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What To Expect from UCF’s Offense Under Gus Malzahn, Part II: The Passing Game

Breaking down how UCF’s offensive looks will change under their new head coach

Cincinnati v Central Florida
Dillon Gabriel
Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

In Part II of our breakdown of Gus Malzahn’s offense, we examine the passing game. If you’d like to see Part I on the running game, please click here.

Let’s pick up with how Gus attacks defenses through the air:

The Passing Game

If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written or follow me on Twitter, you’re probably shocked I was able to write 1000+ words on the run game and also put it before the passing game!

Well, the reasoning is Gus Malzahn has shown with his splits that he’s not a 100% run-first guy in terms of play calling, and that it’s all based on personnel. But most importantly, so much of his pass game is based on selling the run.

My favorite coach to watch is probably the old Tulane offensive coordinator Will Hall, who just left for Southern Miss to be their head coach. In an interview with a Mississippi radio station, Hall had a great quote that stuck out to me:

“A lot of people think balance is throwing it and running it the exact same amount of times. I don’t think that’s right at all. I think balance is being able to do what you want to do, when you want to do it.”

When skimming through some of Gus Malzahn’s games, this stuck out to me, because he makes the run and pass look so similar most of the time, and that allows you to control what you do depending on how the defense wants to play you.

Here are Auburn’s pass EPA numbers from 2017 on:

  • 2017: 0.064 EPA/Pass (43rd)
  • 2018: 0.069 EPA/Pass (48th)
  • 2019: -0.011 EPA/Pass (80th)
  • 2020: 0.048 EPA/Pass (59th)

Again, not pretty, but not awful. And nothing that I would say is a concern. If Gus was coming to UCF with high-powered offensive numbers the last few years, the world would be upside down.

@Pff_Seth was nice enough to tweet this heat map out. This is all routes for all players, so not just passing locations. It’s fun to see just how much different the space utilization is. They are almost exactly opposite (2020 Heupel on left, 2020 Malzahn on right):

Comparison heat map of passes by field area between UCF (L) and Auburn (R) in 2020
Image: @PFF_Seth

Now, neither of these is better than the other — it’s just fun to look at. Heupel got one-on-ones to the sidelines all day long and that’s a really good thing. He put up a ton of points that way. It’s just that the one or two defenses that game-planned against it made you want to put your head through the wall.

But looking at this and seeing the red in the middle of the field as an auto-upgrade would be the wrong thing to do.

Let’s look at why I love what Malzahn does by selling the run on passes:

Play Action HB Boundary Wheel

I came across this concept a few times, and as a big fan of HB wheel routes, they jumped out to me.

This is my favorite play that I’m going to include so it has to be first: 3rd and 1, and Auburn runs a QB power play action fake with Jarrett Stidham. As I said, the QB’s legs will be vital no matter who it is.

They send the HB on a wheel route to the boundary and run the two WR’s on that side of the field on drag routes across the middle, essentially to set a pick on the LB, who is already a step behind the RB because he bit on the QB Power:

Here’s another RB Wheel into the boundary. This time, they motion in a second back and run a hard play action, again pulling the guard to sell the run. The X receiver clears the sideline and the RB just sneaks out:

Power Play Action/RPO

It seems like so much of the play action pass game is based off power or some variation of a pulling lineman, because I’m probably wrong in thinking everything is power, and there may be a pin and pull involved or something else along those lines.

However, I think it’s a great concept because it sells the run a bit more than just a play fake, especially when you’re running out of the shotgun.

Here’s the same play action as the second boundary wheel play. This time, the two field side WR’s are bunched up, and just run a simple switch concept to get wide open in the middle of the field.

This next play is just nasty. There is so much “run” going on at the LOS to hold the safety, and they just throw a deep post down the seam right behind him with a deep dig route coming underneath.

You’re also going to get a lot of RPO’s. Here’s a Power RPO with a frontside glance to the slot. It’s so hard to defend when everything is a true threat like it should be at UCF in 2021.

I showed you the Statue of Liberty before, so of course I have to show the pass they ran off of it later on. There just seems to be multiple plays off of every concept Malzahn has.

Screen Passes

This play deserved its own section. I’m not exactly sure what you consider this formation, but Gus will line up guys in formations you probably haven’t seen before.

Here, they run a jet sweep fake with everything going to the right, and roll out the QB to the right and then leak out Kerryon Johnson to the left for a 55-yard TD to seal the game against #1 Georgia.

This reminds me of an Andy Reid screen design, and that is always a good thing:

And of course, you’re going to get the Power RPO with a bubble screen attached. It’s a stacked look and it’s two-on-one to the field side. This is just an extension of the run, really:

Overall, in Gus Malzahn, the UCF Knights got one of the best play designers in college football. He’s had a ton of success at a very high level and there’s a reason for that. The numbers at Auburn aren’t very attractive recently, but also not exactly horrible. In my opinion, he probably shouldn’t have been fired in the first place

With the late departure of Josh Heupel, to get a coach with this much experience — and also one who also shouldn’t of been fired for performance reasons — is a crazy success.

As I’ve mentioned, I think his scheme can really thrive at UCF and in The American, just like Scott Frost’s did. It should be fun to watch Dillon Gabriel improvise a little more and just play football, and I personally think he might gain the most from this move.

The offensive numbers might not be as “cool” as Heupel’s, but volume stats really don’t mean much. UCF had a way better EPA/Play in Frost’s final season than under Heupel, despite not necessarily having anywhere close to the amount of total yards.

It’s hard not to look at Malzahn’s play design and think it doesn’t fit hand in hand with UCF and the personnel they have.

All EPA numbers and rush rate numbers from