The counter play is a general term for a misdirection running play where everything appears geared to having the ball carrier go in one direction, but he ends up running the other direction. In other words, the runner goes counter to the expected direction.
It is a play that Percy Harvin is absolutely lethal on. Both his first quarter and third quarter touchdown runs against South Carolina came on the brand of counter play that Urban Meyer likes to use. I will diagram the latter since it was longer, but the other would have been a touchdown from any distance away from the end zone as well.
The Third Quarter Run
Here is the formation:
Florida begins in a three-wide set with Kestahn Moore as a running back next to Tim Tebow and Aaron Hernandez lined up as an H-back behind RT Jason Watkins. Louis Murphy is wide to the right, Riley Cooper is wide to the left, and Harvin is in the slot.
Here you can see Tebow signaling to Harvin to go in motion. Harvin will come in close on the other side of Tebow to create a symmetrical two-back set.
The South Carolina defense begins in a nickel set, named as such because there are five defensive backs. The defense recognizes that this will probably be a running play with Harvin moving to the backfield, so the corner that was on Harvin slides behind the linebackers to add another layer of run protection. One of the safeties moves up by the linebackers to create a de facto 3-4 set.
Here is what will happen once the ball is snapped:
This is a bit busy, so let’s take it one piece at a time.
Four of the five offensive linemen will block to the right. Moore will come out of the backfield to the right as well. When Harvin takes the hand off, his first couple steps will be to the right. This is the setup, preparing the misdirection of the counter.
RG Mike Pouncey is a pulling guard on this play, called that because instead of going straight ahead, he will pull away from the rest of the line and run around back of it. He will pick up the blitzing outside linebacker on that side. Hernandez will also come around in that direction and shoot between Pouncey and LT Phil Trautwein like a blocking fullback. Harvin, after faking to the right, will cut back to the left and follow Hernandez through the hole.
Something that I didn’t diagram above because it would have made everything too messy is that after the handoff, Tebow rolls right and fakes a throw to Murphy to give the defense one more thing to think about. Murphy will run down field to block, and Cooper at the top will battle his covering cornerback.
The actual outside linebacker on the left went in after Tebow’s fake. The middle linebacker No. 40 you see there initially went forward to pick up Moore coming out of the backfield, but when he recognized that Moore did not have the ball, he turned around to go after Harvin. The safety who had come up to become the fourth linebacker also got frozen by Moore’s fake run, and he also reversed course to go for Harvin. Both were too late though; Harvin is too fast for either to catch him.
Harvin’s original covering cornerback was Hernandez’s blocking target, but the corner began running back up the field before Hernandez could get a clean block. It didn’t matter though; Hernandez got enough of him to slow him up, and that’s all Harvin needed.
Cooper has the next important block, and it’s no surprise he’s up there as he has become Florida’s best blocker among the receivers. The corner will eventually release from the block, but once again, he was slowed up enough for Harvin to speed past him. The other safety (not pictured) will come in to try to make a play shortly after this frame, but he underestimates Harvin’s speed and takes the wrong angle.
Harvin splits that corner and the safety, and his raw speed helps him pull away. Here’s the video of both the first quarter run and the third quarter run, and you will see the same thing in both: a fake to the right and run to the left.
That Looks Awfully Familiar…
If you’re thinking to yourself that those runs looked familiar, then you are right. Let me paint the scene.
It’s the 2006 SEC Championship Game. Florida led 17-7 at halftime, but a mostly disastrous third quarter allowed Arkansas back in the game. The Razorbacks took a 21-17 lead, but a muffed punt by Reggie Fish that the Gators recovered gave them a 24-21 lead.
It was still close, and Arkansas still had a slight edge of momentum. That is, until Percy Harvin ran a counter play.
Here we see more of a spread formation. Jemalle Cornelius is at the top, with Bubba Caldwell next to him. Dallas Baker is the tall receiver at the bottom, with Harvin inside of him. FB Billy Latsko is lined up in the H-back position that Hernandez was in above.
Harvin goes in motion towards Chris Leak, and the linebacker who had been on him also slides back behind the other linebackers. It’s the same move we saw the South Carolina cornerback make. This time though, Harvin does not come to a stop, but instead he slows down and his shoulders are still parallel to the sideline when the ball is snapped.
As with last time it’s a bit busy, but again let’s take it a piece at a time.
The play is going the opposite direction as before, so four of the five offensive linemen block to the left. LG Jim Tartt pulls this time, and he takes on the right defensive end. Latsko will come around and pick up the middle linebacker who is following the DE.
Harvin takes the handoff facing the left sideline, so his original covering linebacker will continue in that direction. I didn’t diagram the quarterback again this time to keep the messiness down, but Leak will run to the left as though he had the ball after handing it off. In response, the outside linebacker on the left will crash the left side of the line as you would expect him to.
After taking the hand off though, Harvin catches the defense off guard by immediately turning around and running between Tartt and Latsko. Upon seeing this, Harvin’s linebacker will turn on a dime and head the other way.
Let’s go to the wide shot for the final part.
Harvin is now in the open field, and that’s always a bad thing for opponents. Only two players have a chance to get him now: Harvin’s linebacker and the sole safety on the play.
The linebacker is trying to make up for being fooled, so he is slightly off balance and running as hard as he can towards Harvin. The safety who is playing center field apparently doesn’t think his teammate can make the tackle, so he also runs as hard as he can towards Harvin’s projected running path instead of hanging back to be the last line of defense.
In other words, both guys overpursue on the play. Harvin sees this happening, so he cuts it back to the left and sails down the field for an easy score. Here is the play in real time:
On the first play after a punt, Harvin takes it to the house to give Florida a 31-21 lead and the momentum back. Each team would tack on another score for the final margin of 38-28.
Urban Meyer will tell anyone willing to listen that Percy Harvin has the best first step in college football. These plays make it easy to see why.
The 2006 edition of the play also illustrates one of the reasons why Meyer, a guy who loves running it up the middle as much as anyone, will spread the field often. By having two receivers at the top, Arkansas was forced to cover them both with corners. That meant there was only one safety instead of two for Harvin to have to deal with. Removing defenders from the middle was the goal, and it worked.
Chris Fowler’s column last week went over how Florida has become a lot more of a power team instead of a spread team this year. That was reflected in 2008’s play above where there were three guys in the backfield instead of two. However, Kestahn Moore coming out wide to the right from the backfield drew both a linebacker and a safety, effectively accomplishing the same goal.
Harvin has had many highlight reel plays in his time at Florida. No play appears more frequently on it than the counter.