To paraphrase Nick Leckey on this week’s podcast, K-State’s 26-6 loss to TCU felt more like 56-6. The Wildcats gained only 10 first downs, 216 total yards, and failed to score a touchdown. But against Oklahoma, the offense came alive, rushing for 256 yards in the first half and scoring 35 points in the game.
In rewatching both games, I noticed a significant change in personnel usage that may account for the improvement. And if so, then that’s good news because it may be a durable advantage for the rest of the season.
Before we get started, I’ll use some basic football jargon below, so definitions are provided here. When I use a two-digit number to identify personnel packages, the first number identifies the number of running backs, while the second is the number of tight ends (ex., 11 means one running back and one tight end). Success Rate comes from Bill Connelly’s S&P, and means gaining 50 percent or more of yards to gain on first down, 60 percent or more on second down, and 100 percent on third or fourth down.
Alex Delton started his first game at quarterback against TCU. It went about as well as things usually go for first-time starters against Gary Patterson’s defense. He netted only 39 yards rushing and 146 yards passing, turned the ball over on a sack-fumble, and failed to lead the team to a touchdown.
He was also hamstrung by the personnel groupings employed by Dana Dimel and Collin Klein. Let’s discuss those first.
While I don’t have the numbers to back it up, Dimel and Klein appear to prefer 10 personnel. It was a lethal personnel grouping with Jake Waters at quarterback throwing to Tyler Lockett, Tramaine Thompson and Curry Sexton. It’s been effective at times for Jesse Ertz.
Delton isn’t Waters or Ertz. He’s not bad throwing the ball, but he’s not them. But he’s faster than Waters or Ertz, and thus a bigger ground game threat. The problem is that deploying four wide receivers with a quarterback who doesn’t threaten defenses with passing as a weapon, rather than a constraint, is that defenses can cheat. If you’re willing to play man coverage against those four wide receivers, then you can outnumber K-State in the box and shut down the running game.
That’s a problem. And it was a problem against TCU. The Wildcats aligned in 10 personnel 26 times and ran only five successful plays. K-State deployed 11 personnel another 17 times, with only two successful plays to show for it.
Conversely, K-State aligned in 21 personnel only 12 times, and ran four successful plays. This included three successful passing plays.
K-State switched it up against the Sooners, deploying 10 personnel only eight times. Only two successful plays followed.
But the Wildcats emphasized 21 personnel against OU, deploying that package 20 times. It resulted in 11 successful plays, including nine successful runs and two (out of five) successful passes.
Interestingly, K-State also used a 12 package six times. In this grouping, Dayton Valentine was the in-line tight end, while Blaise Gammon lined up in the backfield as an H-back. From my recollection, Winston Dimel was the running back, though they may have mixed in Alex Barnes once or twice. From this formation, K-State ran four successful running plays.
Dimel received no small amount of criticism for his second-half playcalling. It left something to be desired, but the personnel groupings were more baffling to me than anything. Here are the groups used on the first three drives, when K-State amassed a smooth 18 percent Success Rate. The Y/N in parentheses indicates whether the play was successful.
First Drive: 11 (N), 11 (N), 10 (N)
Second Drive: 11 (Y), 21 (Y), 11 (N), 11 (N), 10 (N)
Third Drive: 10 (N), 11 (N), 10 (N)
On their last two drives, both of which resulted in touchdowns, K-State used the following personnel:
Fourth Drive: 12 (N), 21 (N), 21 (Y), 32 (N), 32 (Y)
Fifth Drive: 11 (Y), 21 (N), 21 (Y), 21 (N), 21 (Y)
Note that 32 is K-State’s “Cro-Magnon” goal line formation, where backs and tight ends bash the quarterback into the end zone.
First, a caveat. I haven’t watched 1/1,000,000th of the film on TCU and OU that Dimel, Klein and the rest of the offensive coaching staff have. I’m not in the meetings putting together the game plan.
But from watching the result on the field, and thinking intuitively about our quarterback’s skill set, it’s pretty clear that heavier personnel suit Delton best. Aligning with two running backs, a tight end, and two wide receivers permits a number of options. You have two lead blockers for a running back, plus a pulling guard, which K-State frequently used. Three lead blockers are available for quarterback runs. Both Dimel and Valentine (haha, just kidding) can leak out for easy throws underneath. And the increased personnel in the backfield draws in the safeties, leaving fewer defenders back against the two receivers. Plus, after Isaiah Zuber and Byron Pringle, it’s not like we have a long list of receivers that demand more touches.
K-State’s offensive playcalling in the first half was mostly excellent. They established the run and set up a downfield shot to Dalton Schoen off play-action. Wide receiver screens stretched the field horizontally and took advantage of some fairly passive alignments by OU’s secondary. The result was 21 points, and easily could have been 24 (if Matt McCrane did one more set of squats)* or even 31 if Dominique Heath hadn’t fumbled.
*I’m kidding, Matt. You’re a golden-footed god.
He won’t read this, but if he did, here is where I would implore Dimel to ditch 10 personnel with Delton as anything other than a third-and-long package. In a league built to stop the spread, maybe it’s time K-State stopped being a poor-man’s spread team without a quarterback who can keep defensive backfields honest.