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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.

05 Oct 2017

Seventh Day Adventure: Week 6

by Ian Boyd

The big story from last weekend was Washington State's upset of the USC Trojans. USC finds itself hanging onto a tree root staring down at a season well below preseason expectations. Mike Leach's Cougars managed the umpteenth upset of the coach's illustrious career and are making some noise themselves, with another big matchup looming this week that will have big implications for the Pac-12 race.

The SEC and ACC continued to chug along on predictable trajectories, with Alabama and Clemson rolling over would-be competitors, but we also saw Auburn began to carve out a place as a real contender with a shellacking of Mississippi State in which Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham averaged 16.5 yards per pass attempt. They are now firmly above LSU as contenders in the SEC West after the Tigers took a humiliating home loss to the Troy Trojans.

Big 10 football hasn't yet seen some of the premier contests that will define that conference race, but we'll start to see those standings shape up there soon. Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State all rolled, while Michigan has its big rivalry game this Saturday against Michigan State. This week's contests could have big implications in the ACC and Pac-12, while Florida is featured once again with a big game against LSU that could impact their race with surging Georgia in the SEC East.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Louisville (-3.5) at North Carolina State -- 8 p.m. Thursday (ESPN)

Overall Louisville North Carolina State
2017 S&P+ 17 29
When Louisville has the ball Offense Defense
2017 S&P+ 8 45
2016 S&P+ 10 11
2016 FEI 13 28
2016 IsoPPP+ 3 10
2016 Rushing S&P+ 1 11
2016 Passing S&P+ 22 15
When North Carolina State has the ball Defense Offense
2017 S&P+ 30 29
2016 S&P+ 19 55
2016 FEI 19 53
2016 IsoPPP+ 46 53
2016 Rushing S&P+ 16 66
2016 Passing S&P+ 65 31

Louisville has rebounded easily enough from their loss to Clemson, blowing out Kent State and Murray State while looking to shore up their offensive line and defense in time for the rest of their conference season. North Carolina State has also had a solid year after an early loss to South Carolina, defeating Florida State and Syracuse in consecutive weeks.

The heart of the Wolfpack team is either their defensive line, or hybrid skill player Jaylen Samuels. The defensive line is deep and keyed by defensive end Bradley Chubb, a massive (6-foot-4, 275 pounds) playmaker on the edge who has already made 12 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks through five games. Jaylen Samuels is a 5-foot-11, 228 pound "fullback" who leads the team with 43 receptions and has also has 22 carries. He's a quick, bruising ballcarrier with a real knack for running routes and causing matchup problems.

Wolfpack quarterback Ryan Finley transferred from Boise State after losing the starting job to Brett Rypien. He's a bit of a game manager, averaging only 7.3 yards per attempt but with zero interceptions. It's a high-functioning offense, but not one that's terribly explosive given that their best player is a hybrid fullback.

Louisville, of course, is all about Lamar Jackson, and this game will likely be determined by how his battles on the edge against Chubb and the North Carolina State defensive line tend to go. If either side is overconfident and undisciplined going into this matchup, that could be the difference. The biggest key is simply great coordination between the defensive ends and linebackers on Louisville's option plays, where they leave an end unblocked for Jackson to read on the option. A team that tries to force Jackson to always give the ball is vulnerable to the Cardinals' multiple rushing threats, or to making unforced errors that result in the Heisman winner running free down the field. Attempting to account for him with a defensive back dropping down makes a defense vulnerable to the Louisville passing game, and that defensive back is no guarantee to successfully tackle Jackson on the edge.

The best plan is probably to always keep the ball contained and hope that Jackson takes more direct shots than times when he hits a crease and gets loose. Louisville doesn't want Jackson to have to carry them to victory every week running the ball up the middle 10-plus times a game. Either way, this should be a competitive battle between star players, and the Chubb vs. Jackson contest in particular is worth tuning in to check out.

