Russell Athletic Bowl — Key to Rutgers vs. Virginia Tech: Outside Zone

College football’s bowl season is not much like the single-minded narrative of a one winner-take-all playoff. Instead it’s a shifting, multiple layered story told through an ensemble cast. Some of the stories, like the BCS title game, are triumphant, with maybe even a tinge of poetic folklore — some battle that could as easily be taking place on Mount Olympus as in New Orleans or Pasadena. But other bowls are decidedly middle American, where hope and expectation have been dulled into some more reasonable expectation of just a simple win, maybe a winning season; more Death of a Salesman than Greek myth.

Key to the game -- more of this

Key to the game: more of this

But it’s often the smaller story that carries the most drama.

The Russell Athletic Bowl pits a Virginia Tech team — a consensus preseason top 20 team — that limped its way through the season and had to win its final two games to even get to a bowl games, versus a Rutgers squad that began the year 7-0 but finished 9-3, partially undone by mistakes and inconsistency on offense (yet still having had a good year, overall). The game should be close — Virginia Tech is a slight two-point or so favorite — and both defenses ought to deliver solid performances, something often lacking during bowl season as more teams move to no-huddle spread attacks.

On offense, however, it’s a bit of a different story. Virginia Tech had high hopes for its offense, led by quarterback Logan Thomas, but the Hokies offense — and Thomas in particular — has been a big disappointment. Virginia Tech’s offense has never been known for being explosive, but their average yards per play fell by roughly half a yard, while their turnover margin swung from positive to negative. But despite those struggles I think the game will be won or lost on the other side of the ball, in the matchup between Rutgers’ offense and Virginia Tech’s defense.

Rutgers coach Kyle Flood was promoted from offensive line to head coach following Greg Schiano’s departure to the NFL, and Flood, a no non-sense kind of guy, clearly wants the foundation of his team to be his offensive line and especially his running game. Much of this is by attitude, but it’s also by necessity, as quarterback Gary Nova has been nothing if not inconsistent. Against Temple, Nova completed 63% of his passes and threw for four touchdowns but — one week later, a game I attended in person — he threw a season high 46 times and six interceptions against Kent State, the Scarlet Knights’ first loss of the season.

But the problem for Rutgers wasn’t just Nova’s inconsistency, it was that teams began to be able to take away their running games. Flood’s offense is designed to be essentially a pro-style system; if you go just by formations and a superficial look at plays, the college team they most resemble on offense is Alabama. And the foundation of their attack is nothing fancy: the outside zone play, complete with a tight-end and a fullback.

It’s a play that Flood has lectured on at coaching clinics for years and, when Rutgers’ offense is rolling, you’ll see lots and lots of outside zone.

OZ

Rutgers runs it the same way most NFL teams do, which is essentially the same way the old school Nebraska teams used to run it under Tom Osborne (the diagram above is from Milt Tenopir, Nebraska’ legendary offensive line coach). There are three keys to Flood’s outside zone:

  1. The runningback’s read;
  2. The technique of the “uncovered lineman”; and
  3. Where the fullback “inserts” into the defense.

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Bear Bryant: Mind Over Matter

I enjoyed this presentation on the Bear’s philosophy and best sayings:

My Favorite Books of 2012

This is a list, in no particular order, of the books I read in 2012 which I consider my favorites. This does not mean these books came out in 2012; it only means I read them this calendar year.

