Smart Football’s college football viewing guide: opening weekend

After perusing the television listings and gametimes, I’ve set out a rough chart to see how much football I can force upon myself. Games of interest sorted by timeslot.

The best moment in football -- leading the men to the field

Thursday, Sept. 1.

- Murray State at Louisville (ESPNU, 6:00pm): Obviously watch the game to see the good work Charlie Strong has done with Louisville’s development on defense and as a team generally, but also watch because Murray coach Chris Hatcher is an old Airraid guru who continues to throw the ball around. Hatcher won a Divison II National Title at Valdosta St, but his stint at Georgia Southern didn’t go quite as well. It’d be a shock if Louisville didn’t control the game, but, hey, Pat Forde already picked the Cardinals to lose this one.

Friday, Sept. 2.

- TCU at Baylor (ESPN, 7:00pm): If you’re watching football this is your choice, and it’s actually a pretty good one. Art Briles and Robert Griffin III should continue to put on a show at Baylor, but Gary Patterson’s vaunted 4-2-5 defense should be able to control the game. Even if you don’t watch live (it’s unlikely that I will), it’s worth the DVR to study that Patterson/Briles matchup.

Saturday, Sept. 3.

- Appalachian State at Virginia Tech (11:30am, ESPN3): This one has a big point spread, but Appy State is one of the best spread offense teams around; as VT defensive coordinator Bud Foster said in just a bit of hyperbole: “They’ve got a great scheme and they’ve been doing it a long time. I’m not sure what they do wasn’t invented right there. . . . A lot of people take credit for it, but these guys run it as good as anybody.” Foster knows a thing or two about defense, and his team will be stretched by the Appy State attack. Anytime there’s a disparity in levels talent should win out, but this one could get interesting.

- Minnesota at USC (2:30pm, ABC or ESPN2): You can see my rationale for watching Jerry Kill’s debut over at DocSat. (It still could get ugly though.)

- South Florida at Notre Dame (2:30pm, NBC): Notre Dame has a lot to potentially lose in this game, as if Brian Kelly opens this season with a stumble against a (supposedly) lesser but still talented opponent, good will might be in short supply. South Florida shouldn’t roll over but neither should it score a lot itself; the outcome of the game will largely depend on if Dayne Crist can show why he was picked to be ND’s signal-caller. This isn’t so much of a DVR-and-study game as it is one to keep your eye on: If it’s close into the fourth quarter, tensions will be high and the natives will be restless.

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Smart Notes – Gameday, Minnesota’s simplicity, tackling – 9/1/2011

Gameday.

- Yes, that’s the ticket. I don’t know if Minnesota has the talent to succeed but new coach Jerry Kill will make them better:

“[The Golden Gophers' new offense is] kind of hard to describe,” said quarterback MarQueis Gray, more comfortable with running the plays than labeling them. “It’s not an option, but there are a lot of decisions to make like that, real fast.” . . .

Better that the defense doesn’t know — which is sort of the whole point of the Minnesota Method, or the Gopher Go, whatever you want to call it. According to [offensive coordinator] Limegrover, the Gophers playbook includes stray elements of the West Coast, the spread, the pro-style — sort of a chef’s surprise of play design, with one bedrock principle: Can the players execute it, and execute it well?

“The important thing is that everyone is comfortable with it, especially the players,” Limegrover said. “You can have the greatest play ever designed, the Mona Lisa of offense, and if your quarterback can’t pull it off or your line can’t block for it, what good does it do you?” Instead, coach Jerry Kill’s staff drills their players in being fundamentally sound, concepts that are adaptable in a variety of offensive sets. The offensive line, for instance, is taught only three or four basic blocking schemes, giving the players time to polish them. And every offensive play must fit into one of the blocking blueprints.

“Last year, we had a ton of plays for the offensive line,” said left tackle Ed Olson. “Now we can focus on just a few and get it right. Coach Limegrover is trying to make it as easy as he can for us.”