Watch for:

  • How does North Carolina State attempt to stop Lamar Jackson from running wild?
  • North Carolina State "jack of all trades" Jaylen Samuels, a running back/wide receiver hybrid.
  • Can Louisville's young offensive line handle North Carolina State's loaded defensive line?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Louisville

Miami (-3) at Florida State -- 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Miami Florida State
2017 S&P+ 11 6
When Miami has the ball Offense Defense
2017 S&P+ 16 7
2016 S&P+ 34 10
2016 FEI 50 41
2016 IsoPPP+ 25 22
2016 Rushing S&P+ 71 30
2016 Passing S&P+ 35 14
When Florida State has the ball Defense Offense
2017 S&P+ 13 20
2016 S&P+ 13 2
2016 FEI 13 10
2016 IsoPPP+ 6 4
2016 Rushing S&P+ 24 4
2016 Passing S&P+ 7 12

Between losing quarterback Brad Kaaya and two of their top four receivers, Miami wasn't a favorite to do big things in the ACC this season. They did start three freshmen linebackers in 2016, all of whom now return and are pacing their defense, and they are in Year 2 now of new schemes on both sides of the ball under head coach Mark Richt and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. However, the Hurricanes have been mostly under the radar this year and have only played in three contests because a non-conference game with Arkansas State was cancelled due to an actual hurricane, Hurricane Irma.

The Hurricanes' last game was a 31-6 thrashing of the Duke Blue Devils in which Duke quarterback Daniel Jones averaged only 4 yards per pass attempt. On offense, Richt has embraced more spread formations, particularly with new quarterback Malik Rosier at the helm. They now run a lot of read-option plays, which have made running back Mark Walton more explosive, but have also put some limitations on their run game. If opponents want to allow Rosier to run the football more often, than the Hurricanes will be less explosive, but this can be difficult to do against a multiple run game like what Miami is utilizing this season.

Florida State has a great defense for looking to shut down the Miami attack, but their own offense has struggled mightily in the wake of losing quarterback Deondre Francois. Their run game has been nowhere near as explosive without Francois to burn defenses with play-action or without Dalvin Cook to turn bad runs into good runs and good runs into long touchdowns. The adjusted stats still say Florida State is playing strong football, but they haven't broken 20 points but once in three tries this year.

Against Miami's aggressive linebacker corps and pressuring defense (10 sacks in three games), freshman quarterback James Blackman is drawing another tough assignment while trying to make steady improvements in a complicated offensive system. Meanwhile, the Florida State offensive line is coming off a game in which they surrendered 17 tackles for loss against Wake Forest. If it's the little, situational plays that have held Florida State back this season that may not improve against an aggressive Miami opponent with a playmaking running back and a junior quarterback at the helm.

Watch for:

  • Miami running back Mark Walton, who's averaging 9.2 yards per carry.
  • Can Florida State quarterback James Blackmon hit throws and help the run game?
  • Miami's pressuring and superior defensive line against Florida State's young quarterback and offensive line.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Florida State

LSU at Florida (-3) -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall LSU Florida
2017 S&P+ 19 25
When LSU has the ball Offense Defense
2017 S&P+ 35 14
2016 S&P+ 22 4
2016 FEI 31 6
2016 IsoPPP+ 13 5
2016 Rushing S&P+ 6 12
2016 Passing S&P+ 32 6
When Florida has the ball Defense Offense
2017 S&P+ 9 69
2016 S&P+ 3 88
2016 FEI 4 100
2016 IsoPPP+ 3 72
2016 Rushing S&P+ 3 86
2016 Passing S&P+ 3 53

Florida had a big win over Vanderbilt last week keyed by the return of redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, who avoided mistakes and put his big arm to use, punishing the Commodores for their aggressive run defense. Franks completed 10-of-14 passes for 184 yards after coming in for the injured Luke Del Rio, and showed all the reasons why he was named the starter out of fall camp.

Florida also found a potential star in running back Malik Davis, who's averaging 7.4 yards per carry on the year and had 124 yards on 17 carries against Vanderbilt. The Gators defense continues to be solid and clamped down on Vanderbilt over the course of the game after giving up several big passes early to Commodores quarterback Kyle Shurmur.

