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No, Virginia, It's Not Time to Scrap the No-Huddle

I liked Fight for Iowa, and I read High Porch Picnic every day, and I generally think F4I is a well-reasoned blogger.  But this post from yesterday saying the no-huddle needs to go?  Well, we need to address this.  Let's start from the top.

This is may be an overreaction considering it was one game, on the road, against a very good Penn State defense...

You're right.  Stop.  Just stop right there.  This game was against one of the nation's best defenses (#4 in scoring defense after this week) on the road in front of 109,000 partisans.  Don't overreact.  Do not overreact...

...but I've seen enough of the no-huddle that I think it needs to go.

Sigh.  You've seen two quarters of almost-exclusive no huddle (one against the aforementioned #4 national scoring defense) and another handful of what could liberally be classified as no huddle offense.  Unless you're counting what you saw from Pitt, ISU, Tennessee Tech, and ULM, you've seen exactly two quarters more no huddle than Ray Charles, and Ray Charles is both blind and dead. Why, no, this doesn't seem like an overreaction at all.

Not scrap it completely, because it's obviously needed in certain situations like when you're down by 17 in the fourth quarter, but scrap it as part of the base game plan.

I'm saving this for later, like Vince Gilligan and his pink teddy bear with the eye missing in the swimming pool.

Kirk Ferentz was asked about the offense having an identity crisis following the game on Saturday. While Ferentz thought the word crisis was too strong, I don't. The team looked like it was running two completely different offenses against Penn State. There was a no-huddle, 3-wide shotgun look and then the standard huddle, under center, run the ball behind the fullback and tight ends look.

This is true.  These are called offensive formations.  Some are used for throwing the ball.  Some are used for running the ball.  Some are used for both.  And if every team that uses both a three-wide shotgun and a two-TE jumbo I in its offense has an identity crisis, then the entirety of college and pro football is suffering from schizophrenia.

Also, this has nothing to do with the no-huddle.  A no-huddle offense can be run from any formation.  Just ask every no-huddle offense ever.

The two separate styles do not complement one another. A good running play by Coker from the I-formation does nothing to help open the 3-wide passing game from shotgun...and vice versa.

This has a sliver of truth to it, mostly due to how Penn State played Iowa and how Iowa was too dumb to take advantage of it.  Iowa used three or more wideouts on 29 plays last Saturday.  On 27 of those 29 plays, Penn State combated Iowa's formation with a 4-2-5 defense.  On the two plays where PSU didn't get its nickle in place, Vandenberg was 2-for-2 for 32 yards.  Iowa didn't take advantage of the no-huddle hurry-up pace, though, to change out formations (as they had against ULM two weeks before), so Penn State was able to stay in its nickle package without consequence.  Iowa could have used multiple formations and no-huddle to get Penn State out of its comfort zone and failed to do so.  Instead, it stayed in base personnel packages in no-huddle and only changed formations with a huddle, giving PSU time to react.

Of course, this again has nothing to do with the no huddle.  If your claim is that Iowa ran predictable plays based on formation, you are correct.  But they ran those predictable plays regardless of whether they were in the no-huddle or not.  Iowa ran its no-huddle from basically one formation last Saturday, but even when they ran from multiple formations and personnel packages from the huddle, playcalling was predictable based on formation.

Maybe if Iowa ran the ball out of the gun once in a while (which it did not do a single time Saturday other than Vandenberg's scrambles) it would at least keep the defense a little honest. Or they could try throwing the ball with a little play action to help set it up. Iowa used play action just twice. They were back-to-back plays...the first was a scramble by Vandenberg for 9 yards and the second was a short pass to Derby. So yeah, really just one pass off play action. That is utterly ridiculous. I can't remember a time when Iowa has ever used so little play action in a game.

Play action has been the bread and butter and really the whole damn meal for the Iowa passing game for years. I highly doubt James Vandenberg is incapable of throwing to open receivers who had their defender bite on the run.

