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» 2017 Play-Action Defense

Our look at play-action pass in 2017 flips to the defensive side of the ball. Carolina was historically good, Houston was historically bad, and a long-standing question about year-to-year correlation gets cleared up.

08 Sep 2017

Seventh Day Adventure: Week 2

by Ian Boyd

Fans of college football as a greater sport rather than fans of specific teams are in for some tough decisions this weekend. We're getting several phenomenal matchups between teams that look like conference frontrunners and national contenders, but most of these games are taking place simultaneously, with start times between 7 and 8 p.m. Eastern.

The USC-Stanford matchup is particularly interesting since it could have major ramifications for the Pac-12 conference standings but comes early in the year. For USC, it comes the week before hosting the Texas Longhorns in another prime-time event. While many of these other games could be tossed aside for the loser if they go on to perform well in conference play, there's no mulligan here for USC or Stanford.

The other fun games include rematches of 2016 pre-conference battles such as Oklahoma-Ohio State and Auburn-Clemson, as well as the opening of a series between Notre Dame and Georgia.

All times are listed as Eastern.

TCU (-3.5) at Arkansas -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall TCU Arkansas
2017 Proj. S&P+ 19 29
When TCU has the ball Offense Defense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 22 51
2016 S&P+ 45 63
2016 FEI 82 78
2016 IsoPPP+ 69 106
2016 Rushing S&P+ 40 112
2016 Passing S&P+ 83 78
When Arkansas has the ball Defense Offense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 33 32
2016 S&P+ 51 39
2016 FEI 27 41
2016 IsoPPP+ 40 40
2016 Rushing S&P+ 64 72
2016 Passing S&P+ 22 20

This was a really fun overtime contest a year ago, featuring a lot of scoring between quarterback Kenny Hill executing the TCU Air Raid passing attack and Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen tearing the Frogs defense apart. Arkansas is designed to be a power running team that moves piles with tight ends, fullbacks, and a massive offensive line, but last year they struggled along the line and got a lot more mileage out of throwing the ball to a pair of veteran receivers in Keon Hatcher and Drew Morgan. Those two receivers are gone now, so the Razorbacks better be ready to start imposing their will in the run game once more.

TCU's 4-2-5 defense made some adjustments a year ago to handle the Arkansas size and power in the run game. In particular they moved their smaller strongside linebacker Travin Howard to strong safety and played an extra linebacker. It worked out alright for them, but their cornerbacks couldn't match up, so they didn't draw the benefit of playing successfully up front. They'll probably follow the same prescription this year while hoping that their healthier and improved cornerbacks can lock down the replacement Razorbacks receivers.

TCU still has a passing-heavy spread attack, but they are mixing in more quarterback runs and attaching pass options to their running back runs in an effort to feature their talented backfield. On the perimeter they've added Kenedy Snell, who flashed some spectacular open-field speed in Week 1, to a cast of receivers that already included some other speedy targets such as Kavontae Turpin, Ty Slanina, and Shaun Nixon. Arkansas converted to a 3-4 defense for this season to try and adjust to spread offenses that tore them apart a year ago. The idea was to get more speed on the field and keep plays better controlled up front for their linebackers to reach them, but they'll still need great play from their corners to handle TCU's version of the spread.

Watch for:

  • Can Arkansas establish the run against TCU's small defensive front?
  • Can TCU quarterback Kenny Hill protect the football against Arkansas' shifting 3-4 defense?
  • How does Arkansas handle TCU's run/pass option plays and spread personnel from their new defense?
  • These teams were both mid-level in their respective conferences in 2016 -- have either of them made a leap that could portend league title potential?

S&P+ Outright Pick: TCU

Auburn at Clemson (-4.5) -- 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Auburn Clemson
2017 Proj. S&P+ 8 6
When Auburn has the ball Offense Defense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 17 6
2016 S&P+ 31 6
2016 FEI 32 9
2016 IsoPPP+ 49 12
2016 Rushing S&P+ 27 26
2016 Passing S&P+ 43 4
When Clemson has the ball Defense Offense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 11 29
2016 S&P+ 9 6
2016 FEI 14 6
2016 IsoPPP+ 17 20
2016 Rushing S&P+ 14 30
2016 Passing S&P+ 31 6

This game was surprisingly competitive a year ago due to Auburn's defensive renaissance that took place under defensive coordinator Kevin Steele in Year 2 of a Nick Saban-style defense (Will Muschamp coached them the previous year). They were able to hold Clemson to just 399 yards of offense and 13 points and Auburn's size and power on both the offensive and defensive lines allowed them to hang around against Clemson's athletes.

