Full disclosure off the top. I lived in Memphis before moving to Iowa and spent a portion of every summer after I moved to Iowa in Memphis. Thus, I have been a fan of Tennessee and Memphis football for many years. I am Clone to the bone, but will wear Memphis blue.
This year I watched a majority of Memphis’ games and attended their win over UCLA. I have stated before that I am a HUGE fan of Mike Norvell and am somewhat shocked that he was passed over for the many FBS coaching openings.
That said, a historic dismantling of the Tigers at the hands of the Cyclones would be very satisfying and reaffirming. A bowl win is possible for Iowa State, but what must they do to achieve it? It starts with the Memphis offense.
What makes Memphis tick? Offense, offense, and more offense. Norvell and the Memphis Tigers are a fun and fantastic offense to watch as a casual fan and as a critical analyst. Their scheme is multiple, brilliant, and virtually impossible to stop. Great discipline and the ability to win a majority of the one-on-one match-ups are required.
Only one team was able to solve the Memphis puzzle this year. UCF did it twice and happens to be undefeated heading into a Peach Bowl matchup vs. Auburn. In the first meeting, UCF was able to rattle and exploit quarterback Riley Ferguson creating interceptions and mistakes that held Memphis to less than 20 points. The second meeting required overtime and a costly interception to seal the deal. UCLA and Houston came close, but both succumbed to the Memphis offense in the end.
Before making suggestions on how this offense is slowed down, let’s delve into what it is and what makes it so effective.
At the outset, the offense is bold and multiple. Norvell will call high risk plays at key moments where a more conservative or traditional staff will play the chalk. It is multiple because, while at its heart it is a vertical RPO based offense, there is significant use of misdirection, interior running, and horizontal passing. In general terms, the Memphis offense stretches the entire field and maximizes stress on the defense.
There are 7 primary play types in the Memphis scheme:
1 – Spread formation (trips open and closed) with a quick run (dive or trap);
2 – Heavy package used for outside runs and play-action roll out passes, generally a half-roll;
3 – Full roll out passes utilizing a levels based route combination;
4 – RPO’s both interior to the seam and horizontally to the edge (with a vertical component);
5 – Horizontal passing game similar to Iowa State;
6 – Vertical passing attack focused on the seams and the deep out zone; and
7 – Alternating the clear route from the inside and outside to attack the seams.
To conceptualize the scheme, think of an Oklahoma and Oklahoma State mash-up. Elements of both are present in the Memphis offense. To make it even more difficult, Norvell will run every concept in every game and use the variants to set up dagger plays.
Memphis utilizes a significant amount of jet sweep motion. This allows them to flood a zone with a receiver in motion and use play-action and option action in their running game.
The offense is executed by an extremely talented group of skill players. Riley Ferguson is as good or better than any quarterback in the Big 12 not named Mayfield. Anthony Miller is as good a receiver as any in the Big 12. Throw in the ultra versatile Tony Pollard, tight end Joey Magnifico, Patrick Taylor, Phil Mayhue and you have a fast and talented group of players to cover.
The talent at Memphis is well suited to the scheme and Ferguson knows what he is doing and what he is looking for.
Enough set up, let’s dive in to some examples of what we are likely to see in the Liberty Bowl.
The first clip is from the Houston game in 2016. This might be my favorite play of all time. It puts such stress on a defense and is so hard to cover.
The play is a triple option RPO, though there is actually a fourth option within the play. The first option is the hand off to the running back if the tackle and end widen. The second option is that the quarterback keeps the ball if the linebackers fly out in reaction to the pass look. The third option is the horizontal release if the tight corner sinks to follow the outside receiver in man or deep zone coverage. The fourth option is the delay go route in the event the corner jumps the horizontal route.
This play is run against the Todd Orlando Houston defense. Not much needs to be said about how it works, the picture speaks a thousand words. It isn’t impossible to cover this action, but it requires outstanding play recognition and disciplined assignment football. It is an RPO variant presenting horizontal action with a vertical component. Memphis has multiple plays that present this high/low conundrum and this is one of the best.
Here is some nitty gritty. Memphis is in a heavy package (for them) against UCLA. More often than not, this package is used to spring an edge run like the one depicted.
Note also the jet motion and the possibility of the quarterback keeping the ball with a pitch man on the back side. I have not seen that play specifically, but the primary variant here is to fake the sweep and have Ferguson throw to a drag route or to the jet sweep player.
While this play acts as a set up play for attacking down the field, if the defense is not prepared for it, the Memphis running game can chew up yards. I do not present an example of the inside run game here, but it is based on the set up provided by the horizontal passing game and the edge run.
Memphis will run tight and then spread the formation wide and hit a quick dive for solid yardage up the middle. If they are allowed to have success in the running game, then their passing options are easier for them to execute.
This is the very next play in the drive after the edge run. Using a similar heavy formation, Memphis uses a play-action half roll to set up a backside wheel route. The running back does a poor job of running through his route and is likely the primary target. After all, he is uncovered. But the tight end drags under the clear route and the defense is left chasing.
The misdirection employed by the offensive line and the quarterback causes the defense to lose a step in coverage across the field. Ferguson has a big arm and can make long throws such as this look routine. A significant amount of misdirection and throw backs from play action are utilized by Memphis in virtually every game.