- Whither tackling? Tim Layden explores the state of tackling today:

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Bud Foster of Virginia Tech explains his “field dog” pressure

As I’ve previously explained, Virginia Tech’s “lunchpail defense” has gone through several evolutions, despite remaining one of the elite defenses in the nation:

In the nineties, many teams tried to emulate Frank Beamer and defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s scheme, with its premium on defenders stacking the line to either stop the run or scare the offense into abandoning it and apologizing for having considered such a silly idea. Yet the spread has effectively run the eight-man front out of college football — at least as a base defense — with its reliance on quick, easy throws, quarterback runs and “speed in space” philosophy.

But here’s the rub: While the defense Virginia Tech made en vogue was effectively countered, the actual schemes Beamer and Foster have put into practice in Blacksburg have evolved, year-in and year-out, to maintain the most dominant defensive legacy in the country: Since joining the ACC in 2004, the Hokie D has rebounded from subpar years in 2002 and 2003 to finish in the top-10 nationally in both yards and points allowed five years in a row — despite overhauling their base defensive scheme, to zero fanfare. . . .

As Bud Foster told ESPN’s Mark Schlabach, “Back when they played two tailbacks, you could put eight or nine guys in the box. Now they’re making it tougher to do that because of where they place their people.” And so, he explained, with offenses “putting five or six athletes out in space,” the Hokies too had to “put athletes out in space.” . . . [And w]hat makes Tech’s “quarters” coverage particularly interesting is that they have not actually changed their old “G” front, they have merely removed one guy from the box and lined him up at safety without changing his aggressive responsibilities against the run.

Below is a clip of Foster explaining some of the nuances of one of his base zone blitzes from the new(er) split safety/Cover four look I explained previously:

What is the Inverted Veer / Dash Read?

In fall 2009, a reader emailed me about a spread run scheme TCU used to close out a tight victory against Clemson. The scheme featured a runningback and the quarterback running to the same side — as opposed to the traditional zone read, where the two ran in opposite directions, along with playside blocking from the line. I’d seen something similar before, possibly from Urban Meyer’s team at Florida, but apparently Clemson’s excellent defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele had not seen it, or at least not from TCU. Indeed, since he hadn’t yet seen the tape Steele wasn’t even certain of how to label the concept, but he noted that it had been a significant factor in TCU’s victory:

Inverted veer works better when this is your QB

TCU quarterback Andy Dalton found almost all of his success on the ground on Saturday by employing a new play that the Clemson coaching staff had not seen on film, and Dalton seemed to run almost at will through the line of scrimmage and beyond. . . . Steele said that the play with Dalton carrying was really the only play the Tigers had not seen on film as they studied the Horned Frogs last week.“They ran just one play that we hadn’t seen on film – but it was a good one,” he said. . . .

“Not to get too technical, but on the zone read, the quarterback fakes to the running back going this way and the quarterback goes the other way,” Steele said. “What they were doing was faking zone read one way, the quarterback would step like he was going this way but they would pull the guard and chase it the other way. It was a new look. We got over there and drew it up, got it adjusted out, but we were doing it on the fly and adjusting it on every call.

I couldn’t tell you if TCU got the play from somewhere else or dreamed it up themselves, but in our increasingly interconnected world, that play — which I dubbed the “inverted veer” because it had the same read as the traditional veer but “inverted” the option with the quarterback now the inside man and the runner the outside man — has spread across all levels of football. By the end of the 2009 season, several teams had begun using it, but it’s real significance would come last season: The play was everywhere. Big 10 teams like Ohio State and Purdue (to use two on the opposite end of the spectrum) used it; it spread across conferences like the WAC and Conference USA; in the first part of the season, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez racked up tons of yards with this play, most notably going for 240 yards against Kansas State on primetime; and, finally, Cam Newton rode the play to over 1,400 yards rushing, a Heisman trophy, and a national championship. And it goes without saying that, given the play’s popularity at the college level, countless high schools across the country installed it in the spring and fall.

But with the play’s popularity has come complexity and variation; we’ve evolved past the days of Kevin Steele diagramming the play and the defensive response on a greaseboard on the sideline. Let’s walk through the elements of the play, some of the choices available for blocking, and some of the defensive responses.

