I apologize for my absence for the past week. I came down with a nasty case of the norovirus and have been bed-ridden and asleep for most of this week. During my illness, I had time to go back and take a look at the 2012 Rose Bowl game against Wisconsin and I wanted to take the time to do a comparison of that team and the teams that we’ve been down about the past couple of years. It might not be the best representation of what is different, given that the score was very close, it was high scoring game (45-38) and it turned out a few key plays, but I was struck with how different the teams felt, culture-wise.
The 2012 team (and the 2010 and 2011 teams) stand out to me mostly in the variance in offense that we were running. If you watch those teams, most of what we we ran required creating movement in the backfield prior to the snap. On several plays during the Rose Bowl, we line up in a 2 back set (generally one on either side of Darron Thomas) and use one of them pre-snap to move a defender. Whether this is with a player starting next to Darron Thomas and then moving out wide or whether it is utilizing a player in a jet sweep motion from a wideout position, the effect is twofold: move a defender off the line of scrimmage to open up the IZR or, in the alternative, to provide an additional lead blocker for an OZR run.
The next thing that stood out to me was the specific route-running of our WRs. Lavasier Tuinei had a very successful night, not because he was a 50 yard downfield threat, but because his routes often involved going across the field and putting him in space against a defender. Our offense (if you reach back in time to the good ol’ days) was predicated on putting playmakers in space and letting them work one on one once they got to the second level. Several of Tuinei’s best catches are not him beating his man straight downfield and running into the endzone, but rather a 7-10 yard catch that turned into 20 yards by getting him out in space and utilizing his downfield blocks. Most of these throws occurred in the sort of soft-underbelly of the zone defense that Wisconsin was playing and with a single move turned into big gainers. And most were not straight shots downfield, but utilized Tuinei in a crossing pattern across the field, where he initiated a single or double move to get open.
Another thing that stood out to me was our willingness to run Darron Thomas on designed and option runs. The best runs utilized Darron and 2 other backs in a tripartite sweep motion, where the back to Darron’s left would be the IZR option, while Darron and the back to his right would function as a regular option pitch play. On at least three occasions, these plays were tremendously successful in moving the pocket and picking up a valuable first down. Darron himself was not particularly successful when solo running, but his presence alone required that the defense watch him, which assisted LMJ and DAT in opening the line.
Our offense has not seemed to throw in a lot of the wrinkles we used against Wisconsin in 2012. Generally speaking, Royce is utilized like a traditional running back because of our unwillingness to run our QBs. After the Marcus injury in 2013, I think the coaching staff became gun-shy (remember, we burned Darron Thomas’s redshirt because injuries depleted our QB roster), despite the fact that Chip never gave a shit about QB health – his mantra was next man up and we weathered multiple injuries to Masoli, Costa and Darron Thomas during his tenure. In order to get back to running over teams, I really believe we need to start utilizing our QB in the run game more. Herbert has the wheels and has good top end speed. While he’s not as fast or as crafty as Marcus, he’s the closest thing to him that we’ve had on the field since Marcus graduated. That means running in option sets, using our speedy east-west runners like Taj Griffin in jet sweep motion looks and utilizing Charles Nelson out of the backfield as well. Royce is great and is one of the best we’ve had, but he doesn’t have the same luxury that J-Stew did when the zone read game was something fresh and novel.
My biggest critique is that we need to work with the personnel we have. Sure we have amazing WRs, but if our QB can’t make the throw, then it doesn’t matter at all. We need to get our QBs comfortable by getting them open looks in the soft part of the zone. I’ve been saying this for at least 2 years now (with both Lockie and Prukop). We were spoiled by Marcus and his general accuracy and ball security in the passing game. He could hit a Carrington or an Addison in stride 70 yards downfield. We do not have that type of QB. Just like getting a basketball player to the foul line to get some free throws in during a shooting slump (seeing the ball go through the hoop), I believe we need to get our QBs comfortable by stringing together a few completions that are short and that are not slants in the run/pass option. In order to do so, I think we need to run routes like we used to – shorter, crossing and that emphasize getting playmakers out into space and letting them operate. I believe that will help the confidence of our young QBs.
Our defense in the Rose Bowl was not phenomenal. A lot of the same gripes that we currently have with this defense were present in that defense as well. They allowed huge chunks of yardage on runs. They allowed Abrederis to get wide-open in soft parts of the zone or downfield (we gave up almost 300 yards passing). What was the difference? Outside of a brilliant Kiko Alonso interception, our run defense is the only thing that stood out to me, and even in that we allowed Montee Ball to rush for 164 yards and a TD. Douglast posted a stat a few weeks ago about John Boyett being our leading tackler that season after I had lamented the fact that Brendan Schooler was our leading tackler this season. My point was that if your safety is your leading tackler something is wrong. The difference between Boyett and Schooler’s situations was readily apparent after watching the 2012 Rose Bowl. Boyett was often diagnosing a run play and was into the line of scrimmage almost immediately, throwing his body at the runner like a missile.Wisconsin had 518 yards of total offense in the game, so it’s not like we prevented them from advancing the ball. In fact, the major penalties we have lamented every game this season were present in the Wisconsin game as well (at least 3 PI calls and 1 personal foul on Kiko).
However, ball-hawking and swarming to the ball is what stood out to me – our DBs were particularly good about diagnosing run plays and rushing to the point of attack (mostly Boyett). Players helped gang tackle – even if a Troy Hill or Ifo was too small to make the tackle, they wrapped up and waited for help to arrive. Michael Clay was communicating our play every down; in this team I have no idea who is the leader of the defense. The defense also displayed proper tackling technique, using both hands to wrap up around the waist and lift the player up and off the ground. We do not tackle well. I don’t know how you teach that, but we used to know how to do it. The last thing is that the defense just seemed fast – even though they were giving up big chunks of yardage, they made plays exactly when they needed to and got turnovers.
We had swagger back then too. It feels like that is gone. We need to get our mojo back. I know it’s tough to do that when you’ve lost 5 straight, but we need to reestablish our attitude. Whether that will require firing Helf remains to be seen. As usual drop your thoughts in below.