The Arkansas State Red Wolves just finished another outstanding season, winning 8 of the last 9 and claiming another Sun Belt Conference Championship, their fifth in six years. No win was bigger than the Red Wolves 31-13 win over the UCF Knights in the AutoNation Cure Bowl. The decisive victory came on a national stage, and gave Arkansas State their first bowl win under head coach Blake Anderson.
Anderson and his staff shined in the bowl game, using a lot of creativity on the offensive side of the ball.
The first example of creative play calling came on their third drive of the game.
The Red Wolves needed a spark. They led 7-0 after a blocked punt was recovered for a touchdown, but A-State had gone three-and-out on the previous two drives. Offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner went to a series of plays designed to confuse the Knights.
On the first play, the Red Wolves lined up in an empty formation with three receivers split wide to the left and two to the right.
The play call gave quarterback Justice Hansen three options. Throw a quick screen to the left to Christian Booker, throw a quick screen to the right to Daryl Rollins-Davis, or keep it up the middle on a quarterback draw.
Hansen quickly scanned the defense. His decision came down to a simple numbers game. UCF had five defenders to five blockers in the box, so Hansen decided to keep it himself, gaining three.
So he gained three yards. No big deal, right? Wrong. Faulkner was just using this play to set up the next one. The instant the play ended, the Red Wolves hustled to get set up for the next play, already knowing the play call.
At first glance, the formation looked almost the same. Three receivers were split to the right and two to the left, with no backs in the backfield.
But the Red Wolves had a trick up their sleeve. Check out who was lined up at receiver in the slot. That’s Austin Moreton, the Red Wolves right guard. And the new “left tackle”? Tight end Blake Mack.
As the end man on the line of scrimmage, Mack is an eligible receiver, while Moreton is covered up by the receiver split to the right.
At the snap, Mack, disguised as an offensive lineman, took off straight down the field. A-State snapped the ball with 31 seconds on the play clock, giving UCF no time to recognize the deception. By the time the Knights realized that Mack was an eligible receiver, he was already behind the defense. Hansen’s pass was on target, and the result was a 67 yard gain.
This is a great sequence of play calling by the Red Wolves. The first play, while it didn’t gain many yards, served to set up A-State for a big gain on play number two. The similar formations and fast tempo caught UCF off guard, and enabled one of the Red Wolves’ best players to end up wide open.
After finishing the drive with a field goal, the Red Wolves’ special teams came up big again, this time forcing a fumble on the ensuing kickoff. Once again, A-State was in prime scoring position.
One of the Red Wolves’ favorite route concepts is called Snag. This is a combo designed to stretch the defense both horizontally and vertically. The outside receiver will run a spot route, where he will slant towards the middle of the field and then sit down in the open spot in the zone defense. The inside receiver will run a corner route, while the back will swing to the flat.
This three-man route combo is very popular across the nation because of how it stretches a defense. The two underneath routes space a zone defense horizontally, while the flat and corner routes space a defense vertically.
On 2nd and 8 from the 14 yard line, Arkansas State ran Snag. However, UCF’s zone coverage did not allow any receivers to get free, and Hansen was forced to scramble for a gain of only 2.
Now facing a critical 3rd and 6, and knowing UCF was familiar with the Red Wolves’ Snag call, A-State needed an answer. In an attempt to fool the Knight defenders, Faulkner, instead of calling Snag, called the Snag’n’Go.
The Snag’n’Go is a double move designed to resemble the Snag pattern. The only difference is the route of the outside receiver. Instead of sitting down in an opening in the zone, he runs a double move.
On this play, A-State’s best receiver, Kendall Sanders, lined up to the left. Once Sanders reached an opening in the zone, he started slowing down as if to end his route, just like he did on the previous play. Instead, he burst right down the hash, past the middle linebacker. Hansen lobbed the ball over the top, and Sanders went up and made an incredible catch over the linebacker for the touchdown.
This was another great example of Faulkner sequencing calls together. After UCF took away the base play, Faulkner came back with an adjustment and hit the Knights with a double move. The well-designed play gave Sanders just enough room to use his athleticism to go up and make the play.
Sanders had a big game, scoring three touchdowns. His final touchdown came on the first play of the fourth quarter on a play where Faulkner used a nicely designed RPO to get his playmaker the ball.
An RPO is a “Run-Pass Option” where the quarterback reads a defender and must decide to hand the ball off or throw the ball.
This play call gave Hansen three options: handoff to running back Warren Wand for an inside zone play to the left, throw a post route to Sanders, aligned to the left, or throw a speed out to his slot receiver to the right.
RPOs are designed to put defenders with run and pass responsibilities in conflict. Here, the Knights lined up with six defenders in the box matching up with the Red Wolves six blockers (five linemen and a tight end). However, the Knights have two other secondary defenders who are key run players. These are the strong safety and the weak outside linebacker, circled below.
Since these players are the secondary players with the most immediate run responsibilities, they are the ones Faulkner wants to attack. Should the outside linebacker creep inside, the Red Wolves would be outnumbered in the box, but Hansen could make a pre-snap read and throw the speed out.
His post-snap read is the post route to Sanders. Hansen took the snap and stuck the ball out towards Wand, but kept his eyes on the safety. When he came down towards the run, Hansen pulled the ball to throw.
With the safety now vacating the middle of the field, the corner is left is a bind. He’s expecting inside help from the safety. The help was no longer there, and Hansen’s strike was right on target to a wide open Sanders for a touchdown.
This touchdown was the final blow by the Red Wolves, who left Orlando with a 31-13 victory. The game was a great showcase by Arkansas State on a national stage, and it highlighted the creativity of the Red Wolves’ offensive staff.