Preseason, there was talk of a big four in college ultimate: Pitt, UNC, Oregon, and UNC-W. Throughout the regular season, FSU and Texas A&M have proven themselves as the two teams that belong in that same conversation. But do they really have the style and players to play in the finals?
May 21, 2015 by Benyamin Elias in Analysis with 3 comments
Both Texas A&M and FSU, respectively seeded #2 and #6 overall at the College Championships, exceeded regular season expectations in a way that still has outsiders wondering if they are true title contenders — or maybe quarterfinal pretenders instead.
The two teams couldn’t have more different styles. A&M has stymied opponents with a handler-heavy offense, using unconventional throws to hit space that defenders have no chance at. They have relied heavily on the play of Matt Bennett and Dalton Smith, frequently finding resets that keep the disc in those two players’ hands. Some moments are flabbergasting, with throws that most people would never even think to use, but A&M sometimes struggles to complete hucks and keep their offense turnover-free.
FSU started off this season with a strong performance at Warm Up, but the team has only grown since then. Over the course of the season FSU has found their rhythm, favoring simple horizontal and vertical stack looks. They have depth paired with three big time stars in Chris Larocque, Andrew Roney, and Connor Holcombe, and used a layout-heavy defense to win a strong Southeast Region and lock up the sixth seed at Nationals.
Despite the fact that A&M is seeded 4 slots higher, the film suggests that FSU may be the more dangerous team at Nationals.
A&M: Creative Throwers and Strong Handler Core
One of Texas A&M’s greatest strengths is their strong handler core. Callahan nominee Matt Bennett and Dalton Smith generate offense by demanding the disc and using creative, defense-breaking throws. Give-and-go moves combined with advanced throwing ability mean that nowhere on the field is safe when the disc is in the hands of Bennett or Smith.
By now Bennett’s between the legs highlight is well-known, but both players use a variety of throws to switch the field and take advantage of out of position defenders.
Scoobers are dangerous because they go to space that is rarely covered; they’re also nearly impossible to block on the mark. Both of the above scoobers find wide open receivers: the first takes advantage of a poach to completely switch the field and the second hits the cutter for a score so that the defender has no play at the disc.
Sometimes Bennett uses his scoobers just to swing the disc.
Although another throw might have sufficed, Bennett uses a lefty scoober, indicating just how comfortable he is with the throw.
Bennett and Smith have an arsenal that extends beyond scoobers. At any moment either of them could whip out a hammer, OI/IO flick, sharp I/O flick break, elevator, or lefty backhand.
As the above three clips show, these throws can be particularly dangerous near the end zone, where yardage gain does not necessarily need to be huge and a score can come from anywhere and go anywhere. Even from farther out, crafty throws allow A&M to catch the defense out of position and hit cutters that are directly behind the mark.
In the above clip a cross-field O/I flick on the inside of the mark allows A&M cutters to easily get yards going down the break side.
In addition to their creative throws, Texas A&M gets most of their movement from their handlers. Handlers often throw to unders and then demand the disc back. When their offense is working, it looks almost effortless.
Getting the disc back to the handler with the handler moving up field is an easy way to get power position; in the above clip Bennett uses that power position to deliver a flick huck for an easy score.
Even when they can’t get a huck off right away, Texas A&M can look good when they’re clicking.
The above clips combine to show all of A&M’s strengths. Handlers get the disc back after every under, there is a scoober to an under, give-and-go moves, and a smooth little backhand shot over the stack. All of those are mainstays of the A&M offense, and offense that can be hard to stop once it gets going.
Running into Trouble: Messy Stacks and Continues
For all the strength that Texas A&M displays, their vertical stack can be sloppy and lack cutter continues. Sure, dumping to the handlers can be effective when the timing works out, but double cuts, clogged lanes, and a stagnant stack can really take their toll on an offense over the course of a game.
One of the biggest problems A&M has is failing to hit or cut for cutter continues, preferring to dump to handlers and lose yards.
In the above clip, Smith’s ending position is almost exactly the same as the disc’s initial position! While none of the throws were particularly hard, increasing the number of throws that don’t gain yardage is dangerous for an offense and increases the number of unforced turnovers.
Yes, these turns seem like simple lapses in focus — but having more unnecessary throws will result in more lapses.