bakewell

  • The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Not as good as Blood Meridian, but also less taxing to read — and that’s not a bad thing. Dark, troubling, and quietly brilliant.
  • Waiting for the Fall: A Decade of Dreams, Drama and West Virginia University Football, by Mike Casazza. I considered reading this something of a guilty pleasure, a kind of voyeurism into some other team’s football program. There’s nothing earth shattering in here, but it’s a very well told story about a very odd football program, featuring some very odd characters.
  • Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. I found the first thirty or so pages of this disappointing until — suddenly — it became maybe the funniest book I’ve ever read.
  • How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell. Likely this is the best book I read this year. Of course I’ve read Montaigne’s essays, though it’s been some years, and as a result I put this book off thinking I’d glean little. I was wrong; this is a wonderful book, whether you’ve read the essays or you haven’t.
  • American Creation, by Joseph Ellis. I’m not sure if this should count as a 2012 book given that I read most of it over the last couple of years — the chapters are fairly discrete so I often found myself picking it up and putting it down, but not because I disliked reading it. To the contrary, I really enjoyed it, both the chapters on subjects I am pretty familiar with (like the drafting of the constitution) and less so (the circumstances surrounding the Louisiana Purchase). An excellent, easy read.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Dan Kahneman. A shockingly good, and shockingly informative, book. It is very entertaining but not in a pop kind of way — it’s determined to report the facts, just the facts (at least to the extent we know them). The basic premise is that our way of thought can be broken down into System 1 (“fast,” intuitive) and System 2 (“slow,” logical) thinking, and more important the biases and foibles of each type. But this is not Blink; it’s thoughtful, erudite, and comprehensive. It’s not light beach reading but well worth the time. Below is a video of Kahneman discussing some of these ideas.

For more books, check out the most popular books bought by Smart Football readers. And, of course, I wrote a book this year too.

New! Shop in the Smart Football Store

Smart Football now has its own online store, just in time for the holidays, featuring shirts, accessories, and more. It’s just getting started, but be sure to check it out and get some goodies for your friends, families, and — in the case of my coaching readers — staff. Check out the store here.

Be sure to keep checking the store as I hope to add new merchandise over the coming days and weeks. And don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you have any good ideas for products or items you’d like to see.

Long live the Air Raid! The Air Raid is Dead?

The Air Raid offense — the pass-first attack developed by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach from the old BYU offense — is seemingly everywhere. In the last couple of weeks, Cal hired former Leach and Mumme assistant Sonny Dykes as well as his offensive coordinator, the mercurial Tony Franklin; Southern Miss hired Oklahoma State’s nouveau guru Todd Monken, after he impressively orchestrated the Cowboys attack over the last two seasons, both with a future first round quarterback and while rotating three different quarterbacks; Mark Stoops is bringing prodigal son Neal Brown back to Kentucky to run the Wildcats’ offense; and Kliff Kingsbury, fresh off his tutelage of Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, returns to his old stomping grounds at Texas Tech to become one of the youngest head coaches in college football history. These new hires, together with existing Air Raid programs, brings my count to ten different college football teams that will all be using some variant of the Air Raid in the fall of 2013.

“OK, loser has to chug a six pack of Red Bull.” “No, the winner does that.”

And when you throw in teams that I consider part of the extended Air Raid family, like Oklahoma, UCLA, and Indiana — offenses heavily Air Raid influenced even if they don’t quite fit the definition — you have thirteen different schools whose offenses are direct descendants of the ideas Mumme and Leach developed at places like Copperas Cove high school, Iowa Wesleyan, and Valdosta State. And last season, nine of the top twenty offenses in the country were among this group — and we’ve only added more Air Raid schools to the mix. As someone who has had his hand in this offense in one way or another for roughly fifteen years, the feeling is not quite vindication; it’s more like contentedness: yes, this is where it all was undoubtedly headed all along, the questions were only how and when.

But there’s another element, maybe less of a feeling so much as it is a realization: This may be as good as it gets. The larger trends are going to continue independent of this offense, contra the wishes of Nick Saban (and, admittedly, maybe every defensive coach in the country): for the foreseeable future at least, the game will continue to get faster and more wide open at basically every level, and athletic directors will continue to hire hotshot offensive coaches who promise yards and points to draw crowds and eyeballs for TV, something increasingly important as schools crane their necks to be noticed in an era of conference realignment. This factors are not unique to the Air Raid, and other attacks, primarily Chip Kelly’s at Oregon, are arguably more famous.

