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Fuente 101: The Red Zone

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Looking at the intricacies of Fuente’s offense at Memphis once they entered the Red Zone.

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Check out my previous articles in this series if you haven’t already:

Fuente 101

Fuente 101: Route Concepts

Fuente 101: The Quarterback

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In general, if two teams are of equal talent, the winner will almost always execute their plays and gameplan at a higher level. This is especially true once teams get inside the Red Zone. It is heartbreaking for an offense to go on an extended 10 or 11 play drive to get in a goal-to-go situation and have to settle for a FG because they fail to execute their assignments. Plenty of programs have no trouble at all moving the football between the 20’s. However, once teams get closer to the end zone, defenses tighten up, knowing that they can take more risks since there is less room to operate. Defenses will blitz six or seven, giving plays less time to develop. When they decide to drop back into coverage, throwing windows get tighter and can pass before the QB even realizes it. Scoring touchdowns in the Red Zone requires all eleven players on offense to execute at the highest level possible.

There are many schematic aspects of building a Red Zone package in an offense. Size mismatches are often the most prominent way of creating an opportunity to score. Since Bucky Hodges arrived in Blacksburg, the coaching staff has done a fantastic job of getting him open in the back of the end zone, usually on a fade pattern. The 6-7 TE was then able to effectively rise up and make catches at the back of the end zone on jump balls.

At Memphis, Fuente’s offense was highly successful in the Red Zone. They rarely turned it over once they marched inside the 20, scoring either a FG or touchdown 89% of the time (T-18th in NCAA). But the most important Red Zone stat is TD conversion rate. The Tigers scored touchdowns on 65% of their red zone possessions which is a solid clip (Hokies were around 61%), and one of the reasons they had a high PPG total. Memphis was capitalizing and finishing long drives with touchdowns instead of field goals.

I really liked how the Memphis offense stayed diverse in their formation and personnel when they got to the goal line. Usually your playbook shrinks once you get that close to scoring, but Fuente did a nice job keeping his options open which left the defense guessing. The Memphis coach also showed a strong tendency to run the football in these situations. In 63 trips inside the 20, Memphis scored 27 rushing touchdowns as opposed to 14 passing touchdowns. Let’s take a look at how Fuente’s ground game was so effective in the red zone.

No offense that has success at or near the goal line is a “finesse” offense. Fuente’s offense had the ability to run the football down the defense’s throat when the situation called for it. His red zone packages were not concepts that were innovative and exotic. Most of the time they were just very well executed plays that many teams run, which is why the Tigers scored touchdowns 65% of the time in the red zone.

There was a sequence of plays against Cincinnati which was indicative of their solid execution inside the 20. The Memphis offense ran the ball three straight times once they got to the Bearcats’ 20-yard line. The results? 9 yards, 8 yards, 3 yards, and six points. All three run concepts were used by the Tigers throughout the season, especially around the goal line. Cincinnati had seen those plays before on tape and they were helpless due to Memphis’ excellent ability to execute when it mattered most.

At this point, the game was tied at 46 with about a minute and a half left on the clock. Cincinnati needed to hold the Memphis offense to three in order to get the ball back with a chance to win the game late. The Bearcats knew the run was coming, but they just were unable to stop it.

Fuente’s playcall to start this sequence was masterful. He knew the defense would be aggressive to try and stop the run, so he calls a counter trey to take advantage of their aggressiveness.

One cool fact about running a counter play is that the play design is the same as a power play. The difference is the running back’s assignment, as he takes his first step towards the opposite direction the play is actually going. Memphis has a TE and H-back Alan Cross lined up on the strong side of the formation, along with RB Sam Craft. The tailback’s position is interesting to note. Usually, when teams run out of shotgun to the outside, the back will be on the opposite side of where the run is going. While that holds true on this run, the fact that there are two TEs/H-backs on the same side could have tipped the defense off to the counter play.

Memphis blocks this play well enough for Craft. The LT gets to the second level to take out the WILL linebacker while the rest of the line down blocks everyone to their right, with the C and RT double teaming the backside 3-tech. The backside guard and Cross pull towards the playside to take out the EDGE and any defender who might disengage from their blocker and disrupt the play. Paxton Lynch does a decent job of selling the run to the right before the RB changes direction and comes back towards the field side.

Slot receiver Anthony Miller does a poor job of blocking his man, however. The nickel back diagnoses the play quickly and knows that he is responsible for the D gap. He makes a nice effort to get to his run fit, but Miller recovers and pushes him inside in the nick of time. The defender cannot get a clean hit on the running back in order to bring him down. Craft reads that there is clutter inside – the left guard allows penetration and the right guard isn’t able to get his hands into the playside DE and leaves him (sort of) free to make a play. He makes the smart decision to bounce it outside and around the edge for a nice chunk of yardage on first down. Craft finishes the run with some pop as well, but makes the mental mistake of not staying inbounds to let a little more time off the clock or make the Bearcats burn a timeout.

The next play was a simple zone read dive play that resulted in a first down in a goal-to-go situation with the clock still running – exactly what Fuente and the Tigers wanted. The 2 x 2 formation is the exact same as the previous play, with the only difference being Paxton Lynch in the Pistol formation instead of Shotgun.

