Breakdown: Why KU's Wildcat formation didn't work against South Dakota


For this blog, I have consulted a Div. II offensive assistant coach, someone we'll just call "Coach."

Following Kansas' 31-14 victory over South Dakota, I heard many Jayhawk fans suggest that coach Charlie Weis should ditch the Wildcat (or Jayhawk) formation altogether.

I wanted to ask our expert "Coach" to see what he thought. Below are three of KU's unsuccessful Wildcat plays from Saturday's game.

After watching the clips, Coach says KU has different issues on each of the three plays.

On the first play, KU actually has a numbers advantage if you look before the snap. KU has five blockers on the left side of the line to take care of five South Dakota defenders: two linemen, two linebackers and a safety.

Coach says KU is trying to execute a "pin-and-pull" technique here. The two tight ends (Trent Smiley and Jimmay Mundine) have the objective of "pinning" the South Dakota players in front of them back to the inside. KU's left tackle (Aslam Sterling) and left guard (Ngalu Fusimalohi) then "pull" around the outside to block, along with Tony Pierson out of the backfield.

Pin and pull

Pin and pull by Jesse Newell

So where is the breakdown? As the red arrows show above, USD's linebacker and defensive tackle stunt on the play, in essence looping around each other to confuse the offense.

With this extra movement, Mundine — the inside tight end (yellow line) — misses his pin block completely.

Instead of three on three, it's now USD with a four-to-three numbers advantage toward the bottom of the screen.

4 on 3.

4 on 3. by Jesse Newell

Though the linebacker that got by Mundine doesn't make the tackle, he does force the left guard Fusimalohi to block him (blue circle above). That leaves a second USD linebacker unblocked and unimpeded, and he's able to pull down Matthews.

Coach says the Mundine missed block is the key to the play. If he's able to seal his man — or if he and Smiley communicate better on the fly and switch their assignments to block the two stunting USD players — then Matthews likely scores a touchdown. Instead, he's dragged down at the 5.

The second play actually is a different play from the Wildcat formation, with Coach diagnosing it as a double-option. Here, Matthews can either run it himself or pitch to Tony Pierson behind him.

Double option

Double option by Jesse Newell

Once again, KU appears to have a numbers advantage. With good KU blocking, South Dakota is left with one linebacker to defend both Matthews and Pierson.

Coach says Matthews job here is to attack the linebacker's outside shoulder to make him commit. If the defender shades toward the outside, Matthews should cut inside and run past him. If the defender commits to Matthews, he should pitch it to Pierson, who then would have lots of running room.

Matthews' attack point.

Matthews' attack point. by Jesse Newell

There's one problem, though: As you can see from the picture above, Pierson is in no position to accept a pitch. Coach labels this as "bad pitch relationship," saying Pierson should be further back and toward the sideline to make himself an option for Matthews.

He never makes it there. With no other options, Matthews is forced to turn upfield right into the linebacker, who makes the open-field tackle.

Coach says Pierson's positioning isn't necessarily his fault. Remember where he was to start the play?


Alignment by Jesse Newell

Pierson is aligned on Matthews' right when the play is going left, meaning he will really have to hustle to get in proper position on the other side of Matthews.

Coach says KU can do a few things to help him. Many times, teams will motion that back presnap to the left side, which gives him a bit of a head start. KU also could run this play out of the Pistol formation, which would put Pierson directly behind Matthews instead of to his right.

Coach also says a lot of times on these types of plays, the quarterback will catch the snap then take a step back, which allows the back to get an extra step to the outside.

Though these might be tweaks for a future game, they don't happen here, and the result is no gain.

Coach says there's little KU can do to prevent the third play from being a failure.

Corner blitz

Corner blitz by Jesse Newell

The Coyotes have seen enough of Matthews to realize he's not much of a threat to pass, so they send a corner blitz. Though receiver Josh Ford at the bottom is supposed to block the corner, he can only watch as his man runs right by.

This is a read-option play, so Matthews is reading the outside defensive end, whom KU leaves unblocked on purpose. That end immediately crashes towards running back James Sims, and Matthews makes the correct read to keep the ball.

End crashes.

End crashes. by Jesse Newell

It doesn't make a difference, though, as the cornerback has a running head start and immediately is there to wrap up Matthews for no gain.

