Despite playing at the FCS level, the North Dakota State Bison have become a strong program that consistently produces NFL talent. Due to their recruiting and player development, North Dakota State has produced NFL players such as Carson Wentz, Easton Stick, Billy Turner and others.
North Dakota State has won eight of the past nine FCS national championships, building their program on the back of a downhill, physical running game. Through the tenure of head coaches Craig Bohl (now at Wyoming), Chris Klieman (now at Kansas State) and current coach Matt Entz, their offensive system has looked similar for the better part of a decade. Their bread and butter offensive play? “A” gap power.
The Bison have built their running game around “A” gap power, and have developed a ton of variations and play-action passes around the blocking scheme. From different backfield alignments, motions and ball carriers, North Dakota State does an excellent job of disguising multiple ways that they run their best play.
Let’s get into the basics around their “A” gap power running play, and the simple variations that most college offenses incorporate.
The play-side offensive tackle (the tackle to the side of the run), is responsible for his inside “B” gap. The play-side guard will be responsible for his inside “A” gap, and the center will be responsible for his backside “A” gap. Generally speaking, this means that all three offensive lineman will be blocking down, and creating the frontside wall.
The main caveat is that the offensive line wants to create a combination block with those down blocking offensive lineman. Against an under defensive front, the play-side guard and tackle will initially double-team the 3-technique, before one of them leaves the block to take on the backside linebacker.
The backside guard is the puller, who will wrap behind the center and climb to block the play-side linebacker. The backside tackle has two gap responsibilities, first securing his inside “B” gap before cutting off anything off the edge.
The final aspect is the frontside C-gap “kick-out” block, which is usually done by the fullback or H-back. Here’s a drawn up example of the play:
One variation that is often used by college offenses is the power read play. The only difference in blocking is that there is no C-gap kick-out block, as that defender now becomes the read player. The main way that offenses will run power read will be with the running back sprinting towards the outside, with the quarterback as the power option. Depending on the movement of the C-gap defender, the quarterback can either hand the ball to the running back or keep it and get vertical.
Here is an example, with the blue indicating the read key:
Another common variation will be combining the jet sweep play with the power read. This stretches the second level of the defense more horizontally because the threat of the sweep has more speed before the snap. Here’s an example of that variation, notice how the blocking for the offensive line hasn’t changed:
These are the basic structures of the power play, but North Dakota State has not only perfected the technique surrounding the play, they’ve designed a rushing offense with this as the focal point. With their multiple variations, they’re able to run their base play while still keeping it disguised.
To get things started, here is North Dakota State running the power read play with the pre-snap jet motion. Notice how the 5-technique defensive lineman is unblocked, and attacks the play towards the quarterback. Because of that, the quarterback hands the ball to the receiver who is going in motion, who is able to gain the edge with two lead blockers.
NDSU Power-Read pic.twitter.com/nE7VxgFj7V— NFL Clips (@NFLDraftVideos) March 18, 2020
In the same game against Northern Iowa, North Dakota State ran another power read variation, this time with the play going away from the formation strength. Due to that, the play-side offensive lineman are combination blocking against a 1-technique nose tackle, which allows the backside (right) guard’s pull to be tight around the center. When the C-gap defender hesitates because of the pre-snap motion, the quarterback keeps the ball and is able to get almost directly vertical.
NDSU Power Read pic.twitter.com/atRNRf2Y23— NFL Clips (@NFLDraftVideos) March 18, 2020
North Dakota State obviously doesn’t only run their power play with a read aspect, and they’ll run the popular H-back kick-out power from shotgun. Notice how they motion the H-back inside of the offensive tackle, that’s in order for him to have a better path to seal the C-gap defender towards the outside.
NDSU power vs. Odd front pic.twitter.com/Hn8VChYULF— NFL Clips (@NFLDraftVideos) March 18, 2020
While that’s a popular variation across college football, North Dakota State builds off of that by showing the same look pre-snap, but running quarterback power to the opposite side. On these plays, North Dakota adds a play-fake to the running back, messing with the eyes of the linebackers and causing them to hesitate.
One of North Dakota State’s variations as far as blocking goes is the power “arc,” when the tight end arc releases to the outside linebacker instead of down blocking. On this rep, the Bison bring in an extra fullback to perform the kick-out block towards the tight end side of the formation. The original fullback dives into the hole as an extra lead blocker.
NDSU Power arc pic.twitter.com/JOgbwYgNkE— NFL Clips (@NFLDraftVideos) March 18, 2020
Under a similar idea, North Dakota State will line up in the “Maryland-I formation,” which includes three running backs stacked behind the quarterback. It’s the same premise as the previous play, with the fullback performing the kick-out block, and the middle back leading into the hole as an extra lead blocker for the tailback.
North Dakota State has an even more unique version of that same lead power, this time tasking their quarterback with running the ball. Lined up in shotgun, the running back handles the C-gap kick-out block from his typical depth. This requires a blocking track that is vertical towards the line of scrimmage before turning to kick-out the defender towards the sideline.
The extra blocker comes from the H-back, this time aligned to the weak side of the formation and working across the center to insert into the running lane. Due to the extra time it takes the H-back to get all the way across, the quarterback remains patient to allow the blocking to develop.