Give-and-go moves can certainly be dangerous, but sometimes the A&M handlers go a little overboard.
In the above clips Bennett goes every-other for almost an entire point. Initially this doesn’t do much for the offense, but Bennett is eventually able to get big yardage.
Why is this a problem? Because it seems unlikely that this kind of offense can work consistently for four straight days against Nationals teams, where Bennett will draw the best defenders. It’s also a problem because give-and-go moves and dumps to handlers don’t always work out so smoothly.
In the second clip, the cutter clears directly through the force side, interfering with the next cut. This is a problem that always dogs some handler-heavy offenses: clogging could cause A&M trouble in Milwaukee if it hasn’t been sorted out yet.
Hucking Problems: Picking the Right Deep Options
Texas A&M does not base their offense around hucks and has problems completing them on a consistent basis, making it harder for them to find open unders. Even though A&M does not rely on hucks, they will need to pick smart shots to shallower receivers if they want to be successful at Nationals.
In their game against Florida, Texas A&M had a lot of trouble with their deep game. Sure the above clip of a power position huck looked good, but that throw was Bennett’s only “good” huck of the game.
In the Florida game Bennett threw 10 hucks, 9 of which were from a standstill. Of the throws from a standstill, 7 resulted in turnovers, but even the two completions were not phenomenal throws.
These throws were completed only because of mistimed jumps and a heads-up A&M player that was not the intended receiver. Other throws result in turns because Bennett attempts to throw to cutters that are already deep.
It’s easy to see that the receiver starts most of the way down the field, forcing the throw to be faster than it would otherwise need to be. The more difficult throw results in a turnover.
A&M throwers not named Matt Bennett do not attempt many hucks. The tendency to huck from a standstill to players that start off far away is one that will result in a lot of turnovers. Fortunately, they did make some improvement throughout the regular season. In the regional final against Colorado, A&M took fewer huck options, picking smarter throws.
Although it results in a turnover, Bennett’s I/O backhand is a lower, better throw that goes to a receiver starting shallow. Smith hits a nice flick that drifts to the break side away from the defender. Given the rainy conditions of the regional final, it seems as though A&M has greatly improved their deep game.
The Verdict: Are They A Contender?
It’s hard to see A&M being a true contender unless they can improve the offensive spacing and yardage losing dumps they displayed in the regular season and early post-season. Even then, their offense leans heavily on Matt Bennett and Dalton Smith, and might crumble when faced with game after game of Nationals level defenders. Matt Bennett played every point of the regional final against Colorado. The lessened number of games per day at Nationals could help, but Bennett has a hard tournament ahead of him.
Can Texas A&M match Pitt’s ruthless offensive efficiency? Handler-heavy offenses can have success at College Nationals; In 2012 Carleton made it to the semifinals with an offense centered on Justin Norden and Simon Montague. In fact, their offense looked at times like a more polished version of Texas A&M’s early season offense.
Nevertheless, Carleton lost to Pitt in that game. It seems unlikely that Texas A&M can succeed where they failed.
Florida State: Simple Offense
Florida State’s offense is a far cry from the two man crazy disc show that is Texas A&M. FSU uses primarily vertical stack looks relying on a deep vertical stack that allows for big unders and cutter continues (although they do throw the occasional horizontal stack near their own end zone). The cuts out of these stacks are simple, but they aren’t contained strictly within a system. FSU takes advantage of open opportunities, which sometimes leads to cuts coming from the middle of the stack instead of the back of the stack, as is more common.
In a lot of vertical stacks the middle cutters would be too close to the disc to allow for an effective under. FSU’s deep stack lets those cutters have plenty of space under, as well as giving the next cutter space to set up a continue to gain big yards. Early on in the season FSU used the front of the stack to make this move.
The clip shows that this kind of initiation can work, but it also removes the valuable front of the stack position. A lot of teams save the front of the stack as a reset option, and using it early in the stall count can make resets more difficult. FSU’s transition to using the middle of the stack eliminates this problem and gains a few more yards.
One of the traditional problems with a deep stack is that it can make hucks more challenging. FSU certainly faced this problem early in the season in the Warm Up final against Pitt.
FSU has overcome this problem by using simple pull plays and generally excellent decision making on hucks.
