Chris Petersen's Three Laws of Motion

(I have video for most, but not all, of these shifts. They are fairly self-explanatory, but visual aides are always nice. I would not expect to see something like this from me for every opponent, but I'll try to write them when I can. Joe Rexrode wrote a perfect accompaniment to this piece earlier today. Go read it.)

Boise State is on the cutting edge of the college football offense. Their recent offensive coordinators have picked up jobs at no lesser titans of college football then Texas and Florida. Even after adjusting for their scheduled they've often been in the top ten offenses in the country. They're good.

And hey, don't take MY word for it.

Narduzzi:

Narduzzi is facing what he called the most varied and complex offense he has seen in college football.

Dantonio:

"Tremendous offense, tremendous ideas in terms of the way they attack things and the complexity and the different formations they give you. Outstanding challenge for us."

More on Boise's motion offense after the jump...

Which is why it's so interesting that so little of what they do is 'new'. When you watch Boise State play you will see a lot of the Treadwell/Roushar 'multiple offense' you are familiar with. The difference is, Boise State makes everything in the traditional pro-style offense quicker, weirder looking, more diverse, and transformable. Then, for added measure, they throw in concepts like the pistol formation, and the WildCat. It is the Rube Goldberg Machine of college offenses and it must be unbelievably difficult to prepare for.

Tactical Digression: One of Boise State's quirks is the heavy deployment of the concept of 'depth' with their wide receivers, RBs, and H-backs. Almost everyone puts their receivers on or near the line of scrimmage. Boise uses 'depth', this forgotten area of the field behind the LOS, and places its skill position players in spots where they can easily motion, interchange, release without being pressed by their opponents, or let blockers get in front of them for a screen pass. Exceedingly clever.

Here's some examples of 'depth' that also give an idea of some of BSU's crazy formations:

Depth1_medium

Depth2_medium
Depth3_medium

Depth4_medium

/End Tactical Digression

But talk to anyone about Boise State on offense and you will hear about two things more than any other: formations and motion. In fact, the stories about their sheer variations of formations scared me off of writing about that aspect of their offense. I decided to settle on their motions instead. After all, how many motions or pre-snap shifts could one team possibly have?

It's 27. At least, 27.

But they all generally operate under three simple rules. I refer to these as Chris Petersen's Three Laws of Motion:

Petersen's First Law: A man in motion will tend to stay in motion

That is, once the player motions across the formation, there will rarely be any doubling back to his original position, or motioning again to another spot on the field. Once they motion, that's generally it.

Petersen's Second Law: A man in motion will be followed quickly by a snap

There are also very, very few instances where one player will finish his motion, then another player will start another motion, or the QB will take his time to scan the field. It is almost always motion-and-go, and once the player is in his new position, the play will start in an attempt to minimize the amount of time the opponent has to adjust.

Petersen's Third Law: A man in motion will almost never be the focal point of the play

Though he will block, create space for other players, force defensive changes or reveal information about the defense.to the QB. In a solid number of analyzed plays, the Boise QB is often not looking towards the man in motion once the ball is snapped, and is throwing him the ball even less.

Question 1: how often does BSU use motion?

This is not a big enough sample size to get me published in a scientific college football journal (that's probably a thing, right?), but it's good enough to get an idea.

Over the course of 2011 Boise State's two games vs. BCS opponents (Georgia and Arizona State), Boise State ran at least 129 plays (one of the Youtube videos used was of an ESPN replay that skipped some series due to time constraints) on offense.

Of those 129, from what I could see on tape Boise put a man in motion on 78 of them, good for a motion rate on about 61% of plays. This left 50 plays, about 39%, where they did not motion a player.

Question 2: How are they motioning and how are they using those players?

For the purposes of this breakdown players are 'used' if they throw a relevant block, are targeted with a pass attempt, are handed off the ball, or take part in a fake handoff or pump fake.

