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Gus Malzahn and Nightmare Fuel: Part 1

What follows is a two-part story on the Gus Malzahn offense, and whether it truly is the nightmare genius offense that its proponents would have us believe. Part one is a (very) basic understanding of what the offense entails, and how Malzahn has woven disparate concepts into his version of the Spread.

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Apt to be the last championship he sees. GUMP SO HARD!
Apt to be the last championship he sees. GUMP SO HARD!


Troll-extraordinaire Kevin Scarbinsky would have casual readers believe that facing a Malzahn offense is just that; a panic-inducing game for head coaches and defensive coordinators. Two weeks ago, Scarbo penned some of his usual off-season fluff; standard red meat for our agrarian-inclined neighbors on the West Georgia border. Therein, he praises new Auburn head man, Gus Malzahn, and to some extent Kevil Sumlin at Texas A&M. Specifically, he wrote "If you’re a head coach or a defensive coordinator in the SEC, and [Malzahn is] not already living in your dreams, he’ll be coming soon to a nightmare near you." But, is it really?

For some reason, that statement rang false to me. My suspicions were that Malzahn, though a very good offensive coach, didn’t bring to the table matchup nightmares that some would have you believe. Going into this study, I had a crude set of working assumptions as follows:

  1. Malzahn has been extremely fortunate in his career to be given a decent set of players with which to work: returning starters, particularly solid backs and veteran offensive linemen have defined his success.
  2. 2010 was a freakish outlier –the product of one rare athletic prodigy (coupled with the factors above). Malzahn normally will not produce a top-10 offense.
  3. In the outlier years, if there are any, offensive success would still be predicated on the running game. Malzahn may have a reputation as a passing guy, and he very well may want to be one, but success in the SEC must be accompanied by a balanced attack, particularly a strong running game.

Taking these in somewhat reverse order, two things immediately jump out after looking at some of the old games at Auburn and Arkansas State. The first is that the running packages/plays used in Malzahn’s version of the spread are stylistically similar to Urban Meyer’s variant of the wing-t and veer (at least two commentators have noted that they are the exact plays). The second is that the "pure" passing pays rely heavily on the run and shoot.

Take a look at the passing game when Malzahn was at Auburn, namely this page from Auburn’s playbook: shotgun set, 4-WRs, a large back for max blocking or underneath routes, pre-snap motion, a mobile quarterback, at least one wide receiver running a choice route dependent upon the read. Does that sound familiar? It should. It is the definition of the run-and-shoot (several variants of the seam "go" and curl/flat, as well as the tried and true smash routes, are on the Auburn passing playbook cited above. Enjoy). To this fold, Malzahn further employs a series of bubble-screens from the zone-read option (thus giving the QB three plays from the formation), and the play action which dooms so many opponents keyed in to stop the run. Unlike many zone-read play action passes though, Malzahn is a firm adherent to vertical play-action passing from the formation, as well as vertical play-action from the inverse veer.

Colt Brennan , one of the undisputed masters of running this offense, shows you the key passing routes in the run and shoot:

Of more salience is the running game, which –at first blush, has been successful for Malzahn. The very finest description of the running game comes from the always-excellent Shakin the Southland (with an assist from Smart Football). Auburn wants to run, in essence, an inverted veer. As Chris Brown explains it:

The basic concept is old school option: Leave a playside defender unblocked and send two runners (the quarterback and a runningback) to the playside. By leaving certain defenders unblocked, the offense should gain an advantage in numbers on the other guys: by optioning off one of the most dangerous defenders, the remaining blockers are free to engage in double teams or to directly block the linebackers or force players (like a safety filling the alley). This is one reason why the play is so desirable as compared with the traditional zone read, which has the quarterback reading a backside player — the zone read is a good play, but all it is simply a traditional zone play to one side with an improved bootleg (because it’s a read rather than a call in the huddle) on the backside.

So that’s the advantage the linemen gain; it’s the same one as can be found on a traditional veer play. The other benefit here — and the reason spread teams like it so much — is that it meshes with their personnel. When the veer was originally drawn up, the "dive back" was usually the kind of guy you expected for that role: a surprisingly fast but still hulking fullback or inside runner. Many if not most "spread" runningbacks, by contrast, are smaller, speedier guys, whereas quarterbacks, while they still come in all shapes in sizes, have been getting bigger — just think of Tim Tebow and Cam Newton. Given Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow in the backfield, I’d rather have Harvin run to the outside while the quarterback runs to the inside: hence the name, the "inverted veer." (The play is often called "Dash" for obvious reasons.)

From this formation, Malzahn runs 6 basic plays: the Power, an Iso, Zone-read/Veer option, Trap, Sweep, Counter-trey…but at very, very accelerated snaps.

Here is a general idea of the inverted veer at work:

Malzahn’s defining characteristic as an offensive mind is his ability to synthesize: The offense is simple: It is 6 or so core running plays, and a dozen or so core passing plays. But, what he has woven together is like little else in college football: it is an inverted veer which adds bubble screens to the zone read, as well as intermediate and deep play-action passes. It also a wing-t spread, with orbits/Jets sweeps and the almost out-of-fashion Wildcat. And, it is also a pure run and shoot passing game. Any of these can be stopped, naturally. And either can absolutely put pressure on an undisciplined defense, and grind it to a fine mist. However, it is the breakneck tempo at which he operated at Auburn (along with the assist of a transcendent talent named Cam Newton), coupled with the synthesis, that made his offense nigh-unstoppable for a season.

This is what the complete package looks like put together: Pay attention to the pre-snap motion/QB waggles o

The next part, examines a reasonably comprehensive dataset with respect to Malzahn and his offenses; namely does it work? Is it more than eyeballs-good, or is it demonstrably an empirically successful offense.

The results are somewhat surprising.