Meanwhile, LSU looked sluggish and unprepared for the Troy Trojans, coming off an unimpressive win against Syracuse in which they lost star running back Derrius Guice. The Trojans caught the LSU defense by surprise multiple times and forced four turnovers in a big road upset over the SEC team. LSU still has senior running back Darrel Williams and senior wide receiver D.J. Chark to help out quarterback Danny Etling, but they simply haven't been very explosive on offense this season.

That's likely to be a problem going up against the Gators, who are often fairly conservative with their secondary while leaning on a dominant defensive line to win games and stop opposing offenses. They'll be a tough matchup for LSU's own offensive line, which is young and beat up in parts. LSU's game plan will be to pound the ball and hope they protect it much better than they did against Troy, while their own defense gets back on track against the Gators offense.

If Florida continues to be plodding on offense or mistake-prone at quarterback, then this will be yet another close game that might come down to fourth-quarter dramatics. However, if Florida can protect Franks from LSU's excellent pass rush, and if Franks hits on some play-action throws early in the game to emerging star receiver Tyrie Cleveland or speedster Kadarius Toney, then the Gators could surprise and put a real hurting on the Tigers.

Watch for:

  • Will Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks be able to handle LSU's blitzes and pressure?
  • How will LSU rebound from their big defeat against Troy?
  • Will LSU's star running back Derrius Guice be back and at full speed?
  • How many close games can Florida win this season?

S&P+ Outright Pick: LSU

Michigan State at Michigan (-11) -- 7:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Michigan State Michigan
2017 S&P+ 32 9
When Michigan State has the ball Offense Defense
2017 S&P+ 76 2
2016 S&P+ 66 2
2016 FEI 43 8
2016 IsoPPP+ 50 2
2016 Rushing S&P+ 55 4
2016 Passing S&P+ 47 1
When Michigan has the ball Defense Offense
2017 S&P+ 15 39
2016 S&P+ 41 40
2016 FEI 104 11
2016 IsoPPP+ 90 46
2016 Rushing S&P+ 49 49
2016 Passing S&P+ 120 29

Michigan has been much better on defense this season than many expected, putting out a defensive unit that is as good as last year or even better despite losing 10 starters. Defensive coordinator Don Brown -- or "Dr. Blitz" as he's often known -- has made great use of a defensive front that promoted redshirt junior defensive end Chase Winovich and sophomore linebacker Devin Bush to starters this year and has been rewarded with 10 combined sacks from the two through four games. The Wolverines' ability to bring pressure, often by blitzing Bush up the gut and into a pass rush that already included Winovich, has helped protect a young secondary and completely wrecked opposing offensive lines.

On offense, things have moved more slowly for Michigan, and returning starting quarterback Wilton Speight was battling through interceptions and injuries before going down with an undisclosed injury against Purdue and getting replaced by redshirt senior John O'Korn, who transferred three years ago from Houston. O'Korn seemed to finally have balanced his own knack for scrambling and creating offense with calm execution of the game plan against the Boilermakers and led the Wolverines on four touchdown drives. The Wolverines have been more of a running team this year, perhaps mostly because they lost their top receivers and tight end Jake Butt from a year ago, but O'Korn found young tight ends Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry for a combined eight catches for 120 yards and one touchdown. The Wolverines are perhaps most deadly this season when flooding the field with senior fullback Khalid Hill and multiple tight ends, all of whom are capable receivers but also plus run blockers.

Michigan State's defense is still designed to stop the run, and they've been much improved since a year ago when they had a major collapse. Notre Dame's spread concepts and multiple-tight end sets gave them real problems, though, and the Spartans will have to adjust against Michigan's attack.

The Spartans have a few new twists of their own on offense now that Brian Lewerke is their starting quarterback. Lewerke is a dual-threat player who has an active role in the Spartans run game and has averaged 6.5 yards per carry, generally taking about nine carries per game. The rest of the Spartans run game has been pretty plodding, with lead back L.J. Scott averaging only 3.7 yards per carry. The Michigan State passing game has been off and on, and lead receiver Felton Davis III has four touchdowns and 256 yards but hasn't been a consistently high-performing player from week to week.

