With less than two minutes to go in the game, BYU had forced Arizona to a 3rd-and-short situation right at midfield. On this crucial play the Wildcats were able to spread out the BYU defense and take back the lead. How exactly did this all play out, and what might it mean for next week?
First let’s watch the play in real time.
Now let’s take a closer look.
Before the snap we can see that Arizona split out two wide receivers on each side and kept running back Nick Wilson to the side of quarterback Anu Solomon. On defense BYU (in their base 4-3 set) had Fred Warner split out on top of the inside receiver on the far side and Francis Bernard was crept close to the line of scrimmage bluffing a blitz. The cornerbacks lined up tight to the line and safeties Micah Hannemann and Kai Nacua played over the top of each WR set, leaving a sizable gap in the middle of the filed.
You can also see that the inside receiver (circled in blue) on the near side of the field is essentially uncovered. Defensive end Harvey Langi is lined up in his vicinity but his eyes are in the backfield. This will impact what happens to the safeties in the next sequence.
In this second shot, we see that the ball has been snapped and Solomon and Wilson are running the zone read, where the QB will be reading the DE (Langi) to see if we pursues the RB or waits for Solomon to pull the ball. We also see that the two inside receivers on each side step back and turn to look for a screen pass heading their way. There is a chance that this is how the play is designed, with Solomon having the option to either hand the ball off or throw a quick screen pass to either side, but more than anything it keeps the defense on their heels.
Fred Warner, who is playing on the far side of the field, leaves the inside receiver and starts to making his way to toward the backfield while fellow linebackers Francis Bernard and Butch Pau’u maintain position. Langi, who was positioned as a stand-up defensive end, takes a couple of steps up field but doesn’t crash down immediately to take down Wilson because he needs to set the edge in the event that Solomon pulls the ball out and runs it himself.
At this point it’s hard to tell what exactly Arizona could do here. They have the two options from the zone read, the two inside receivers stepping back for a screen pass and for all we know those outside receivers could take off downfield on a deep route. That’s what makes the zone read offense so difficult to defend. They can attack so many different ways in just one play.
This is where we start to see things break down for BYU. Solomon has handed the ball off to Wilson and the Arizona offensive line is in a perfect position to bust off a big play. In the the blue circles you’ll see that every Arizona offensive lineman has a hat on a BYU defender with only two defensive players being left unblocked, those being Langi and Fred Warner. Langi (circled in yellow) is the only one in position to make the play but it’s a tough one because he’s still keeping outside contain. Butch Pau’u takes one wrong step to his left and is caught by the center who is now in position to seal him off.
Unless Langi is able to make a play or Fred Warner is able to fly down from the far side of the field to make a tackle, this one is going to the second level where BYU will need help from the safeties. Unfortunately both Hannemann and Nacua have started charging hard towards the line of scrimmage to cover the inside receivers who are setting up for the screen pass. The ball is already in Wilson’s hands but they aren’t peeking into the backfield. They’re reading what those outside receivers are doing and one of them is blocking the cornerback while the other is looking for a screen pass. With no other defender in the vicinity to help, they run up to make a plan. The only problem is by stepping up to cover the screen pass, they essentially take themselves out of the play which is a run right up the middle.
In this next shot we can see just how far up field Nacua and Hannemann are, all while Wilson is about to leave them in the dust. The offensive line for Arizona really deserves a lot of credit on this one because they executed this play perfectly, particularly the blocks on Pau’u and Francis Bernard. Once Wilson sheds the arm tackle of Langi he has a huge hole to run through and then onto pay dirt.
From the image above it doesn’t look like there is a ton of room for Wilson to escape but with the blocks set and no defender within reach to make a play, this is an easy score.
It’s hard to say that anyone was drastically out of position or that someone made a huge mistake on this play. It was the small things that led to their demise here. If Langi is quicker to see that Wilson has the ball, maybe he makes a play in the backfield. If Butch Pau’u doesn’t take those two steps to the left but instead steps right, he might be in perfect position to avoid the block and make a tackle. If Francis Bernard sheds his blocker a little quicker he might have a play on Wilson. Lastly, if the safeties had their heads on a swivel and they didn’t take such a directly line of attack to stuff the screen pass there is a chance they take down Wilson after a 10-15 yard gain.
Overall, the defense played fantastic as a unit and shutdown an offense that has been given teams serious issues in years past. This play just goes to show that just a few small steps in the wrong direction can lead to a touchdown for the opposition.