Going into the Ole Miss game, I had the same question on my mind that I would guess many of you did. How would the Mizzou defense look without its leader, all-world linebacker, Cale Garrett?
While the replacements in the middle, Cam Wilkins and Jamal Brooks, acquitted themselves well — they finished with eight tackles between them — they didn’t exactly pop. But, as many of us believed might happen, weakside linebacker Nick Bolton picked up much of the slack, finishing with ten total tackles, nine of them solos.
And... he popped.
Reminds me of this formative moment from my childhood:
In this installment of Film Room, we look at a few of the plays Bolton made against the Rebels’ run game as he tried to fill the cleats of his fallen brother-in-linebacking.
Odd front, Man coverage
Last week I mentioned Tiger defensive coordinator Justin Walters’ use of the odd front against Troy, believing the move to be a particular strategy for that single game. Before the first snap of Saturday’s game, the ESPN announcer referred to “that 3-4 front” the Tigers play. “Idiot,” I thought. “This joker’s research went no deeper than the Troy game. He doesn’t realize that the Missouri defense bases out of an even-front.”
But is Missouri’s base defense even an even front anymore? I count fewer than a handful of times the Tiger defense aligned with four down linemen against the Rebels, and most of those instances were part of the third down package.
So maybe... I’m the idiot?!
With John Rhys Plumlee under center, Mizzou was almost exclusively in an odd front, and playing Cover 1— man to man with a deep safety in the middle of the field. They were daring the freshman quarterback to beat them with his arm.
(Ole Miss had a plan for this— attacking boundary safety Joshuah Bledsoe with their stud receiver Elijah Moore time and again. Bledsoe had his hands full: he was beaten for a touchdown and also benefitted from missed passes on a couple occassions).
The scheme was similar when redshirt freshman signal-caller Matt Corral was in, though the Tigers loosened up into zone coverage a few times when Corral was quarterbacking.
No matter the coverage or front, Bolton was planted behind the defensive line in a conventional linebacker position from which he showed his instincts, speed, and power.
Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Bolton v. Inside Zone Search
This was one of the few times Ole Miss lined up three backs in the backfield. Mizzou responds by settling into its 5-2, then adds a player to the box by walking Bledsoe (#18, B in the diagram) down.
The play is what we’ve been calling Zone Search to the left. The H back arcs for the edge player, strong safety Khalil Oliver (#20), and the fullback searches out the backside inside linebacker, Garrett replacement Jamal Brooks (#25). Plumlee rides the tailback, then hands off the ball.
Here is the play diagrammed. The offensive scheme has the center and backside guard double-teaming the nose tackle up to Bolton (W in the diagram).
Bolton makes the play with the help of nose tackle Markell Utsey (#90). Utsey gives some ground against the center, but ultimately defeats the block to get in on the tackle. Utsey’s losing ground has one benefit— making it impossible for the backside guard to get to Bolton who shoots through the playside A gap to make the stop.
Notice how Bolton holds his gap, but doesn’t commit until the back does. As soon as the back turns downfield toward his gap, Bolton explodes. Look at the power Bolton is able to generate in two steps, driving the ball carrier backwards.
Bolton v. Shovel Read
Rebel offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez sets twins to both sides with a single running back joining Plumlee in the backfield.
The Tigers respond with the 5-1, as they did all game against one back sets. The coverage is Cover 1.
The offensive line blocks the Power scheme, with the backside guard pulling around for the playside linebacker. The back gets behind his blocker and receives the pitch. Just as he turns upfield, he is leveled by Bolton.
Mississippi leaves the playside end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOL) unblocked for Plumlee to read. In this case it is the Mike linebacker, Cameron Wilkins (#40).
If the EMOL squeezes down off the tackle’s down block, the quarterback would keep the ball. (Rodriguez adds a wrinkle: it appears that if the strong safety were to attack him, the QB would throw the ball to the slot receiver on a Quick Out route.)
If the EMOL were to come upfield as the quarterback attacks the edge, the QB would pitch the ball to the back who turns it up behind the Power scheme. This is what happens on the play in question, though the Tigers add a little twist.
Wilkins (#40) aligns as the EMOL with DE Chris Turner (#39) to his inside. It would appear that Wilkins is responsible for C Gap, just outside the right tackle, with Turner accounting for the B Gap, between the right guard and tackle. On the snap, however, they switch gap responsibilities.
Turner rips across the right tackle’s face and attacks Plumlee, triggering the shovel pitch. The right tackle can’t adjust and climb for Bolton (#32), meaning the Tigers have two unblocked players on the playside. This means they can bracket the pulling guard, Bolton inside of him, and Wilkins outside.
Wilkins plays the back’s outside shoulder, grabbing his waist as he passes. Bolton takes advantage of the pulling guard’s confusion — the guard is initially eyeing Wilkins — and zips underneath the blocker for another stop that registers on the power-meter.
