Virginia Tech-Liberty Review: Return Of The Split Zone

Jalen Holston, Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech tailback Jalen Holston ran well behind the split zone. (Ivan Morozov)

As we close the season out with a review of a tough win over Liberty, let’s look at it through the efforts of two Virginia Tech redshirt-seniors.

Jalen Holston and the Return of the Split Zone

The offense sure surprised me on Saturday when, instead of trying to work the edges, Tech went with Inside Zone variations, and of those, they ran almost exclusively Split Zone. The Hokies not only doubled-down on Split Zone, they made it work. And on just about all of those runs, Jalen Holston had the rock.

Split Zone with a wing (which for most teams is just “Split Zone,” which is what we’ll call it) was the cornerstone of the Joe Moorhead offense, and it was the greatest coaching commonality among Tyler Bowen, Joe Rudolph, and Brad Glenn, meaning the call was almost assured to be the Hokies’ foundational play. And it has been. But despite looking good in the Spring Game, the Hokies couldn’t get it to click in the regular season…until they went to Lynchburg.

Split Zone works like a combined zone/gap play. The guys on the line of scrimmage all block in one direction in traditional zone fashion, while the wingback pulls on a “slice” block and kicks out the end like you’d see in a gap play like Counter. The kickout block creates a hard gap for the back, while the zone blocking both pulls the defense away from that gap and it gives the defensive front a long, nebulous stretch of gaps to defend. Unlike most gap plays, though, there isn’t someone leading through the hole, so the back has to figure out if the defense is leaving that gap open or not.

Here’s what Split Zone looks like when the back hits the zone portion of the scheme:

And here’s what it looks like when the gap is attacked, in this case by the QB on a keeper:

The runner angles back towards the kickout and finds a crease where the defense has overpursued.

I didn’t see this play working as anything but bait for play-action and RPO, even with Liberty’s uncertainty at linebacker and iffy safety play. I thought the Flames’ defensive line would muck things up too much. But the Hokies proved me wrong, and I’m darn happy about it. They kept that defensive line out of the backfield, and they had Liberty’s run fits worked out perfectly and knew where to go with the ball.

They also had a few wrinkles. For one, the Hokies tweaked their Split Zone by putting the slicer (usually Nick Gallo) in motion. Often, that gave the Hokies the usual outcomes:

In these two clips, Holston sees the linebackers flow with the slice, so he bends his track to the front and finds open grass. But watch this: