As pointed out by Thomas Fleming in this great breakdown, as well as this equally well thought out post by NewsOk's Kyle Frederickson, much of the Cowboys' offense flows through the QB, as he is required to select from a choice of plays from that formation, dependent upon what he can discern from the defensive alignment.
Other programs will line up offensively, then the OC in the press box will radio a call to the sideline based on what he can discern from the defensive alignment, and the call is signaled in from the sideline. This results in the "look" to the sideline by virtually every offensive player to get the play call (which I can't stand).
Combined with moving fast, this can handicap a defense, limiting substitutions and formations based on personnel.
But defenses can take a stab at pre-snap reads, and if they guess right based on film study they can blow up what initially appears to be a solid offensive play call. The offense can also assist with some questionable play design and poor execution.
Case in point...
OSU is pinned inside their own 10 yard line after a CMU punt. On the next play, Chris Carson takes a handoff out of the diamond formation for a 1 yard gain. On 2nd down, OSU subbed out a couple of players for this formation, which I think is one of their best besides the diamond. They would maintain this personnel group for the next play.
Rudolph's read here was interesting, as he was looking at Ateman the whole time, and the safety had this over the top, but Ateman and the throw beat the coverage for a 49 yard gain. The stagnant offense suddenly has life?
With first down at the CMU 43, the Cowboys showed this formation.
I'm no offensive genius, but the defensive alignment pretty much dictates pass in my book. The problem I have in this moment is the offensive alignment.
First, I don't like the 3 WR formation on the short side of the field, but I'll skip past this as maybe I don't understand enough about offensive football to know this is a good thing. Rudolph is looking at single coverage up top and 3 wide at the bottom with only 2 defenders in coverage. I personally would have taken another shot deep into single coverage, but I can understand Rudolph's call in this moment, as OSU appears to have a numbers advantage on the short side.
Just prior to the snap, the LB on the short side slides out. Numbers advantage vanishes, but it's too late.
The LB, following Rudolph's throw to Ateman, is now in position to shut down the play. Meanwhile, Zac Veatch is busy committing an unnecessary hold on a seal block, while David Glidden is about to whiff on his assignment. Neither mattered, as the LB took care of business.
So, as we can see, execution trumps everything. Veatch's hold negates the play, so poor design doesn't matter.
But let's presume he doesn't get called for holding. The play wasn't even close to succeeding, and here's my amateur opinion of why...
The alignment needed to be reversed, and you're throwing to the wrong guy. Bubble/WR screens are designed to get a player the ball in space. First of all, there's way less space on the short side of the field. Second, you've thrown to a guy who is not the player you think about first when asked "Who do you want to get the ball to in space?" If we're going WR's, I'm thinking Glidden or McCleskey, maybe even Sheperd, although he was limited by the hand injury. Throw in here that you've thrown the ball to a player already on the boundary, and you've taken away what little space he had to maneuver. If you're thinking 3-5 yard gain anyway, then try a Cowboy Back who might at least run over someone for an additional yard or two. Even if the LB hadn't moved, Glidden's missed block also negated the play, although maybe a couple more yards are gained.
If the formation was reversed, you have an another, critical option. If the defender singled up in coverage plays off the line, as we see in the first image of this play, then you can throw a quick lateral pass to that receiver, and he might pick up 3-5 yards, maybe more if the tackler whiffs. At that point it doesn't matter who the receiver is.
So this play was doomed from the start, more because of play design than anything else, in my opinion. As we can see, poor play design made the play vulnerable to a single point of failure (defensive shift and/or poor execution), but it also killed the momentum of the previous big play, especially when you add in the holding penalty.
What is also clear is that being successful is not easy. There are so many factors that have to go right for a play to succeed, and if the QB doesn't make a good read (remember JW checking to a fade on the goal line at West Virginia in 2013?) or the play is not well designed, it can be blown up by any one of them. Even the head coach putting the lid on the offense in the early season, or in certain situations, can have a huge impact. As the case is made here, it might not all be on the OC's plate.
Regardless, as Gundy said in his Monday presser, about 20-30% of the plays in a season don't work. I think this counts as one of those.