College football fans who tuned in to the season's true opener were given a rare treat when Bob Stitt's Montana "Griz" took on four-time FCS champions North Dakota State on national television. It's not common that most fans actually get to see a Stitt offense or the brilliance of the Bison.
What they saw was a first-time starting QB in a system just installed this offseason throwing the ball 55 times for 434 yards, good for 7.89 yards per pass, with three touchdowns and a single interception. Brady Gustafson had quite a nice day, and it was coming against a Bison defense that is better than many (maybe most?) FBS defenses.
The Grizzlies' new offense is explosive, and it's likely to only improve as Gustafson and his receivers learn to adjust to blitzes and defenses. You wonder how long Stitt will stick around at Montana now that his name is getting out there, but the Grizzlies set up for an entertaining playoffs run regardless.
If you haven't had a chance to take in his offense with your own eyes, here's how #StittHappens.
The Stitt philosophy
The first thing most people heard about Stitt was that he designed a play West Virginia's head coach Dana Holgorsen used in a blowout victory in the Orange Bowl.
It was a basic fly sweep play, but executed from the shotgun, with QB Geno Smith tossing the ball out in front to the receiver sweeping across the formation. Stitt reasoned that if the handoff was risky, since it could become a fumble, why not make it a toss? A fumbled exchange would be an incomplete pass rather than a potential turnover.
Clemson was befuddled.
Another revelation of Stitt's brilliance came from a play he imparted to Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M, a WR tunnel screen designed to beat man coverage.
Better defenses will train their players to recognize screens and ruin them by halting in their paths. The idea is to find the receiver as the blockers move to find targets at the next level. Man blitzers can sniff out and destroy tunnel screens, if they become proficient at recognizing them.
With the Stitt version, the defense isn't tipped off. The D can struggle to get numbers to the ballcarrier if the receivers' blocks are executed properly.
You'll notice Holgorsen and Sumlin are part of the air raid coaching tree, and that's where Stitt belongs, as well. What he has designed is one of the best finesse spread offenses in the country, with several clever adaptations to make it particularly explosive.
The run game is basically just a constraint. The offense is designed to punish every opponent response with the passing game, and when Stitt can, he goes for the throat.
Encouraging man coverage
The first part of the plan is to encourage man coverage, despite his players sometimes being physically outmatched in his previous stint at Colorado School of Mines and at Montana against the Bison.
He explained in Houston that he used to dread opponents lining up in press coverage and blitzing his team, but the back shoulder throw had offered a solution. 'We want man coverage, and we've got receivers who run 4.8 and 4.9 40s,' he said.
One way Stitt pushes this is with wide splits, much like Baylor. Montana spreads defenders so wide that zone coverage becomes more of a theoretical concept than a reality.
With the outside receivers on the numbers and the slot receivers on the hash or wider, it's hard to get help covering anyone without vacating the box, as the Bison were forced to do here.
If teams try to widen out and present the Griz with a five-man box, Stitt will hit them with zone runs all day long. Montana will get a blocker on every defender, leaving the backs to run down the middle in space.
Stitt will also attack zone coverages with flood concepts designed to overload an area and force defenders to match up in tighter coverage or be ripped apart. Trying to play zone against Stitt's offense is going to require an outnumbered front against the run and/or pattern-matching coverages that basically become man coverage when the routes break.
Naturally, the Griz also use a fast tempo that can help force simplicity from the defense. If you're going to be as simple as possible on defense to avoid assignment busts, man coverage is the way to go.
Attacking man coverage
So now you're in the coverage Stitt wants, or maybe you were there all along because you weren't afraid of the Montana WR corps. Now you're in big trouble.
One of the better defenses for handling the spread offense is the updated fire zone blitz. It has evolved into something like a 5-2 defense, with five on the line and two linebackers, plus a version of coverage. A modern fire zone blitz looks something like this:
The way this works is not unlike a 46 nickel defense or the old 5-2 Monster defense, except the defense can change up which five players attack the line of scrimmage. The edge players up front can't allow runners to reach the outside, while the six players dropping into pass coverage will often play simple man coverage.
In this instance, the cornerbacks cover the receiver closest to each sideline. The next two take the second receiver (Y) and the inside receiver (H). In this case, the strong safety ($) takes on that H. The safety who isn't dropping (F) over a receiver drops into a deep middle zone.
This type of blitz causes problems for spread passing offenses. It allows the defense to match up on receivers in a sound fashion to prevent any quick throws. It keeps a zone defender in the center to blow up anything over the middle. And it allows the defense to get one-on-one matchups for its blitzers while also disguising their paths.
If the blitz is well-timed, what often happens is the QB finding himself under quick pressure and trying to find an open receiver against tight coverage before a blitzer gets him.
Defenses like this show why spread teams often respond by beefing up the run game. That means simple answers to blitzes. Stitt is an exception. You want to attack his QB with five rushers, at the expense of a coverage player? He's looking to make you pay with a pass.
Montana has a few main responses to that single-safety man coverage. One is the tunnel screen he taught to A&M.
The thinking, which notably doesn't include offensive linemen heading downfield, is that it forces the defense to either beat the blocks (here, by H and Y) or rely on the one unblocked DB (here, $) making the tackle (here, on X). Any false step could spell doom for the defense.
Stitt also loves shallow crossing routes and "rub" plays. Those can mean defenders crossing paths while covering different receivers, making man coverage complicated and leading to receivers who can catch on the run.
Finally, the hot reads Montana gives its QB and WRs in the event of a blitz are aggressive. Those pre-snap and on-the-fly adjustments are designed to make defensive coordinators afraid to call blitzes.
The basic philosophy is for the QB, upon recognizing a blitz (which almost certainly means man coverage), to immediately find his boundary receiver. That receiver's basically running a GO (get open!) route. Often, the throw will be a back shoulder fade, named for the QB's target: the receiver's shoulder on the side opposite the defender.
It's the most difficult pass to defend. By making it a point of emphasis and undoubtedly practicing it rigorously, the Grizzlies have a way to get after teams that try to respond to spread passing with pressure.
North Dakota State discovered in the second quarter that it could keep the Griz under wraps by playing two-deep coverage with man coverage underneath and asking the wide cornerback to be aggressive in run support. NDSU also used a stunt with defensive tackles that chewed up the Montana zone run.
And the Bison still ended up yielding seven passes of 20 yards or more over the course of the game.
Stitt plays for blood.
After getting to the goal line on their final drive, the Griz went old school and brought their middle linebacker on to block for the offense. Montana ran old-fashioned iso to win.
Stitt happens, and that's really all there is to say.
@Gil_Brandt We called our favorite "trick" play on the last play for the win . "Iso left"! #OldSchool— Bob Stitt (@CoachBobStitt) September 1, 2015