The Spartans will need the kind of defensive performance they used to get against Michigan, because their own offense is likely to struggle against "Dr. Blitz" and the Wolverines.

Watch for:

  • Is quarterback John O'Korn the answer to Michigan's offensive struggles?
  • Can Michigan State run the ball on Michigan's imposing defensive front?
  • Will there be a "rivalry" effect or will Michigan roll over the Spartans?

S&P Outright Pick: Michigan

Washington State (-2.5) at Oregon -- 8 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Washington State Oregon
2017 S&P+ 21 20
When Washington State has the ball Offense Defense
2017 S&P+ 22 50
2016 S&P+ 24 119
2016 FEI 20 128
2016 IsoPPP+ 34 116
2016 Rushing S&P+ 45 126
2016 Passing S&P+ 34 110
When Oregon has the ball Defense Offense
2017 S&P+ 28 5
2016 S&P+ 64 20
2016 FEI 43 18
2016 IsoPPP+ 75 31
2016 Rushing S&P+ 44 38
2016 Passing S&P+ 104 38

It's very common for an upstart team like Washington State to win a big home game like they did this past weekend only to falter when they have to repeat a top performance in another intense atmosphere the following week. That kind of consistent excellence requires a high level of depth and experience, and "new to winning" teams often lack the experience to put in the preparation or to stay healthy long enough to keep winning. Mike Leach has a pretty experienced squad in Pullman this year though, led by senior quarterback Luke Falk, and their opponent is in a tough spot.

The Ducks lost star quarterback Justin Herbert for multiple weeks with a broken collarbone and then also saw senior back-up Taylor Alie take an injury in his place last weekend. Now they're having a quarterback battle between the questionable Alie and true freshman Braxton Burmeister, a highly rated dual-threat youngster who has thrown one pass so far this season.

Oregon has an excellent run game, led by star running back Royce Freeman, who already has almost 600 rushing yards on the season, and supported by an experienced offensive line. They're difficult to match up against, but they've been doing a lot of damage with a constraint-based passing game led by Herbert, who was inflicting over 10 yards per attempt in damage to teams loading up to stop their run game. The Ducks may have to turn to the option with Burmeister and hope that's still enough of a constraint on teams loading up to stop Freeman.

Washington State, meanwhile, has been a very solid defensive team this season that largely shut down USC save for a single 86-yard run. The Cougars offense is humming along at a high level with fourth-year starter Luke Falk and a running back in Jamal Morrow who averages 8.4 yards per carry this season. Morrow does most of his damage on inside fold runs and generally gets around 10 carries per game on them, adding up to 80 or so yards. Otherwise the Cougars are throwing quick passes to Morrow, fellow running back James Williams, or their assortment of slot and outside receivers.

Opponents have generally attempted to take away deeper passes only to find Morrow or Williams picking up first downs on checkdowns, screens, and swing passes from the running back positions. It's a tricky offense to defend, and the still-improving Oregon defense will have their hands full, especially if their own offense can't run the ball and keep up on the scoreboard.

Watch for:

  • How much juice does Washington State have playing on the road after their big win against USC?
  • Can the rebuilt Oregon defense stop the Cougars passing attack?
  • How will Washington State hold up to the Oregon run game?
  • How will the Ducks do without starting quarterback Justin Herbert?

S&P Outright Pick: Oregon

Stanford (-5.5) at Utah -- 10:15 p.m. (FS1)

Overall Stanford Utah
2017 S&P+ 18 28
When Stanford has the ball Offense Defense
2017 S&P+ 9 27
2016 S&P+ 60 38
2016 FEI 79 33
2016 IsoPPP+ 47 33
2016 Rushing S&P+ 22 46
2016 Passing S&P+ 92 28
When Utah has the ball Defense Offense
2017 S&P+ 32 46
2016 S&P+ 18 57
2016 FEI 11 73
2016 IsoPPP+ 18 65
2016 Rushing S&P+ 20 46
2016 Passing S&P+ 26 79

Utah made big changes in their program this last offseason, hiring offensive coordinator Troy Taylor from Eastern Washington to bring a more Air Raid style of offense to Salt Lake City. For years the Utes have sought to win games with defense, a run game, and good special teams, but have generally fallen short of Pac-12 contention. So this year they hired Taylor to bring more explosiveness to the passing game. So far it's gone quite well, but they ran into some struggles against Arizona this last week, particularly when sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley went down with a shoulder injury. His status for this game is unknown.