Rather than taking hard, same third throws to deep receivers, FSU takes shots that start in the center of the field or go to a separate third of the field. Although their throws still usually come from a standstill, they read plays well and throw to cutters that start shallow.
Both hucks avoid the problems that FSU had in the early season. The team also avoid those problems by using basic pull plays.
The first clip is a pretty conventional zipper pull play: one player goes force side, one player goes break side, and the third player in the stack goes deep. Plays like this work for FSU because they allow the receiver to start shallow than the back of the stack, making the throw easier. The second clip is also a zipper, but this time Connor Holcombe, the force side cutter, recognizes that Marcus Ranii-Dropcho is playing him under and takes off deep. Flexibility like this, taking advantage of holes in the defense even if it requires deviating from a plan, is a hallmark of FSU’s game. Instead of creating a rigid system, FSU trusts its players to play good ultimate. In this example Holcombe’s separation deep more than makes up for the deep stack and Chris Larocque jumps at the opportunity.
As a final note about their offense, FSU’s flexibility allows them to play a possession game. Handlers have no trouble swinging the disc, and the team as a whole regularly has cutters cycle through the handler set to get resets.
(Pitt-FSU Easterns 13:43-14:07: patient offense)
FSU players have the confidence and skill to break the mark, leading them to move the disc until they can create an opportunity. They do a good job of not losing yards on resets and using simple swings to generate yards.
These moments look straightforward, and they are. FSU uses them to effectively march up the field.
The Florida State Defense: Intelligence and Intensity
As good as Florida State’s offense is, their defense might be even better. Defensively Florida State combines a bid-heavy defense with poachy looks and switches to slow down and generate turns against even the most elite college offenses. Their defense is characterized by two things: intelligence and intensity.
FSU intelligently uses brief junk looks to stop opponent’s pull plays. Their most common look is a 3-3-1 that crumbles into man defense after the first throw.
In both clips FSU plays a straight-up mark, putting a defender in each of the flick and backhand lanes. Three of the remaining defenders take away unders and the last player takes away deeps. The junk set is straightforward, as with much of FSU, but it is also effective at preventing pull plays. Crumbling after the first throw means FSU is quickly back in their intense man defense.
Speaking of intense defense: FSU lays out. A lot. Perhaps more than any other team at nationals, FSU defenders make huge bids at the drop of a hat.
Their bids are frequent as well as athletic.
FSU does miss a lot of bids, but they also generate turns
Aside from actually getting D’s, having defenders consistently bidding for unders and swings can make handlers hesitate on otherwise easy throws.
Missing a lot of bids does have downsides. A bidding defender is out of position to cover break throws or give-and-go movement. However, elite offenses are pretty much expecting to score these days, so throwing any kind of wrench in their cogs could be considered a good thing even if it does let up the occasional score. FSU additionally intelligently controls the damage of missed bids by switching.
Switching onto upfield players prevents some of the quick breaks that missing bids can give up.
Minor Questions: Drops and Poaches
There are a couple of small question marks for FSU, namely their ability to beat poaches and make borderline plays at key moments.
In their semifinal against Pitt at Easterns, FSU was able to set up several break opportunities, including two at 7-7 that would have put them up at half. Unfortunately, FSU also had some trouble converting on those, and other, chances.
These kinds of drops and miscues are not incredibly common, but they also are not an anomaly; FSU has a tendency to miss some of their trickier attempts. In a game that was decided by one break, breaking to take half and receiving out of the half could have made a huge difference.
In the same game, FSU gave up their first break after being faced by a poach-y Pitt defense. Normally FSU has little problem against zones.
The team is able to easily find holes and take good over the top shots. However, Pitt came down in a pretty conventional vertical stack poach, putting two defenders on the force side, one on the break side, one on the front of the stack, and one deep. The poach shortly changes to person-to-person defense, but not before forcing FSU to the sideline.
It could be that FSU struggled because of the change in Pitt’s defense, as this was Pitt’s first poach-y look of the game. Nevertheless, FSU quickly gets trapped on the sideline and turns the disc. They’ll need to be able to beat these kinds of poaches moving forward.
The Verdict: Are They a Contender?
Florida State is absolutely a contender for a national championship. Their smooth, patient offense and smart, intense defense sets them up well to challenge the best of the best in Milwaukee. They have had a little bit of trouble at key moments, but rode their strengths to a regional title in a strong Southeast region.