Joe Hubener is not fast. He's not particularly shifty, either. In fact, he's almost lumbering, if you get down to it. But boy did he rack up the yards against an undersized, over-pursuing TCU defense Saturday night in Manhattan. The K State QB had 26 carries for 111 yards, part of a team attack that amassed 228 yards on nearly five per carry, and managed to score six times. And a large portion of these yards came from a single play, the zone read.
The read option offense isn't anything all that new in college football; an evolution of the old staple option offense, Rich Rodriguez is credited with bringing the zone read play out of the shotgun to college football, while K State's Bill Snyder is also recognized as an early innovator. It is now a staple of many of the spread and air raid offenses currently in vogue, and used in different ways by different offenses. Once such offense is of course the TCU Horned Frogs, who have incorporated the "regular option", as well as the zone read, in to their explosive offense to best exploit the athleticism and strengths of Trevone Boykin.
The 'read' part of the zone read falls on the QB's shoulders; it's up to him to read either the defensive end or the linebacker in order to make the call on whether to hand it off, keep it, or drop in to a pass or pop pass play. Let's take a closer look by using Trevone Boykin's 69 yard go ahead score in the Little Apple.
The Frogs line up with Boykin in the shotgun, with three receivers split out (two on the short side of the field and a singular man on the wide), a blocking back in front of him, and running back Aaron Green deep.
At the snap, Boykin has one read - the defensive end. As he puts the ball in Green's belly, he sees the defensive end crashing down, and makes the call to keep it.
The defensive end sees the handoff, reads run, and stays on Green, opening a running leg for Boykin to the short side of the field.
In order for Tre to get sprung for a long run, he needs a couple of blocks from his downfield receivers, Shaun Nixon and Josh Doctson. This is one of the underrated skills of TCU's crop of speedsters - when you have guys that can run, you need blockers to take on defenders down field, and the receiving crew does a nice job of that, including on this play.
From there, it's off to the races - and there aren't many players in college football that are going to catch him. But what if the defensive player is spying the QB or doesn't bite on the fake?
On the first play from scrimmage, the Frogs lined up in a similar set, but instead of a blocking back, they put KaVontae Turpin in motion behind the play. The movement freezes the defense just enough, and the offensive line is able to get, and hold their blocks, leaving a big hole for the TCU running back. Boykin sees the hole and puts the ball in Green's belly on the handoff.
Notice the Cats linebackers; the combination of the motion and Boykin's fake to Turpin in the flat give them just enough pause to allow Green to creep through the second level, and once he gets to the secondary, none of the defenders are able to get an angle on him.
One quick cut and the defenders are grasping at air.
Watch the entire run in all it's glory, and notice how the threat of so many playmakers on the TCU offense leave the defense guessing - and in this case, guessing wrong.
So, how do you defend this dangerous offensive attack? Glad you asked. Let's take a look.
Against Texas in 2014, the Frogs all but negated a dangerous Horn rushing attack, swarming the ball and staying in their lanes. Here, UT lines up in a three wide set, but has running backs on either side of Tyrone Swoopes, who is in the shotgun.
As Swoopes puts the football in Jonathan Gray's belly, and the Texas line blocks hard to the wide side of the field, the defensive end holds his assignment instead of crashing in to the backfield, causing Swoopes to give up the ball and send his running back in to the teeth of the TCU D.
Once the defense sees that Swoopes no longer has the ball, they can crash to Gray and make the stop after a minimal gain. The difference between last year and this comes down to one thing - experience. With guys like Mallett and Dawson at linebacker and a defensive line loaded with guys who had significant snaps under their belt, they were able to read and diagnose plays with a speed and precision lacking in 2015's edition. Converted safeties Travin Howard and Montrel Wilson didn't have to make those calls in high school or fall practice, and with only a few weeks of playing linebacker under their belts, they don't quite have the hours of film study or game snaps against a running team needed to make those calls quickly.
Hubener was so successful early by holding on to the ball, that the defense crashed hard to him, over pursuing the play and leading to big gains for the running backs. As Hubener makes his decision, the TCU defenders all follow the blocks and crash hard to the K State QB.
There is a huge hole on the wide side of the field, and one of the safeties doesn't even realize the ball is going the other way, with his back to the ball and the play.
The misdiagnosis leads to a long Kansas State touchdown, and 30 of their over 200 rushing yards. Fortunately, the D clamped down in the second half, and the offense exploded - limiting the Cats rushing attack and forcing them in to a more pass heavy offense.
Fortunately for the Frogs, they won't see as complex and well-executed running attack anywhere else in Big 12 play, and survived the Wizard of the Little Apple in their only meeting of the season. But, for the Frogs, it was a hard lesson learned, and will certainly mean more time in the film room for the tadpoles on the TCU D.