ESPN sports analytics writer Seth Walder recently developed heat maps for a handful of college quarterbacks, identifying which parts of the field they attacked most in 2019.
Here is Walder’s map for Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan:
so let's try this again.— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) July 16, 2020
tanner morgan sure does love that middle of the field!
blue = high pic.twitter.com/3ojYHhoCLS
And Walder’s observation that Morgan loves the middle of the field is indeed accurate. There is a reason for that, and it has a lot to do with the RPOs that became the Gophers’ bread and butter under previous offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.
What is an RPO? For the uninitiated, RPO stands for Run Pass Option. The concept is simple: The offensive line blocks for a run play, but the quarterback must read the defense — typically the linebackers, specifically — and decide whether to hand the ball off to the running back or throw a quick pass. If the linebackers commit to the run, that generally leaves the middle of the field vacant. And when you have receivers who can run quick slants as effectively as Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, you’re going to have a lot of success exploiting the middle of the field.
Exhibit A from the first drive against Purdue last season:
The Boilermakers put six defenders in the box and neither of the two linebackers drops into coverage. Morgan pulls the ball from Rodney Smith and Bateman is wide open on the slant after completely turning around the cornerback out of his release.
The RPO, when executed well, creates a multitude of challenges for the defense. The underneath help for the secondary is limited, as the defensive front has to play the run first. That means you need good cornerbacks who can operate on an island and defend the slant. Slants can pick apart zone coverage, but even a corner in man-to-man coverage can have trouble maintaining inside leverage on a receiver running a slant. You also don’t see a lot of sacks on RPOs, as the quick development of the play can neutralize a defense’s ability to generate a pass rush.
But what happens when the defense adjusts to try and take away the slant?
This is what happens:
Penn State has a safety sitting in the middle of the field, and he sees Morgan staring down Bateman. Both the safety and the cornerback, who is in off man coverage, anticipate the slant, but Bateman fakes the slant and runs an out toward the sideline, where he is all alone.
One of the secrets to the Gophers’ success is that they’ve operated out of a lot of simple base formations and introduced wrinkles in the play designs out of those same formations that make it difficult for defenses to make accurate reads.
Minnesota also has a disciplined offensive line, which is a necessity to run the RPO. The college rule is that an offensive lineman can be up to three yards downfield before he is considered an ineligible man downfield. Offensive linemen in an RPO offense need to be conscious of that when they are run blocking on what could become a pass play if the quarterback decides to throw.
And there are ways to beat it, as we saw last season against Wisconsin. I’ll show you a perfect example. The Badgers’ defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard made a conscious decision to be aggressive with their linebackers, frequently using delayed blitzes to pressure Morgan and challenge his pocket presence. But if you’re going to gamble with that kind of pressure, you have to be able to depend on your defensive backs to hold up in coverage and take away with the short passing game. That means employing a lot of single man press coverage, and unfortunately for Minnesota, Wisconsin was able to win a lot of those battles at the line of scrimmage.
As you can see, pass protection was also an issue for Minnesota. The Badgers are rushing six, and the Gophers have seven blockers including Rodney Smith, who picks up one of the blitzing linebackers. Tight end Ko Kieft and right tackle Blaise Andries (playing for Daniel Faalele after he left with an injury) double team a stand-up edge rusher, and center John Michael Schmitz and left guard Conner Olson double up on a defensive lineman. But Olson allows himself to get pinned inside, opening up a gap to his left for a blitzing linebacker. But even by that time, Morgan has already panicked and, with nowhere to throw the ball, runs into a sack.
Obviously, execution is critical, and it was a perfect storm of failures against Wisconsin.
It will be interesting to see how the offense evolves under new co-coordinators Mike Sanford J. and Matt Simon, but I doubt we’ve seen the last of the RPO considering how successful it has been with Tanner Morgan and co., even if there is room for improvement.