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It was a Good Play Call

That 4th and 1 play was a disaster. That 4th and 1 playcall was good. Let me explain.

Jack Ellis/CougCenter

I’m not going to sit here and tell you not to believe your eyes. You saw it. I saw it. We all saw it. On 4th and 1, with the game at the bitter end and the Cougs needing a touchdown to tie it up, our Gen Z coordinator dialed up a QB run that didn’t work.

This came to the chagrin of an entire fanbase who understood that our inability to block the Bruin’s defensive line was the main reason we were behind in the game to begin with; and indeed the lack of blocking is why the Cougs did not convert that 4th and 1.

So, what in the (insert relevant Gen Z reference here) was Coach Arbuckle doing? Let me try (and maybe fail) to explain. Bet.*

*Did I do that right? No? Ok I’ll stop now

There are two advantages an offensive coach can create when scheming up a run play. They can bend, if not outright break, the defensive scheme, or they can create a personnel advantage- either gaining a numbers advantage or isolating their best players on the other team’s worst players. On this 4th and 1 play Ben Arbuckle accomplishes both of these advantages.

Bending the defensive scheme with motion:

The Cougs came out in a 4x1 formation, with three receivers and a tight end on the left side of the field, leaving the running back as the lone receiving option on the right side of the field. The UCLA defense set up their net accordingly.

Yes, I said net. I find it helpful to think about defenses in terms of nets. Each play the defense is responsible for their pass net (their pass coverage) and their run net (their run fits). Each net is in a different part of the field, and each player is required to maintain the integrity of their section of whichever net becomes relevant once the play starts.

In dead simple language, that means that defenders are required to defend two entirely different parts of the field depending on if it’s run or pass. Therefore, they begin the play (ideally) exactly in between the two places they might need to get to once the play starts. Unfortunately for defenders, where those specific places are changes based on the formation the offense comes out in.*

*As a sidenote, Arbuckle completely breaks the Bruins from the get go with the 4x1 formation the Cougs start out in. To be a legal formation, seven players must begin the play on the line of scrimmage, but in this 4x1 formation to pull that off one of our outside receivers must line up in an ineligible position. Arbuckle makes that Josh Kelly, our most dynamic receiving threat. UCLA is so concerned about him they cover him anyway, leaving them undermanned in the running game. From the beginning, Arbuckle has the defense totally confused and broken.

So when an offense changes formation right before the play, the defense has to adjust their potential responsibilities -and therefore their starting positions- accordingly.

The hope, if you’re Ben Arbuckle, is twofold. Either the defense won’t adjust accurately or quickly enough, breaking their scheme and creating a hole in either their run or pass nets*, or the defensive adjustment slightly compromises those nets somehow-giving you a numbers advantage, or a better matchup for you best players, or better angles for your blocks, etc.

*Pass coverages or run fits for those who wince at the term ‘net’.

What the Bruins end up doing is just having the defender who has the TE in pass coverage follow him across the formation. That means they’ve matched the numbers of the new Coug formation*, but they haven’t accounted for the extra gap created by the TE**. The safety who follows the TE is not in a position to help with the run (at least not one that only needs one yard) and therefore the motion has created a gap between the TE and the offensive tackle that isn’t accounted for by the defensive scheme. Success! Arbuckle has created a hole in their net, and in order to be win this play the Bruins will need a defender to cover two gaps rather than one. This is good play design.

*There are not more Cougs than Bruins on that half of the field, darn.

**The space between each offensive player at or near the line of scrimmage is called a gap, and is potentially a place to run the football. The run net, called a run fit, is all about making sure at least one defender is responsible for dealing with each gap.

Creating a numbers advantage by running the Quarterback:

So why have Cam run the ball? Because it gives you an advantage the motion didn’t end up giving you- a numbers advantage. If you draw a line down the middle of the football just before the snap (after the motion) you can count the players. The Cougs have two offensive lineman, a TE, a RB, and half a center. Four and a half. The Bruins have a DE, an OLB, an ILB, a safety, and half a nose guard. Four and a half.

