New Oregon DC Lupoi is best known to Pac-12 fans as a recruiter over his 14-year career as a coach. His college tenure comprises four years at Cal, two at UW, and five at Alabama, before spending the last three seasons in the NFL. In his second-to-last year with the Tide he became the co-DC, and his final season in 2018 he was the playcalling DC. I reviewed the film on that 15-game national-title winning season.
The most immediately obvious thing from the tape is that the “Mint” front defensive structure, developed around 2014 by Alabama head coach Saban and then-DC Smart (now head coach at Georgia) as a modification of the “Tite” front that’s taken over college football, was still in place in 2018 for Lupoi to call plays within. Smart took that virtually identical structure to Georgia, and new Oregon head coach Lanning was calling plays within it as the Bulldogs’ DC during their own national-title winning season in 2021.
I’ll break down that defensive structure extensively in a future article after I finish reviewing the complete 2021 film for Georgia; here’s a good primer on the subject in the meantime. For the purposes of this review of Lupoi as a playcaller, the reader simply needs to know that it’s designed to stop spread offenses by devoting as much of its resources as possible to the back end to defend a horizontal or vertical stretch passing attack, while doing more with less up front against the run. The fundamental philosophy is that in modern football the pass is far more lethal than the run, so they “spill & kill” the run with as few personnel as they can. That means clogging B-gap runs with three down-linemen (typically in a 4i-0-4i) plus one inserted backer to stall — instead of outright stop — the back at the line of scrimmage and buy time for the other backers and safeties to come upfield, while freeing up the maximum feasible personnel against quick passes.
The challenge for the playcaller is to avoid obvious tendencies for the offense to exploit given the deliberately lightened box and delayed backer and safety response to a run, and to get pressure without a lot of blitzing. I think Lupoi was pretty successful in that regard – I don’t have any strong correlations on my tally sheet between the coverage shell or which backers were rushing, compared to the down & distance, field position, or offensive personnel.
One note before we examine some video: these clips are not representative, as most of my team previews are. The vast majority of Alabama’s successful plays were won physically with their absolutely incredible talent, particularly the defensive line, and the vast majority of unsuccessful ones weren’t schematic issues but simply the very talented teams on their schedule making great plays. We’re only interested here in examining schematic choices, and the illustrative plays are pretty rare and unrepresentative. I did make sure, however, that everything in the clips below happened more than once or twice during the season so they aren’t total flukes.
Let’s start with the variety of effective pass defense concepts to get off the field against long 3rd downs:
(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)
- :00 - It’s a little goofy because the freshman corner is slow to remember his assignment when the X-receiver goes in motion, but I included it to illustrate how the matchup zone coverage works. This looks kind of like man from leverage but it’s zone, and the replay angle shows how it lets the other corner keep his eyes in the backfield, come off the Z, and jump the route. Note how both corners and the nickel (STAR in this nomenclature) are bracketing the trips. No blitz on 3rd & 13, the Jack OLB rushes just like if it were a four-down front.
- :16 - Now it’s 3rd & 14, the offense is spread out, and the defense is showing blitz … and they actually bring it, all seven. This play caught me by surprise when I was reviewing the game two years ago to get film on former Oregon OC Moorhead, then the Miss St head coach, because it was such a shock compared to what other teams did against their RPOs.
- :30 – Another long 3rd down, showing blitz, you might think they’re bringing the house. Nope, they’re dropping 8 including the Jack backer. If you pause it at :44 on the replay angle you can see how the matchup zone covers every throwing lane and has DBs on top.
- :50 – This is technically a 2-3-6, there’s two OLBs and an ILB on the line, and there’s a second high safety the camera’s cut off. As usual, however, the nickel is to the passing strength and the Jack is opposite (unlike a typical Tite where it’s field/boundary, Mint uses which side the offensive formation is loaded to). The Jack drops, the other OLB rushes, and the insert is the DB over the No. 3 receiver.
Here are some examples of how the Tide got into trouble against the pass. Again, this is not to suggest that Alabama was only successful on half of passing plays (their success rate on my tally sheet was over 66%, an elite number, and they were the #1 team in opponent-adjusted SP+ success rate in 2018); these clips are merely to illustrate:
- :00 – Watch the ILBs here, and the boundary high safety on the replay – all three of them are jumping to the short side on the play-action threat, and even through it’s three over two to the field there’s no underneath help in the lane. Passing offenses were most successful when they put the Will backer in a bind like this, because structurally that’s how they get away with light boxes.
- :12 – Throws to the running backs were something of a vulnerability the entire season, because the backers have to switch off coverage. The Mack hands off the tight end but his back is to the play and so overruns the back when he bends it back inside.
- :27 – A pretty standard green dog, the backer comes upfield when it looks like the back is staying in to block. But when he does release after a moment’s hesitation, the backer keeps coming and now the QB has an easy hot route.
- :43 – This is sort of a trick play but the defense is situated to handle it better. The two TEs on opposite sides of the formation cross, but the backers don’t see it and chase just one of them doing their standard bracket. The Will turns his back to the other tight end and fails to see him releasing - this is how lots of passing yardage was generated over the year, by suddenly overloading a single DB to one side of the field.
Finally, here’s how Alabama succeeded against the run despite the handicap of usually playing with light boxes:
- :00 – This one is representative, in that Alabama took obvious run situations like being backed up against the goalline seriously and played them very aggressively. Here they’ve pulled the STAR and are playing a true bear front with both OLBs and a base secondary – they’re more vulnerable to the pass but are happy to call the bluff, bringing 8 this time.
- :07 – Here’s another one I appreciated from my earlier film study of Moorhead’s 2018 Miss St offense – on this down & distance it was definitely going to be a zone-read run. Alabama knows it and sends an additional backer off the edge. The QB reads him because he’s the outside-most guy but the end isn’t blocked either and gets an easy TFL.
- :17 – Something of a sneak preview of how the Mint (and Tite) fronts came about. The defense is outnumbered but they’re effectively closing the B-gaps with the line. That forces the back to “spill” outside, and gives the backer and safety time to get outside and upfield along with him to “kill” the run.
- :26 – Another dime package, this one a 3-2-6. They’re presenting only a 5-man box, but still effectively defending the run by forcing him to bounce, the backer playing patiently with his shoulders square to the line, and the safeties reacting to the play by coming hard upfield. OU running backs in this bowl had only 54 yards rushing, down from 184.5 yards per game in their 12-1 regular season.