A very simple, but often used play to stretch the defense horizontally. Again, using a heavy run set, Memphis provides a misdirection key to the defense. The run action pulls the linebackers out of the passing lane and holds the safeties. The vertical release of the inside receiver pulls the coverage deep. Meahwhile, Miller stops on his vertical route and sits wide open for an easy 8 yards.
This play is a threat on first down and on third and medium distance. Memphis puts the defense in guess mode with an 8 yard gain on first down, or gets an easy conversion on third and 6. Simple, hard to cover, and I suspect we will see this several times on December 30.
In the first quarter against UCLA, Memphis struggled to move the ball. They had one 80 yard run play and were shut down after that. UCLA was playing press man on the receivers and bringing a small amount of pressure. Press man limits the RPO game that Memphis likes to establish.
Memphis pivoted to the misdirection and play-action plays seen above and hit a homerun with a traditional screen. Screens seem like a fundamental play that every team should be adept at running, however, in college football, that is not the case. Memphis is good at it.
This is nothing more than a timely call of a traditional screen that hits for a 50 yard touchdown. By the way, they used a traditional screen in the second half to score another 50 yard touchdown.
Instead of using the screen to gain a few yards on 3rd and a mile, like most coaches, Norvell pulls it out on 2nd and 10 and catches the defense in a pressure package and the secondary in man coverage. Bold play calling.
This play and the next play are in sequence in the Houston game. They work hand in glove and illustrate the high/low combo that attacks the seams.
The inside receiver (TE) clears the coverage by pressing deep on the seam. The running back flares to draw the corners attention. Meanwhile, Miller just slips right in behind the vertical route from his outside position for an easy first down conversion.
Miller’s route placement is directly to the spot that is cleared and vacated by the zone defense. The defense reacts well here and the play is contained, but the necessary yardage is gained. An easy throw and catch is created by the synchronized routes.
Having run the vertical/hitch action on the play before, Memphis aligns in the same formation with tempo. Now, all four receivers release in vertical seam routes. Houston brings pressure leaving too few defenders deep. Ferguson has multiple options and chooses the easiest throw right down the seam.
Memphis uses the vertical seams more often and better than just about any team in the country. Their passing offense is predicated on driving the ball downfield on the seams. They stress them on just about every route tree to either clear space for an under or out route, or spring someone for a big play.
To drive the point home, here is the same play against UCLA.
To be successful against a Memphis team, a defense must be prepared to defend the roll out pass. Memphis uses a lot of roll out passes with play-action in every game.
The common route combination is shown here. At the end of the play you can see the mid level receiver crossing the field. Ferguson has a short, middle, and deep option. He will choose the deep option 90 percent of the time.
The difficulty in defending this play is that it forces the defense to stay disciplined in its zones in the face of a moving target. That is something Iowa State has done very well this year, but the Memphis scheme will test their resolve.
Finally, this is a base package RPO. You see this from Oklahoma on a regular basis. The linebackers move forward on the run action and the outside receiver slips again to the seam for an easy 10 yard completion. Ordinarily the linebacker would be dropping in to the zone where the ball is thrown.
This is a base level play for Memphis that hits the mid-level between the linebackers and safeties. It is a target area for their throws.
Memphis targets the deep inside seams, the deep out zone being from the numbers to the sideline 8-12 yards, and the mid-level seam at 10-15 yards. The run game is designed to take advantage of a widening defense that is reacting to the outside high/low passing game and horizontal wide receiver screens.
Ultimately, it is a simple attack. Only it is complicated by misdirection and play calls that attack all of their target areas in a single sequence. A defense is at its best when it is able to place an offense in to predictable circumstances through down and distance and tendency study. Memphis defies that convention and scores a lot of points because of it.
What Can ISU Do?
The best news in this analysis is that Iowa State is tailor made to defend the Memphis offense. IF they are disciplined and don’t leave their responsibilities in anticipation of making a play.
Iowa State’s version of the 3-5-3 umbrella works well in defending the target areas. The defense is designed to provide multiple defenders against the deep seam routes and to smother the underneath routes by providing multiple tacklers at the point of the catch. In addition, the run defense is keyed by 8 defenders being capable by alignment and play recognition to flood the box. This will frustrate the purpose of many of the Memphis play schemes.
Where Iowa State will get in to trouble is if you see them jumping up on routes or moving out of their assigned areas to cover a perceived threat. Memphis exploits defenders that are out of place the same way Oklahoma State does.
Memphis will score. No question. They may score on big plays. But, Iowa State will have to stay the course. It needs to be similar to the Oklahoma game where there was success early, but the door was shut as the pressure mounted.
The other thing to consider is alternately bringing pressure on Ferguson. The Iowa State defensive line is capable of providing pressure against the Memphis offensive line. However, Ferguson has a tendency to get out of rhythm and turn the ball over when subjected to pressure. The caveat is that the pressure has to get there. If it doesn’t then the Memphis offense is designed to pick up big yardage against pressure.
I believe the Iowa State defensive game plan should rely on the drop 8 umbrella coverage scheme. Ferguson can hit in small windows, but the Iowa State scheme makes it difficult to do for an entire game. If they stay disciplined, there will be stops and turnovers that will allow the offense additional opportunities to extend a lead.
Next up, a look at the Memphis defense and how Iowa State can shred it.