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Smart Notes – Hurricanes, Snakes, Stupid Sweep – 8/30/2011

That’s dedication. Despite the wrath of Hurricane Irene, football continued, even if in somewhat limited form as Virginia Union defeated St. Augustine 12-0:

What was billed as “The only game in town” became maybe the only game on the East Coast, which was hit Saturday by Hurricane Irene. Despite some of the worst conditions imaginable, the game went on, and Virginia Union defeated St. Augustine’s 12-0 at Hovey Field.

“We knew there’d be rain,” VUU coach Michael Bailey said. “But you don’t stop football for rain. You stop it for lightning and tornadoes. That wasn’t in the picture, so we felt like we could get it in. This wasn’t the first time we’ve played in rain.” . . . After the game, St. Augustine’s showered and changed in Barco-Stevens Hall, Union’s basketball arena. Ceiling tiles had collapsed, and puddles developed on the floor.

Virginia Union had to petition the NCAA to play this game, which filled a hole created in both teams’ schedules when Saint Paul’s cut its athletic program in May. Bailey said he didn’t want all that hard work to go to waste.

The wind was so bad, when Union punter Paul Jones attempted the first punt of the game, it went up, then stopped as if it had hit a wall and plunged straight down. The punt went minus-1 yard.

Jones had four punts for a total of 60 yards. When he had the wind at his back, he got one to go as far as 32 yards.

Though not all of the follies in the game were directly the result of the Hurricane (via DocSat):

- Snakes on a… what? When coaches tell you to fight through the elements, I don’t think they had this in mind:

Darrick Strzelecki, a star running back for Gravette (Ark.) High, is used to close encounters with linebackers on the football field. He’s not so accustomed to run-ins with reptiles on the field … or at least he wasn’t until a practice on Tuesday. That’s when Strzelecki took off his helmet during a water break and found what he thought was a toy snake. As it turns out, it wasn’t a toy at all, though he only discovered that when the reptile slithered away.

“It looked like a rubber snake, and I thought someone had played a practical joke on me,” Strzelecki told the Associated Press. “When I grabbed it by the tail, that’s when it jerked, and I dropped the helmet.”
Luckily, a Gravette assistant coach was able to confirm that the snake which hid in Strzelecki’s helmet was non-venomous after killing it shortly after it slipped out of his head gear. A day later, school officials made a clean sweep of the school’s locker room and all of the equipment used by its teams.

- Putting the defensive end in conflict, from Shakin the Southland.

- Go forth: Bill C. shares data on receiver targets, catches and close games.

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Alex Gibbs teaches the outside zone/wide zone to Dan Mullen, Steve Addazio, and Urban Meyer’s old Florida staff

This unbelievable set of videos is courtesy of Brophy. I don’t know what he had to do to obtain these (nor do I want to know), but you’re all the beneficiaries of what was undoubtedly some unspeakable sacrifice he made. Brophy has put up roughly six or seven hours of video; check out parts one and two.

The context is that Alex Gibbs, then offensive line coach for the Atlanta Falcons while they had Michael Vick at quarterback, visited with Florida’s staff to learn about potentially adding some quarterback read plays to his vaunted zone schemes (the same scheme they ran with the Denver Broncos). Florida’s staff, meanwhile had just spent their first season in the SEC to decidedly mixed results.

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Why being an NFL quarterback is not easy

Because you have to do things like this, even though this guy (some guy named Manning) makes it look pretty simple:

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Smart Links – Purdue QBs, Graham Harrell, Apple and Auburn – 8/25/2011

Purdue quarterbacks’ lifespan nasty, brutish and short, from Holly at her new home at SI (with some additions from myself). But despite 5,000 ACL injuries to current and former players, there may be some room for optimism: “What the Boilermakers do have on their side, sort of, is time: a home opener against Middle Tennessee State, a road trip to Rice, a visit from Southeast Missouri State and a bye week give more cushion than most teams could reasonably expect to enjoy between what remains of fall camp and the meat of the schedule. That meat, when it arrives, will be a tough cut: Notre Dame comes to town in Week 5, and subsequent conference games include Ohio State, Iowa, and road trips to Penn State and Wisconsin.”

