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NCAA Football: Houston at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

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Coach’s Corner: The Houston Offense

Where RPO meets Air Raid

Your Washington State Cougars football team makes its second consecutive “neutral site” road trip to the great state of Texas this Friday night to take on the other Cougars, those of the University of Houston. UH is sporting a new offense, helmed by new head coach and playcaller Dana Holgorsen. He comes into a pretty decent situation at quarterback with the return of D’Eriq King, who only accounted for 3500 total yards and fifty touchdowns in his junior campaign. Ok numbers, I guess. King’s stats haven’t been quite as eye-popping in the early part of the 2019 season, but he’s a dangerous athlete and is still the focal point of the Houston offense.

Here on the Palouse, Mike Leach runs just about the purest form of the Air Raid you’re going to see. Holgorsen, on the other hand, has not been shy about blending various other elements in with the Air Raid. He has shown an affinity for the RPO game, and it can be a great combination for an athletic quarterback like D’Eriq King. We’ll take a look at some of the things he can do in Holgo’s offense as we break down some of those familiar Air Raid elements along with several pieces that Holgorsen has blended into his old head coach’s offense.


Air Raid Elements

Dana Holgorsen is as well-versed in the Air Raid as any coach in the country. He played at Iowa Wesleyan under Hal Mumme and Leach, then coached under them at Valdosta State. He reunited with Coach Leach at Texas Tech and spent eight seasons in Lubbock as the Inside Wide Receivers coach and co-Offensive Coordinator alongside Sonny Dykes. In 2007, Dykes left for Arizona and Holgorsen was named the OC—as much as that really matters, since Mike Leach called all the plays anyway. But hey, titles are nice, right?

Now Holgorsen is calling the shots at Houston, having taken the mantle of playcalling in his new digs. And the Air Raid philosophy that he “grew up” in is very prevalent throughout the Houston offense. Let’s take a look at some of those elements that should be familiar to you, loyal viewer of the WSU Cougars.

Mesh

Let’s start with one of the hallmark Air Raid plays: Mesh. We’ve gone over Mesh once or twice around these parts, so if you’re interested in a recap, hit up those links.

Leach is very consistent with Mesh. It will almost always be the same route combinations out of Ace—Post, Meshers, Out, Swing from the F. If it’s Early or Late, it’s probably going to be the Mesh/Wheel combination. Houston likes to run Mesh quite a bit as well, but they rarely give you the same look twice on it. They showed the “Midwest Mesh,” where a third receiver will trail the mesh and sit right behind the mesh point. They showed a Mesh/Whip, which we’ll look at a bit later. And on this particular play they ran sort of an X-cross concept behind the mesh, which is very intriguing. Let’s look at the play first.

I think Oklahoma got caught between defenses here. As the back motions to the bottom of the screen, you see the corner open up into a zone technique, and the safety on that side flies hard to the middle of the field. That makes me think they were going to Cover 3. But the RUSH at the bottom chases the wheel, and the top safety chases the mesh from that side. Also, the corner at the top plays a man technique. which would lend itself to Cover 1 or Possibly 2-Man. The end result is fine for Houston; there is nothing wrong with converting a third down. But if King had a bit more patience, he might have had a big play. Keep your eyes on #13, Jeremy Singleton, the receiver at the bottom of the screen. As he runs what is essentially a Cross from the X position, nobody really comes with him, and he ends up in the area that the safety vacated. The deep middle safety is back there somewhere, but I don’t know that he’d be close enough to make a play. With a little more patience, King might have had a big play to Singleton.

I like this wrinkle a lot. One of the conventional ways of disrupting the Air Raid is playing 2-Man and being very aggressive with the safeties coming down and attacking crossers. By slipping the outside receiver into the area vacated by one of those safeties, it exploits a natural seam in the defense.

Inside Screen

This one is relatively new to our Air Raid. I mentioned it a couple years ago as something that we could implement in our offense, especially considering the speed and quickness we had (and have) in the slots. Lo and behold, we started seeing it a few times last year. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Houston likes getting the ball in #5 Marquez Stevenson’s hands on screens. He’s a pretty good athlete and he might be Houston’s most dangerous threat. They threw inside screen to him a bunch against Oklahoma; we’ll see him again in a bit. As an aside, both plays thus far have utilized an in-line tight end, which is obviously not something we’ve seen on the Palouse since Leach’s arrival.