The essence of the dive play, which was a staple run in the red zone for Memphis, is having two double teams at the point of attack, while the second OL of each double team moves up to the second level to take on a linebacker. Fuente loved to have his offense run zone reads in the Pistol formation throughout his stint at Memphis. It opened up the possibility of the triple option, plus it makes the EDGE defender easier to read since the QB is already facing him. Since the EDGE defender stays, Lynch makes the correct play to hand the ball off to Sam Craft. If the EDGE defender crashes on the RB, then Lynch would keep it and have Alan Cross as a lead blocker.

The right guard and center help their adjacent lineman for a split second then move on to the second level to block the linebackers on this play. The Bearcats’ defensive tackles actually do a decent job of holding off the double teams, making the holes smaller for Craft to runs through. The running back shows good vision, however, and is able to find a crease in the B gap. Craft once again lowers his pad level and finishes the run strongly, resulting in a first down inside the 3 yard line.

Memphis continues to pound the rock and finishes off the drive with six points, which ultimately wins them this football game. They go to a full-house set, with Cross, Craft, Lynch, and eventually motion-man Anthony Miller in the backfield. Memphis runs the dive play again, just dressed up in a different formation. It’s still an option play, except this time it is a called triple option instead of a zone read. Miller will stay in the backfield and be the pitch man should Lynch decide to keep the ball.

Lynch reads the EDGE defender – who again chooses to contain instead of crash inside – and hands off to Craft who finds a slim crease in the defense and walks into the end zone untouched. Cincinnati tries to blow this play up by blitzing the linebackers. As a result, the interior offensive linemen do not have enough time to set the double teams on the defensive tackles, and must quickly shift their attention to the second level defenders. They do this successfully, and the left tackle just manages to push his man to the ground to allow Craft to score.

Fuente was actually a bigger fan of calling the triple option in the red zone than you might think. He wasn’t Paul Johnson by any means, but he liked to call it sparingly to catch the defense napping. Because of Lynch’s ability to make quick decisions and his mobility, it really added an extra dimension to the offense once the Tigers got close to the goal line. Here’s an example of Fuente calling a triple option and the offense executing it perfectly (just outside the red zone).

Even though it is a triple option, which isn’t a run-it-down-your-throat, kind of play, it still shows how focused Memphis’ offense was when it came to executing the playcall. As always, it all started with the quarterback making the right read, which Paxton Lynch was very good at. In my last piece, we discussed the QB battle and who should be the starter going into Week 1 against Liberty. In Blacksburg, Fuente will also want his QB to do what Lynch did in the Red Zone – score touchdowns. It’s also a reason why I think Motley could have an upper hand. He was clinical in his six starts once the offense got inside the 20, and his numbers back it up.

In the same timeframe, Lynch threw less touchdowns and ran for less touchdowns than Motley. Needless to say, the Hokies were outstanding scoring touchdowns in the red zone when Motley started, as the maroon and orange scored TD’s on 16/20 RZ possessions when the redshirt Senior was in the game. That is an otherworldly 80% rate. There is no way he will be able to keep up that pace, but Motley did show that he could maintain his composure as the defense tightened up.

However, both Motley and Evans are capable of running the red zone aerial attack that Fuente used at Memphis. Like most of the Tigers’ offense, there was plenty of play-action passing used near the goal line to help freeze the defense, which helped create the space needed to score. There were simple ball fakes, which turned into zone reads off of jet sweeps like these two plays:

There were also more traditional pass plays and concepts. One of the Tigers’ most common looks when airing it out was in the Pistol formation. As we noted above, Memphis was also able to run the ball effectively out of this formation. When you can execute the run and the pass successfully from the same look, the defense must react to what you are doing instead of attack, which automatically gives the advantage to the offense. In fact, some of the passing concepts were built off the run plays that Memphis showed the defense consistently.

The dive play was productive for the Tigers as we saw above. In order to turn this into a passing play, Fuente simply has Alan Cross release into the opposite flat. The eyes of the defense are concentrated on the mesh point since they know some type of zone read concept will occur, so Cross often times had a good amount of real estate to sneak into before the defense recognized where he was.

If you have ever watched a Monday Night Football broadcast, chances are you have heard Jon Gruden bring up the play “Spider 2 Y Banana”. Memphis runs the same exact concept here, except out of the Pistol instead of under center, and they used it heavily once the offense was in a goal-to-go situation. To summarize, “Spider 2” means slide protection, and 2 meaning the direction which the line will slide (to the right). The Y receiver, usually the playside TE, runs a banana route towards the corner, which is combined with an underneath flat route creating a high-low concept for the quarterback.

Running this play out of the Pistol is genius by Fuente. It gives the defense the impression that it could be a run play, which keeps defenders in their run fits because it looks so similar to the dive plays we covered above. The line does their job by slide protecting to the right and stonewalling the pass rush. You can see that the EDGE defender that Lynch is looking at is caught looking at the mesh point (along with two other linebackers) while Cross is able to easily slide right underneath him into the flat with plenty of space to work with.

