Time has gotten a little fuzzy recently. I’m pretty sure it’s been a couple days since we got our stimulus check, about six months since the Washington State men’s basketball team won the National Championship (NOT DEBATABLE), around a decade since this whole coronavirus thing started, and approximately 50 years since the Cheez-It Bowl, which ended up being the last hurrah for the Air Raid on the Palouse. In the interim, an Ole Miss player celebrating a touchdown by getting on all fours and imitating a urinating dog led to Nick Rolovich being named the head football coach at Wazzu.
It’s been a wild ride.
By now, under normal circumstances, we would have gotten our first glimpse of Nick Rolovich’s offense as a part of the annual Spring Game. But that, like virtually everything else in the world, was canceled. Whereas the last couple months have felt like they’ve dragged along at a snail’s pace, the month of August is going to fly by at warp speed for the Washington State offense. They are going to have a truncated timetable to do the necessary physical repetitions needed to get a handle on the new playbook, plus figure out roster depth and rotations, and just generally work out the kinks. The saving grace may be that, while the Run & Shoot and Air Raid are distinctly different offenses, the two share common ideologies and principles. In other words, we’re still going to be lining up in four-wides and chucking it all over the yard. But there are going to be some differences in how we get into the end zone.
So what makes the Run & Shoot tick? What are the core route concepts? How does it differ from the Air Raid? Over the course of the spring and summer, we’ll endeavor to answer those questions as we break down the new WSU offense. Today, we’ll look at my personal favorite Run & Shoot route combo — the “Go” concept. We’ll see how Coach Rolovich runs it, and I’ll also show you some of the interplay between the Run & Shoot and the Air Raid, and break down Hal Mumme’s version of Go that he picked up at SMU with June Jones.
Since this is the first time we’ve taken a hard look at the Run & Shoot, let’s start by comparing and contrasting it to the offense that previously sliced and diced the Pac-12. While the Air Raid is a distinctly differently offense than the Run & Shoot, the two are close enough in principles and concepts that a casual glance at the two offenses in operation would allow them to be mistaken for one another. They are first cousins. In fact, as the Air Raid began to make its way into the national consciousness in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, the two offenses meshed so well that Run & Shoot coaches would take elements of the Air Raid and drop it into their concepts, and vice versa. It was pretty easy to do, considering both offenses’ guiding principle is to put receivers into open grass and then get them the ball right now.
To find that open space, both offenses will spread the field from sideline to sideline, using four wide receiver sets. And while that has been the core of the Air Raid for a number of years, it wasn’t always a 10 personnel offense. In the early days, Air Raid offenses would have two tight end sets, two running back sets with the QB under center (gasp in shock and horror with me), and only two true wide receivers on the field. The Run & Shoot on the other hand, has always been four wide receivers. Always. So if you were hoping for an offense that showed more to the defense by way of pre-snap formation looks, I hate to break it to you but we’ve arguably gone in the other direction. Unless Nick Rolovich has something up his sleeve, we will only ever see three formations: two receivers on each side, trips right or left, and a very occasional empty set. That’s it and that’s all.
For both of these offenses, the fun came after the ball was snapped. The Air Raid was, for the most part, a static offense. They were going to run the route combinations that they called or audibled too, and they were going to execute them so well that it didn’t matter what you did defensively; there would always be an answer in the form of an open receiver or outlet to a running back. The Run & Shoot also believes there will always be an open receiver, but it gets there a different way. Every route combination has one or more receivers with a number of options based on how the defense reacts. So no matter what the defense does, they’re wrong. The Run & Shoot is much more reliant on the quarterback and receiver being on the same page, making the same read at the same time based on the coverage.
The difference that is going to be the most readily apparent is the use of the running back. This is going to sound strange, and is going to disappoint the fans in Martin Stadium who want nothing more than to see Max Borghi touch the ball, but the running back position is going to see its average number of touches per game decrease. That’s largely a result of how the running back is used in the Run & Shoot passing game. Put simply, it isn’t. Miles Reed was the workhorse out of the backfield for Hawaii last year, with 174 carries. He had three receptions. Three! In fifteen games! My Air Raid brain hasn’t figured out how to process that statistic yet. By comparison, Borghi had 127 carries and 86 catches. Quick math tells me that’s about 40 less touches. Granted, that is a single data point, but it is fairly typical for both offenses. Of course, Max Borghi is pretty good, so he could see more than the twelve or thirteen carries per game that Reed got. But if you’re looking for 20+ carries for Mad Max, don’t hold your breath. All that while seeing his catch numbers fall off a cliff. In sum, Max is going to touch the ball less often, which is somewhat disappointing.
A couple other minor things you’ll likely notice: more designed QB movement in the way of rushing attempts and moving the pocket. We’ll certainly see more QB rushes, depending on who wins the job. Cole McDonald actually led the 2018 Hawaii team in rushing attempts with 134, and backed that up with 104 in 2019. A good percentage of those were likely sacks, but even accounting for that, it’s a far cry from Connor Halliday’s zero career rushing TDs. Which might be my favorite random statistic from the Air Raid era.
Back in the day, it was coined the Run & Shoot because the QB would roll out or slide the pocket virtually every down. That’s less of an emphasis for the offense in the modern era, but you will still see the line slide one direction and the QB drift away on occasion. It’s not a huge part of the offense, but it’s still there.
