In the first quarter of last Thursday's game against Auburn, K-State trailed, 3-0, but had driven into Auburn's red zone. On first-and-10 from the Tigers' 15-yard line, Tyler Lockett ran a corner route, drew a pass interference call, and K-State suddenly had the ball at the two-yard line.
What happened next won't soon be forgotten among Wildcat fans. Charles Jones lined up in the wildcat formation on first down, but gained only a yard. On second down, Jake Waters took the shotgun snap, turned to his left, and rifled a pass to a wide-open Lockett in the end zone. Wildcat fans in the stadium and around the country prepared to celebrate, only to see the ball bounce off Lockett's shoulder, deflect lazily into the air, and come down in the waiting hands of Auburn's Jonathan Jones.
From the moment Jones secured the interception, K-State fans have first-guessed and second-guessed the decision to pass on that play. There are legitimate arguments in favor of running the ball from there. But based on what Waters saw on the field, the audible was the correct call.
If this is your argument, pass on this discussion
First, let's dispense the general inanities. You can't say "running the ball from the one-yard line is good/bad" without context. In this situation, the relevant context is the offense's personnel and the defense's alignment. Based on K-State's offensive personnel and Auburn's defensive alignment, the audible was correct. And running the ball is hardly foolproof against turnovers, in case anyone has forgotten the fumbled zone-read exchange earlier in the first quarter.
Many of the arguments against the pass play have come from reflexive, results-oriented thinking. In a game like football, where the result depends not only on your own decisions and execution, but on the decisions and execution of a team that is doing everything it can to stop you, results-oriented thinking is unhelpful. Calling a play that will work nine times out of 10 a failure because the one time it doesn't work is in a nationally televised game against a top-five team from the SEC is folly. Small sample sizes, and such.
So let's get to the details of what happened. As mentioned above, K-State had first-and-goal from the two-yard line. Charles Jones lined up in the wildcat formation. K-State sent twin wide receivers to the left of the formation, a single receiver to the right, and had a tight end and Glenn Gronkowski in the game. Auburn countered with straight man coverage against the three wide receivers, with all eight other defenders in the box.
If you can count, you know that this presents a numbers problem for K-State. The Wildcats have five offensive linemen, a tight end and a fullback as blockers. That's seven against Auburn's eight defenders. With no credible passing threat, K-State couldn't force Auburn to keep an extra defender out wide, and the play was stuffed.
So no big deal, K-State still had at least two chances from the one-yard line. This time, Waters lines up in the pistol formation with Jones, sending Lockett and Curry Sexton wide to the left, and the tight end and Deante Burton to the right. But once again, Auburn lines up with man coverage on the three wide receivers and all eight other defenders in the box. The Tigers were clearly betting that, in a compressed space, their athletic defensive backs could contain K-State's receivers long enough to let their line and linebackers get pressure on Waters on a passing play.
Because Jake Waters can count, he recognized that K-State once again had a numbers problem. Auburn outnumbered K-State in the box, though the situation was even worse this time. K-State doesn't run its QB lead out of the pistol formation, for what I hope are obvious reasons. Thus, we had lost even the numbers advantage the wildcat formation provides, because Waters was probably a passive participant in the called play.
It's possible the called play was a speed option, but again, K-State was facing an eight-on-six box with the possibility of optioning one of those defenders. And if the play was a straight ahead run, the offense also didn't have the advantage of Gronk leading the way.
So Waters faced a decision. Run the called play, assuming it was a run, in the face of this numbers disadvantage, and hope that an Auburn defender missed a tackle or blew an assignment or that K-State's ballcarrier broke a tackle or made a defender miss, or audible into a different play.
Look at the video above. Lockett and Sexton, K-State's two best receivers, have single coverage. K-State audibles into an exchange route, hoping to confuse or "rub" the defenders and get Lockett open running inside. I don't know about you, but I'm more confident in Lockett getting open against single coverage than I am Waters or Jones making someone miss, outrunning Auburn's defense, or bowling someone over in the face of a defensive numbers advantage.
So let's get back to process. K-State, in the person of its second-year starting quarterback - and oh, how we have talked this offseason about how good K-State usually is under second-year quarterbacks* -- recognizes a numbers disadvantage. Instead of hoping to make a play against the odds, they audible to a play that has a better chance of success, based on the defense's alignment.
*Forgetting, of course, that the quarterback is one of 22 starters, and that not all schedules are created equal. But that's for another post.
If you want to criticize anything, the personnel choice is the best target. Running the ball out of 11 personnel on the one-yard line against an eight-man box is a losing proposition mathematically. And K-State was getting pushed around by Auburn's defensive line, with 18 true rushing attempts for 31 net yards - including four plays thrown for loss, three more for no gain, and two more for only one yard attest - in the first half.
And K-State actually did have one sample of success in the first half from a big formation. Facing third-and-one on its next drive, K-State lined up under center, with two backs and a single wide receiver. DeMarcus Robinson bulled forward for three yards to move the chains.
Based on personnel and alignment on the field for the infamous play, Waters made the correct read, checked K-State into a play that should work in theory, and did work in practice.
Right up to the point where the receiver dropped the pass.