Wide Receiver Motions (16 total)

Outside receiver

1x2 to trips

How many times did BSU use this motion: 3

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 1

Outside receiver to h-back

How many times did BSU use this motion: 1

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 0

Outside receiver to slot receiver

How many times did BSU use this motion: 5

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 3

Outside receiver to slot receiver, other side of the field:

How many times did BSU use this motion: 1

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 0

Outside receiver to stack

How many times did BSU use this motion: 1

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 1

Outside receiver to h-back

How many times did BSU use this motion: 1

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 1

Slot receiver

Twins to 1x1

How many times did BSU use this motion: 3

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 1

Slot receiver to outside receiver, opposite side of the formation

How many times did BSU use this motion: 2

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 1

Slot receiver to outside receiver

How many times did BSU use this motion: 1

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 0

Slot receiver to stack receiver, opposite side of the field

How many times did BSU use this motion: 1

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 0

Slot receiver to opposite side slot receiver

How many times did BSU use this motion: 1

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 0

Slot receiver to running back

How many times did BSU use this motion: 3

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 1


Slot receiver to h-back

How many times did BSU use this motion: 1

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 0


Stack receiver

Stack receiver to slot receiver

How many times did BSU use this motion:1

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion:0

General receiver

Receiver to jet sweep

How many times did BSU use this motion: 6

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 4

Receiver inwards towards hash-mark

How many times did BSU use this motion: 5

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion:4

H-Back/Tight End (6 total)

H-back

H-back from one side of the formation to the other side

How many times did BSU use this motion: 21

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 13

H-back to slot receiver

How many times did BSU use this motion: 2

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 1

H-back to tight end

How many times did BSU use this motion: 2

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 1

H-back to running back

How many times did BSU use this motion: 1

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 1

H-back to fullback

How many times did BSU use this motion: 1

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 1

Tight End

Tight end to wide receiver

How many times did BSU use this motion: 1

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 0

Running back/Fullback (5 total)

Running back

Running back to outside receiver

How many times did BSU use this motion: 9

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 0

Running back from one part of the backfield to another

How many times did BSU use this motion: 3

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 1

Running back to slot receiver

How many times did BSU use this motion: 1

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 0


Fullbacks

Fullback to tight end

How many times did BSU use this motion: 1

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 1

Fullback to slot receiver

How many times did BSU use this motion: 1

How many times did they BSU use the man in motion: 0

Note: This play, breaks, like, all three of CP's laws of motion. Go figure.

Here's a further breakdown of BSU's motion statistics:

Position Motions Usage % of usage % of total plays % of total motions
WR 36 17 47.22% 28.13% 46.15%
TE/HB 28 17 60.71% 21.88% 35.90%
RB/FB 15 2 13.33% 11.72% 19.23%

Remember that 'usage' doesn't mean 'threw to' or 'handed of to', in particular many of the TE/HB motions resulted in the player run blocking and NOT going out for a pass.

What is MSU going to do to stop all this motion?

Probably not as much as you think.

For example, BSU's most used shift by quite a margin is a simple shift of the TE/H-back across from one side of the formation to the other. MSU does this all the time as well, as do other teams.

When Boise runs this shift, they almost always run the ball towards the strength of the formation (the side the player shifted to). Which makes sense, you shift a player like that to well, first to see if you can't suss out coverages, but moreso to create another gap along the OL that the defense has to deal with.

MSU typically responds to this shift in one of three ways.

First, they will shift the whole line with the motion, so that the DE ends up playing bump with the TE/H-back, and then walk a linebacker down to the side of the line that the motion man vacated to cover the weakside.

Observe:

The second way is to just walk a LB down to the line over the shifted TE/H-back and cover that way.

See:

Or there's this shift where the line shifts again so the DE is over the TE, similar to the first correction, but the LBs all stay back and play the gaps from where they normally are:

These are all quick, simple, read-and-react shifts for the defense in response to this motion by BSU, and if over a larger sample size it is revealed that BSU likes to run strongside after motions and not weakside, the D could even cheat a little more until Boise corrects. Look for Gholston and Rush to attack these h-backs when they pass block and jam them when they try to go out for passes.

