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BASICS: ODE TO THE SHOVEL PASS

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YES THIS IS ABOUT ‘95 NEBRASKA WHY YOU ASKING

Minnesota Vikings v Atlanta Falcons
SEE EVEN THE PROS DO IT, IT CAN’T BE HARD
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Children, gather round and gaze upon the wonders of the 1995 Nebraksa offense. We’re very fond of this offense for a few reasons. It destroyed our own 1995 Florida Gators in the Fiesta Bowl for one, and did so with such breathtaking efficiency and brutality that it transcended any anger we could have over a 62-24 beating. Some things are so beautiful they destroy politics, tribal affiliation, and your defensive line.

Simplicity and variation is another thing to like here. None of what Nebraska did in their option-first offense was all that complex, but what they did do they presented in a ton of variations, and always with little wrinkles, tweaks, and adjustments designed specifically to piss off and confuse the defense.

This, for instance, is just a shovel pass. (“A goddamn shovel!” <—-most defensive coordinators on just hearing the words.) The formation is pretty basic, but also super troublesome: A two tight end formation with a single back. Oh, you thought 1990s Nebraska was all I-formation option? Cool, you’d probably get filleted by them in a game situation too.

Because there are two tight ends, there are now more run gaps to defend. Because there are more spaces to assign and defend, the defense needs to bring more people into the box to defend against that run. (Which they know is probably coming, because: Nebraska.) Because there are now so many defenders in the box, there is an instantaneous threat of those receivers going downfield, getting vertical, and

In addition to all that, the defense is facing Nebraska ‘95, and that means you’re getting the run. Because they run the hell out of the ball with the option — and because they do it effectively, and in so many ways — this starts to do other, also very, very bad things to a defense. They start to play basic defenses with basic assignments just hoping to keep all their guys in the right place, and not blitz right past a potential ballcarrier. Defenders either begin to hesitate or overpursue off ball-fakes. Those things in combination begin to create space in the defense; Space in the defense means bleeding yardage all over the place.

In 1995, more often than not, that meant a Nebraska ball carrier running wild through linebackers and well past confused defensive ends. To make things worse, they sometimes even passed the ball — again, you thought you knew this offense? — and the threat of the pass on top of that opened up even more.

As in: this play! Watch the poor defensive end here, who crashes down unblocked on a play that could be a sprint-outish pass, or an option, or a counter, or whatever other hell Nebraska wanted to unleash at that moment. He ends up with an eye on Tommie Frazier, which happened a lot because Tommie Frazier’s role in this offense really was a Steph Curry kind of role. He was capable of distributing because he made brilliant reads consistently, but was also more than capable of driving the ball on his own or hitting from deep when necessary.

The driving the ball on his own was always the more impressive part, but the combination of all three made him one of the deadlier point guards in college football history.

This goes beyond nostalgia and into some real fundamental, extremely good and enriching things for a basic football watcher to know for a few reasons. This is from under center, and might look nearly paleolithic now, but the shovel pass remains a common, relatively risk-free play in a lot of offenses today. The risk/reward is beautiful: It technically counts as a forward pass, and is an incompletion if it doesn’t work and not a game-changing turnover.

FREE YARDS ARE THE BEST YARDS

It’s also basic, church-y football because of what it’s trying to do, and what stops it. See that poor defensive end, stuck out all by himself and about to turn to ash before our eyes? Coming way up the field to stop the extremely talented and scary Frazier?

So much of what all modern offenses try to do is isolate and negate the most dangerous defensive player on the field. So often that player is the defensive end, a position that along with the “jack” hybrid linebacker in a 3-4 scheme has become a place to find absolute mutants capable of doing real damage to ballcarriers, pass protection schemes, and your personal happiness in general.

Neutralizing THAT dude, wherever he might be at the point of attack, is so important to the some of the most successful coaches and schemes around. It’s what Bill Walsh tried to do by bootlegging or swinging the QB away from a handoff or play-action fake, for example, and one reason Joe Gibbs embraced the one-back offense because it let him put two tight ends in the neighborhood of the unblockable Lawrence Taylor. It’s a big, big problem, and it is something the big, big brains of the game have to confront in scheming against any defense.

At the college level, the option does that by reading the evil, very bad player at the point of attack. It might not always be done with the option — see, the lowly but noble shovel pass — but the idea is the same. Get everyone else blocked out, work your inherent five o- linemen-on-four-defensive-ends numbers advantage in the box, and make the right read when you get a two-on-one situation. The formations and alignment change, but the basic math does not, and in that array of things to hang The Dude out on a very long yardarm, the shovel pass remains a delightfully inexpensive, sneaky, and fun way of doing it.

Oh, and unfortunately for Colorado here and for a ton of other teams — GO GATORS — Tommie Frazier almost never made the wrong read.