X's and O's: Exploring OSU run game & the ZBS

THE OSU RUNNING ATTACK has been a strong point of discussion throughout the last few seasons in Corvallis. And if there is one thing that is absolutely for sure, it is that nobody agrees what the heck is going on with the Beaver ground and pound game. To answer that question you need to look at a particular aspect, one that hasn't been talked about nearly enough.

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Some want to pin the lack of run game production on the offensive coordinator, pointing out that Danny Langsdorf is a former QB himself and is overly enamored with the run game. Some want to pin it on head coach and Offensive Coordinator Emeritus Mike Riley as they argue about who is really and truly calling the plays at Oregon State, pointing out that Coach Riley doesn't even carry a traditional play card. Some want to pin it on the old salty dog himself, Mike Cavanaugh, who is not only the offensive line coach but also the Run Game Coordinator. They ask if his tough love style becomes ineffective white noise by the time the Beaver Hogs are fourth- and fifth-year players. And they wonder if his relocation to the press box places him too far from his troops.

Full disclosure: I have at one time or another ascribed to several different theories including all of the above. Except for pinning the blame on Cav, who is a gosh darn offensive line savant and should be revered, you heathens.

The latest theory that seems to be gaining some traction among the Beaver football cognoscenti is that Oregon State has struggled running the football because the running backs have had some trouble executing within the zone blocking scheme.

To me, this is a very intriguing idea, one that possibly has some serious validity to it. Oregon State had tremendous success in 2013 with the screen game, which suggests that the offensive line was executing their assignments just fine. While it is true that part of the reason the screen game is effective is because defenses were pinning their ears back and coming after Sean Mannion, you cannot deny that the offensive line was doing a great job executing their blocks when looking at what unfolded on your TV screen.

The truth is, there is absolutely an intangible that is difficult, nigh impossible, to predict. Whatever physical gifts a running back has in the zone blocking scheme, it is only exposed after making the read. Make the wrong read, and those physical gifts don't matter, because you're not going anywhere on the play unless you have one heck of a lucky rabbit's foot crammed into your pads.

Even the NFL struggles with it: Darren McFadden, Cedric Benson and even the explosive Chris Johnson struggled with executing in a ZBS, while unheralded mid-and-late round picks like Alfred Morris and undrafted free agents like Arian Foster have torn league defenses to shreds. Somehow Marshawn Lynch made the transition from power-scheme downhill back to a ferocious ZBS back, to everyone's surprise.

And I vividly remember Yvenson Bernard and Jimtavis Walker battling for the starting role in spring camp some years ago, walking away feeling extremely confident that Walker was head and shoulders better than Bernard, who was to me at the time a fullback caught in the Honey I Shrunk the Football Player Machine.

Point blank: It's a crapshoot until the lights come on.

Defenders have oft-described the best Oregon State running backs (disregarding the physical freak of nature that is Steven Jackson for this discussion) as "a cannonball bursting through smoke". The scheme asks the running back not to rely on their instincts, but rather to go against them: They have to be patient and find the correct hole, not the first one they see. And to find the cutback lane is based on anticipating in a split-second's time what the defense will be doing … not what they are doing.

Terron Ward most closely resembles a good Oregon State ZBS running back, because when he is decisive and hits the correct hole hard, he is a cannonball with legs. And then in the open field, he gets into your chest, and he isn't shy about it at all. And that's a lot of what I see potential-wise with Damien Haskins, but the reason that I am stopping short of crowning Haskins The Next Big Thing is that you just never know whether they are going to have that knack/feel.

You have the "designed" running lane, the secondary running lane if the defense correctly reads the primary lane, and then the cutback if they are both shut down. It sounds simple but there is an elusive timing element to it. You need to be good at cutting off the heels of the offensive lineman and bursting through the hole. And you need to be able to be patient, wait for the defender to commit to the gap and their offensive lineman to get leverage and develop the lane, and then get skinny and burst through the hole.

Too often in his career at Oregon State, Ward has missed that read, or run to the first hole he sees instead of waiting for the right hole. I don't know if Oregon State got better at getting the proper leverage in the last two games of the season so Ward could just run to the primary lane, or whether things started to click for him and he started seeing the field better.

But I will say that with the ZBS most of the time, the modus operandi is this: Double team at the point of attack and then when they are comfortable that they have executed and have the proper leverage, one o-lineman releases and goes to the second level. The hole doesn't so much open up as it does to slide with the ebb and flow of the offensive line's movement.

Chris Brown has also entered the conversation. And the young tailback seems to have a nice burst and good instincts, but still has work to do on football security and executing his blocking assignments. When given an opportunity in 2013, he performed well but his yard per carry averages come with an asterisk as they were not typically while the game was in the balance, which means he didn't always face first string defenses.

Still, Riley saw fit to mention and the reiterate this week that Brown specifically will be getting many more looks this spring, and the potential for more carries in 2014.

And then there is Storm Woods, who possesses a quality that always seems like it hampers the productivity of running backs in the zone scheme: He's a strider.

Woods "cuts high" with long legs, and coincidentally, (or maybe not so much,) so does Darren McFadden. He is also a slasher who does a good job cutting back against the grain, getting skinny with some burst plus a nice top gear whenever there is some green in front of him. I won't pretend that Woods can't run the ball well in this offense.

But Woods has made a lot of the resident BF.C deep thinkers wonder if he wouldn't be one hell of a slot receiver.

He has excellent hands and with the ball in space, he's a big-play threat. Without question he is the best back Oregon State has at executing the screen game or catching the ball on a swing pass and getting up-field. When asked if that move could potentially be in the cards, Riley said he just didn't envision that happening. But he became animated when talking about how he very much wants to utilize Woods' receiving skills coming out of the backfield more.

There is absolutely some buzz that Oregon State is planning on taking advantage of Woods' utility next season. Initially, I dismissed it as wild message board musings, but it really does appear that there is some traction to the idea. With the departure of Brandin Cooks, Woods' versatility may turn out to be a big asset to the Beaver offense. Imagine, an actual running back on the jet sweep!

How many days until spring ball again?

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