What about wide receiver motion?

Well, there are two responses to when a wide receiver motions, you can mirror like Adams does here (if you're playing man coverage),

Or you can shift if you're in zone coverage:

And another:

If Boise empties one side of the field the corner rolls up to the line of scrimmage and either blitzes or protects the flat. If they leave one or two receivers on the side they motion from obviously the corner stays where he normally is in coverage. The shifts are mostly by safeties and linebackers adjusted to the new post-motion numbers.

I expect to see more zone coverage (and thus more shifts) than man coverage (although Adams mirroring seemed to be coaches' new answer to the threat of the jet sweep, something Abbrederis used to good effect in the first game, but not in the second meeting. Boise also uses considerable jet sweep action).

One final note, on another motion tendency to keep an eye on. Boise State loves to line up in 4 or 5 wide sets in with the WRs distributed 2x2 or 3x2, than motion a player across so it's now 1x3 or 4x1, than throw a quick slant to that 1 isolated player. See:

This 'clear out' action is something you're very likely to see on Friday and the ability of Adams and Dennard to play good coverage in this one-on-one match-ups would go a long way to shutting down a Boise staple play.

And what about backfield motions?

Their, by far, most popular motion out of the backfield is to move the RB out to an outside wide receiver spot. But here's the thing, they ran this motion nine times and never even really looked the RB's way (unlike when Bell motioned out in this same manner for MSU and was found for quite a few gains). I am almost positive the RB is motioning that far to the outside just to hold the attention of the team's corner back (thus putting one of the defense's best cover guys on one of the worst pass catchers and opening opportunities for better receivers against worse pass defenders elsewhere). I think this is the one shift where I'd really like to see MSU cheat off this RB and not get sucked into committing a valuable resource to him. Shift a safety or even linebacker towards the BSU RB and let Adams or Dennard stay on Matt Miller or other more dangerous receivers where they belong. It's unlikely BSU is looking the RB's way anyways.

Conclusion:

This is the part where I make the possibly dumb prediction:

If you try and out think every little move or positioning that the Bronco's make you will always be a step behind. Motion is part of Boise's shell game, and rather than follow every little move, twist, and flourish, I think you will see the MSU defense making really simple adjustments in a predominantly zone defense (mostly making sure they aren't outnumbered at the point of attack or being flooded in a particular zone), at least to open the game.

If MSU can find simple, automatic, adjustments to the most common shifts and motions, they can be more aggressive (or cautious) against Boise's stranger formations and movements.

I guess what it comes down to is that I believe Narduzzi when he said yesterday that, "We do what we do. Nothing changes what we do." on defense. He's stuck with this cover-4, 4-3 Over for years and years now. It's what he knows, it's what the players know. So if Boise State comes out on first down in the Pistol with three players in the backfield or in the shotgun with five wide receivers, or I form with two tight ends and a fullback, you'll see that same base defense. And no matter how Boise shifts or rotates them around, you're still gonna see that same damn base defense. In Boise's swirling waters of motion and shift and play-fake, that scheme is the rock that the players are going to be able to tether themselves to. They will first try to stop the run, and then when Boise is hopefully forced to start throwing the ball, they'll turn up the heat with blitzes. This is the formula.

Boise wants to force teams to start thinking instead of reacting, which slows down their play. Narduzzi and Dantonio want their defense playing fast. For this reason, expect MSU to make an effort to match pre-snap arithmetic with the Broncos (i.e. If Boise has four guys on this side of the field, so shall we), but anything further than that would be a surprise. After all, once the pre-snap theatrics are over, 19 times out of 20 Boise is running a play the Spartan's have probably seen dozens, if not hundreds of times before (and the twentieth time, well, Petersen has some pretty impressive plays in that head of his).

In the face of unprecedented complexity and variety, I think you will see Michigan State trust in their basics, and try to bend the BSU offense to their will, and not get bent the other way around. Whether they can succeed in that task in anyone's guess at this point.

All I know is whatever goes down, it should be really interesting to watch. Great football minds usually are.

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