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Film Room: Breaking Down UCF’s Passing Attack vs. Cincinnati’s Pass Defense

The unstoppable force meets the immovable object

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 04 UCF at Cincinnati Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The UCF Knights get their long-awaited rematch with the Cincinnati Bearcats on Saturday after falling to the Bearcats on the road last season.

In their victory last season, Cincinnati’s defense was able to limit UCF’s passing attack to a level that we hadn’t really seen under Josh Heupel.

I went back through the All-22 of every single pass play to look at what Cincinnati did to slow down an explosive offense, where UCF had some success, and what to look for in the rematch this weekend.

Obviously, it is all depending on Cincinnati coming out with an extremely similar defensive gameplan as they had last year, but why wouldn’t they after holding UCF to 16 points before giving up a late TD while in soft quarters coverage?

I don’t think the run game is going to dictate UCF’s offensive success. If they can’t move the ball through the air they won’t win, in my opinion. And Cincinnati’s run defense, for the most part, is extremely good.

This is a great video if you’re interested in their run defense and what they do:

Pass O vs. Pass D:

The Cincinnati corner trio of Ahmad Gardner, Coby Bryant, and Arquon Bush is by far the best in the AAC.

On the other hand you can easily argue UCF’s WR trio of Jaylon Robinson, Marlon Williams, and Tre Nixon (if healthy) is the best in the conference.

No matter what, it’s going to be a chess match at the skill positions and one that should be fun to watch.

I went through all 35 pass attempts (not including sacks/scrambles) from the 2019 match-up to look at how this battle really played out (NOTE: I only included plays outside the red-zone).

Pre-Snap Safety Alignment

One thing that I went back and charted this week that I didn’t last year was the pre-snap safety location.

It produced some interesting results.

22 of the 35 throws UCF attempted came vs. a single high pre-snap look.

On 21 of those 22 throws, the safety lined up to the field side (if the ball was on a hash) or the strong side of the formation (if the ball was in the middle of the field).

Why does this matter?

19 of 21 times, UCF threw away from the safety and had a ton of success doing so.

Those 19 plays produced:

  • 0.315 Expected Points Added/Attempt
  • 58% Success rate
  • 7.47 Yards per Attempt

4 of the 5 incompletions came on throws 25+ yards downfield which were one-on-one deep shots away from the safety help.

Cincy dropped 8 on this play and UCF was able to get a nice gain a quick short throw. Looks like Cincy wanted to drop into some type of Cover-3, but with a such a quick play it’s hard to tell.

With the weak side LB biting on the play action the short flat is left wide open.

10 Personnel/4 WR Looks

UCF was almost 50/50 on attempts out of 4 WR and 3 WR sets last year. The difference in success was very different though.

UCF will only use 4 WR formations with 10 personnel, but I believe Jake Hescock did split out once or twice last season.

Out of 4 WR formations, UCF averaged 0.174 expected points per pass attempt (15 attempts). In contrast, on pass attempts out of 11 personnel, they averaged -0.89 expected points/attempt.

In my opinion, it goes back to what I mentioned before: All 15 pass attempts were against a single high pre-snap look.

I think this gives UCF a major advantage and they can dictate the safety looks from Cincinnati with their personnel and formation usage, at least until the defense adjusts.

This is virtually the same play as the earlier one. Cincy is forced to line up the second safety as a slot corner unless they move the weak side LB out of the box and completely give up the numbers against the run.

The tempo here even forces the safety to be late to get over there and again the Will LB bites on the play fake, leaving the flat wide open for a quick hitter to Otis Anderson.

11 Personnel

Putting a tight end on the field almost plays right into the hands of Cincinnati. It allows them to go two-high pre-snap and run multiple different coverages while keeping the same numbers vs. the run as they do against 4 WR formations.

Out of 11 personnel (one back and one tight end), UCF averaged -0.515 expected points per attempt. On the 13 throws that came vs. a two-high look pre-snap, that dropped to -0.89 EPA/attempt, and UCF only had six completions on those 13 throws.

Here it looks like Cincy ran Cover-1 with a “rat”. You can see the obvious man coverage at the top of the screen and at the bottom of the screen you have the corner running with the WR because the boundary side safety is there to take away the underneath throw to Tre Nixon:

The pick 6, also out of 11 personnel. Cincy was in a cover-3 look and the DB just reads Gabriel and jumps the hitch route:

It felt like Cincy was very aggressive in jumping UCF’s routes when they were broken off. I’ll show a couple of the double moves that worked in a bit.

They’ll run man as well. The safety on the boundary side here is lined up more as a LB only 6 yards off the LOS playing the run. UCF runs Gabe on a slant 1 on 1 and he wins easily. The safety bites hard on the play fake (might be an RPO) and it seems as if DG knew pre-snap this was going to be open. Again throwing away from the field side safety, using play action to bait in the defender covering the short middle area.

Putting a tight end on the field allowed Cincinnati to run multiple different coverages while pretty much using the same pre-snap look.

I believe (but I’m not saying this is true) a lot of UCF’s offense is determined strictly off pre-snap looks and reads, so this gives the Bearcats a major advantage, and that was pretty obvious in their match-up last season.

Cover 3 Blitz

Cincinnati ran seven blitzes vs. UCF last season, and that’s not including the ones that resulted in sacks or scrambles.

Four of them came on 1st and 10 and the other three came on obvious passing situations.

They didn’t use man coverage on any of them:

On these 7 pass attempts, UCF only completed two and averaged -0.38 EPA/Attempt.

The talent of Cincy’s defense, particularly their secondary, allows them to be both aggressive and unpredictable.

But you can take advantage of aggressiveness. Every receiver runs a double move here and the only one who doesn’t bite on it the outside field side CB:

Cincinnati’s defense is extremely good, but UCF’s offense is extremely talented as well. In my opinion, the recipe is there for UCF to attack this defense (again, if Cincy comes out with a similar gameplan): Attack the boundary/weak side and use play action to bait the LB or Safety in a few steps to open up throwing lanes. It’s obviously not that easy, but I believe UCF had a ton of success doing just that last year.

Throwing to the field side creates an almost 35-40 yard throw from hash to sideline even if it is only a 5-yard pass. With safety help to that side, it allows really good corners to be aggressive in coverage.

I’d love to see Otis Anderson used in the slot again, but I doubt that happens because getting your best athlete (tied with Marlon Williams) in space is smart.

4-WR sets with Marlon and Otis in the slot can be very effective, because they’ve proven time and time again that they can break tackles and turn some of these short hitches into bigger gains.

Out of 11 personnel, I feel Jaylon Robinson has to take the Gabe Davis 1-on-1 role to the boundary side. His route running has been terrific, and if he gets the 1-on1 looks like Gabe got in the gif above, he’s going to win and potentially score with his speed.

The ability to do all this is going to obviously depend on protection as well. If Cincy is getting pressure in under 2.5 seconds without blitzing, it’s game over.

Overall, it should be a terrific match-up just with the skill guys for both teams, and it’ll be fun to watch a game that should be more of a chess match than just a talent advantage.