Given the recent release of prognosticating magazines, preseason All-American lists, and Top-25 polls, the beginning of the college football season isn’t as far away as one would think. In fact, as of this publishing, we now find ourselves just 87 short days away from the glorious return of college football and all the traditions that follow. While story lines have been plentiful across the vast national landscape over the years, there haven’t been many positive things to discuss in Lexington. That was until November 27th when Mark Stoops was named head man of the Wildcats. Things have been absolutely golden in Lexington since the hire as well. Excellent coordinator hires were made, recruiting has exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations, and 50,000+ even packed Commonwealth Stadium for a meaningless springtime scrimmage (yeah, that was awesome). While things couldn’t have gone better in the initial days for Stoops, Bobby Petrino’s offense, particularly his crossing routes, loom on August 31st’s horizon.
Over the past number of weeks, I’ve been watching countless hours of film to dissect exactly what Mark Stoops likes to accomplish with his defense. I’ve concluded that he likes rush a minimal amount of players to pressure the quarterback while having six or seven in coverage. While the blitz numbers are rarely high, the pressure comes from utilizing twists and stunts to confuse the pass protection. The overall results speak for themselves as Florida State ranked within the top-5 in total defense in 2011 and 2012 after being ranked 108th before Stoops’ tenure. However, like any scheme in any sport, Stoops’ defense has its weaknesses. In this case, it’s shallow crossing routes. On a shallow cross, a receiver, running back, or tight end will run a short drag route just a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage at full speed. Since there isn’t much distance between the quarterback and receiver, it creates a pass that’s usually completed at a high percentage. Also, since the receiver is usually running at full speed, it makes for a deadly play that can gain chunks of yardage with ease. This type of route works against a variety of defenses for a number of reasons, but mainly because it extends the already over-extended down-field coverage.
Florida State entered October 6th’s game in Raleigh, North Carolina against NC State undefeated and ranked 3rd nationally. The first 30 minutes of the game were going quite well as the Seminoles entered halftime with a 16-0 lead. After some halftime adjustments, however, things started going downhill for Florida State’s defense, mainly because of NC State’s utilization of shallow crossing routes. Of the Wolfpack’s 55 passes that game, 20 were thrown short and over the middle (Zone 4 as I call it) on shallow crosses and the Seminoles simply weren’t prepared. Not only did the Seminoles allow 140 yards on the day in Zone 4, but the game winning pass from Mike Glennon was also a shallow cross into that particular zone. For examples of the shallow cross baffling Florida State, fast forward to 7:06, 11:20, and 14:50 in the below video.
What does a game pitting Florida State and NC State against one another have to do with Kentucky’s season opener against Bobby Petrino? Everything. In case you’re unaware, Petrino has built himself quite the reputation over the years because of his high powered offense anchored by the shallow cross. Of course, like any scheme, Petrino’s variation of the shallow cross has its individual characteristics which make it unique. Chris Brown of Smart Football has investigated this and discovered what made his offense so effective (read his full article here). The below picture, drawn by Brown, shows the basic theme of what Petrino tries to accomplish with the shallow cross play.
“The (running) back runs a wheel route to pull the underneath coverage to the sideline and up the sideline, while the other two receivers run a post and a square-in, and on the backside the receiver runs a comeback.” As implied by Brown, this play is so effective because the running back pulls coverage away from the receiver running across the middle of the field. Also, the receivers running deep routes down field pull coverage away from the shallow receiver. When looking at the play like this, it may seem too simple to work, after all, teams have definitely studied this play from Petrino dozens of times in the past. But when you examine real world examples it becomes more clear. The below video is from 2011’s LSU v. Arkansas game. Fast forward to 16:36 and 27:09 to see Petrino’s shallow cross in action.
So how do you stop an offense that has given so many fits? From my observations, the best way to slow this kind of passing attack is with pressure from the line. In the above video, LSU slowed Petrino’s passing game by applying immense pressure to the quarterback. While not an example of a shallow cross, at 1:50:30 in the above video, LSU’s Sam Montgomery charged right through the middle of Arkansas’ pass protection and took down Tyler Wilson before he could make the throw. Of course, that type of pressure can typically only be reproduced at schools with elite talent on the line. Perhaps the most feasible way to defend against this type of cross would be placing a linebacker in Zone 4 as a spy. That doesn’t take as much talent and can be easily replicated.
Petrino’s offense has taken many powerful teams down in the past and will likely take more down in the future, but luckily for Kentucky, Stoops has ample time to prepare for something which will inevitably be run. I haven’t watched enough NC State games to know if the shallow cross is a staple in their offense, but I’d venture to guess it’s not because it was run minimally in the first half against Florida State. It wasn’t until the second half after adjustments were made that NC State ran the shallow cross frequently. There will be numerous questions to ponder for the season’s first game. Which coach will learn their personnel better in the short time they’ve known each other? Will Za’Darius Smith and his teammates on the line be able to pressure Western’s quarterback? Will Petrino have enough time to implement his offense? These questions will all be important for the season opener, but to me, one question stands above them all. Who wins the battle of the shallow cross?