- Watch this on your iPad: Steve Jobs in 1984:

- Relatedly, new Apple CEO Tim Cook is an Auburn grad:

“I have so much Auburn memorabilia, you might think it’s the Auburn outpost of J&M and Anders.”

Also: “When I was in high school, some teachers advised me to attend Auburn. Some teachers advised me to attend the University of Alabama,” Cook said in his address. “And, well, like I said, some decision are pretty obvious.”

- Graham Harrell is making a run at it. Does anyone else see coaching in this guy’s future? Lots of interesting tidbits from the article:

So Harrell headed to the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders. He was on their injured list, the CFL’s weird way of keeping players, especially American players, on the payroll so they aren’t claimed elsewhere. But he was healthy and practiced all season and said the bigger field helped expand his range. “It forced you to make bigger throws,” said Harrell. “One of the knocks of Texas Tech quarterbacks – me or anyone out of there – is that we don’t make big throws, don’t want to go deep. You go to Canada with a 65-yard wide field, you have to make the big throw.”

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Game planning (and game theory) wisdom from . . . Lane Kiffin

From the 2011 Nike Coach of the Year Clinic:

Each year we do a self-scout at the end of the year…. After the review, we could see where we made mistakes of adding plays that we did not have time to perfect. We have decided to stop running plays we add late in the week, and we do not have enough reps where our players feel comfortable running them. We may add a play to take advantage of a team that widens their 3-technique. We work on that all week, and when we get into the game, the opponent does not widen the 3-technique, and we have wasted a lot of time working on something we did not need.

I want to encourage you to stay away from doing that next season…. You will see something you think will work, and you think it will help you in the next game. You get to the game, and you see it does not work. You need to go back and call the plays the players know; just call them from a different formation.

The simple, wonderful, inexpensive speed option

The speed option may be the best run play in football. The pro guys don’t like it because your quarterback can be hit, but, whether under center or from the shotgun, it’s an exceptionally useful play to have in your arsenal. There are three basic reasons why the play is so effective and useful:

  • Simple: Both the concept and the schemes are simple. Unlike the true triple options, there are not multiple reads and the one read that is there is a simple one of a defender often stuck in space.

Wish they called this more in Denver

  • Inexpensive. What I mean by inexpensive is that the play requires very little teaching for any offensive players as the blocking scheme should be one already used for a traditional play. Typically, this will be outside zone blocking.
  • Speed in space. This is tied to #1 and #2, but the play works most of all because it is a simple and inexpensive way to get athletes on the perimeter of the defense in space. The option threat by the quarterback — and the numbers advantage gained by reading a defender instead of blocking him — keeps the defense inside, but the point of the play is to pitch the ball to the runningback on the perimeter where he can burst upfield to do maximum damage.

What further makes the play so good is that these concepts are universal; they are not tethered to a single offense or system. The play works from under center or shotgun, and has been effectively used by teams with great running quarterbacks and it has been used by teams with more pedestrian quarterbacks as just a cheap way to get the ball to the outside.

In modern form, the play is simple. The line outside zone blocks, which means they step playside seeking to cut off the defense and to even reach them as they can. The linemen work together to double-team the defensive linemen before sliding off to block the linebackers, and the idea is to create a vertical crease somewhere between a spot outside the tight-end and the sideline. The offense leaves an outside guy unblocked, typically either the defensive end or the strongside linebacker. The quarterback takes the snap and runs right at the unblocked defender’s outside shoulder. If the defender stays wide, the quarterback cuts up the inside crease (and typically looks to cut back against the grain). If the defender attacks the quarterback or simply stays inside, the QB pitches it. The outside receivers block the outside run support, being more focused on being in their way than pancaking anyone. Below is a modern example of the speed option from gun:

For a little more historical perspective, Tom Osborne’s great Nebraska teams used the speed option as one of its chief weapons.
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