Just run the ball, Lane?
As Lane Kiffin trotted off the Georgia Dome field after the University of Alabama won its third straight SEC championship a couple of weekends ago, a fan leaned over the rail, cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted some friendly advice.
"Run the damn ball, Lane."
Kiffin, a common denominator in those three consecutive league titles as the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator, has heard the words before.
"You mean like (from) the head coach?" Kiffin had answered with a smile moments before, when asked about just that phrase as confetti fell from the ceiling over Alabama's celebration.
Kiffin, who will direct Alabama's offense in the College Football Playoff before heading to Florida Atlantic as head coach, has set offensive records in his three seasons with the Crimson Tide. He has built his attack around wideout Amari Cooper, around Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry and, this season, around freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. He has put up amazing numbers with three first-year starters under center.
Yet, the mantra has grown louder with each season from the anxious Alabama faithful: run the ball – forget about the fancy stuff, just line up and take it to the defense.
Kiffin, at times, prefers to go around the opponent. This year, his favorite weapon has been the jet-sweep pass – a short toss to a wideout who comes in motion across the field, crossing between the quarterback and the center just after the ball is snapped.
It's basically a pass in name only and operates like a running play. There's a method behind it.
"A lot of those runs that you run late in games don't work the same way early on, so you run a lot of the perimeter stuff," Kiffin said. "We go faster than we used to here, so a lot of that is sometimes you start slower but you wear guys out."
The jet sweet stretches defenses and forces them to defend the perimeter. The receiver going from one side of the field to the other in motion serves as a distraction, and defenders have to respect it because they know there's a good chance he'll get the ball.
ArDarius Stewart has often been that man in motion. He has benefitted from this offensive wrinkle.
“It’s opened it up a lot because you never know if we’re going to pass or run it out of that set," Stewart said. "Lane Kiffin’s done a great job of mixing it up and trying to keep the defenses on their toes.”
Retired Nevada coach Chris Ault, who innovated the pistol offense – which utilizes a short shotgun snap with a running back behind the quarterback – has studied Alabama's offense this season. He is a fan of Kiffin's use of the jet-sweep motion, which UA utilizes out of both pistol and shotgun formations.
"Not so much the play but the motion, the beauty of the motion is that (as) he's crossing, you still have the base run game, your downhill stuff, to your back whether it be the inside zone or a power play or, as they're doing right now, the quarterback running the ball," Ault said. "I like that concept.
"I think it keeps people honest. I think the run off of it gives them an opportunity to get the linebacker's eyes moving and still be able to run the counter, the power and the inside zone plays."
The receiver in motion also helps in the play-action pass game, Ault said, because he is convinced it freezes the linebackers.
Alabama's first offensive play of the season, against Southern Cal in Arlington, Texas, was a toss sweep to Stewart – who wasn't in motion – for a 17-yard gain. Variations of the play have been a staple of UA's attack ever since.
Stewart has learned to look for the opportunity to find a hole and cut upfield instead of always trying to beat the defense to the edge and run up the sideline.
"You have to keep speaking to yourself, saying press the block and don’t be too fast because you tend to run too fast on it and overrun your block," he said. "You’ve got to be patient and let the hole develop, and it will open up.”
It also allows the interior runs by running backs, the between-the-tackles rushes coveted by traditionalists. The jet-sweep motion by the receivers is often a hallmark of these runs.
In Alabama's comeback victory at Ole Miss, where UA rallied from a 21-point deficit, the Crimson Tide ran a number of jet sweeps in the first half and had 112 rushing yards at halftime. A more straight-ahead selection of running plays after intermission yielded 222 more ground yards.
Nick Saban, the head coach who Kiffin said often admonishes him to run it, defended his offensive coordinator’s play-calling in the aftermath, pointing out how the jet sweeps had set up the interior runs later in the game.
Even when the jet sweep doesn't gain big yardage, it works by planting the idea in defenders’ minds.
"That’s what you folks don’t sometimes get the grasp of on the jet sweep," Saban said. "Now you’re handing the ball and running a counter the other way and they’re all running out there because you ran the (jet-sweep) play in the first half, now you bust them on this play. But you all don’t see that. You just see, ‘We ran that play good so why don’t we run it more?’"
Indeed, Alabama has run over opponents lately in the second half of games after wearing them down physically.
Kiffin maintains the vertical running success is a result of those early horizontal plays.
"If you look at what's happened in the second half of games, I think the defense has been tired because of what we do early, moving the ball around and making them run sideline to sideline, and then coming back more downhill later," he said.
Actually, Kiffin has run the dang ball this season – and more than people seem to realize. Alabama has 555 rushing attempts and 371 pass attempts in 13 games, a number that changes slightly when you consider 21 of those plays that were rushes statistically were actually supposed to be passes that resulted in sacks. Still, the run-to-pass call ratio is 57.7 percent to 42.3 percent in favor of the run.
Saban has always emphasized that he wants a balanced attack. Alabama ranks 14th in the nation in rushing offense at 245 yards per game, gaining 5.7 yards per run with 28 touchdowns, and is 68th in passing at 226.3 yards per game, gaining 7.93 yards per attempt with 25 touchdowns. UA ranks 26th in total offense and 13th in scoring offense, averaging better than 40.5 points per game.
Ault believes Kiffin's creativity has made Alabama harder to defend. Saban's more smash-mouth offensive teams of the past beat down defenses not so much because of superior schematics but because of having better players. Alabama still has the tools, Ault said, but also pressures defenders because of how it utilizes them.
"You know Coach Saban better than I do: I mean, he's a north-south pro guy, wants to control the ball and play great defense, and that's going to win championships, no question about it," Ault said. "I think right now he plays great defense and he's got an offense you have to defend north and south, east and west. I think that offense that they have at Bama now forces defenses to do some things that they didn't have to do before.
"I just think right now if I were lining up to defend Alabama, it is so much more difficult than it has been in the past – and maybe they could cut down on some of the fluff, because I've seen some things that Lane does that they don't need to do – but right now they're just so much more explosive with what they do."