Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Zoltan, rugby punting, and the read that wasn't

There's been a whole heck of a lot made of the Zoltan fake punt/read punt that happened last Saturday against MSU. Was it a called play? Was it a missed read? Why wouldn't Rich Rod take that read away from Zoltan that close to the endzone? With visions of high-stepping first downs and an ecstatic student section flashing Zs to the cosmos, Zoltan tried to make something happen. Unfortunately, the play was never designed for him to have a read here. This was supposed to be a punt, all the way. My guess is that somewhere in the play calling, Zoltan thought he was told he had a read. He didn't.

The tale of the tape bears this out. But first let's look at last year's (at the :50 mark) successful puntrunning madness.

As you can see, the team is lined up in the spread punt formation. Zoltan (being left-footed) is to roll to his left and either punt or tuck and run. The key to this play, which you will see later, is the way the team is lined up: The two gunners are covered up by two blockers to Zoltan's left.

The gunners release on their way down to attack the punt returner, bringing the defenders with them. Now, Zoltan essentially has a wall of three blockers in front of him. If the attacker closest to him plays contain, Zoltan is forced to punt the ball away. This is the same read that our quarterback has against the weakside DE in the zone read play that Michigan often runs. Except here, if the defender crashes down on Zoltan, he's supposed to pull the ball and run to the edge. If the defender keeps contain, Zoltan is supposed to punt the ball. (This, by the way, is likely a gross oversimplification, but is the way it works in my mind.) The defender decides to crash.

You can see the mistake the defender made by crashing, and Zoltan has nothing but green pastures ahead of him, with the closest unblocked defender 20+ yards away.

The "read" defender gets free and chases Zoltan but is already too far away. Zoltan has more than enough room to run and easily pick up the first down before being forced out of bounds. Zoltan was given this read and he made it correctly.

This was not the case against Michigan State (1:20 mark). More after the break.
Take a look at the presnap alignment of the team:

The key difference here is the allignment of the gunners: they are to Zoltan's right, a direction that he can't roll to because of his wacky left-footedness. This is the key difference. I assume that the blockers on the playside (to the top of the screen) in this formation are instructed to block and release, so as to attack downfield. In the option punt play, the backside defenders are haplessly chasing the kicker. Here, however, because the play has been flipped, those block-and-release players--normally on the backside of the play--are on the playside of the field and releasing defenders directly at Zoltan (i.e., puntpuntpuntpunt). As you'll see in a minute, like the successful punt fake against Minnesota, the gunners once again pull their defenders with them, vacating that side of the field, mostly.

The ball is snapped and Zoltan begins his rollout. As with the play against Minnesota from last year, the gunners--to Zoltan's right, now--bring their defenders with them. The wall of blockers in front of Zoltan are ignoring the weakside defender (the player who, in the flipped option punt, Zoltan would read, and who eventually makes the tackle in this play) and looking to set up a solid wall for him to punt behind. The block-and-release blockers are running the engage their respective defenders.

At this point, Zoltan has prematurely decided to tuck and run. There's no thought of punting here, and I think this is partially because the defender he's reading (the one being blocked one-on-one on the 10 yard line) is crashing down on him. Note that this player is never going to be a read in this formation because he's always trying to force the punter back into the middle of the field (playing contain, essentially). He thinks he's got green field to the sideline; he doesn't. As you can see, all of his other would-be blockers have released. The point of read plays is to strand one player on an island and force him to make a decision. That's not how this play is designed and is clearly not the call that was made. And then it gets worse:

The player Zoltan was reading forced him back inside (allowing the backside defender to catch up and tackle him, no less), but Zoltan was running into the teeth of the defense the whole time. As you can see, Michigan has seven blockers releasing down field to get after the punt. They're even looking back, wondering what was going on. And then the play ended and then sadness and so forth.

Zoltan absolutely did not have a read on this play. Either one of the coaches gave him the wrong information, Zoltan made the wrong presnap read, or Zoltan just wanted to be a hero. My guess is B. This ball should have been punted away (duh), and there was never supposed to be an option for Zoltan to tuck and run. It's admirable that Rich Rod was willing to bite the bullet and say that Zoltan had a read but slipped up. That's clearly a lie. But throwing your senior punter under the bus isn't really the best thing to do.


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