Air Raid Wrinkles

Everybody likes to tinker, and especially football coaches during the offseason. Holgorsen has added quite a few wrinkles to the standard Air Raid plays.

Mesh/Whip

This is the Mesh/Whip I referenced earlier. It will look like Mesh, but instead of the two receivers crossing at the Mesh point, they will pin their defenders to the inside, then work back towards the sideline. It’s a nice twist on the play, because it punishes defenders who anticipate the Mesh and get aggressive at the Mesh point.

Fake Bubble/Inside Screen

The bubble screen was conspicuously absent from the Wazzu attack for a number of seasons. It has reappeared on occasion with the additions of quick-twitch athletes like Jamire Calvin and Renard Bell. Houston runs it—or at least shows it—a fair bit more than we do, particularly as part of their RPO package. They also run a play that shows the bubble, then brings the inside receiver back for the inside screen we have already seen.

The outside movement of the bubble entices defenders to move wide, as the bubble is essentially a race to the sideline between the receiver and the defense. This also allows the releasing linemen to get better angles on those outside-of-the-box defenders. When the receiver breaks back inside for the screen, he should have a nice little seam between the bubble-chasing secondary and the walled off interior defenders.


RPO Elements

The Run-Pass Option has been in vogue for several seasons now. While it hasn’t caught on with Leach’s pure Air Raid, other Air Raid disciples have adopted its principles, including Dana Holgorsen himself while he was at West Virginia. He has brought many of those ideas along with him to Houston, and we’ll see those concepts in play on Friday night. The basic concept behind the RPO is to strike where the defense is weakest. One play usually has between two and four options baked into the scheme. In the play below, D’Eriq King has four different options from which to choose: inside zone, quick screen, H-back pop, and QB draw.

The first look for King is the box count. If they have leverage in the box, inside zone will be the call. Oklahoma has six defenders in the box, plus a corner rolled up over the tight end. Because the H-back will release, there isn’t a favorable look in the box. Seven defenders beats six blockers. The second look is the quick screen to the receiver at the bottom of the screen. It might have been there if not for poor pathing on the blocking assignment by Stevenson in the slot. The Oklahoma DB does move off the slot pre-snap as well, so King might have checked that early and not seen the adjustment. The third look is the H-back releasing upfield, but he is effectively taken away by the nickel defender. That leaves the quarterback himself. This may or may not have been part of the actual design of the play. King has two unblocked defenders in his face, so it is very possible he was simply in “Oh, s#%t” mode and made something out of nothing. Pretty good safety valve if you have one like that.

The Cougar defense will have to play assignment football to take care of the RPO side of Houston’s offense. That’s where the lack of experienced defenders like Jalen Thompson and Peyton Pelluer may bite us.


Other Fun Stuff

Zone Slice (Double Pull)

Pulling linemen on a zone play is becoming more and more common throughout the college ranks. It turns it into something akin to the old school I-formation counter trap play that has been very prevalent throughout all levels of football, particularly since the Hogs of the Washington Super Bowl teams rode their Counter-Trey to multiple Super Bowls. In a throwback to that concept, Houston will pull both the guard and tackle and wrap them around as lead blockers for the running back on the inside zone. The “slice” part comes from the H-back picking up the backside defenders who are free behind the pulling linemen. It looks a mess on this particular play because Oklahoma gets a lot of push and penetration from its front, which is the bane of any running play. But Northern Colorado did some of this to us on Saturday, so the Cougar defense will have to stiffen up against this scheme as the Houston athletes are a bit higher caliber.

Lead Draw

Similar concept as above, pulling multiple linemen and having a blocker slice back for the backside defenders. The difference in this case is that King shows pass to freeze the second level defenders and then takes off on a draw, following the pullers. King shows off his speed here as he hits the crease in the defense. The Cougs will have to collapse space on him as much as possible, and maintain rush lane integrity, otherwise the Houston QB has the capability of running roughshod over them.


Air Raid + RPO = a pretty potent offensive attack. When Holgorsen had it rolling at West Virginia, the Mountaineers could put up some pretty impressive offensive numbers in a heartbeat. They haven’t quite broken out in the same at Houston just yet, but you have to anticipate that it’s going to unlock for D’Eriq King at some point during the season. Let’s just hope they stay bottled up for one more week.

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