Much like Garrett, when Bolton squares up a ball-carrier, the ball-carrier goes backwards.
In the tight shot you can appreciate how slips right off the hip of the down-blocking right tackle. No chance for a cutback.
Bolton v. Shovel Read, Take Two
This play is another example of Shovel Read, this time out of a Trips—three receivers split to one side—formation. In the still below we can see strong safety Khalil Oliver (#20) dropping to a deep half: this is one of the few cases where Mizzou played zone coverage while Plumlee was quarterbacking.
Ole Miss runs the Shovel Read into the boundary. In our first example the EMOL rushed upfield, causing Plumlee to pitch the ball underneath him. Here the Tigers give a different look. Defensive end Tre Williams (#93) shuffles down with the left tackle’s down block, forcing Plumlee to keep and try the short edge.
Bolton and cornerback Jarvis Ware (#8) play this beautifully. In Cover 2, the corners are primary force on the outside, meaning it is their job to turn the ball inside. (This is called Cloud—Corner is force—as opposed to Sky where the Safety is force.)
Ware gets on the outside shoulder of his blocker and plays the outside half of the ballcarrier. Bolton pursues Plumlee from the inside, preventing the quarterback from cutting upfield. Ultimately the two sandwich the electric freshman signal-caller at the sideline.
As anyone who watched the game appreciates, corralling the ultra-athletic, ultra-speedy Plumlee is no simple matter. This play shows how proper alignment and pursuit angles can contain even the superior athlete by forcing him to run laterally.
Here is the defense of the play diagrammed.
And one last look at the execution:
Bolton v. Quarterback Counter Trap Read
The final two plays show the Tigers defending Rodriguez’s favorite play when Plumlee was under center: QB Counter Trap Read. In this first example, Rich-Rod calls it out of a twins formation. Mizzou plays it 5-1, as we would expect.
The Counter Trap scheme is similar to the Power. The playside linemen block down, with extra blocking coming from the backside. Whereas Power implements a single puller—the backside guard—Counter Trap sends two, in this case the backside guard and tackle.
There are a few things to point out here. The first puller is looking to kick out the EMOL, and the second will wrap around the playside tackle’s down block, hunting the playside linebacker.
With both backside linemen pulling, the backside EMOL is unblocked. Rodriguez adds a read to control him. The running back runs in a wide arc, looking for a pitch. If the EMOL were to widen with the back, the quarterback would run the Counter Trap behind his two pulling linemen. If the EMOL were to squeeze with the pullers, the QB would toss the ball to the RB on a sweep.
On this snap, DE Jatorian Hansford flies upfield off the left edge, so Plumlee tucks the ball and carries to the right.
The above diagram shows the play as we would expect it to be blocked based on Missouri’s initial defensive alignment. The Tigers, however, exchange gaps yet again, just as they did on the first Shovel Read above. Chris Turner (#39, E in the diagram) slants outside to the C gap, with Cam Wilkins (#40, M in the diagram) dropping back to cover the B gap.
The puller finds Wilkins on his wrap block, but Wilkins disengages to get in on the tackle. Bolton is initially attracted to the toss fake, but scrapes across the formation late. Once again, the Tiger linebackers bracket the puller. Wilkins turns Plumlee inside to Bolton, who is attacking the quarterback’s inside half.
It’s not a great play for the Tigers, but in the slow-motion tight shot we see Wilkins violently rip out the ball as he brings Plumlee to the ground.
Bolton making like Hulk Hogan v. QB Counter Trap Read
Finally we have another QB Counter Trap Read, this time with an H back in the backfield. This is one of the few first or second downs that the Tigers played out of an even front.
Diagram of alignment:
Walters slants the line to the strongside, and sends free safety Tyree Gillespie (#9) on a blitz off the weak edge. This muddies the blocking rules for the Rebel line, resulting in an unblocked Bolton.
This is bad news for Plumlee who is absorbs a vicious body slam.
That gets a chef’s kiss.
Backside EMOL Hansford (#28) again chases the running back, causing Plumlee to keep the ball.
This diagram is probably not easy to discern, but it shows how radically Gillespie’s blitz changes the Rebel offensive line’s responsibilities.
Gillespie becomes the playside EMOL, and it trapped by the pulling guard. DE Turner (#39) chases the tackle’s down block and absorbs the pulling tackle’s block. This spills the run outside, and leaves no one left to block Bolton.
And Bolton has bad intentions.
Let’s enjoy that hit one more time.
Now that’s a tackle.
You don’t know what you have until it’s gone, and I’m probably guilty of not fully appreciating the luxury Mizzou enjoyed having Garrett and Bolton manning the interior of the Tiger defense.
Nevertheless, the above plays suggest that Bolton is capable of the same dynamic play we saw from him in the previous four games, even without his hellacious linebacking-buddy alongside.