Tonight was a bit of a tough decision on which angle to take for the column. One problem is that with deadline, you have to pick an option and commit to it before the game is over. I picked the play of the U of L defense, which I thought was pretty good given the opponent and circumstances. You might debate how appropriate it is to write a basically positive column after a team loses to go 5-5, but I that’s how it goes.
Anyway, Brian Bennett and I are driving the heck out of West Virginia, and I’ve got nothing else to do and have gotten several requests for my take on the U of L offense, so here it goes.
Here are my basic questions on the U of L offense:
Did it do anything tonight that you didn’t expect? Did it do anything that it hasn’t done all season? Was there any indication that anything special had been prepared to counter the WVU defense, or just to surprise it, during a 12-day runup to this game?
I don’t have to wait for an answer. To all of those, the proper response is, “No.”
The problem I have with this offense isn’t in the plays it runs. It’s in how it is conceived. Nothing seems to build toward anything else. I suppose I’m used to watching a U of L offense where every play, in addition to trying to advance the ball, is an exploratory surgery into the opposing defense.
I noted on one sack Brohm took, every receiver appeared to be running straight down the field on a fly pattern. It seems that with this offense, a lot of weight is put on the individual talent and creativity of players, rather than building that creativity into the plays themselves. That’s why Harry Douglas is excelling. He gets open. And it’s why Mario Urrutia is not excelling. He needs the attack to be built around him to some degree. He needs to be set up. That doesn’t mean he’s an inferior player. It does mean that it’s the coaches’ responsibility to put him in position to get the ball.
In previous games, I’ve noted that there have been at times open receivers that Brohm hasn’t found. Tonight, there weren’t many.
Over the past three or four games, opposing defenses have all used the same blueprint: Run a lot of Cover-2 zones; rush three linemen and drop eight men into coverage, or rush three linemen and “dog” blitz a linebacker, or even a safety or corner; rush four and drop seven into coverage. Basically, commit relatively few players to the line of scrimmage while blanketing the field with zone coverage.
The result? Brohm drops to pass, has no one open, and winds up dumping the ball short if he can get through his progressions, or getting sacked if he can’t.
Brohm said after tonight’s game: “It helps (a defense) to know that we’re pretty much passing it every down. So they can pin their ears back and come after us.”
Early in tonight’s game against West Virginia, the Mountaineers actually came with heavier blitzing and blew up the U of L line. That approach was actually effective — even more than dropping eight later in the game, because when WVU dropped back into coverage Brohm was still finding ways to complete passes and move the ball.
Run vs. screen
The way to defeat such early blitzing is simple. It was one of the things U of L did best under Petrino, and one of his mantras: Defeat the blitz with the run.
In fact, there was such a fear factor of U of L breaking long runs against the right blitzes that it kept defenses back on their heels.
Now, however, the run game is not a threat. U of L ran 27 times for only 37 yards tonight. As a result, defenses aren’t worried about committing large numbers to the line of scrimmage. They’re taking away the deep threat and essentially daring U of L to run it.
U of L coach Steve Kragthorpe’s answer has been, instead of establishing the run, to replace it with a short passing game. He said tonight:
“They were blitzing us early in the game and it’s tough to run the ball against the blitz. So basically what we ended up saying from a philosophical standpoint was we’re going to throw screen passes that will equal runs. And we had some effectiveness throwing screen passes, and dropped two or three that would have gone for 40 or 50 yards in combination, because we had good blocking out in front. But again, from a philosophical standpoint, we were going to use the screen pass as a run.”
From a yardage standpoint, that’s fine. You can replace the lost rushing yards. But the offense still pays a price. And the price for an ineffective running game was described by Brohm, who said, “What it does do is make those windows a lot tighter. When you try play action, they’re not biting up on it. The backers are still dropping and it makes those windows tough to throw the ball into. I fit a few in there. A couple I probably shouldn’t have thrown, but we were wanting to be aggressive.”
(I should add, these comments were made just in the course of postgame questioning. They weren’t made in reaction to each other, and shouldn’t be seen as either challenging or contradicting the other).
It’s why you see so often Brohm throwing short on third and long. He’s throwing it to the only open man, the only one with even a chance of getting up past the marker. Coaches are calling for deeper routes, but defenses are dropping back to cover them.
Now, I’m not sure what the running game issues are. Health of the running backs is a concern. There have been some offensive line struggles, though I’m not sure why. Injuries at one position can’t be the source of all the problems.
But at least some of it has to be with how the running game is conceived by the coaching staff.
The running game is what made the U of L offense what it was for the past four seasons.
The final drive:
I got a few emails wondering why U of L didn’t take more deep shots on the final drive at West Virginia. I was standing right behind the end zone for the final drive. On the first play, from their own 1, I was virtually in the Cardinal backfield (talk about a useless addition!)
I’m telling you, the challenge in that situation is first to get to a situation where you aren’t dropping back into the end zone every time you pass. It took two plays to do that. After that, there simply wasn’t anyone open deep. That’s where more creativity is required. There has to be a play to spring Urrutia. A guy like Douglas commands so much attention, I’m surprised we haven’t seen him hook-and-ladder it to a guy like Guy, with speed to burn.
But that gets back to the whole issue of “special plays.” I kept looking for new plays that seemed specially tailored to attack WVU’s 3-3-5 defense. I didn’t see them. I’m sure there were some wrinkles.
Anyway, those are my thoughts. There are other issues on offense, I’m sure. But the whole key to me has been the running game, and lack thereof. Until that is established, U of L can be stopped — even with one of the best quarterbacks and receiving corps in the country.