On the evening of Thursday, January 2nd, 2020 the Tennessee Volunteers will return to a bowl game for the first time since the 2016 Music City Bowl. The result of that game was an emphatic victory, punctuated by Derek Barnett sacking Nebraska back-up quarterback Ryker Fyfe to pass Reggie White for most career sacks as a Volunteer. Thursday night in Jacksonville Tennessee will once again face a Big Ten opponent with a back-up quarterback. This year, however, couldn’t be more opposite of that 2016 season.
The 2016 Vols ripped off five straight victories, catapulting them to a Top-10 ranking. Then, as we all remember only too well, the wheels fell off. Tennessee lost four of its last seven including the season finale to Vanderbilt. On the other hand the present Vols squad had, to put it mildly, a very disappointing start to their season. Sitting at 1-4 in early October all hope of a post-season seemed lost. But, this group battled back, winning six of their last seven, and they seem determined to send this resilient senior class out on a high note.
Earlier this week my colleague here at Rocky Top Talk, Evan Winter, put together an excellent profile on Indiana. Before you go any further I would strongly suggest you read his article, which can be found right here: TaxSlayer Gator Bowl Opponent Preview: Indiana Hoosiers. This will get you familiar with Indiana’s personnel, and their season up to this point, which will be valuable information for what we’ll talk about next.
My job is to go a little bit deeper into the opponent’s strategy. What types of things do they do well, and how might Tennessee go about stopping them? Let’s find out.
The Hoosier offense is led by offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, who will be coaching his final game with Indiana after accepting the head coaching position at Fresno State in mid-December. DeBoer’s time in Bloomington has been short — after taking over play calling duties from a guy named Mike DeBoard, who Vols fans might be familiar with — but he has created a lethal passing attack. Indiana currently ranks 14th in the nation in terms of passing yards per game. That’s a better mark than both Clemson and Oklahoma, an impressive feat when considering the difficulty of the Big Ten East.
Key to this passing attack is junior wide receiver Whop Philyor. The diminutive Philyor leads the Hoosiers in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns on the year — all despite missing one game due to injury. At 5’ 11” Philyor isn’t a guy looking to out-jump a defensive back for a fade pass on the perimeter. For that the Hoosiers would rather target the 6’ 2” Ty Fryfogle or the 6’ 4” Donavan Hale. Philyor is an elusive route runner who does most of his damage on crossing routes over the middle, and that’s where Indiana will look to target him. Take a look at the two examples below:
Both of these examples come with Philyor in the slot from 2 x 2 formations — two receivers to either side of the ball. To defend this I believe Tennessee will use their ‘7-Bracket’ coverage. If this sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you have been reading my articles — to which I owe you a very sincere thank you. This is the same coverage used during the Mississippi State game when Nigel Warrior intercepted Garrett Shrader in the third quarter. A complete breakdown of that play, with the details of ‘7-Bracket,’ can be found in this article.
In short, Tennessee’s nickel defender — i.e. the Star — and strong safety will have a bracket — double coverage — on Philyor in the slot. The Star plays with outside leverage and underneath, while the safety plays from an inside leverage position and on top of the route. This type of double coverage should take away Philyor and force the ball to the perimeter. That’s where Indiana is less comfortable throwing the ball and the Vols have play-makers like Bryce Thompson and Alontae Taylor. In addition, ‘7-Bracket’ offers adequate run support on run heavy downs, so the extra attention paid to Philyor won’t leave the Vols short in defending the run.
The problem is, Indiana won’t stay in 2x2 formations the entire game. In fact, they will frequently use 3x1 open and 3x1 closed formations to spread the field and take advantage of match-ups. Below are two examples of Indiana effectively using 3x1 formations. The first example is again of Whop Philyor causing problems on a crossing route. Philyor will line up at all three receiver positions in 3x1 formations, but in this example he is the #3 — most interior — receiver. The second example below is an RPO that the Hoosiers often use to get their tight end, Peyton Hendershot, open in the flat from a 3x1 open formation.
Tennessee’s defense has numerous coverages at their disposal to deal with these Trips formations. While they certainly will use more than one coverage throughout the course of the game I suspect their ‘Clip’ coverage will be very productive. Below is a diagram of ‘Clip’ coverage for your reference.
I could probably write an entire article on ‘Clip,’ but I’ll try to be clear and brief here. In this coverage the Corner is taking the flat. The Star and the Money are taking the #2 and #3 receivers, respectively, vertically and inside. If their assignment breaks outside they are then cutting underneath the #1 receiver. The Strong Safety is playing a half field technique over the top of the Trips. To the single receiver side the Free Safety and Corner have a specific type of bracket on the receiver.