Notice at the bottom of the screen that because of its blitz, South Dakota has rolled a safety to cover KU's No. 1 receiver Josh Ford with minimal help deep. If Ford were to run a vertical or out route, he'd basically be going one-on-one against a safety — a huge mismatch in football terms.

Basically, South Dakota is daring Matthews to throw it, and Weis' next step could be calling for Matthews to heave a pass. Doing that not only would take advantage of the mismatch, but it also might prevent run blitzes like this in the future.

Though KU didn't have much success with its Wildcat plays Saturday, Coach says it's not time to ditch the formation. Having this package on tape — if nothing else — makes KU more unpredictable and a tougher scout for opposing defensive coordinators.

"It’s easy to give up on things real quick," Coach said, "but I would say the problems they had are very minimal problems, and they’re easily fixed."


Bville Hawk 8 years, 9 months ago

Always enjoy these breakdowns, Jesse. Thanks!

Phoggy_Notion 8 years, 9 months ago

espn 3 often shows replays of the games that they broadcast.

Dirk Medema 8 years, 9 months ago

The replay was available Saturday evening/night. They're usually a few hours after the game is finished.

VaJay 8 years, 9 months ago

One of the key things Jesse pointed out is what I was thinking all last season - we NEVER throw out of the wildcat formation. If we did ONE play action & throw the ball deep (or at least 10 yds!) that would make the defense less likely to stack their formation on the line or do run blitzes. And heck, the play might even work... C'mon coach - please try that!!

rtwngr 8 years, 9 months ago

Dude! Don't beg. Not an admirable quality.

Boouk 8 years, 9 months ago

I'm surprised Weis unveiled this before the Rice game. If I'm Weis, I'd see if Heaps has enough mobility to take Matthews place so the defense must respect the pass as well the QB run and the pitch to the RB.

Jeremy Hays 8 years, 9 months ago

Well, I'm betting that they are trying to save him for as much of the season as possible. As much as we want him to be 5 Star player not just 5 Star potential, he is a pro style QB not a runner. If he goes out and starts running a lot of read option and gets hurt then we are definitely back to where we started from last year!!!

Boouk 8 years, 9 months ago

Adding the threat of the pass out of the wildcat/jayhawk formation makes it way tougher to defend than it already is. If Heaps is about to get hit, he can pitch it to a RB or throw it downfield.

Dirk Medema 8 years, 9 months ago

He still gets hit, and is that much more likely to be injured, with minimal back-up.

texashawk10 8 years, 9 months ago

KU ran this formation a lot last season so it's not like it was a big shock to see it. I would agree it would've been a waste to run it if KU hadn't done it last year, but since there was already game film of KU in this formation, it wasn't a huge deal to run it against USD.

VaJay 8 years, 9 months ago

On a scale of (1 to 10) inspiring fear in a defense if he runs out of a wildcat formation Matthews is an 8. Heaps is a 2.

Boouk 8 years, 9 months ago

On a scale of (1 to 10) inspiring fear in the defense in passing out of the wildcat formation Matthews is a 0. Heaps is an 8.

Randy Bombardier 8 years, 9 months ago

Why not Cummings? That way, one really doesn't know. If you see Heaps out there you are going to assume it is not a QB keeper. Otherwise he'd get all beat up.

Ron Prichard 8 years, 9 months ago

I think Weis was purposely setting this up for the Rice game (and later games). He ran the Jayhawk three times and was predictable each time. If Weis is the offensive genius everyone thinks, then he clearly has seen and knows what Jesse's coach sees and knows. Don't forget that Matthews was once a QB. He should be able to throw it with at least some accuracy. Set it up again with a run against Rice and then just wait for the blitz. Pass over the top or into the flat and look for a big play. Or, at the very least, look for more misdirection out of the Jayhawk formation. Maybe a reverse or a cross play. I think the offense we see against Rice will be much, much more deceptive and innovative than what we saw in week one.

Jesse Newell 8 years, 9 months ago

Just to add to your point ... here's what Weis said today when asked about the Jayhawk/Wildcat formation:

"It’s not in the development stages. We have a whole package, and you have to put it in there to make everyone else work on it, too. Because if they don’t work on it, and you do it, then they get caught a little bit shy. Lookit, there were a lot of things we did in that game on purpose, and there were a lot of things we didn’t do on purpose, too. But at the end of the day, as you go on, by the time the season plays out, that won’t be the last time you see Christian in that position."

