"Personally, I’ve long believed that a successful team will be a reflection of the values of the people in the state," new Wyoming coach Craig Bohl says.
Cultural context matters when evaluating strategy. For instance, there's a fad in American history to suggest that the Confederacy could have defeated the Union had it adopted fourth-generation warfare tactics like we've seen deployed in the Middle East in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The problem with this reasoning is that Southern people in the 1860s were not interested in waging anything like a guerilla war. They wanted big showdowns with the North and invested their hopes in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. It almost worked, but since it failed, some historians have suggested, "they should have done [X] instead!"
You see the same thing play out in college football, as fans often want their teams to adopt whichever strategy is popular in a given week, regardless of cultural fit or practicality.
At North Dakota State, Bohl embraced strategies that he and his staff had seen work in Nebraska and other similar regions. Bohl loaded his roster up with players from Nebraska, North Dakota, and Minnesota, and the Bison won FCS national championships in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
North Dakota State gained steam with each season, and the third champion was the strongest, going undefeated in 15 games and opening by taking down defending Big 12 champion Kansas State in Manhattan. That was the fourth consecutive time that the Bison had defeated an FBS opponent. The 2013 team went on to produce two running backs with over 1,300 rushing yards, while its defense held opponents to 11.3 points per game at only 4.2 yards per play.
Now, Bohl is moving to FBS program Wyoming. As Bohl puts it, "Certain styles and compositions of a football team, if they're in line with how the people in the state are, you have a chance for success. The people of North Dakota are hard-working, resilient, resourceful, very straightforward and conservative people, much like people in Nebraska or Wyoming. People in Wyoming are embracing our style of play."
Wyoming is a state of only 583,000 people, but one in which the populace has bought into college football -- the Cowboys are the only major sports team in the state.
How exactly can Bohl's approach unlock the football potential of Heartland America and put the University of Wyoming on the map, and how will it continue at NDSU under new head coach and former defensive coordinator Chris Klieman?
Pure power on offense
Bison football brings new meaning to the terms smashmouth and power running game. North Dakota State offensive football is brutal and efficient, with drives frequently consisting of repeated power calls up the gut.
In many ways, Bison football resembles the Power Coast approach of the Stanford Cardinal, combining a West Coast passing game with a heavy emphasis on power. The way North Dakota State runs God's play is as physical a variety as you will find in college football:
Now, there's a little bit of cleverness going on here. The Bison line up a fullback as X receiver before motioning him into the backfield, resulting in Coastal Carolina having a small cornerback playing the edge instead of a bigger linebacker. But that hardly even mattered here.
What's interesting about Bison power runs is that the fullbacks always start inside and then kick out the defensive end. They never seek to adjust to the end diving inside, but are always determined to clear a crease up the gut for the pulling guard to lead through and for the running back to find.
Kansas State tried to stop them from finding space inside by lining up both defensive tackles in 2i techniques, shaded inside of the guards. This was utterly ineffective:
North Dakota State ran for 215 yards against the Wildcats at five yards per carry.
Other programs try to run power in this fashion, with a physical kick-out block and violent down blocks by the OL, but they lack the brute force at the fullback or line positions to get the job done. For Bohl, recruiting out West with his own personal pilot license makes it possible to venture out and find rural kids that are tough enough to execute these concepts.
"It's a challenge to find the old pro-back fullback or H-back. Those guys run counter-culture to what's going on in football. But you have a kid that grew up on a ranch, drives a pick-up, and has a belt buckle, he doesn't mind bashing his head into a DE 15 to 20 times a game."
In addition to power, North Dakota State has also relied on other plays like power G or counter, sometimes involving the quarterback as a runner:
In this instance, the QB fakes an option run to the tight end side of the formation as a counter step before turning and running behind a lead block by the center.
Mostly though, they run power. Lots of teams want to build around plays like this with the same kind of simplicity and efficiency, but there's no doubt that Bohl's recruiting has been more effective at finding the players to make it work.
While smashmouth tactics define Bison offense, there's also the West Coast passing game.
"We have a combination of option routes and precision passing game to be really effective," Bohl said, which has an overall aim of providing the Bison with the means to stay on the field and continue to pound the ball on the ground. Some of that can be illustrated with examples such as this one:
Bohl's offense frequently uses motion to cause defenses to declare their intentions and clear up reads or present opportunities for audibles for the QB. On the Bison's legendary, eight-minute drive to beat KSU, they frequently lined up in a four-receiver, 2x2 formation and then motioned the running back out of the backfield.
If the middle linebacker chased him, as he did on this play, quarterback Brock Jensen knew he was facing man-to-man coverage, likely a blitz, and could then make a quick throw to a receiver running into the short middle zone. As it happened, both X and Z came open on this play.
