The Penn State Spread Option

Marsh gives his detailed description of the Penn State spread option play and why it was so successful against two different defensive schemes employed by Nebraska and Central Florida.

The Penn State Spread Option against the Nebraska nickel defense


In this piece I will try to draw a picture for you of how the PSU spread option play works. I will attempt to draw it out with an explanation of what goes into making the call, how it is designed, what needs to happen for the play to succeed, and how it worked to perfection for touchdown plays against two different defensive schemes employed by Nebraska and Central Florida.


In the drawing below, I have diagrammed the Nebraska defense as it lined up on Penn State's first TD play of the game. The NU d-backs are shown with an "X", the linebackers with an "L", their defensive ends with an "E", the nose tackle with an "N", and the other defensive tackle with a "D".


The Penn State offense in this diagram shows three wide receivers with an "R", the center with a "C", the linemen and TE with an "O", Zack Mills with a "Q", and Larry Johnson with an "H". Mills and Larry Johnson are shown not as they lined up at the snap, but rather in the positions they were in at the point when Mills made the pitch.


Here is the complete diagram:



Spread Option Chart 1



What went into making the call?

At the time that this play was called, Penn State had just finished up their first 20 plays from scrimmage and had thrown the ball on 15 of those plays. NU wasn't getting even close to putting any pressure on Mills and this was frustrating Nebraska DE Chris Kelsay.  Kelsay was heading upfield on an outside speed rush on virtually every play to that point with almost zero regard for the run, and this made him an easy target for that play call.


I believe that it's likely that Penn State went to this play when NU subbed in their nickel back and removed a LB, thus basically committing to a pass defense scheme and pass rush.


How was the play blocked?


NU lined up their front four shaded to the weak side of our formation. They had the four down linemen shifted one gap over to the weak side and they had only two ILB's, though both LB's were slightly shaded to the strong side. The manner in which NU lined up indicates to me a possible gap technique where their nose tackle and defensive tackle will try and rush thru a "gap" to get up-field pressure, a typical call when you are thinking pass.

NU's defensive set left them with 5 defenders in obvious pass coverage and 6 defenders to stop run at the point of attack. Here is how Penn State handled those 6 defenders.


Our weak side offensive tackle sealed their weak side defensive end. That took him out of the play.


Our weak side guard chipped their DT before heading up field to help out on the inside linebacker lined up towards the weaker side of the play.


Our center stood up their nose tackle. This was only made possible because our right guard placed a strong chip block on the nose tackle which turned him towards the center.


After helping out on the nose tackle the right guard completely walled off the inside backer on the weak side of the play.


The right tackle and tight end walled off the inside backer on the strong side of the play.


That left All-American defensive end Chris Kelsay unblocked, just as PSU wanted.  Kelsay was basically ignored.  Kelsay officially got the bulls eye treatment when NU came out to defend that play in a nickel package.  For starters, there was one less LB to worry about.  But even more importantly, they were basically tipping their hand that they thought the play would be a pass, thus another speed rush by Kelsay was as predictable as the setting sun.

When Kelsay rushed up field into our backfield, he went right for Zack Mills and that's where the decision to pitch is made. Any option QB must have a key to read, and on this play the key is the defensive end Kelsay. Once he committed to Mills, the QB pitched the ball nicely to Larry Johnson.


Since all of the upfront defenders were sealed off Johnson was able to head strongly up field into the end zone for a touchdown.

Keys to success of play...

1. Calling the option against a nickel package.

2. the execution of the four linemen who got the LB's. They could have worked this play against a 4-3 and still could have worked for positive yardage if the TE would be able to get to the ssOLB.

3. the center standing up and sealing off the NT after getting help from the right guard.

4. to a minor extent the blocking of the WR's, although the play was run so efficiently that none of the nickel backs even became involved. This had to be due in part to some overall confusion within the NEB defense as their nickel backs should have rightly fired up-field to get involved in this play.

5. Main Key - Mills' read at the LOS to call that variation of the play to enhance success, and Mills' reading of Kelsay.  When Kelsay did not take LJ, the pitch became automatic and Mills, being on fire as he was, simply executed the play to perfection.  LJ scored from 8 yards out basically untouched

Strength of play call - Given the NU formation, the PSU offense severely out-manned NEB at the point of attack.  If the PSU QB could handle the DE read, the play should rightly succeed.

Keys to why NU failed to stop the play - Better pressure from weak side DE could have caught play from behind, although it would have taken an amazing athlete to have pulled that off.  The nickel back on the strong side failed to even marginally react to the play, thus he never became involved when he should have.  Kelsay, the strong side DE, could have potentially stopped the play by himself, and almost did, although that too would have taken an amazing effort.



The Penn State Spread Option against Central Florida nickel / blitz package


Here is a drawing of virtually the same play executed for a 23 yard TD in the first quarter against Central Florida. In this play, UCF is lined up differently, uses a different D Line call, and uses a two man blitz on the weak side.  The result is the same, a long play for Penn State.


Here is a diagram of the alignments of both teams with our QB and H back shown in the position they are aligned at the point in which the pitch is made. That is followed by a description of what happened on this play call, why it developed differently, and why it still worked after being properly executed.


Spread Option Chart 2



This play call also occurs after a string of completed passes for Penn State. UCF, like Nebraska, is in a nickel package and the nickel back on the weak side of our play is showing blitz.  This nickel back is denoted with an X and is lined up near the line of scrimmage at the snap.  This back crept over indicating blitz after having initially lined up right on top of the flanker.


The UCF defensive line is shaded to the strong side of the play this time as opposed to the alignment Nebraska used where they were shaded to the weak side of the play.  UCF would also call a man technique on their defensive line instead of a gap technique on this play.  A man technique is basically where your DL attempts to initially push the OL backwards into the backfield.


Because of the defensive line call, four of our linemen stayed in to block the UCF defensive linemen.  The nickel back and the weak side backer came in on an outside blitz around the weak side offensive tackle.  Had this been a pass play, Larry Johnson would have had to either stay in and block or drift out to catch a quick swing pass from Mills.  Mills would have had to throw the ball very quickly or scramble away from the weak side pressure.


As noted above, the defensive line call was a man technique. This technique was designed to occupy as many blockers as possible so as to get one or both of those two blitzers to the QB unblocked.  But the weakness of that defensive line call is a well executed option to that side, and that's what the call was.


Only our weak side guard and the tight end were able to head downfield.  Tight end Casey Williams would get downfield far enough to cut block the deep safety on that side thus taking him out of the play.


Because it was an option to the strong side, Mills and Larry sprinted down the line of scrimmage to the right.  Because of the defensive line call, this play goes much wider than the same play call run against Nebraska that was diagrammed above.


The strong side linebacker curled around our strong side unblocked and he became the key for Mills to read.  When he committed to Mills, the pitch to Larry Johnson was made and Larry headed up-field.


The cornerback on that side made a great attempt to get to the ball carrier, but Bryant Johnson had him completely walled off from the play.  Larry Johnson took the pitch, headed up-field, cut inside of the WR and cornerback, and headed strong to the end zone untouched.


These diagrams show the anatomy of the play call and how it was properly executed against two different defensive schemes.

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