Anyway, let’s get to the good stuff.
The first thing to know about the Go concept is that it is a Trips concept. You don’t run Go out of 2x2, because you can’t get the vertical and horizontal stress on the flat defender in the same way. This is a bit different from the Air Raid, as you could run basically any route combination out of any formation with that offense. The Run & Shoot is a bit more specific with its combos at times. But that’s a bit relative since there’s only two or three formations anyway, depending on if the offense goes Empty or not.
Let’s start with the Z receiver. He will run a vertical with a mandatory outside release. The outside release will help the quarterback determine what the zone coverage is; in the image above, if the corner forces the receiver inside it’s Cover 2, and if he lets the receiver work outside, it’s Cover 4. That’s important, because it will dictate what the middle slot (Y) does. If the Z ends up getting man coverage, it can very likely turn into a shot play with that release.
Moving all the way inside to the B receiver (you’ll also see it listed as a H like the Air Raid, or sometimes a W), he will take a quick release and then get to the sideline with an aiming point of three yards beyond the line of scrimmage. His job is to get width and make the flat defender identify himself as quickly as possible, particularly an inside linebacker playing Cover 3 or Cover 4. The wider he is, the cleaner the read is for the quarterback. Additionally, if the corner bails to man coverage or Cover 4, it’s very likely that the B comes open quickly in the flat. In that case, you take the four or five yards, see if your guy can make a play, and move on to the next play. Can’t go broke making a profit.
The middle slot is the receiver that makes this play tick. He is running a seam read, which is truly the lifeblood of the Run & Shoot. We’ll dig into the intricacies of the seam read in a later installment, but the quick and dirty version is that he goes where the safety on his side doesn’t want him to go. You can see all the different options he has in the diagram, but it generally ends up being one of three things: a vertical against a safety that stays on his hash, a skinny post against a safety that drifts outside, or a hole shot just beyond linebacker level if the safety caps deep. And this is the core theory of the Run & Shoot as an offense; no matter what that safety does, he’s wrong. There is an answer to every coverage, it’s just a matter of the quarterback and the receiver(s) being on the same page and seeing the same thing at approximately the same time.
Here’s a look at it as it was run at Hawaii under Rolovich:
That’s North Carolina in the white jerseys, and they’re running a Tampa 2 coverage, so the safeties are going to stay deep, which means the seam read is capped. So he’s going to curl up in the hole just inside and behind the force defender, in this case the inside linebacker who is being widened by the inside slot’s sideline route. If I’m picking nits, I think they actually missed a chance at a bigger play with the outside receiver. The corner drops off to pick up the sideline route, and the safety is so deep he can’t rotate over in time. Regardless, it’s a chunk of yards.
You’ll also notice the slightest of half-rolls by the quarterback. It’s not the Run & Shoot of old, where the QB was constantly out of the pocket, but there’s still a nuanced manipulation of the pocket.
Here’s a look at one of the variations on the seam read. San Diego State is playing Cover 1 and they rotate the linebacker level hard to get to their matchups. It gets the seam defender wrong-footed, and the Hawaii receiver makes a quick inside cut to get free. This really highlights the anticipation needed by the QB in this offense, as well as how in sync the QB and his receivers have to be to fully exploit this offense.
As I said earlier, this is my favorite of the Run & Shoot concepts, largely because it’s the one I’m most familiar with. I stole it from Hal Mumme, who gave a clinic down in Fayetteville, NC several years back, after he had adapted it from June Jones during their time together at SMU. Coach Mumme took the concept and Air Raided it, taking away the seam read and turning it into a “find open grass” route, which is more akin to what the Air Raid is trying to do. The outside receiver and inside slot’s routes are exactly the same. The middle slot, instead of running a seam read off the safety, will identify the force defender, run at his outside hip and allow the defender to cross his face. Once he does, the receiver immediately turns his butt to the defender and drifts upfield at an angle slightly toward the sideline and works to the hole.
Another tweak that Mumme put on it is the backside route. In the Run & Shoot version, the single receiver is an afterthought. Occasionally if they get a really favorable matchup they’ll take a deep shot with him, but otherwise he’s mostly just out there to be out there. Coach Mumme noticed that teams tended to roll their safeties hard to the trips side when they saw it, so as a way to sneak behind an over-rotated defense, he had the backside receiver run a slant-corner or slant-and-go. If the safety vacates the middle of the field to try and rob the trips side, the QB can come back to the backside receiver who should be running free.
Apologies in advance for subjecting you to what would generously be referred to as my “drawing,” but I don’t know if/where this specific version of Go exists on the internet.
The last tweak to this route is the adjustment for man coverage. This version of Go shreds zone coverages, but you can’t really sit in the hole when there’s a dude draped on you. So when they identify man coverage, two things happen. First, the two slot receivers will tighten their splits to each other, being as far away from each other as the defenders are from them, creating a square. Second, the middle slot, instead of sitting in the hole, will release upfield then immediately aim for the outside hip of the defender manned up against the inside slot. Executed correctly, this should create a completely legal and not in any way offensive pass interference rub, freeing up the sideline route for a quick throw and catch.
That’s it for Go. Up next we’ll take a look at the seam read and the Choice concept which, as the name implies, gives the QB and receivers a whole lot of options to attack the defense.