Under Josh Heupel, the UCF Knights have not struggled much to move the ball or put up points. But it seems every time they have, it has been against the Air Raid killer: The “Drop 8” strategy.
We saw this earlier in the season, when UCF fell to Tulsa and the offense looked out of sync compared to what UCF fans are used to seeing.
Tulane decided to implement the same defensive philosophy: keeping a light box and dropping 8 men in coverage on just about every play.
On 26 of 41 dropbacks (I excluded the last 2 drives of the game for my data due to garbage time), Tulane only brought 3 defenders and on 14 of the remaining 15 they only brought 4 pass rushers. So Tulane only blitzed once.
To compare that to Tulsa, the Golden Hurricanes rushed 3 on 32 of 55 (58%) dropbacks, but blitzed at a slightly higher rate (9 of 55).
Despite trying to implement the same broad philosophy, UCF’s offensive success was so much different against Tulane than Tulsa.
A few obvious reasons that I’ll get out of the way before diving into it: Penalties and pass protection were drastically better against Tulane then Tulsa. UCF only had two non-garbage time offensive penalties the entire game. Dillon Gabriel was also rarely under pressure. Against Tulsa, there were only a couple of plays where he didn’t have enough time to look at his first or second read, but there were never instances where he was able to run around behind the line of scrimmage and let the WRs work the scramble drill like they did on Marlon William’s first TD.
Also, Tulsa’s defense is definitely a more talented group than Tulane’s and I believe Tulane completely changed their entire defensive scheme for this game; something which is probably extremely difficult to do in a week of prep.
However, it was still a drastically different offensive attack, in my opinion.
Let’s go back to this heat map from @Pff_Seth:
Against Tulsa, UCF only threw the ball three times between the hashes (the way below average area) on 38 throws, which exclude passes behind the LOS, throw aways, and screens. I went into deep detail how Tulsa kind of took their 8 pass coverage guys and forced UCF to the sideline knowing they like to go there, but made sure they had guys their to take it away and forcing the route that way, essentially using inside technique.
Again, this data excludes screen passes, throw aways, and passes behind LOS. It is also only on plays outside the Red Zone.
You can see how dense the outside of the Tulsa map is and how it lightens out as you work towards the middle.
Now with the Tulane graph, it’s almost the opposite. The outside seems to be the lightest and grows darker as you go towards the middle.
If it looked like UCF threw the ball to the middle of the field more, you were correct. On 24 qualifying throws, UCF only threw seven passes to the sideline (29%) which (I didn’t look it up) is probably the lowest percentage of the Heupel era. In contrast, 63% of throws were to the sidelines vs. Tulsa.
If you look deeper into it, UCF threw 6 (25%) times between the hashes against Tulane and 6 more times to in-breaking routes targeted between the numbers and the hash.
Now, it’s not as simple as UCF just decided to use the middle of the field this game. As I’ve mentioned before, in my opinion, UCF runs a lot of option routes based on coverage.
For example: Tulane is in a two-high look here and go zone. Marlon runs a simple over route behind the linebackers and is wide open for a simple catch.
Literally the same exact play and result:
Same exact play again. It looks like Tulane is in man this time, despite the same pre-snap look. Marlon is pretty much played straight up and runs the same route as the previous plays, but the LB takes it away. However, he sets a legal screen, freeing up Greg McCrae for a big gain on a simple check down in the short middle of the field. This is UCF working different levels:
Same play again. this time Dillon Gabriel just takes what the defense gives him with an easy throw to Jake Hescock on a simple flat route. This was one of the 7 throws to the sideline. No matter how little he’s used in the passing game outside the Red Zone, you still have to account for the Hescock for this very reason:
It seemed as if Tulane used outside technique a bunch, which is the opposite of what Tulsa did (and why I think what they did worked so well). UCF’s splits are so wide that you don’t actually get a good view of the DBs on most plays.
Here was a big gain to Jaylon Robinson where he was able to work towards the middle of the field in between the outside corner and OLB:
This ball was thrown to McCrae on the swing, but you can see how the outside corner (#25) is literally sideways, begging Harris to run a post.
Here’s a screen grab from the first gif of the ball thrown to Marlon Williams:
It looks a lot different than what Tulsa was doing on the back end, despite both teams “dropping 8”:
This is the one play Tulane blitzed on. Obviously it’s man, but it seems like the DB was begging O’Keefe to go to inside, which I find crazy because it makes his speed so much more dangerous:
The one time (where you could actually see) a DBlooked like he wanted to take away the inside, Marlon runs an out to the boundary, and this is what UCF’s offense looked like when it struggled:
The two big plays on sideline throws were (1) the first TD to Marlon, where UCF was in the scramble drill as it seemed like DG ran around for about 10 seconds in the backfield, and (2) the go route to Jacob Harris for a TD, which came on a free play and possibly a busted coverage:
UCF was in empty and Tulane had 6 in the box, which would be cover 0, and the corner on Harris isn’t even looking at him.
Bottom line: It was awesome to see how UCF was able to attack inside the numbers and really take advantage of what Tulane was doing defensively.