Ron Prichard 8 years, 9 months ago

Thanks, Jesse. I feel smarter already! ;-)

clevelandjayhawker 8 years, 9 months ago

My problem is we know they are setting it up for the deep pass, then other teams know that too.

Jonathan Allison 8 years, 9 months ago

Yeah, but niether we nor they know when. Thus they have to gameplan it as if it's a run play which it will be 80 to 90% of the time most likely.

gorilla10 8 years, 9 months ago

Good work Jesse! Something else I noticed on Saturday. It didn't look like we blitzed much if at all? I think we can put more pressure on the offensive line and quarterback than that. I could be wrong but was wondering what you thought?

Jesse Newell 8 years, 9 months ago

From what I've been told, KU blitzed on about 70 percent of its defensive plays, which is a very high number. Defensive coordinator Clint Bowen talked about his team blitzing more this year at today's press conference.

Jonathan Allison 8 years, 9 months ago

If I recall correctly Weis had made some comments that we probably wouldn't use this formation this year.

My guess is that he just wanted to give Rice a little wrinkle that they have to gameplan for that we may or may not even use.

A red herring of sorts.

kureader 8 years, 9 months ago

Interesting videos. My take is, Matthews needs to watch these plays from the sidelines. He's not a threat to throw OR run. In addition to the issues mentioned above, Matthews jumps and dances around rather than to head upfield. We have 4 running backs ... use one of them. Surely one of these guys can throw the ball 20 yards upfield now and then.

kureader 8 years, 9 months ago

Agreed. But I think one of our backs can throw well enough to keep the defense honest. Matthews will never make this play work.

KGphoto 8 years, 9 months ago

Well, it’s pretty obvious we’re going to run. If USD coaches have a pulse they knew what was coming out of that formation. That gives them the advantage. Pretty simple.

On the first play it may still have worked with a nice blocking adjustment, but that little defensive dosey doe (stunt, pick) sure came at the exact spot it needed to.... Hmmm, it’s almost like they KNEW what we were doing.

Second play, it wasn’t the LB who made the tackle, it was the safety. He makes a beeline as soon as the ball is snapped. He didn’t even flinch. He was shot from a cannon pointed at Matthews. No threat to pass, no reason to sit around in coverage. The LB was being blocked by the other RB and the safety had a huge window to rocket through. If we were a threat to pass, he wouldn’t have been in it.

Third play, same thing. No respect for a pass and the DB blitzes. The DE sics the RB and the DB sics the QB. Our WR stands there like... Dang, it’s almost like they KNEW what we were doing.

Obviously if I knew what I was talking about I’d be a coach, but that’s what it looked like to me.

Also have to give the USD coach some credit. He had his guys ready for a formation that I didn’t think Charlie would use in this game.

machinegun 8 years, 9 months ago

First of all, we don't have Randall Cunningham, Tim Tebow, Michael Bishop or anyone with their talent level on our team. This just might be a factor if you stop and think about it. Second, our O-Line is marginal at best. It wasn't very good last year. Slow and ineffective blocking will hurt us again this year especially during the Big 12 schedule.

Now, let me get this straight, Pierson was supposed to run a little bit faster so that he could get out and block in the Wildcat formation. That's a quick way to get him hurt. We need him to run not block.

Why is Charlie unwilling to accept the fact that we have to pass the ball this year? 10/20, 110 yards, against mighty South Dakota? If you want to compete in the Big 12, you need to triple it.

machinegun 8 years, 9 months ago

Did you read above? Pierson was on the right side. The play went to the left.

superhawk22 8 years, 9 months ago

Did you read above, machinegun? Yes, Pierson was lined up on the right. He was also supposed to be in position to accept a pitch from Mathews.

namohcan_99 8 years, 9 months ago

That was a great breakdown. I hope we continue to see more of these throughout the season.

Brandon Deines 8 years, 9 months ago

My problem with Matthews running this formation is that he is, at best, our 6th most talented runner. We already don't have enough plays to get all of our talented backs the ball without giving away plays with the Wildcat.

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