In preparation for Lincoln Riley’s first season as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator, I’m going to review a couple of East Carolina’s games from 2014. The objective is to develop a profile of Riley from the ground up based on how his offenses responded in different scenarios.
ECU scored touchdowns on three of its first four possessions to grab a 21-0 lead. The Hokies clawed back to tie the game with under two minutes left in the contest. The Pirates marched down the field on their final possession, with quarterback Shane Carden carrying the ball for the game-winning score with less than a minute to play.
The Pirates produced a number of big plays in the passing game that proved to be the difference. Adjusting for sacks, ECU threw for 397 yards on 23 completions out of 51 dropbacks (nearly 8 yards per passing play).
What did ECU’s offense look like?
ECU lined up in the shotgun or pistol on 75 of 76 offensive snaps. The Pirates used 10 personnel (one running back, four wide receivers) on about 50 of their plays. Riley’s second-favorite personnel grouping was 20, with two RBs flanking the QB and three WRs split out. Riley sprinkled in a few five-wide looks and a handful of plays with tight end Bryce Williams.
What was Tech doing on defense?
Virginia Tech made its intentions clear on defense from the start, and the Hokies didn’t deviate the entire game. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster generally played Cover 1 or Cover 0 and threw man blitzes at the Pirates. That put his cornerbacks on islands against the Pirates’ talented receivers.
The strategy worked in a number of ways. ECU’s offensive line struggled the entire game to get Tech blocked. The Hokies stopped ECU for three yards or fewer on the majority of the Pirates’ running plays. Tech’s rushers consistently hit Carden on dropbacks, too, notching 4 sacks in the process.
How did ECU’s offense attack?
The Pirates were flat gunning, throwing on about 70 percent of downs. The ECU offensive line’s aforementioned inability to block Tech essentially turned the Pirates' running game into a change-of-pace option to keep the Hokies off-guard.
Riley clearly set out to use the Hokies’ aggressiveness against them. His strategy paid off in the form of explosive plays off of vertical routes against single coverage. In particular, outside receiver Cam Worthy (6-3, 220) used his size advantage to have his way with Tech’s much smaller corners. Worthy ended the game with 6 receptions for 224 yards (37.3 yards per catch), representing easily his biggest game of the year.
Let's have a quick look at three different examples to get an idea of what Riley was up to.
In the sequence above, Riley has ECU lined up in 10 personnel with a 2x2 set (two split receivers on both the right and left sides of the field). Tech plays Cover 1 and brings five rushers at the snap, with a sixth coming on a delayed blitz from the middle linebacker position. The Hokie corners are pressing the Pirate receivers, except for Brandon Facyson (No. 31), who’s giving Worthy (No. 9) a 10-yard cushion at the top of the screen.
While the outside receivers run go routes, both inside receivers stay toward the middle of the field on relatively short patterns. Worthy hauls in a 47-yard bomb from Carden, as free safety Detrick Bonner arrives a beat too late to break up the throw.
The keys to making this play work are simply Carden recognizing all the open grass behind Facyson and then utilizing Worthy’s height advantage over the 5-11 cover man.
Later in the half, ECU victimizes Tech’s other corner, 5-11 Donovan Riley (No. 2), with a deep ball to Worthy.
In this instance, the Hokies initially show Cover 1. Before the snap, nickelback Chuck Clark (No. 19) leaves his man in the slot on the left side of the formation, Isaiah Jones (No. 7) to blitz Carden. The deep safety replaces Clark in man coverage on Jones, leaving Tech in Cover 0. Here's what Carden sees after the snap:
No help for for the cover men.
Again, Carden unloads one to Worthy for a 36-yard gain. With a better throw, that's six.
Worthy didn’t do all of his damage downfield, though.
On this play, the Pirates line up in a 2x2 formation, while Tech shows Cover 1. The Hokies blitz both interior linebackers up the middle, which clears out the middle of the field – Carden should be able to see open grass right away.
Lined up as an inside receiver on the left side of the line, Worthy gets an inside step off the line on corner Kendall Fuller (No. 11) and runs a dig route.
Tech rover Kyshoen Jarrett (No. 34) is playing middle safety and actually gets a good break on the throw from Carden, but it’s not good enough. Worthy secures the catch on the run and takes the ball down to Tech's 1 yard line.
Riley didn't do anything revolutionary in this game. I didn't notice any fancy wrinkles or gimmicks. Instead, I decided to write about this particular game because I felt the offensive game plan demonstrated both his aggressiveness and his ability to find ways to exploit the opportunities presented by an opponent.
Against Tech, Riley clearly saw an opening to beat the Hokies downfield. Twelve of ECU’s 47 passes in the game went at least 20 yards. The Pirates completed six for 214 yards, a little more than 40 percent of their total offense for the contest
ECU’s offensive success flowed from that ability to stretch out Tech’s defense. Forcing the Hokies to respect the deep ball gave Carden and his wideouts some breathing room on shorter routes and mitigated VT's pass rush. Meanwhile, even though Air Raid skeptics might bemoan the heavy run-pass imbalance, Riley mixed in enough draws and inside run calls to take advantage of an opponent that was whipping his offensive line at the point of attack.
Overall, the most encouraging thing to take from this game might not be the execution from play to play, but rather how Riley appeared to implement a cohesive blueprint to upset a team that was undoubtedly more talented. As Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator, he won’t face many situations where he is outgunned to the extent his squad was here. That should frighten opposing coaches this year.