Silly boy.  We don't run from the gun because our halfback isn't built for it and the others have been AIRBHG'd.  We could use Jordan Canzeri, except Canzeri can't block, so teams would know he's getting the ball the moment he entered the game.  As long as it's Coker or a fullback next to Vandenberg in the gun, there will be no running.  And everyone knows this (which F4I acknowledges).

As for play action, I honestly believe Vandenberg has no idea how to execute an effective play fake and roll out.  There was a pair of plays in the fourth quarter which convinced me of this.  Iowa had run from 2TE formations all day, and had attempted exactly one pass (which actually became a scramble for 11 yards).  Penn State had resorted to putting four linemen, three linebackers, a safety, and a corner in the box when Iowa went jumbo.  On the first play of the fourth quarter, Coker ran for 4 yards into a stacked line.  On second down, from the same formation, PSU again put nine up front.  The entire left side of the field was uncovered.  A play action pass could go for 60 yards.  Instead, Vandenberg took a three-step drop without a play fake and tried to hit Davis (IIRC) on a comeback route on the right sideline.  The drop, the length of the pass, and Vandenberg's mediocre arm strength gave PSU all the time it needed to adjust, and the pass was batted away by the corner.  

If the playcalling is as predictable based on formation as we think, there shouldn't even be a pass in the playbook from 2TE that doesn't include play action.  Not only does it exist, but it actually was used, and it has to be because there's no faith in Vandenberg's ability to run it.  Vandenberg came from a five-wide shotgun spread system in high school, and I suppose it's possible that his footwork is so bad or his fake is so unbelievable (in the bad sense) that he simply can't run play action.  It's the only explanation.

Of course, again, none of this has anything to do with the no-huddle.  It's not as if there is a prohibition against play fakes in a no-huddle, as much as Norm Parker might want it.

Here's where things get good:

The huddle up, under center offense was better than the no-huddle offense on Saturday
When Iowa huddled up and went under center the team was balanced and effective. The only scoring drive of the day mixed it up with 5 run calls and 6 passes (1 pass play Vandenberg scrambled). It also feature the only play action plays. Iowa went to shotgun only twice on that drive, both times on third down and huddled on every play.

Yes, it is true that Iowa had one scoring drive where they ran from the huddle.  If we're talking about sustained drives, though, this is more than a little misleading.  Iowa had three drives cover more than 40 yards on Saturday; those were also the only three drives where Iowa entered Penn State territory.  Two of those three drives were based on the no-huddle offense.  In fact, the first drive of the game moved into PSU territory on the no-huddle alone, only to sputter to a halt when Iowa decided to go back to the huddle and let the Lions regroup (the first of two moronic coaching decisions on that drive, the other being a PUNT FROM THE THIRTY-THREE.  A PUNT FROM THE FUCKING THIRTY-THREE ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?).  The other four Iowa drives with the huddle-up offense covered a grand total of 49 yards, never crossed the 50, and ended in two punts, an interception, and the end of the half.

The balanced attack at least kept Penn State's defense honest. In the no-huddle the plays were telegraphed. Under center meant Iowa was going to run and shotgun meant pass. 

Again, Penn State played quite literally every play against the Iowa no-huddle in nickle.  They didn't move a safety into the box against that formation once.  Under center, shotgun, pistol, AK-47 assault rifle, the location of the quarterback did not matter in the least.  Iowa just sucks at running the ball this year.

This allowed PSU to sell out on the run/pass accordingly.  A perfect example was a 2nd-and-1 in the third quarter when Iowa was in no-huddle mode. Iowa lined up in its standard no-huddle run formation (3-wide, single back, under center) and tried to run left with Coker who was stuffed in the backfield but pushed his way forward for no gain.


This is the pre-snap formation on the run in question.  Note how Penn State has "sold out" against the run due to Iowa's decision to put Vandenberg under center:


That's a 4-2-5 nickle defense with every defensive back at least eight yards from the line of scrimmage.  Tom Bradley had pushed triangle-up on the controller, mostly because every coach in the world with Iowa's collection of receivers would take second and 1 as a chance to go downfield.  On a second and 1 with a run called, it doesn't look any better than that.  This is PSU "selling out" against the run by putting six in the box.  Right.

