Play Anatomy: ASU-UCLA

This week's Play Anatomy focuses on a particular play concept ASU unveiled against UCLA that enabled the Sun Devils to have success against a seven-man box.

In several earlier games this season, Arizona State needed to rely on its run game to come from behind and win or to push through a closely contested game.

The same held true for the Sun Devils against UCLA, as a specific play concept they kept under wraps earlier in the season helped take pressure off of redshirt freshman quarterback Brady White in his first start. As a result, the sun devils generated 3rd quarter points on their way to a bounce back 23-20 victory to improve to 5-1 on the year. 

A base staple of the ASU run game is a power play in which one or two linemen or one lineman and an H-back pull from one side of the formation to the other as lead blockers. We’ve seen the Sun Devils do this with both guards or with a tackle and a center, but last week against the Bruins, they did so in a new way, with the guard and tackle on the same side of the line of scrimmage pulling across the formation to the play side. The Sun Devils did this going both right and left and also showed a variant off it that enhanced a pass play based on misdirection out of the same look.

In the second quarter, with the game tied 3-3 and ASU struggling to run the football, Chip Lindsey identified an opportunity to generate a numbers advantage inside the box by pulling right guard Stephon McCray and right tackle Quinn Bailey to the play side on the boundary side of the formation. With tight end Kody Kohl immediately working to the linebacker level and left tackle Evan Goodman leaving UCLA's play side defensive end unblocked, McCray is responsible for kicking the end out and paving a path for running back Demario Richard. With Kohl already at the second level, Bailey’s job is to run through the hole and pick up the additional linebacker flowing to the playside. In the backfield, the Sun Devils use a zone read look that forces ucla’s backside defensive end to hold in and defend against the possibility of a Brady White keeper.

This is critical to the success of the play, because it is a long-developing run play that could potentially be chased down from the back side. Notice that by sending two linemen, McCray and Bailey through the left side and keeping the backside defensive end honest, ASU has created a numbers advantage. There are six blockers up against six defenders, because the backside defensive end is kept honest by the threat of a keeper by White. This play neutralizes the seven-man box and UCLA’s pre-snap numbers advantage against the run, and as a result, Richard breaks free for a gain of 16 yards, ASU’s longest play to that point in the game. 

ASU does not use this play concept again until the 3rd quarter, when the Sun Devils are leading 6-3. After a short run play in which McCray and Bailey both pull from right to left, the Sun Devils align with trips to the wide side of the field. At the snap, McCray and Bailey are once again on the move, but this time as a decoy. Because UCLA has seen this action twice, including on the play immediately prior to this one, ASU is able to suck UCLA’s defenders toward the boundary side of the formation. The movement of McCray and Bailey creates a false key read for UCLA's linebackers, who are taught to follow the steps of the linemen to lead them toward the play.

But instead of running the ball again, Lindsey mixes it up, and calls a pass play for Brady White. White throws a bubble screen to Tim White, who receives blocks from N'Keal Harry and Jalen Harvey to spring him into the open field. When you watch this play closely, notice the way the cornerback in front of Tim White reacts to the movement of Bailey and McCray. When he sees them pull from right to left, he’s sucked toward the line of scrimmage, and by the time he recovers from his false step to make the tackle, white has already picked up 13 yards.

After having success by creating misdirection through the air, on the very next play, Lindsey calls for the same pulling guard/pulling tackle action, but goes back to the ground to keep UCLA off balance. This time, Lindsey asks left guard Sam Jones and left tackle Evan Goodman to pull from left to right, effectively adjusting the play side of the formation. This is important, because ASU is targeting a different backside defensive end. A UCLA player who has already seen this action once may instinctually scrape down the line of scrimmage and tackle Richard before he can get to the hole, but a player who hasn’t knows his option responsibility and must stay disciplined.

Notice how UCLA’s backside end on the wide side of the field waits to see if White keeps the ball on the zone-read action before swarming to the play side, and that split-second delay is enough for Richard to hit the hole. Again, with two pulling linemen, ASU negates UCLA’s advantage of a seven-man box against six blockers, and Richard goes practically untouched until he’s brought down after an 18-yard gain, ASU’s longest play of the night.

After back-to-back big gains, ASU again lines up in a trips set, with three receivers to the wide side. Because the Sun Devils are going tempo, UCLA had not been able to adjust to the action of the pulling guard and pulling tackle, and Bruins' coach Jim Mora recognizes this. Right before ASU gets its next play off, UCLA calls a timeout to create an adjustment. As you can see, because the timeout call came late, the Sun Devils had tipped their hand. They were sticking with the pulling guard/pulling tackle action, and this time, they were throwing the ball out of that look. The timeout brings a temporary halt to ASU's drive, but the explosive plays that pushed ASU inside the Bruins’ 30-yard line set up an eventual touchdown.

The timeout call from Mora proved critical though, because ASU would only go back to this call once more in the game. On the team’s first play of the fourth quarter, immediately following a Marcus Ball interception of Josh Rosen, Lindsey went back to a play that had already worked three times. However, this time, the Bruins were ready. When Jones and Goodman pull from left to right, the Bruins’ backside end immediately chases down Richard, sending the back for a three-yard loss. That’s the type of risk ASU takes when it sends both its backside guard and backside tackle to the play side. The zone read keeper look can only hold the backside end for so long, because eventually, UCLA realizes that if White were to keep the ball, he would have no one left on the backside to block for him.

The Bruins’ adjustment proved important, as having their backside end crash down on Richard sent the Sun Devils for a three-yard loss, and it prevented Lindsey from calling that same play for the rest of the game. Nevertheless, the pulling guard-pulling tackle combination was effective for ASU when it needed a jolt, and gave the Sun Devils a critical advantage in a game where ucla could stack the box against an inexperienced quarterback. 

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