Lynch sees Cross open immediately and fires it to him quickly. The H-back stumbles into the end zone on a very well executed play and Memphis retakes the lead in the shootout.

I also touched on ball handling in my last piece, and these types of plays show how important it is to be convincing with ball fakes. If the defense sees that the mesh point doesn’t seem legitimate, then they have that extra split second to cover Cross coming out of the backfield and the play would likely be unsuccessful. That split second means everything, especially when the field is compacted in the red zone.

These plays work very well once the offense starts running the ball effectively. Eventually, the defense will be caught too close to the line of scrimmage because of the attention the RB draws to himself. This allows the banana route to be open, and if the offense gets a nice size mismatch on the banana route, the TE doesn’t even have to be wide open in order for the throw to be made.

This is a good example of the defense being caught in two different minds and allowing the banana route to get open. It is the exact same formation and play call as before, with Cross sneaking underneath the line to the opposite flat, the line slide protecting to the right, and the Y running the banana route. This is all mixed in with a phenomenal play action fake to freeze the defense. Two underneath defenders on the play side get caught ball watching and simply miss the TE going right by them into the corner of the end zone.

Obviously, there are going to be times where the offense fails to execute the play and the defense wins initially. Because of that, improvisation as a QB is a necessary skill. Aaron Rodgers is probably the king of all QBs at this. The Packers’ signal caller has an unreal ability to make something out of nothing and deliver darts while on the run in the perfect location. Paxton Lynch was also very good at extending the play when it broke down. He had light feet and understood where his receivers were. Improvisation requires chemistry between the QB and receivers have to know where their QB wants them to go once he bails from the pocket. I thought Motley actually played fairly well when the play broke down last year, which happened a myriad of times given the fluid offensive line situation.

Motley threw two touchdowns to Isaiah Ford on what were the same two playcalls against the NC State Wolfpack, which was probably Motley’s most efficient game. However, his receivers were not open when Motley initially wanted to get the ball to them. He had to buy a little time using his mobility and maintain his composure before delivering the football, while still surveying his options in the end zone. Both times he found a late throwing lane to Ford who was sliding to find a hole in the defense’s coverage.

Virginia Tech runs the route concept “spot”. It is run from the trips formation created by motioning Bucky Hodges into the bunch. The play consists of Ford (top right) running what is called a snag route, which is essentially just an angled hook route, Cam Phillips running a corner route, and Bucky running into the flat on a speed out. Motley has a triangle read on this play, but it changes if the defense is in man or zone. On this play, NC State drops back in a Cover-2 type defense, even though it gets fairly jumbled due to the sprint right call by Loeffler.

Post-snap, Motley reads that the defense is playing zone coverage. Since this means that the safety has outside leverage on Phillips, and the underneath cornerback is squatting on Hodges’ route, Motley should be looking for Isaiah Ford in a hole in the zone. However, Motley has absolutely no throwing window to get the ball to Ford when he wants to do so.

Motley uses great patience by waiting instead of forcing something into coverage, which will get you sent to the ninth circle of QB hell in the red zone. As I noted earlier, this takes chemistry and trust between the receiver and the quarterback. Since Ford is a stud (let’s be honest), he does exactly what Motley wants him to which is to keep sliding over towards the pylon. Motley improvises nicely and gets the ball to him in time so the junior can toe-tap before falling out of bounds.

This play is reminiscent of what Paxton Lynch did against Ole Miss this past season. Lynch had more pressure bearing down on him, but still finds his man open near the pylon for the touchdown.

Here’s another example of the Hokies running spot and another example of Motley having to improvise and be patient. From the same game and the same quarter, the Hokies are on the verge of taking a solid 11-point lead at halftime, but first they must convert a third and goal situation. Ford runs the snag route and sits in the hole and waits for things to clear up around him, as Rogers this time runs the flat route and Phillips runs another 7.

Again, at the start of the play the quarterback doesn’t have much to work with, so the redshirt Senior simply waits for Ford to uncover. Motley has a much tighter window to fit the ball into Ford than the last play. In all honesty, he really should not be making this throw, considering it’s into double coverage and also back across his body. However, Motley is able to keep his concentration and execute this incredible throw for the TD.

Motley is more than capable of making something out of nothing, both with his arms and his legs. He can gain an extra split second to make a play happen, which is huge in the red zone. Evans certainly has the talent to make these types of plays as well. Until we find out who the starter is, the question remains if the JUCO transfer can translate his talents to the next level.

Whoever the quarterback will be, it will not change the fact that Fuente will want to run the football in the red zone first before trying to score through the air. His red zone offense at Memphis was predicated on running the football then incorporating misdirection to freeze defenses into false steps which often led to touchdowns. Fuente will surely want to continue converting red zone trips into TDs and between Ford, Rogers, Hodges, and McMillian, he should have the pieces in place to ensure that it happens. If the offense is able to score touchdowns in the red zone at a healthy rate, it will show pundits and fans that the new offensive system can be executed at a high level and will most likely be successful.

Follow me at @soundslikejafar for more analysis of the Hokies’ offense and defense we will see this season.