Here's what actually happened on this play:


Ole!  Turns out Zach Derby wasn't very good at football on this play and Marcus Coker can't outrun defensive ends to the corner (and shouldn't be asked to).  This was not a byproduct of the no-huddle.  This was a byproduct of not being a good running team.

In all when huddling Iowa ran 40 plays for 165 yards. Out of the no-huddle Iowa ran 24 plays for 88 yards.

My numbers came out a little different from F4I, but let's use his facts.  Iowa's offense averaged a whole 0.4 yard per play more from the huddle than it did from the no-huddle.  Four tenths of a yard on averages that aren't sustainable in any circumstance.

While we're here, let's talk circumstances, because the statistics used by F4I are misleading due to the circumstances where the no-huddle offense was used.  Iowa played no-huddle in two series, both of which netted more than 40 yards and crossed midfield.  It then went back to the no-huddle after Penn State had gone ahead by 10 in the fourth quarter, effectively making Iowa a passing team for the rest of the game. Here's the breakdown in fourth-quarter plays and yards for each offense and play type:

Play Type Plays Yards YPP
Huddle Pass 8 14 1.75
Huddle Run 2 7 3.5
No-Huddle Pass 9 23 2.56
No-Huddle Run 0 0 N/A

As you can see, Iowa's offense was a mess in the fourth quarter.  This was where PSU turned up the blitz and dropped their zone deep, Iowa inexplicably countered with seven-step drops (or their shotgun equivalent) despite the fact that the PSU linebackers were playing the cover 3 version of Tampa 2, and Vandenberg got killed to death.  There was no screen game, no max protect, no exploitation of the soft zone from five to ten yards past the line of scrimmage.  These numbers are under duress with inexplicable playcalling going directly at PSU's strengths, and they are awful as a result.  The no-huddle pass was better by 0.8 yards per play (according to F4I's logic from the quote above, a statistically significant level), but everything was terrible.  

This is where I bring back the pink teddy bear.  Keeping the no-huddle for fourth quarter situational purposes gets you results like this, especially when it's the "New England spread" style of offense where your quarterback needs three or four seconds upright and unmolested for receivers to complete their routes downfield.  This is the only offense we know, of course, because WOO NEW ENGLAND, so when blitz pickup isn't stressed (and, against PSU, we didn't even leave an extra blocker in the backfield on most plays despite their repeated blitzing) it doesn't work.  The fourth quarter no huddle is a function of your passing game's general success, because you really are one dimensional at that point.  The everyday no huddle does not (or at least should not) have those concerns.

This abject failure in the fourth also shreds the "Iowa's offense from the huddle is so much more effective" argument from earlier.  To show how that skews the statistics employed by Mr. For Iowa, let's look at the numbers with those fourth quarter totals removed:

Play Type Plays Yards YPP
Huddle Pass 19 93 4.89
Huddle Run 13 56 4.31
No-Huddle Pass 10 47 4.70
No-Huddle Run 3 5 1.67

The no-huddle system used by Iowa against Penn State basically ignored the running game (again, for personnel reasons), but the passing game is nearly identical.  In other words, the no-huddle worked exponentially better against Pitt, was greater than or equal to the huddle against ULM (grain of salt), and a statistical equal to the huddle against Penn State when it wasn't reduced to chucking bombs.  And we're supposed to get rid of this?

Personnel and formations may have something to do with it

Iowa went 3-wide 75% of the time. The other 25% was an equal mix of 12, 21, and 22 personnel packages. That's not surprising. The no-huddle was exclusively 3-wide and with Iowa's lack of production at tight end fullback, it's probably best to leave a third receiver on the field quite a bit.

Actually, the no-huddle also used four- and five-wide formations, but that's nitpicking.  Iowa should have run the no-huddle out of multiple formations.  This is a valid concern.  It is not in itself a reason to scrap the only thing that has worked on offense all season, though.