So, why might this coverage be successful on Thursday? Take a second look at the RPO to Hendershot above. He is aligned as the #3 receiver, and immediately breaks to the flat. In ‘Clip’ the Corner, seeing this, should then jump to the flat and be able to break up the pass or tackle the receiver for no gain. In addition, the Money linebacker would would see his man break outside and immediately work to cut the #1 receiver. In essence, he would already be pursuing in the correct direction when the ball is thrown, and he could rally to the tackle.
Furthermore, if Hendershot is at the #3 then Philyor is likely to be lined up at the #2 receiver position — he was not in the example above as he was injured during the Michigan game. When playing ‘Clip’ the #2 receiver is being carried vertically down the field by the Star defender with a safety over the top for protection. This is a great way to neutralize the threat of Philyor should be be aligned at the #2, while also taking away the RPO to the flat.
Indiana will move Philyor all over the field, and occasionally he will be aligned as the #3 receiver. From a defensive perspective this would be called “speed at #3,” as there is a fast wide receiver aligned in the #3 position as opposed to a slower tight end. If the defense were to remain in ‘Clip’ coverage this would be a major mismatch, because the Money linebacker would have to carry Philyor on a vertical down the field. However, there is a check in ‘Clip’ that tells the defense to play a coverage called ‘Posse’ when there is speed at #3. ‘Posse’ is the same coverage as ‘Clip,’ but the back side Safety — i.e. Free Safety, Weak Safety, whatever you want to call him — will play a poach technique on #3. This means that if #3 is vertical the safety will play the route, which is a much better matchup for the defense. The coaches can game plan whether or not they want the money linebacker to carry the route as well — essentially creating a bracket — or not carry the route and remain in the box prepared for a quarterback scramble.
When you see the Hoosiers in a 3x1 formation ask yourself: who is the #3 receiver? That should tell you a great deal about what the offense is trying to do, and how the Volunteer defense might go about stopping them. Watch for the Vols to take away Philyor with bracket coverage, and force Indiana out of their comfort zone.
The Hoosiers will run a 4-2-5 defensive formation as their base. What jumps out to me the most when watching Indiana defensively isn’t anything they do schematically. It’s their size, or lack thereof.
Demarcus Elliott, at 6’ 3” and 328-pounds, is certainly a load at nose guard. And Jerome Johnson at defensive tackle isn’t a slouch either at 294-pounds. However, defensive ends Michael Ziemba and James Head Jr. are both listed under 260-pounds. Other defensive linemen that see playing time in backup roles weigh in at 258, 278, and 246-pounds respectively.
Indiana ranks 45th in the nation in terms of rushing defense, averaging close to 140-yards allowed on the ground. This is a respectable mark, but one that is probably inflated by the quality of their overall schedule. Their non-conference opponents were Ball State (5-7), Eastern Illinois (1-11, D1-FCS), and UCONN (2-10). And, within their own Power-5 conference they faced the anemic offenses of Rutgers and Northwestern.
When Indiana was tested by stronger opponents it was a different story. They gave up over 300-yards rushing in a loss to Ohio State, close to 200-yards rushing in a loss to Penn State, and close to 150-yards rushing in a loss to Michigan State.
Indiana’s struggle to stop the run boils down, in my opinion, to a lack of size up front. To demonstrate this I’ve included three basic zone running plays. The first example, from Purdue, is a tighter zone run with a slice action from the tight end. The following two examples, from Michigan and Michigan State, are wider zone runs.
One reason for selecting these examples is that the Vols have these plays in their playbook, so I think this translates well to what we might see on Thursday. The tighter zone run is a play we call ‘Texas,’ which you can read more about here if you’re interested: TEXAS. If the wider zone plays look familiar, it’s because that is practically the only play Tennessee ran for the entire second half of the BYU game with great success.
The second reason for selecting these examples is because they are extremely basic. The offense isn’t doing anything fancy here. And, the defense is able to account for all of the gaps in the offense. It can be difficult to see above but, whether it was by adding the nickel defender or a safety, the defense actually had enough players on each play to defend the run. However, in each case, the offensive lines are able to win at the line of scrimmage and maintain their blocks.
Every player on Tennessee’s offensive line is over 300-pounds, and Dominick Wood-Anderson is just as big as Indiana’s defensive ends. Size isn’t everything, as technique obviously plays an important role as well. But, I believe this advantage is how Tennessee can win on Thursday. The Vols don’t need to try and out-scheme Indiana. They simply need to use their size and strength advantage up front and let their talented array of running backs take care of the rest.
Tennessee’s postseason wait is almost over as the Vols look to record their eighth win and finish off an impressive second half of the season. In my opinion, the biggest key to victory on Thursday night is to shut down Whop Philyor, and force Indiana to push the ball to the perimeter. Above I touched on a couple of ways the Vols might make that happen. If you enjoyed this article please share it with other fans who you feel might enjoy it, too.
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