Through the first two games of the Mario Cristobal era, the Miami Hurricanes have showed that they are clearly intent on being a more physical, run-based offensive football team. With a focus on improving the offensive line and run game, units that had been less than stellar at Miami for about a decade (some would say more), Cristobal and company have been very intentional about developing and improving the team in these areas.
While Miami has shown vast improvement along the OL and in the run game through the first couple of games this season, the improved efficiency in the run game has come at a cost: any offensive explosiveness whatsoever.
Yeah, I know it’s only 2 games, and I know that things could change, but after watching the Canes play twice, I think it’s time to ask the question: where have all the explosive plays gone?
Good old, boring Efficiency
With a run-first approach, things can be a bit boring, if you’re not breaking long runs on the regular. Such is the case with the current iteration of the Miami Hurricanes offense. At least what we’ve seen so far.
Through two games, Miami has run the ball 89 times. To contrast, they’ve thrown it just 55 times. With a 1.6-to-1 run to pass ratio so far, it’s clear that Miami is embodying the kind of run-pass splits that Cristobal prefers as a coach. Maybe a bit to the extreme with 2 overmatched opponents to start the year, but this isn’t completely out of character for a Cristobal coached team. Oregon, Cristobal’s previous team, was 1.3-to-1 run/pass in 2021, 1.24-to-1 in the shortened COVID season of 2020, and 1.14-to-1 in 2019. So, the reliance on the run as evidenced by that run/pass ratio has increased each of the past 4 years, including this one.
While Miami is running MUCH MORE than passing, the run has been very effective to this point of the season. Miami has a 67% success rate when running the ball. That’s tops in the ACC, and 3rd nationally behind only Minnesota and Michigan.
Before the graphic, the X-axis is rushing success rate (so further to the right = better), and the Y- axis is passing down success rate (so higher up = better).
While Miami is 3rd in rushing efficiency, they’re roughly 13th/14th (counting on the full graph is tricky) in passing down efficiency. And that stands to reason; if a team is more effective getting the yards needed for success (see the definition above) by running the ball (in any situation), they should then be more successful in passing situations, where play action and other defensive concerns to stop the run can make things easier for them against the opposing defense.
Let’s take the numbers a bit further. At present, Miami is 2nd in the country in success rate at 62.3%, 1st in marginal efficiency at 17.3%, and the aforementioned rushing and passing efficiency rates, which come in at 3rd and 13th nationally. So, when it comes to hitting benchmarks for efficiency, Miami is accomplishing that at an absolutely ELITE level through 2 games this season.
Efficiency is good. And, particularly in the run game, it’s something that Miami has been missing for QUITE a while. So, seeing the clear focus for Cristobal et al pay off early on in the season is very encouraging.
Explosive Plays are M.I.A.
While Miami’s offensive efficiency is great — see the rankings above; they’re elite — the explosiveness is bad. Terrible. Putrid even.
In 2022, Miami is one of the least explosive offensive teams in the country. To this point of the season, out of 130 teams, Mario Cristobal’s Canes are 115th in Isolated Points Per Play, 120th in marginal explosiveness, 100th in rushing marginal explosiveness, 88th in passing marginal explosiveness, 91st in air yards per pass (which means it’s a dink and dunk offense at present), 99th in marginal explosiveness on standard downs, and 123rd in explosiveness on passing downs. So, in other words, in nearly every single explosiveness metric, Miami is in the bottom quartile of the country...or worse.
The Canes are 41st in explosive play rate, so that’s a little encouraging. Nearly 1 out of every 7 plays is an explosive play, either run or pass. That’s alright, but with the talent on Miami’s roster, particularly at the skill positions, this is decidedly pedestrian.
Here are some quick stats from both of Miami’s games this season. Please note the “explosive play rate” stat on the Miami column in each of the following charts:
As you can see from the charts — both taken from gameonpaper.com in case you were wondering or wanted to go look at them for yourselves — Miami was in the 24th percentile for explosive plays against Bethune Cookman, and that number plummeted to 2nd percentile — worse than 97% of teams in that stat as compared to 2021 — against Southern Miss.
I told you the explosiveness numbers were putrid.
Last year, Miami was 21st in Isolated Points Per Play and 27th in marginal explosiveness. That’s top 20% of FBS teams. That’s something we can work with! This current offense, at least what has been seen to this point of the season, isn’t.
Where was Mario Cristobal’s Oregon in 2021? 99th and 96th nationally in those stats.
What about Josh Gattis’s offense at Michigan last year? 72nd and 42nd in those stats. Not the most explosive in the world, but a damn sight better than what Cristobal’s team did, and exponentially better than what Miami has put on the field through a pair of games this season.
How can Miami rediscover offensive explosiveness?
I think by now you have a clear idea of where things stand: Miami is among the most efficient offensive teams in the country; Miami is also one of the least explosive offensive teams in the country. Both things are incontrovertibly true.
The question now, especially heading into a hostile SEC environment at Texas A&M and continuing past that into ACC play, is what can Miami do to recapture their offensive explosive explosiveness?
First, the Canes need to play faster. We saw last year with Rhett Lashlee as OC, when Miami goes fast, other teams struggle. Just ask Pittsburgh, who Miami blitzed out of the gate for score after score after score. This has been the case for a long time, and I’ve been calling for increased offensive tempo (even if it’s just 3 or 4 plays per quarter) for years. YEARS. Ground and pound has a place, but so does pace and space. Miami has elite skill players all over the field. So increasing the tempo to get on the ball and go faster to help them add explosiveness to the already-present efficiency.
