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ASU Football: Why the “Sparky” formation was so effective

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This is power football.

Texas Tech v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Sun Devils unleashed running back Kalen Ballage in their 68-55 win over Texas Tech by deploying the junior as the focal point of the now-dubbed “Sparky” formation near the goal line.

Ballage scored on six of his attempts as a recipient of the snap out the formation.

Not one of them involved any option action in the backfield, play action fake, or even the threat of jet sweep action. But why was he so effective?

There’s multiple answers: basic arithmetic, winning the line of scrimmage, and the fact Ballage is an absolute beast are all right in one way or another. With that said, let’s take a look at how first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey designed what could be ASU’s most effective goal line package to date.

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No. 1: Power Right

ASU head coach Todd Graham applauded Lindsey’s play-calling Saturday, saying he wanted to get back to the old school, physical style of football where the running the ball takes priority.

They got back to it with one of the simplest play calls in the book—the power run.

Kalen Ballage ties FBS record with 8 TDs in a single game - 2016 College Football Highlights
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What makes this a power run call? Watch the left guard, Sam Jones (No. 76), who would be considered the backside guard on the play.

At the snap he immediately pulls from the left side of the formation to the right.

While Jones is pulling behind the offensive line, the right side of the line—as well as tight end Kody Kohl (No. 83), who was lined up tight on the right side of the formation—down blocked, creating a rushing lane.

It also creates a scenario where there are now three free defenders on the play side of the field, while ASU has three free blockers and a ball carrier on that side. Meaning, they outman the opponent.

On the far left side of the formation, quarterback Manny Wilkins (No. 5) is a split end, avoiding his defender. Receiver Ellis Jefferson (No. 19) is working tight of the formation to cut off any backside pursuit.

Christian Hill (No. 94) helps set the edge on the right side of the formation, clearing a defender out to seal the rushing lane. Jones and Demario Richard (No. 4), who lined up as the tailback alongside Ballage, fill the lane looking to clear any defenders.

The two combine to clear out a defender, while Ballage plunges behind.

Score No. 2: Power Right

As the saying goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And Lindsey didn’t the second time around.

Instead of lining up seven players across the line of scrimmage on the first play, the Texas Tech defense only displays five men. Only, of the players within the second line, there’s a shade towards the weak side of the formation.

Using the center, A.J. McCollum (65), as the midpoint, you can see there’s a numbers advantage in favor of ASU, as there are five blockers who will be able to match up with five defenders, leaving the ball carrier unaccounted for if the play flows to the strong side of the offensive formation.

As if the numbers advantage wasn’t enough, at the point of attack, ASU’s offensive linemen fire off the line of scrimmage and are much more direct and decisive. Texas Tech’s second wave surveys the play for too long before reacting, to a play that’s flowing away from them nonetheless.

Hill destroys the edge defender on the outside. Meanwhile, a down block by Kohl pins another defender in the process, leaving one remaining unoccupied defender against two free blockers in Richard and a pulling Jones.

Ballage once again follows his lead blockers into the end zone.

No. 3: Power Right

It still ain’t broken, so Chip still ain’t fixed it. ASU goes power once again here on the four-yard line.

The Red Raiders front seven was much more decisive, and generated pressure from within the middle of the line. The defender out on the edge even managed to beat any ASU blocks to the LOS.

As a result of all of the traffic going on at the middle of the LOS, Ballage bounces the run outside, since the edge defender committed inside.

Hill gets two key blocks to help set the edge while Ballage scurried in for the score.

Score No. 4: Power Right

Four straight power runs to the right side of the formation. Four touchdowns.

Here’s how both sides lined up pre-snap.

Finally, Tech has six players lined up on the ride to match up with the five blockers and one ball carrier ASU shows. Even more impressive, the players seem to finally adjust to what’s coming, as the Red Raiders second wave of defenders flow to the right of the formation as the play develops. They fill the running lane before the pulling guard, Jones, or lead blocker, Richard, can make it.

At the snap, ASU right guard Bailey gets beat, also contributing to the disruption at the LOS. As Richard dives into the fray, the edge defender is left unblocked, and had Ballage followed him, the play would’ve been stuffed.

Instead, he bounces it outside again. Strength, speed and size allows Ballage to force his way around the corner and into the end zone.

Score No. 5: Counter Left

After four power plays, the Sun Devils finally called a different play. Ballage ran left side on a counter run.

Here’s how they lined up.

The difference between the power and counter plays? The H-back, Hill, is blocking across the formation along with the right guard, McCray. This provided Ballage with two lead blockers, and Richard makes three.

With three lead blockers leading the way, Ballage is given an open running lane off tackle.

Arguably the easiest score of the evening.

Score No. 6: Power Right

Five times ASU scored on this specific play!

Like the third attempt, the ball is placed on the right hash, so it’s a near-side run.

Hill makes the key block on the play. As the Red Raiders defense flows towards the middle of the LOS, he seals off the over-commited defender on the edge.

The next key block is made by Richard, who takes out the legs of the lone free defender on the edge.

He whiffs, but it disrupts the defender enough that he doesn’t have leverage ahead of making the business decision of bringing down Ballage.

Head up, it’s almost no contest.

Six for six.

Potential

After the game, Ballage said the team has been working on the Sparky formation for only two weeks. He didn’t reveal whether or not there’s any pass plays drawn up, slyly saying there may or may not be.

Until defenses can show they can slow down the two run plays ASU has shown thus far, there won’t be a need for it. Throughout the offseason, Graham noted Lindsey’s coaching ability (as well as the other staffers) helped activate the players. Ballage’s performance and utilization is all but proof of that.