Except that’s wrong. The Cougs also have half of Cam Ward on that side of the field. The defense has no equivalent for that. There is no one else. Bringing someone else to that part of the field to account for the quarterback would sacrifice the integrity of their pass net (their pass coverage), and they suspect the Cougs are going to pass- so they opt not to worry about it.

Therefore, the moment the running back lead blocks and Cam Ward steps to the right side of the field the Cougs have a numbers advantage.

So, what was Ben Arbuckle doing calling that QB run on 4th and 1?*

*It was a play called QB power BTW, which involves a pulling guard who creates another gap and adds another offensive player to the right side of the field, doubling the advantages already discussed. But linebackers are taught to follow pulling guards to the other side of the field you say, BAH! Bah I say! UCLA had no linebackers left to follow our pulling guard!

He was recognizing that because the defense was anticipating a pass, he could generate both of the key advantages a play caller hopes to create. It was good scheme, and an entirely reasonable play call.*

*Bonus ball talking: The Burins are walked up in an blitz look, meaning they have six guys on the line of scrimmage. The goal here, if you’re the DC, is probably mostly to pressure the QB on a pass, but if it ends up being a run the DC is trying to ensure that there are no double teams available for the offense. Because there are five offensive lineman, and six defenders on the line of scrimmage, the offense will be forced to block one player with one player. Something the Cougs couldn’t do all night. A double team doesn’t guarantee you a huge run, but typically it can guarantee you one yard. So UCLA rightly tried to prevent it. With the motion, the way UCLA adjusted to it (which prioritized pass coverage vs run fits), and having the QB run it so the RB could lead block, Arbuckle creates the opportunity for a double team to happen at the point of attack. Which is about the only part of the play that ends up working, UCLA #12 goes for a ride.

Now lets zoom out from the micro to the macro. Because this play call was about way more than scheme.

QB runs between the tackles, and the run called in this instance is a defining aspect of the offense Ben Arbuckle has been setting up all year. The very first thing I noticed in week one was that Arbuckle was calling plays like he had Cam Newton, not Cam Ward, lining up behind center.

I’m a fan of those play designs*, but I wondered in week one if Ward was really the right person to call those plays for. He is an outstanding QB, with many many talents**, but a fullback he is not. By calling these plays as often as he has all season, even to the point of occasionally bringing in a more dynamic runner at QB to facilitate it, Arbuckle has made it clear that QB runs are a calling card of his offensive philosophy. It’s who he is, not merely something he does.

*If you can’t tell

**Someday I’ll wax poetically about his Wing-T closeup magic skills

That means it’s who we are. QB power isn’t some Christmas tree ornament that makes us chuckle. It’s definitional. Which is exactly the kind of play you call upon when a game is on the line. 4th and 1, down 8, in a tough road game that you’ve played poorly in, you don’t draw something in the dirt. You look at who you are, and you do the things that are deep in your belly.

Like it or not, inside QB runs are one of the things deep in the belly of this offense. Should they be? Well- the fact that we had at least two major schematic advantages for one of our core plays and still didn’t come close to converting indicates... maybe not.

But here we are. Considering the offensive philosophy and the schematic advantages generated by it, I don’t think we can call that a ridiculous play call. It was a good play call, executed poorly, and it has to leave Coug fans (and Coug coaches) wondering what the rest of the season will demand of us.

Every team faces a variety of ‘who are we’ moments. Questions posed by opponents, injuries, referees, or simply chance that reveal the truth about a group of people. This 4th and 1 is perhaps the first faced by the 2023 Cougs- and our answer was troubling. It speaks poorly not of our character, not of our fight, not of our willingness, but of our ability and our philosophy.

On offense, are we who we think we are? If not, what do we need to change, and can we make that change this late into the season? If so, why didn’t it show up on that play, which we practiced and had every advantage we could have hoped for?

How do we ensure that the next time we’re asked ‘who are we’, we answer better?

I suspect Coach Dickert, Coach Arbuckle, and the Coug offense will come through next time, considering the last few years we have little reason to believe otherwise. But in the meantime I suspect it might keep our Gen Z friend up a few nights.