Now Deshaun Watson and many of the stars of the championship offense are gone and replaced by a new wave of athletes, led by quarterback Kelly Bryant. The new-look Clemson Tigers are less skilled in the passing game due to the absence of wide receiver Mike Williams and tight end Jordan Leggett, to say nothing of the loss of Watson. However, Bryant is a brilliant runner and Clemson has shuffled its offensive line and tactics to put greater emphasis on their already cutting-edge spread-option run game. They can still overstress a defense with zone-reads, screen pass options, quarterback counter runs, and other modern spread-option staples.

The Auburn defense will have to try and counter with aggressive play in the run fits from their senior safety tandem of Stephen Roberts and Tray Matthews, while playing man coverage on the Clemson receivers. It's the only way to guarantee having enough defenders to shut down Clemson's quarterback runs, and it can also serve to make Kelly Bryant prove he can beat man coverage throwing the ball.

Meanwhile, Auburn's offense has been renovated this offseason by adding transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham from Baylor (who spent last year at a community college) and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to add more passing elements to their spread attack. They'll be added to an already fearsome run game that welcomes back three starters on the offensive line, fullback Chandler Cox, and the running back duo of Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway.

The Clemson defense is always a stiff test, and it returns a brilliant defensive line of Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, and Austin Bryant. Most of last year's title-winning defense is back, save for leader and linebacker Ben Boulware, but they should be a very imposing group overall once more. Ferrell and Lawrence are only now sophomores and they were key pieces to last year's defense.

This is a heavyweight bout between two legitimate national championship contenders.

Watch for:

  • Auburn's defense stopped up a superior Clemson offense a year ago -- can it repeat the trick?
  • How does new Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant look against a defense that will dare him to beat man coverage with his arm?
  • Does the new style of Auburn offense present problems to Clemson's top defense?
  • Which team's big men control the trenches?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Clemson

Oklahoma at Ohio State (-7) -- 7:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Oklahoma Ohio State
2017 Proj. S&P+ 5 3
When Oklahoma has the ball Offense Defense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 1 3
2016 S&P+ 1 5
2016 FEI 2 2
2016 IsoPPP+ 1 7
2016 Rushing S&P+ 14 15
2016 Passing S&P+ 1 8
When Ohio State has the ball Defense Offense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 40 29
2016 S&P+ 55 23
2016 FEI 53 15
2016 IsoPPP+ 58 7
2016 Rushing S&P+ 50 15
2016 Passing S&P+ 39 8

Ohio State probably has the most talented defense in the entire country and was one of the only teams to come close to limiting Oklahoma's offense a year ago when they met in Norman. This year the Buckeyes are turning over a huge chunk of their defensive roster, but are constantly plugging in new athletes through recruiting about as quickly as they send them off to the NFL. The 2017 Buckeyes are keyed by an ultra-deep defensive line that maintained pressure on Indiana and shut down their running game despite having to defend more than 80 plays.

They'll go up against an even tougher challenge with Oklahoma's offensive line, which returns all five starters from a year ago along with quarterback (and Heisman finalist) Baker Mayfield. The Sooners also return fullback Dmitri Flowers and flex tight end Mark Andrews, who gave Ohio State a few problems last year, while turning to new faces outside at wide receiver.

Oklahoma will be hoping that Mayfield and former offensive coordinator, now head coach Lincoln Riley will be able to team up to find some weak spots in the Buckeyes defense. It's likely that taking advantage of Andrews' size and athleticism in the seams will be a major component of that strategy.

For the struggles that Oklahoma had scoring against Ohio State a year ago, they were in much worse shape trying to stop the Buckeyes offense. Ohio State killed Oklahoma with running plays from unbalanced formations that the Sooners struggled to identify and line up against, and also with quarterback runs on key third downs that the Sooners lacked a good plan for stopping. These will all undoubtedly be points of emphasis for the young Oklahoma defense, but now they also have to worry about Ohio State's improving crossing routes in the passing game, which put down Indiana in Week 1.

