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Indiana’s pass concept that Rutgers had no answer for

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A full analysis of the slot slant against base defense.

Indiana v Rutgers
Indiana’s passing attack against RU was build around Philyor, and it opened things up for the other receivers.
Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

#17 Indiana was outgained majorly in total yards despite a one point upset of then #8 Penn State last week, but they started to make plays late that helped produce the upset victory. Their astute coaching staff identified during their preparation for Rutgers a passing concept that would haunt the Scarlet Knights all day in their 37-21 loss on Saturday.

Indiana runs most of their plays out of 11 personnel, but the grouping is not important, because all this concept requires is two receivers that end up on the left side. This 2020 Rutgers squad plays a lot of base defense, as in a 4-3 even against three receiver, one tight end looks and players don’t remain on one side of the field, but switch sides depending on where the tight end lines up.

Philyor lining up in the slot and the slant route was the foundation of the Indiana attack.

The Scarlet Knights contained the Indiana Hoosiers offense early on Saturday and held a narrow 7-6 advantage late in the second quarter. After that, Indiana elected to go to to the secret weapon stashed away up that point. Much like Rutgers could layer their passing game on top of the Leonte Carroo go route from 2013-15, the Hoosiers have a similar big play threat in Whop Philyor, but he makes his living primarily from the slot. Since he is receiving the ball from a lefthanded quarterback, and Indiana’s pass protection is weakest on the left edge, the Hoosiers are most effective when quarterback Michael Penix Jr.’s first read is a slant on the left hand side. They didn’t have to complete the ball many times for Rutgers to respect it.

Indiana was able to block when Rutgers only rushed four and picked up a 5th man blitzing relatively easily as well, but needed a hot route ready if Rutgers brought extra pressure. Philyor served as the quick throw if needed, but if Penix had time a number of other routes opened up. Since Rutgers had to be prepared for the slant, double moves and deep sideline routes became available. At the very least, Rutgers had three players whose primary assignment was Philyor like this play which resulted in single coverage on the other side, with the DBs lacking leverage and in an easy zone to defeat. This play went for a touchdown and just like that it was 20-7.

Three defenders circled have Philyor as their primary responsibility.

The other choice with the 4-3 is have Jennings let Philyor go to his safety help, free safety Christian Izien shown below, which leaves the cornerback susceptible to the in route and no help deep. The corner could pass the outside receiver back to Jennings, but this is almost impossible when Jennings has to be wary of the run, a back coming out of the backfield, or Penix on a QB keeper. With the game nearing its conclusion, Jennings had to stay in to protect against the run leaving the free safety in the levels or smash concepts.

Indiana lived in the seam all day.

The smash (above) was the final big offensive play for Indiana (below) to ice the game as Philyor has a running start against Izien after Indiana moves the tight end in motion late and draw Jennings to protect against the run:

Philyor circled gets a free release and the safety has a tough job trying to cover him, resulting in a long completion to almost ice the game.

Of course the opponent has to execute and the Hoosiers did on the base concept and all the subsequent counterpunches on top of it. Strong safety Brendon White covers a lot of ground to assist in coverage and prevent a touchdown from the near side of the field, but Penix’s throw to Philyor was executed near perfectly. The highlight can be seen in the tweet below:

Rutgers played almost this entire game in their base 4-3 defense, when an extra defensive back could have made a difference. Rutgers rotates two players at the weak-side linebacker spot; Drew Singleton can handle the Big Ten’s blocking tight ends and Deion Jennings is steady against almost all tight ends with his time as a former safety. So, I like Jennings as a pass coverage linebacker, but not to slow down a guy with 4.3 speed like Whop Philyor. The master at exploiting this role was Peyton Manning, find more info here.

The Rutgers coaching staff led by head coach Greg Schiano and defensive coordinator Robb Smith will have plenty of game tape to decide if they will change this strategy moving forward. There aren’t many other guys with the speed and quickness of Philyor on the schedule, who finished the game with 5 receptions for 137 yards. That said, expect opponents to take their quickest receiver or running back and get him into his quarterback’s strong side vision until the Scarlet Knights prove they can stop it.

In an ideal world, one of the young cornerbacks will emerge to play the slot. The second best case would be if someone else can play the outside, shifting Tre Avery back to the slot where he had some success last year. In the season opener, defensive backs coach Fran Brown gave true freshman Max Melton plenty of run at outside corner with mixed results, but his inexperienced tackling led to some extra yards after the catch. The staff may not have felt comfortable using Max as much against a potent pass offense like Indiana, but the staff probably will have to reconsider their options moving forward.

The new Rutgers coaching staff had minimal practice time and now has just two games to evaluate their current personnel at game speed. It’s understandable that they have trusted their upperclass linebackers in the early going and it worked in the week 1 win over Michigan State. I still have plenty of confidence in this staff (unlike the one in 2013, for example, who never figured it out) to adjust in the short term as they have so many times before, even if the long term answer is a player not yet on the roster. Until then, expect Rutgers to mix things up and do more of what they did against Michigan State with mixing pressure packages, rather than let the opponent have them back on their heels.