PFB+ Film Study: OSU’s Split-Back Formation

As Oklahoma State gets ready for the 2021 season, I wanted to look back at some positive takeaways from last season’s Cowboy offense. In addition, I wanted to discuss how OSU could carry some of these plays/schemes over into this season.

I was able to watch the All-22 film, or coaches’ film, from two of OSU’s most productive offensive games last season, the bowl game against Miami and the home loss to Texas.

These two games featured the Pokes two highest scoring outings against opponents with winning records, and they had over 400 yards of total offense in each game. I’ll be covering two offensive concepts I liked from each contest over a series of four posts.

Starting with the UT matchup, I wanted to take a look at OSU’s use of the split-back formation.

These two-running back formations put the defense in some difficult situations. First off, it has to expect a run to either side of the field, as the quarterback can hand off to either back in any direction. Secondly, the defensive coordinator has to decide whether he will put extra linebackers on the field to stop the run, but risk having a linebacker in coverage on a speedy running back or going into a nickel or dime package with extra defensive backs and risk being exposed in the running game.

And as you can see in the image above, the quarterback still has several wide receivers he can throw to in the passing game, which adds another layer for the defense to be aware of out of this formation.

Looking back at my notes from last season, Cowboy offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn utilized more 20 personnel formations, or two-running backs and no tight ends, against the Longhorns than any other opponent in 2020. But it wasn’t just the amount of times the Pokes went with a split-backfield look, but the variety of plays Dunn called out of these formations.

The first play I want to take a look at is the passing concept shown in the diagram below:

I don’t think I have seen OSU run a play like this in recent memory. The Cowboys start off with two wide receivers split out to the field, or wide side, and one split into the boundary. Before the snap, running back Chuba Hubbard motions to the field side. Quarterback Spencer Sanders takes the snap and fakes the swing pass out to Hubbard, while inside receiver Landon Wolf motions like he’s going to be the lead blocker for Hubbard. Wolf then releases up field, while one defender to his side is occupied by Hubbard and the other is locked onto outside receiver Tylan Wallace on his post route. The offensive line and running back Dezmon Jackson do a nice job of giving Sanders time to deliver the ball to Wolf for a big gain. See the full video below.

Next, we take a look at the Bash, or “back away” running concept. The quarterback and the running back (or wide receiver in jet sweep motion), switch responsibilities. The QB will follow the primary run blocking, and the RB/WR will run away from the blocking around the outside. These runs are used to target defenses that are over-pursuing to the play side (or flow of the offensive line).

In the diagram below you’ll see the Pokes run GT Counter Bash, which is another running play we saw several times with Gleeson two season’s ago .

It looks like a designed handoff here, but they can also tag a quarterback read to this play as well, or even a called quarterback keep. Here’s what it looks like when Sanders keeps it from a play two seasons ago.

Next, I wanted to look at this screen out of split-backs:

The play starts off with running back LD Brown motioning to the wide side of the field. As Sanders drops back to pass, he looks to that side, which features Brown and two receivers as throwing options. However, he turns back to the boundary and finds Hubbard on a screen with a four blockers in front of him. The full video is below.

OSU even kept both backs in to assist with pass protection, which you’ll see an example of in the next clip.

I really liked almost everything Dunn called out of the split-back formation against the Longhorns and I think it could be a key part of the offensive scheme in 2021. Head Coach Mike Gundy mentioned at Big 12 Media Days that the Cowboys “have four or five players that we could hand the ball to and we’re very comfortable with them in the game.”.

If you have that many guys you want to get in the game, two-back sets seem like the perfect plan to accomplish this. I’m excited to see how Dunn and Gundy decide to use Brown, Desmond Jackson, Jaylen Warren and Dominic Richardson in the upcoming season.

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