The Play that Broke the Tarheels: SC’s Handoff Sweep

The Gamecocks played from behind most of Thursday night.  South Carolina took the lead for the first and only time against North Carolina on Shon Caron’s 48 yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.  Carson scored on a play Steve Spurrier referred to as a handoff sweep in his post game comments.  In a night in which the Gamecocks attempted all kinds of run plays to keep the offense moving, it was this play that proved the most effective down the stretch.

How the Handoff Sweep Works

The Line.  On the play the center and the play side guard pull around to lead the running back to the edge.  When an offensive lineman pulls he doesn’t go forward to block someone.  Instead he steps back into the backfield and then runs down the line of scrimmage to find someone to block.

Pulling linemenj

South Carolina’s handoff sweep has the play side guard lead the center to the outside.  The guard’s responsibility is to kick out the first defender who appears, meaning he is to block him toward the sideline.  The center then leads through the hole and seals any flowing linebackers who are scraping to the play.

Scraping defenders are players pursuing the running back by moving at an angle down the line of scrimmage toward the ball carrier.  The center wants to ‘seal’ him inside so he cannot make the tackle.

Scrape and Sealj

Because the center and guard are pulling someone has to block the defenders in front of them.  Here the play side tackle and tight end both block down, meaning they each block the defenders to the inside of them.

Down blocksj

On the backside of the line, the guard steps play side to make sure the backside defensive tackle doesn’t shoot the gap, then he proceeds to the linebacker.  If the backside defensive tackle tries to follow the pulling center into the backfield, the guard has to block him.  The backside offensive tackle tries to block the defensive tackle, if he can get there, and if not goes for the Mike (middle) linebacker.  Between the two backside offensive lineman, they will block the defensive tackle and the Mike linebacker.

The Receivers.  The receivers do a combination of things to help the play.  On the back side one receiver runs a hitch pattern and the other sets up to block the closest defender in coverage.  This should occupy the defenders in coverage.  If the defenders don’t respect these routes, the play call can be changed to throw the ball to them.

On the play side, the wide receiver stalk blocks the corner covering him.  The stalk block is a technique where the receiver leaves the line of scrimmage like he is going to be running a pass route.  In addition to making the defender think he is trying to run a pattern the receiver is also getting a good angle between the defender and then run.  Then, when the defender realizes it is a run and turns to run up to make a tackle, the receiver then starts to block him.

Screen Grab Credit: ESPN

Screen Grab Credit: ESPN

Backfield.  In the backfield the quarterback takes the snap from shotgun.  The running back is set up to the backside and comes across the quarterback’s face (in front of him).  The quarterback gives the ball on a handoff, but he can just as easily run another variation of the play where he fakes the handoff and runs the other way.  This possibility of a fake is why the backside defensive end isn’t blocked.  He has to wait to make sure the quarterback didn’t keep the ball before chasing the running back.

Shon Carson’s Touchdown

On Shon Carson’s touchdown this all set up perfectly.  With Pharoh Cooper to the top of the formation in the slot, the free safety’s attention was over there.  The free safety actually lined up on top of Cooper but then moved to the middle of the field for the Cover One Man coverage they were running.  (The pre-snap movements are dotted lines on the diagram of the play below.)

Handoff Sweep UNCj

When the free safety moved to the middle of the field, the strong safety moved up in line with the linebackers to help support the run.  At the snap the strong safety moved into the backfield either because he read the run coming to his side or because he was on a run blitz.  He was too wide to effectively stop the run and was easily blocked by right guard Will Sport.

Center Alan Knott then turned up field to seal off the linebackers coming from the inside.  The Sam linebacker, who stood and watched the beginning of the play, was the first player.  When the linebacker starts to move to try to tackle Carson, Knott is there to block him.

All of the down blocks were effective, and Mike Matulis, the left guard, was able to get to the Mike (middle) linebacker and stop him from flowing to the ball.  Carlton Heard blocked the corner beautifully, and Carson was off to the races.

Why Not Every Time?

The handoff sweep was run about a half dozen times through out the game, but it only went for long yardage this once.  The reasons why it was so successful were actually a combination of factors.

The North Carolina defense was in a call that benefitted the play.  The defensive line was slanting to the weak side, meaning at the snap all of the lineman were attacking the gap to their right.  Since South Carolina was trying to down block the two play side defensive lineman, this helped.  It also allowed the back side guard, Matulis, to get to the Mike linebacker.

Two Tarheel players were slightly late and out of position to help spring the big play.  The Sam linebacker spent the beginning part of the play watching the backfield.  As a result he was slow in getting to the line of scrimmage to stop the run.  This set up Alan Knott’s block on him.  Similarly, the strong safety rushed into the backfield too far outside.  Once Will Sport engaged him, Shon Carson had plenty of room to stay at full speed through the hole.

All of these factors were aided by the fact that none of the Carolina players missed a block or was beaten on a block.  This was exactly the way the play was drawn up and why it was so successful.  Other times in the game the Tarheels were in better position, both because of the defense they happened to be running and better plays by their players, which is why those situations gained 8-10 yards instead of 48.

More of This

This play will certainly remain a part of the South Carolina play book.  It can be run from the wildcat with Pharaoh Cooper or Brandon Wilds taking the direct snap just as easily as it can be run with Connor Mitch in shotgun.

There are atlas three variations on the play which will probably be run throughout the season.  First, the quarterback can keep the ball and run around the opposite end on a read option if the defensive end is disciplined.  Second the quarterback can throw the hitch to the top of the play.  Third, the offensive lineman can pull to give the same look, but pass block on the edge, and the quarterback can fake to the running back and throw deep.  Expect to see some or all of these variations at some point.

About Billy Koehler

Billy Koehler is the founder of and a contributing writer at He has been covering college football since 2006. You can follow him on twitter @billykoehler.
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