Another key to increasing offensive explosiveness is scheming guys into space. South Florida is known for having players with elite speed. Miami’s roster is chock full of these guys. Xavier Restrepo. Brashard Smith. Jaylan Knighton. Jacolby George. Key’Shawn Smith isn’t from South Florida — he’s from San Diego — but he’s as fast as anyone in a Canes jersey. Finding ways to get them in space to use their athleticism would invariably lead to explosive plays, and Miami would be wise to do this.
When Miami played Louisville in 2019, Miami native Tutu Atwell take a crossing route 80 yards for the Cards against Miami. So, a passing concept that can yield explosiveness is what Louisville did by running mesh against man coverage. Get the defender trailing the receiver and let our guy run? This concept works against zone too, although that would have a lower likelihood of being an explosive play, but every play doesn’t have to be explosive.
A major, MAJOR thing I expect Miami to lean on for explosive plays down the field is play action in the passing game. When you run the ball as often and as well as Miami is this season, opposing defenses, particularly the linebackers and safeties, have to start to creep up toward the line of scrimmage. When that happens, when those defensive players are focused on stopping the run, that’s when teams can fake the run and pass behind them. Hello, play action. And, even as recently as last year, Miami has used play action to great effect. Finding that spark in the passing game would be a big boon for Miami.
How can play-action yield explosiveness in the passing game. Just look at the performances of former Canes WR Dee Wiggins. Wiggins wasn’t the greatest player in the world, but when he was asked to run a post route from the left hand side of the formation on a play-action pass? He was the next coming of Randy Moss, Jerry Rice, Calvin Johnson, and (insert 5-star WR who went to Alabama instead of Miami) all mixed together. Just ask Florida State. They got a front row seat to that show several times.
Now that is what offensive explosiveness in the passing game looks like. And that’s what Miami needs to recapture, or discover, or invent immediately, if not sooner.
Other concepts that the pass game can employ as they scaffold off what Cristobal is mandating the offense do — run. the. ball. — are Switch (see below). Receivers on the same side of the formation “switch” their routes, where the inside receiver becomes the outside, and outside receiver becomes the inside. This can confuse defenses, and also simply rub (i.e. pick) one or both defenders, creating a wide open receiver downfield.
Another great concept that can yield explosive plays in the passing game is Y Cross. The Kansas City Chiefs are notorious for running this with TE Travis Kelce and (insert super fast WR here) to give them multiple options for explosiveness on this route concept.
Another passing concept that can yield explosiveness is Dagger. Sure, the focus is probably going to be the 9 route from the #2 receiver, but the real money throw is the square in from the #1 receiver into the vacated space behind the linebackers into the area that safety would be....if not for having to turn and run with the go route. And what can the receiver do with all that space in the middle of the field? Turn and burn. Go be explosive. Which is what Miami desperately needs.
In any conversation about explosive offensive plays, and this discussion is really about passing plays. Run plays and can go from ordinary to explosive with a single missed tackle, but their design and intent is usually more utilitarian. Since the goal here is increased explosiveness in the passing game, Miami would be wise to spread the defense out and have TVD use his incredible arm strength to throw the ball vertically. There’s no better passing concept to accomplish this than “6” aka 4 verts aka all-go.
And, a more specific scheme to Miami and their personnel and prior performance, would be the return of Tyler Van Dyke’s favorite route concept: Smash. Time and again, Van Dyke made big throw after big throw for some very explosive plays on this exact concept a year ago. Yet, to this point of the season where Miami is clearly bereft of explosive plays in the passing game (save a literal handful), Smash has been called maybe twice in 2 games. That’s not enough usage for the passing concept the QB clearly loves most, and increasing this would be a big value add to Miami.
Now, again, I’m not saying that every time one of these concepts is called it needs to lead to an explosive passing play. But, integrating these concepts — and others — into the passing game would add a level of verticality and explosiveness that’s simply been missing this year. And, don’t get caught up in the diagrams. They’re a good basis to understand the action of the concept, but you can run them from multiple formations. Miami’s OC is the reigning Broyles Award winner for Best CFB Assistant Coach. So I’m going to obligate and expect him to be able to do this.
I know there was a flea flicker TD to Key’Shawn Smith against Southern Miss. I know there was a jump ball to Michael Redding III in that same game. I know there was another fade in the first game. But, beyond that, there really hasn’t been much in the way of explosive plays out of Miami’s offense. And, simply put, that needs to change for Miami to have the success they desire this season.
The last change I’ll list is probably the most obvious one, and it encapsulates a lot of the schemes I’ve listed here. But it’s a simple idea: open up the playbook and stop being vanilla. In 2020, Miami ran the ball incessantly against UAB in the season opener. They ran in that game for the same reason Miami ran it to a level approaching a 2-to-1 run/pass ratio through 2 games this season: because they could. The opponent couldn’t stop it, so Miami ran the ball, and ran the ball, and ran the ball, and ran the ball some more.
After the UAB game, however, Miami started to open things up, employing a variety of diverse schemes in pass game (because we all know it was inside zone or nothing in the run game) to start putting points on the board. The same change, going to the real offense, not the dumbed down skeleton of the offense that has been seen through two weeks, is needed now.
Miami has shown flashes of potential forthcoming flair on offense. There have been a couple end-arounds for receivers. The aforementioned flea flicker. A couple deep throws when the offense caught the opposing defense offsides. Flashes, sure, but those have been fleeting at best.
Come hell or high water, Miami HAS TO find ways to rediscover their offensive explosiveness. Else, this season won’t be as successful as it could be, and nobody, including our run-first, former offensive lineman head coach, wants that to be the case.