Oklahoma will be turning to a converted nickelback at free safety, a true freshman at middle linebacker, and a new style of defensive front this season. Growing pains are inevitable and are probably to be expected going up against the Buckeyes' senior quarterback and dazzlingly explosive freshman running back J.K. Dobbins. But if the Sooners can match up in the middle of the field they'll hold the advantage outside, where their talented cornerback tandem of Jordan Thomas and Parnell Motley should be able to shut down Ohio State's iffy outside passing game.

Watch for:

  • Can Oklahoma cause matchup problems for the Ohio State defense with flex tight end Mark Andrews?
  • How will Oklahoma's approach to attacking Ohio State's defense change after last year's failure?
  • Will the young Oklahoma defensive interior be able to hold up against Ohio State's option runs and quick crossing routes?
  • What happens if Oklahoma can force Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett to beat them throwing the ball?

S&P Outright Pick: Ohio State

Georgia at Notre Dame (-4.5) -- 7:30 p.m. (NBC)

Overall Georgia Notre Dame
2017 Proj. S&P+ 21 16
When Georgia has the ball Offense Defense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 55 21
2016 S&P+ 93 28
2016 FEI 80 63
2016 IsoPPP+ 93 36
2016 Rushing S&P+ 82 23
2016 Passing S&P+ 91 86
When Notre Dame has the ball Defense Offense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 13 25
2016 S&P+ 34 35
2016 FEI 36 38
2016 IsoPPP+ 20 42
2016 Rushing S&P+ 28 36
2016 Passing S&P+ 29 54

Georgia had a fascinating opener against Appalachian State, handling its veteran offense and sturdy run game just fine on defense while being forced to turn to freshman quarterback Jake Fromm after starter Jacob Eason went down with an injury. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, this happened early in the game, so Fromm was able to get a lot of work in and performed very well, throwing for 143 yards at 9.5 yards per pass.

The Bulldogs still have their amazing running back duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and will be looking for quarterback play that complements their running game rather than asking Fromm to win games with the weight of the whole offense on his shoulders. The goal of the Notre Dame defense will be to try and force Fromm to beat them without making it so easy that a talented freshman could do it. Their defense is a year older and better than a year ago, has a new defensive coordinator, and played well in Week 1 against the Temple Owls.

The Notre Dame offense also has a new coordinator, Chip Long from Memphis, and it blasted Temple with its new-look run game in Week 1, with three different rushers going for over 100 yards. The strength of the Notre Dame offense is the line, which features a pair of future pros on the left side in Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, and now has older and more experienced players elsewhere as well.

The game likely comes down to whether Notre Dame's spread-option or Georgia's old-fashioned pro-style run games can generate more scores working against these defenses. The offensive edge unquestionably goes to Notre Dame, but the Georgia defense could even things out, as it demonstrated while holding Appalachian State running back Jalin Moore to 38 rushing yards in Week 1. This thing could also easily turn based on which young quarterback protects the ball better, Fromm or Notre Dame's Jaylen Wimbush.

Watch for:

  • How well does Notre Dame execute its new schemes on both sides of the ball?.
  • Who wins the heavyweight bout between the Notre Dame offensive line and the Georgia defensive line?
  • Which young quarterback protects the ball better?
  • Which rushing attack produces the most explosive runs?

S&P Outright Pick: Notre Dame

Stanford at USC (-6.5) -- 8:30 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Stanford USC
2017 Proj. S&P+ 12 7
When Stanford has the ball Offense Defense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 35 14
2016 S&P+ 60 20
2016 FEI 79 37
2016 IsoPPP+ 47 15
2016 Rushing S&P+ 22 17
2016 Passing S&P+ 92 13
When USC has the ball Defense Offense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 9 4
2016 S&P+ 18 11
2016 FEI 11 22
2016 IsoPPP+ 18 6
2016 Rushing S&P+ 20 15
2016 Passing S&P+ 26 3

This game became even more interesting than it already was when Stanford began the season by obliterating the Rice Owls, while USC struggled out of the gate against Western Michigan, with Heisman hopeful Sam Darnold throwing two interceptions.

Stanford won this early contest a year ago with great defense and a brand of physical, power rushing. Both of those look to be back on form this season, and Rice couldn't get much going on offense and was absolutely wrecked when Stanford chose to line up and run the ball downhill on them. USC should prove more resilient, but did show some cracks in their armor against the Western Michigan running game. Stanford looked much less precise throwing the ball, although they landed several knockout blows throwing off play-action. If USC can stop the run this year, look for Stanford's offense to stall and look less impressive in the passing game than the numbers would suggest.