However, though used only a quarter of the time, those heavier formations accounted for nearly a third of Iowa's total offense. The formations with a fullback were more effective largely because Marcus Coker was significantly better when he had a fullback in as a lead blocker and averaged about an extra two and half yards per carry.

This is unquestionably true.  When given a lead blocker to show him the way, Marcus Coker transforms into a really effective halfback.  He's more decisive at the point of attack and hits the hole with much more speed, likely in no small part due to the easy decision-making the lead blocker allows for Coker.  Instead of moonwalking behind the line waiting for a hole, the hole is where the guy in front of him goes, so Coker just goes where his fullback goes.  I'd say we could do our halfback a favor and maybe run some non-zone running plays with defined holes every once in a while, but why would we ever do what Wisconsin does?  Philosophy is important to avoid having an existential offensive identity crisis.

Last couple of points
One - It seem kind of ridiculous to me that people are complaining about uninventive play calling then saying we need more no-huddle. The no-huddle is less inventive than Iowa's regular offense. There are only ten or so plays that Iowa uses in its no-huddle system. They use the same personnel on every play and there just 2 formations they use. Ten plays do not make an offense. Ten plays are easy for a defense to prepare for. The standard huddle stuff Iowa does is much more versatile.

Even if this is true (and, while it was in part true for PSU, it wasn't when Iowa rolled out the no-huddle against ULM and Pitt), it is not the basis for scrapping the offense.  As far as I can tell, F4I's main point is that the three-wide set is predictable and not versatile, and since we only run a three-wide set in the no huddle, we should scrap the no huddle because it's costing us games where we could be picking up a whole 4.1 yards per play in our old huddle offense.  There's a gaping hole in the logic here.  The no huddle is not just fixable; in fact, it's already been fixed, in a sense, in that Iowa ran it from multiple formations two weeks ago.  This is unimaginative playcalling, yes, but it's unimaginative in that the coaches have ignored the benefits of the spread.  For that, let's go to point 2:

Two - As Norm Parker laid out in during the bye week the main advantage to running a no-huddle offense in college is that there isn't a rule that requires to offense to allow the defense to make substitutions following an offensive substitution. That is a pretty big advantage. You can go from a 2-TE jumbo set to 5-wide and if you do it fast enough the defense won't have time to change personnel. The thing is...Iowa doesn't take advantage of that rule. There were only 3 times I saw a substitute players during the no-huddle...Herman came in for Derby one, Jason White replaced Coker when Iowa showed a 5-wide look, and Rogers replaced Coker on a couple of third downs to block. There's no real need for a defense to substitute in any of those situations. I'd probably just run a nickel package against Iowa's no-huddle because it's going to be the same personnel every play (3 WR, 1 TE, and 1 RB).

YES.  YES.  YES YOU MAGNIFICENT BASTARD YES.  The key is in being multiple in the no-huddle, something (again, I know) Iowa has done.  We have a quarterback who can control a no-huddle offense.  We have a variety of personnel to plug into this system.  We allegedly have a mastermind offensive coordinator.  We even have a coach who got out of his own way for long enough to let a no-huddle offense win him a game he should have lost and move into field goal range in the opening drive Saturday before his old dog instincts kicked in.  So let's advocate we take advantage of it.

Iowa's offense has been a dumpster fire for almost a decade now.  We've been in the top half of the conference once since 2003, and that was with a Doak Walker-winner in the backfield driving us to...fourth in the Big Ten.  I am not willing to go back to that, or at least not yet.  We might get blitzed to death (though, seriously, we shouldn't have much trouble preparing for that now that we've seen it; Bradley did something we didn't expect and we failed to adjust that morning, but we can adjust this week).  We might abandon the running game (with its current effectiveness, abandonment might be warranted).  But the simple fact is that it's not as if the other offense is working or has worked since Drew Tate was sneaking into The Union.  

Ferentz and KOK found a way to take a vertical passing game and drive it into the ground last season.  They can probably find a way to kill this, too.  But I'm going to make them show me it's dead before I give in, and it takes a remarkably small view of recent Iowa football history to think otherwise.