On many of their routes, Bison receivers run to open grass underneath, depending on the coverage they find. The passing game is designed to allow the QB to make quick reads, then throw the targeted receiver open. Including receiver reads in an offense requires a high degree of both chemistry and simplicity, but the overall structure of the Bison offense makes it possible.
There wasn't a ton in the Bison passing game that was particularly aggressive, but they were good at converting third downs, at 55 percent on the year.
Overall, they made use of having upperclassmen with good football IQ and considerable size and toughness to form an offense that bulldozed even the FBS opponents that stood in the way.
This ruthless style of play is on its way to the Mountain West. Tim Heitman, USA Today.
And unyielding on defense
Hope on the High Plains
Welcome to Wyoming, where one of Division I football's smallest and most passionate fan bases is braving the weather and waiting for a winner.
Most teams in football, either in college or in the NFL, have abandoned the Tampa 2 defense, save for in third-down packages. Precision passing games adjusted to find ways to create quick reads and easy throws against the four-man underneath coverage of Tampa 2. Rule changes also made it harder to rely on a strategy that allows receivers to catch short passes before lighting them up.
Even more challenging in the college game are the packaged plays that put zone defenders in run/pass conflict and make the defense wrong, regardless of its choice.
In the midst of all these developments, Bohl stayed true to the scheme. North Dakota State dominates on defense while employing it. While many adopted the Tampa 2 as a fad and ditched it when it became unpopular, the conservative Bison staff nurtures it.
"We rolled up our sleeves many years ago to install the Tampa 2. To do it you really have to commit to it. Some of the adjustments with a QB run game didn’t translate initially, but we’ve stayed within the goalposts of developing that system," Bohl says. "We’ve accessed connections we had in the NFL: Lovie Smith, Monte Kiffin, and others, and schooled-up clinics with college coaches."
While staying faithful to the Tampa 2 as a foundational scheme, Bohl and his staff were able to adjust it to meet the needs of a modern defense. The scheme can still be vulnerable to the quick game, but Bohl and his staff were able to maintain the Tampa 2 philosophy of avoiding big aerial plays, which is usually enough to carry the day.
Bohl was unwilling to go into intimate details about how his defense adjusts to spread concepts, but a review of the tape reveals a few answers:
Here KSU calls a running back draw/iso play, which is a classic Tampa 2 buster and one that the Indianapolis Colts used to great effect against their Tampa 2 opponents, the Chicago Bears, in Super Bowl XLI. Normally, the middle linebacker sees the OL in a protection set and drops back, only to yield yards up the middle to the inside draw.
Of course, this same principle is at work in many packaged plays, which give defenders false keys. The solution, seen in the above clip, is that Bohl's defense has calls in which the middle linebacker is free to be a pass-first player. He's replaced in his role of filling inside runs by the outside linebackers:
The cornerbacks are force players on the edge, while the sam and will linebackers move inside and look to spill runs. As a general rule, the defense is always looking to spill the ball outside, where the middle linebacker and safeties are flowing to the ball. The result is often a pass-first player like a deep safety making a tackle near the line of scrimmage:
By remaining committed to the Tampa 2 and finding solutions and supplemental calls to address its weaknesses, Bohl has been able to continue to use the scheme. He noted, "The biggest thing is to redefine and mix coverages, be able to call man [coverage] at the right time or also being really skilled with your linebackers and how you play things with your corners."
Bohl mixes in some cover 2 man, cover 3, and a large amount of blitzes and pre-snap movement to help prevent offenses from keying in on the weak spots in base zone coverage.
This defense is perfect for schools like North Dakota State or Wyoming, since the level of athleticism needed to fill each role isn't too great. The linebackers need to be laterally quick and hard-nosed players, but the safeties and middle linebacker have the advantage of being able to drop back, read the play, and run downhill to the ball. It's much easier to find players who can learn keys and run fast in a straight line than to find players who can backpedal, flip their hips, and run with athletes on offense.
Of course, everyone still has to be willing to blow up blockers and make big tackles, but these requirements are right in line with the types of players that Bohls has access to in states like Wyoming, Minnesota, and Colorado.
"If you look in the NFL Draft, not to say that the draft experts are 100 percent right, but if you look down in the first round, you see a pick from Buffalo, while Texas has no one drafted. We believe that football is a developmental game and [the players we recruit] have a skill set that lends itself to development."
Bohl's strategy has mixed classic schemes, a hard-nosed approach, and lots of Middle American kids from communities that buy into a conservative and blue-collar way of playing football. The resulting concoction absolutely dominated the FCS level, and now it's coming for the Mountain West.
It may take some time for Wyoming to adjust from Dave Christensen's newfangled spread schemes to playing in the Power-I, but keep an eye out for Cowboy football to tap into its roots and adapt just enough to maintain a place in the modern game.