Film Room: The empty backfield


One of the last things you expect to see from a run-oriented offense is five receivers lining up on the field at the same time, but Kansas State effectively used that formation several times during its 24-19 victory at Oklahoma.

The Wildcats took John Hubert and Braden Wilson out of the game at times during all four quarters and went with an empty backfield on plenty of occasions. With quarterback Collin Klein’s ability to scramble for first downs, the formation offers plenty of possibilities. The Sooners twice used timeouts to plan for them when K-State marched five receivers onto the field.

“Just something different,” is how Klein described it earlier this week. “I know it’s a very good complement to a lot of our physical run game stuff. It’s neat stuff. I like it. It’s a good package.”

He also likes being in complete control of the plays.

“Yeah, definitely,” Klein said. “It’s fun. It is very versatile and we have a lot of good playmakers in all the spots.”

Following in the footsteps of Missouri beat writer Terez Paylor, who came up with the Film Room idea last week, here is a look at how K-State used the empty backfield, and how Oklahoma responded to it, on Saturday:

This is K-State’s first use of the empty backfield. It comes on a third-and-six near midfield. When Oklahoma saw it, coaches got spooked and called a timeout to prepare. When the Sooners returned to the field to see the same formation, they counter with three defensive linemen, a linebacker showing blitz and two other linebackers who are playing back. With OU defensive backs spread out to cover five receivers, the middle of the field looks open for a quarterback draw.

At least more open than it usually is when defenses pile defenders close to the line of scrimmage and try to stuff K-State’s running attack, as Oklahoma did on a different play below (seven defenders are in the box with two more waiting to join the party) when K-State wasn’t in a five-wide set.

Back to the third-and-six play. Klein decides to tuck the ball and run, and it seems like a good decision based on all that open space up the middle.

But Oklahoma’s blitzing linebacker makes a good play, and slows Klein up with an arm tackle. Other OU defenders converge to help him bring Klein to the ground for a five-yard gain. That brought up fourth-and-one, and the Wildcats decided to punt.

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Let’s look at another five-wide play in the second quarter. Once again, K-State is facing a third-and-six. Oklahoma once again calls timeout when K-State shows its formations, but this time the Sooners counter with a four-man front and a man-to-man defense on the outside. The two safeties are assigned to the middle.

This once again creates space in the middle, but not for Klein run through. This time, he waits for Tramaine Thompson to make a nifty stop-and-go move to fool the linebacker who is covering him. Once he gets by him, Klein is left with an easy throw and K-State picks up 11 yards for a first down.

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Here’s anoter play to look at. K-State faces a second-and-10 in the second half, and needs a long pass to pick up a first down. But after seeing the Wildcats use five receivers earlier in the game, Oklahoma has adjusted its defensive strategy. This time, the Sooners come out in a five-man front with another defender showing blitz. So Klein audibles and asks Curry Sexton to move into a blocking formation on the left side of the line.

Sexton picks up his man and keeps him away from Klein, and it’s a good thing he does. Because everyone else on Oklahoma’s line retreats to clog up the middle of the field. Klein ends up throwing into double coverage for an incomplete pass.

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The final play we examine is a third-and-10 in the third quarter. K-State has isolated Chris Harper at the top of photo with four receivers on the bottom. All Oklahoma needs to do in this situation is prevent a long pass from being completed and it gets the ball, so it shows a light pass rush and asks its defensive backs to play off the line of scrimmage.

Just about everyone in an OU uniform drops back into coverage with only three defensive linemen trying to get to Klein. Klein has Sexton open on the left, but he’s looking at Torell Miller (not seen on this shot) who comes back to the ball and gets open on the right side. Klein throws his way, but Miller drops the pass. K-State has to punt.