Play anatomy: Sparky formation

In this week's 'Play Anatomy,' we break down ASU's Sparky formation and what enabled its success against Texas Tech.

Arizona State junior running back Kalen Ballage capped off a record-setting night with a 75-yard touchdown run, but the majority of Ballage’s NCAA record-tying eight touchdowns came out of a Wildcat look, which ASU is calling its “Sparky” formation.

ASU dominated Texas Tech at the point of attack in the Sparky formation, and Ballage was the beneficiary as six of his touchdown runs came out of this look.

Every time the Sun Devils lined up in the Sparky formation, sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins and junior wide receiver Ellis Jefferson were split wide to the left to pull two Texas Tech defenders away from the box. Keeping Wilkins on the field is important for ASU on these plays, because it at least puts the thought of a potential trick play or pass into the mind of opposing defensive coordinators. Against Texas Tech, Wilkins never moved from his spot, but just keeping that in the mind of defenders is important.

On most of Ballage’s runs, Jefferson would motion in from the twins set to act as a slot back and an extra blocker. Jefferson’s job is to seal off the backside, and he successfully does so on each run.

On the front side of the play, ASU has a distinct numbers advantage because it has senior tight end Kody Kohl as the end man on the line of scrimmage, with junior defensive lineman Christian Hill and junior running back Demario Richard acting as lead blockers.

On each play, the center, the right guard, the right tackle, and the tight end all execute down blocks, while sophomore left guard Sam Jones pulls through toward the B-gap on the right side to act as a third lead blocker for Ballage.

ASU’s goal is to allow Ballage to put his head down and muscle his way through the B and C gaps, with the down blocks from the right side of the line creating a wash and ASU’s lead blockers sealing off the edge to free Ballage.

On most of these plays, ASU has six blockers including the center on the right side of the field, while Texas Tech has six box defenders on the right side of the field. That means Ballage is unaccounted for, and with his combination of speed and power near the goal line, it’s awfully difficult to stop him.

If defenders are sucked inside of the lead blockers, which happens on a few occasions, all Hill and Richard have to do is get in the way of the defenders' path to allow Ballage to use his speed and get to the edge.

ASU didn’t stray much from this strategy, but in the second half, after successfully executing the same play four times, the Sun Devils ran a counter to the left. Instead of motioning Jefferson into the line of scrimmage, ASU kept him off the edge to keep two defenders out of the box on the left side, where ASU wanted to run.

On the counter, senior right guard Stephon McCray pulls to the left, while the left tackle, left guard and center execute down blocks. Hill is responsible for the edge defender, while Richard is responsible for picking up the alley defender to allow Ballage a track directly through the C-gap.

While Richard may be the better inside runner, ASU is likely using Ballage on these plays because Richard is the better blocker, and because Ballage has a two-way go. He can put his head down and hit the B or C-gap when the play works as designed, or if defenders swarm toward the middle, he has the quick-twitch ability to get to the edge in a hurry. 

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