Meanwhile, USC has a tough task ahead getting its own passing game on track, with new receivers stepping in around the established tandem of Sam Darnold and receiver Deontay Burnett. Their run game saved them against Western Michigan, with Ronald Jones running for 159 yards and three touchdowns on just 18 carries. They probably won't be able to count on that kind of production against the tough Stanford defensive front, and will need Darnold and his receivers to get on the same page more often.

Watch for:

  • Is Sam Darnold enduring a sophomore slump or can the Trojans get their passing game back on track?
  • How well does USC's defensive front hold up against the Stanford power run game?
  • Can Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst win this game if USC successfully slows down the Cardinal run game?

S&P Outright Pick: USC

Boise State at Washington State (-10) -- 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Boise State Washington State
2017 Proj. S&P+ 31 40
When Boise State has the ball Offense Defense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 24 70
2016 S&P+ 19 64
2016 FEI 26 43
2016 IsoPPP+ 26 75
2016 Rushing S&P+ 57 44
2016 Passing S&P+ 17 104
When Washington State has the ball Defense Offense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 62 28
2016 S&P+ 39 24
2016 FEI 17 20
2016 IsoPPP+ 11 34
2016 Rushing S&P+ 13 45
2016 Passing S&P+ 30 34

This late-night contest could be a very entertaining matchup for fans who haven't gotten their fill from the prime-time battles. Both quarterbacks -- Luke Falk of Washington State and Brett Rypien of Boise State -- are third-year starters. Rypien and the Boise State offense got off to a slow start against the tough Troy Trojans defense, but the Broncos' own defense shut things down and helped produce a 24-13 victory. Washington State started its season with a 31-0 beatdown of Montana State, controlling the ball with Mike Leach's patented Air Raid passing game and even mixing in some run successfully to keep the poor FCS kids off kilter.

The Boise State defense will try to handle Falk and the Cougars passing game with a constantly shifting 3-4 defense that disguises where help will come from and mixes in some blitzes. They ran that strategy against the Cougars a year ago to good effect in a 31-28 victory, holding Falk to 6.8 yards per pass while absolutely shutting down the Wazzu run game. Falk will need to show better awareness this year of when Boise State appears to show a conservative pass defense only to sneak some numbers into the box to stop the run.

The Boise State offense is struggling to replace star running back Jeremy McNichols and receiver Thomas Sperbeck, but it had some success feeding the ball to sophomore running back Alexander Mattison against Troy and still has lead receiver Cedrick Wilson for Rypien to target. The Washington State defense may actually prove less resilient to these tactics than the Troy defense. The Cougars will need to be sharp given Boise State's improvements on defense. The Broncos have some improved pass-rush this season from their defensive line that could be the difference in this contest.

Watch for:

  • Has the Boise State defense grown enough to handle Washington State's spread passing attack?
  • Who wins the quarterback duel between Boise State's Brett Rypien and Washington State's Luke Falk?
  • Can Washington State's defense finally stop the run?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Boise State


Favorite Spread Underdog S&P Pick S&P Pick against the spread Ian's Pick against the spread
TCU 3.5 Arkansas TCU TCU TCU
Clemson 4.5 Auburn Clemson Clemson Auburn
Ohio State 7 Oklahoma Ohio State Oklahoma Ohio State
Notre Dame 4.5 Georgia Notre Dame Notre Dame Notre Dame
USC 6.5 Stanford USC USC USC
Washington State 10 Boise Boise State Boise State Boise State

S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 3-3

Ian Picks against the spread last week: 1-5

Posted by: Ian Boyd on 08 Sep 2017

2 comments, Last at 09 Sep 2017, 8:14pm by Tomlin_Is_Infallible


by brugg :: Sat, 09/09/2017 - 3:26am

I'm not following why Stanford or USC wouldn't be afforded a mulligan while the other teams in this piece might. What's the inherent negative that I'm not perceiving?

by Tomlin_Is_Infallible :: Sat, 09/09/2017 - 8:14pm

of the games in the picks (which aren't week 6 , btw)

I doubt anyone will top TCU's overperformance relative to the gambler's line.

Arkansas got their teeth kicked in at their own game.

The standard is the standard!