive line is as well. The Cougars start two juniors and three sophomores up front. Most of the offensive line protections used in their first game were either slide or BOB protections. A great way to confuse a young offensive line, and apply pressure, is to use Fire Zone blitzes. This blitz is a 5-man pressure, usually involving misdirection from the defensive line, with zone coverage behind. Utah ran this Fire Zone effectively to put pressure on Wilson.
The hard part, of course, will be making sure Wilson gets on the ground before he can hurt us with his legs. Watch for Tennessee to bring pressure with their version of the Fire Zone when they get the Cougars into obvious passing situations.
Defensively BYU is a base 3-3-5 team. Although this defense is relatively uncommon, the Vols should be familiar with the scheme due to their games with West Virginia and Charlotte in 2018. The Cougars have some large, physical defensive linemen who do a great job of stuffing the interior, as you can see below.
This interior presence has contributed to BYU having a consistently strong rushing defense over the past several seasons, frequently ranking as one of the better teams in football in terms of opponent rushing yards per game. To attack the Cougars in the rushing game it is best to go off-tackle.
Here are a few examples of Utah running off-tackle last week. The first example is a counter play. Utah aligns with their running strength to the boundary, and passing strength to the field. The Utes are able to get nice down blocks on the play-side, and the pullers coming around create an ally for the running back. By running to the open side of their formation — the two receiver side — the Utes run toward the nickel defender and away from talented outside linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi. The result is clearly a nice gain.
A second example of off-tackle running is the simple outside zone play. This leaves the back-side linebacker — who happens to be Isaiah Kaufusi again — unblocked. The Utes are able to account for all of the play-side defenders, and the running back is able to outrun the defense to the edge for another nice gain.
I chose to show the above example of off-tackle running for two main reasons. For one, because I think it is how to run the ball effectively against this defense. Secondly, I know for a fact that Tennessee has these plays in their offensive playbook.
Last week Tennessee struggled with running the football, a concerning sign for an offense with similar struggles last season. Look for the Vols’ to use off-tackle running tonight to finally buck that trend.
In pass protection the Tennessee offense actually looked decent last week. Fortunately, the Cougars don’t often pressure the quarterback. They usually prefer to rush three and drop eight into coverage. As long as Jarrett Guarantano can make good decisions and deliver the ball accurately the Vols’ should be just fine tonight through the air.
That will do it for this week’s opponent preview. I’m sorry to everyone for having this week’s version out a little later than normal. I hope you have found time to read before heading off to the tailgate. If you liked the article, and feel that some one else might like it as well, please feel free to share on social media. And, as always, let us know what you think about how the game will go in the comments below!