The new-look Utah offense includes a lot more spread passing concepts designed to attack linebackers in the middle of the field with speedy slot receivers. It makes up for the loss of a tight end or fullback in the box by utilizing the quarterback in the run game on plays like the zone read. Huntley was good in both dimensions, but his potential replacement -- Troy Williams, who started for the Utes last year -- is much shakier in the passing game and more of a runner.

The Cardinal would probably prefer to face Williams, particularly with their somewhat suspect defense, which hasn't matched the typical standards and has struggled to replace star defensive lineman and first-round draft choice Solomon Thomas. Stanford has also been shaky in terms of matching points with its own passing game, which managed only 80 yards and threw two interceptions against San Diego State earlier this season.

Stanford does have star running back Bryce Love, who's taking full advantage of the excellent Cardinal offensive line to average over 10 yards per carry thus far in the season. Utah is normally known for having a pretty stout defensive front, but this season they've been stronger in the linebacker corps and secondary. They haven't had a dominant defensive tackle like in past seasons to help them control the line of scrimmage.

That means this game is likely going to be determined solely by whether Utah can keep Bryce Love under control or not, which should make for an interesting contest for those that like to stay up for the late game.

Watch for:

  • Stanford running back Bryce Love is averaging 11.1 yards per carry.
  • Can Stanford throw the ball well enough to stop Utah from selling out to stop the run?
  • How will the new-look Utah offense fare throwing against the Stanford defense?
  • Who will start at quarterback for Utah? Senior Troy Williams or sophomore Tyler Huntley?

S&P Outright Pick: Stanford


Favorite Spread Underdog S&P Pick S&P Pick against the spread Ian's Pick against the spread
Louisville 3.5 North Carolina State Louisville Louisville North Carolina State
Miami 3 Florida State Florida State Miami Miami
Florida 3 LSU LSU LSU Florida
Michigan 11 Michigan State Michigan Michigan Michigan
Washington State 2.5 Oregon Oregon Oregon Washington State
Stanford 5.5 Utah Stanford Stanford Stanford

S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 4-2

S&P+ Picks against the spread in 2017: 19-11

Ian Picks against the spread last week: 2-4

Ian Picks against the spread in 2017: 8-22

Posted by: Ian Boyd on 05 Oct 2017

7 comments, Last at 11 Oct 2017, 5:14pm by Ian Boyd


by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 10/05/2017 - 6:10pm

Michigan-MSU will be determined in large amounts by whether or not MSU's offense can avoid scoring on itself. If they can avoid the costly turnovers (the offense has allowed more points this season than the defense), they can win a rock fight against U-M.

by burbman :: Thu, 10/05/2017 - 7:24pm

Maybe I just do not have a clear understanding of how game lines work, but how does S&P pick underdog FSU to beat Miami outright, but take Miami against the spread? Isn't this counterintuitive?

by Tomlin_Is_Infallible :: Sat, 10/07/2017 - 12:44pm

lol. oops

The standard is the standard!

by Ian Boyd :: Wed, 10/11/2017 - 5:14pm

For S&P it's Miami that was the underdog.


by Subrata Sircar :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 4:18am

I don't like either Michigan's or MSU's offense - neither o-line is good - but I like Michigan's defense a lot more than Sparty's. I don't see how MSU avoids a long, long day and a short field or two for the Wolverines should be more than enough to tip the balance.

by ChrisS :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 10:51am

I mostly agree. My only caveat is, perhaps O'Korn is a good QB and Michigan's offense will elevate from depending on an ineffective (with occasional long runs) rushing game.

by Tomlin_Is_Infallible :: Sat, 10/07/2017 - 8:36am

why is WVU-TCU ignored?

The standard is the standard!