Chess matches of 2020 in the Big 12: Riley lands an uppercut on Patterson

Ian Boyd

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Early in the year in 2020 I noted a route combination which was becoming pretty popular as a way to attack defenses. It's a 3x1 set involving the famous "mills" or dig-post pattern from the two slot receivers to the three receiver side.


TCU in particular had some problems because of their preference for using "stubbie" as their default trips coverage. Stubbie, or "special" in some coaches' lingo, is basically playing cloud/palms/2-read on the no. 2 and no. 3 receivers while just having the outside cornerback take the outside no. 1 receiver in man coverage. The nickel plays like a cornerback, playing the no. 2 slot receiver in man on a vertical route if no. 3 goes deep or inside but coming off to pick up no. 3 if he goes into the flat.

TCU stubbie vs 3x1.jpg

The challenge of this coverage is in this exact assignment, it asks the nickel to be a cornerback on the hash marks playing in a lot of space, with iffy help. This coverage was designed to give the defense the ability to play 3-on-2 vs Y and H, 2-on-1 vs X, and then play 1-on-1 on Z, who's the furthest removed from the quarterback and thus the most difficult receiver to access.

What Big 12 defenses have exploited is the rule which states if Y and H both go vertical, then the free safety picks up Y (or whoever is no. 3) and the nickel/strong safety is left 1-on-1 vs H. So if the Y runs a dig, the free safety is carrying the dig and the strong safety has no post safety help on a post by H. That's a tough assignment for a cornerback, for a strong safety who's chosen to play his role in part for his ability to be a box player against the run from time to time it's almost a non-starter.

Gary Patterson's solutions

In 2020, Gary Patterson had two solutions for this problem. One of them was his 3-2-6 package, which would trade out the defensive tackle for a third deep safety. With three deep safeties the Frogs could avoid asking the strong safety to carry a vertical if they wanted and just let the dime safety and free safety pick up the dig and the post, respectively.

Patterson didn't use that package terribly often though and he had one other solution for when Big 12 offenses would try to create 3x1 formations while maintaining 11/20 personnel packages with a FB/TE "ancillary" on the field rather than a fourth vertical receiving threat. Nub trips is one of the more popular formations in football, it's the college equivalent of the NFL's "Y-iso."

In Y-iso, you play 3x1 with the tight end to the single receiver side. The defense is then in a pickle as to how they match up, assuming the tight end is a good receiver. Do they try and play a smaller cornerback on him? Or get wonky themselves and play a safety or a linebacker across from them? Do they send help against the tight end? If so how do they ensure they have numbers to match up against the trips receiver side?

Nub trips is designed to create a similar effect but with the threat of run blocking to the single side behind the ancillary. Does the defense play the corner there and risk getting run on? Or slide him over and leave the safety there?

When Patterson faced either nub trips OR Y-iso, he'd still play his preferred "stubbie" coverage but would move the cornerback to strong safety, bump the strong safety to linebacker, and bump out one of the linebackers like this:

TCU vs OU nub trips.jpg

The Sooners could still potentially get H on the cornerback without safety help over the top, but it's a cornerback in the role now rather than the strong safety. Patterson went to this solution throughout the year to clamp down on opposing efforts to get after his secondary. It was highly effective, field cornerback Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson proved to be one of the best cornerbacks in the Big 12 and it was impossible to attack him efficiently as the field side cornerback in man coverage.

Lincoln Riley lands the uppercut

There are still two problems with Patterson's corner-over coverage. One is what happens if the offense flexes the tight end out to play as one of the two field slot receivers. You can't play the corner over and bail out the strong safety in such an instance, he still has to be able to hold up.

Lincoln Riley noticed another opening though.


The Frogs are playing cover 2 on the boundary so the linebacker gets to behave like a linebacker and not like a cornerback. He's playing the C-gap and the flat, so when the tight end goes vertical he leaves him for the weak safety. But then when the running back goes on a wheel route? That's all him...and he's not quite up for it but there's no one left to help him.

Later on, Riley went to a version of the other solution.


It's a hard knock life for Big 12 defensive coordinators. Riley knew the coverage, knew what matchups he was getting, so he flexed out the fullback in a 21 personnel package to create "nub trips" and the accompanying Patterson counter. Then he brought the fullback in to help chip block for play-action and had the H receiver Marvin Mims run a corner route 1-on-1 against the cornerback (Keeyon Stewart) who'd been sent over.

OU corner route vs TCU corner over.jpg

That was basically all she wrote for this one, although Mims added a long punt return to tack on an extra field goal. The TCU offense was capable of getting into a shootout with Oklahoma in 2020, with these two plays the Sooners went a long way to putting this one out of reach.

Looking ahead to 2021, I'm curious how Patterson will adjust. This coverage simply doesn't work terribly well anymore against the combinations offenses know to throw at it. Particularly given how Patterson tends to choose his strong safeties, he's not playing a nickel corner there but a legitimate safety who can mix it up in the run game.

He could mix in some stress coverage, where the strong safety plays zone and the field corner bails to a deep zone so you have two deep zone defenders rather than one, but it's not really their style. Also, if Noah Daniels is back healthy next season the Frogs will have two of the better man-cover cornerbacks in the country. The other solution would be playing "solo" or "poach" in which you leave the backside corner in man without help and shade the weak safety to rob the dig route, freeing up the free safety to stay on the post. This is how Chris Ash played quarters last year at Texas, it could work for the Frogs as well but presumably Patterson has his reasons for not already relying on it.

At any rate, Patterson's battles with Riley have continued to go poorly for TCU since the OU coach joined the conference in 2015. I imagine Patterson will be extremely eager to deal him a L before he finally retires, whenever that may be, and this next season will be one of his best chances to do so with loaded roster of his own.
 

sherf1

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Really good stuff.

I'm increasingly thinking using the outside corners in more of a bail out deep zone is a necessary change up in some of these back and forths. It's too easy for offenses to clear out that space with an out or curl and then attack behind it. Obviously if you employ this approach all the time you're going to give up easy stuff underneath, so it's more of a counter when you think a shot play would be coming.
 
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Ian Boyd

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Really good stuff.

I'm increasingly thinking using the outside corners in more of a bail out deep zone is a necessary change up in some of these back and forths. It's too easy for offenses to clear out that space with an out or curl and then attack behind it. Obviously if you employ this approach all the time you're going to give up easy stuff underneath, so it's more of a counter when you think a shot play would be coming.
You and PK will probably get along well.
 
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stilesbbq

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Wondering how Gary seems to mystify Texas while Lincoln kicks his ass every year