It’s a pretty easy concept.
The offensive line blocks for the run. The quarterback can either hand the ball off to his running back, pass the ball or pull the ball for a keeper. All three can result in huge plays, and it’s nearly impossible to defend.
It’s a run-pass option, and in the modern college football world, it has defenses scrambling to stop it. Ohio is no exception, as the Bobcats feature RPOs in their offense.
“Sometimes you’ll be blocking a linebacker and all the sudden, you look up and the ball is getting thrown right past your head. That’s a little weird, but it always works out,” starting guard Joe Anderson said.
As the ball is snapped, the quarterback and running back are side-by-side. The quarterback reads the movement of the linebackers and defensive ends. If the defender looks outside and plays the quarterback run, the running back takes the handoff. If the defender fills the gap, the quarterback keeps the ball. And lastly, if the linebackers cheat up to help stop the run, lethal passing connections ensue.
With athletic, agile quarterback Nathan Rourke, the Bobcats have nearly mastered the concept. Offensive coordinator Tim Albin is a fan, and he’s introducing it more frequently to the offense. As the offense uses RPOs, production increases. The Bobcats averaged 39.1 points per game in their 13 games last season. Rourke had 39 total touchdowns a season ago — 17 passing touchdowns and 21 rushing touchdowns.
As Rourke and Quinton Maxwell continue to take snaps this season, they’re both quite comfortable with the offensive scheme. Maxwell is in his third season with playing time. Rourke’s in his second.
They know when to let the stable of running backs, led by fifth-year senior A.J. Ouellette, take the ball, when to keep it and when to pass. Both have won in nonconference and Mid-American Conference play before. Albin knows he can trust them.
“The game is called no differently with Quinton and Nathan,” Albin said. “I don’t care who’s in there. They both are really, really, really good players. They both have great skill set. They understand what we’re doing. There’s nothing I would call different with Nathan or Quinton. Zero.”
And while the quarterbacks are given the keys to the offense, the offensive line is there to do its job. One might think the offensive line can’t decide whether to block for the run or the pass. But in Ohio’s system, it’s simple. Albin and offensive line coach Bart Miller have every RPO blocked like a run play.
Anderson has three years of experience along Albin’s offensive line. Ohio returned four starters on the offensive line, only replacing its center. After having two 900-plus-yard rushers last season, the offensive line is looking to build on that.
In this offense, that starts with RPOs.
Then there’s Ouellette, the old steady in the backfield who rushed for over 1,000 yards a season ago. He rarely knows when he’s getting the ball for sure.
“When he pulls it and we see a big hole, we get pissed,” Ouellette said. “We let the quarterback know and the coach know what we see. If we get that look again, we’ll just hand it off.”
Sometimes, though, RPOs can show their fickle nature. In the Bobcats’ opener against Howard, they had the ball inside the 10-yard line and couldn’t score a touchdown after three straight passing plays.
All three were RPOs. Ouellette knows he could’ve scored on one of them. Albin knows he could’ve called plays differently. The throws, blocking and catching could’ve been better.
Such is the nature of the RPO, where everything can go right if the correct decisions are made, but everything can go wrong quickly. Albin understands how the RPOs can backfire on an offense. Sometimes, it’s easier to look back and find spots where a simpler call than an RPO could have been beneficial.
“Should I have called some things differently? You bet,” Albin said. “You’re going to have a few calls every game that you wish you did differently. You don’t have a crystal ball.”
Luckily for Ohio, both quarterbacks run RPOs well and are able to read what the defense shows them. It doesn’t matter if Rourke is behind the center, or Maxwell is taking the snaps.
RPOs are integral.
“It’s definitely a luxury to have both quarterbacks,” Anderson said. “Both quarterbacks are great. Both have won a lot of football games for us. Everyone trusts both quarterbacks and their ability to read the RPOs and do the correct thing every time. It’s pretty impressive.”