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Smart Links – Georgia’s Pass Protection, Super Quarterbacks, Macho Camacho, Under Defense – 12/5/2012

Why did Georgia lose to Alabama? What if I (or, more precisely, Coach Hoover) told you it was poor runningback pass protection fundamentals.

- Johnny Football and the era of Super Quarterbacks, with some quotes from your humble editor.

- Under defense from Pete Jenkins.

- Brady Hoke has sought to bring “Manball” (not his phrase) to Michigan. This is not Manball.

- Taxpayer spending on stadiums.

- Mustache transplants. Don’t tell Purdue.

- Macho Camacho’s wake sounded… interesting: “‘I am the actual girlfriend of Macho, and those who don’t like it better not bring it,’ Cynthia Castillo, who claimed to be Camacho’s girlfriend at the time of his death, told ESPN Deportes.”

- Trampoline to work.

- Good photos of 2012.

Should Georgia Have Spiked the Ball?

The best game of the season — and one of the best conference championship games I’ve ever seen — came down to one final bizarre play: Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray scrambled his team to the line at the eight yard line, dropped back, and threw a fade route to receiver Malcolm Mitchell. The ball, however, was tipped at the line by Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, and it fluttered and landed in the hands of Chris Conley a few yards short of the end zone. Conley instinctively caught the ball, was tackled, and the game clock expired.

Tough call

Obviously, that’s not how Georgia drew it up. And, immediately, led by Gary Danielson, the chorus began: Georgia should have spiked the ball instead of running a play. But I’m not so sure. I think spiking it would have been fine and maybe even advisable, but what I don’t think a spike would have been is necessarily outcome determinative. Richt and his staff had a reason for not spiking the ball, and having the ball tipped and then caught by some other receiver very easily could have happened after a spike as well. Per Blutarsky:

To Spike or Not to Spike. That is the question.  Actually, I’m not sure why spiking is such a slam dunk decision in minds of many people today.  If you read Weiszer’s post on the play, you get a valid rationale for what they called…

“We were moving the ball effectively. By the time we got down to the red zone we didn’t really want to spike the ball. We wanted to keep the personnel they had in the game. We decided to hurry up and get to the line and get another play off. There was a little bit of confusion.”

… and you get an explanation for why it didn’t work out.

Mark Richt on spiking the ball: “Well, spiking the ball takes time. We had plenty of time to call play, so we called the play and we were taking ‑‑ the goal was to take a shot at their back right end of the end zone and the ball got batted, the ball got tipped and it landed to a receiver that was running a speed out.”

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Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2012

I’ve included here a breakdown of the books purchased over the last year by Smart Football readers. I get very minor referral revenues from Amazon purchases and, as a result, I am able to track which books are purchased by readers. The data is entirely anonymous but it provides, in aggregate, some interesting information.

The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2012

And below is the same chart, but excluding my book, The Essential Smart Football (which you can read more about here):

Below is the full list. Note that I simply included the top books and did not include a separate “other” category.

New Grantland: How Stanford Shut Down Oregon

It’s now up:

But head coach David Shaw and defensive coordinator Derek Mason also had some wrinkles up their sleeves, specifically old-school principles that defenses have used for decades to stop option teams. Oregon is not a true “triple option” team, but their fast-break style of offense forces defenses, just like those option teams do, to account for every offensive player. This made Stanford’s impressive performance remind me of some old quotes from Iowa’s great (former) defensive coordinator Norm Parker when his team faced a true triple-option team, Georgia Tech, in the 2010 Orange Bowl. In that game, which Iowa won 24-14, Parker’s defense held the Yellow Jackets to 155 yards of offense — just under 300 yards less than their season average — and one touchdown.

Parker explained that it’s not about inventing some new defensive scheme, but about being schematically sound: “You only have 11 guys out there. When they are balanced, you have to play five and a half guys on one side and five and a half guys on the other side.” If the offense is unbalanced, with additional blockers or receivers to one side or the other, the defense must “match” them and not allow the Ducks to get extra numbers or leverage. “You have to change up how you are covering it,” Parker explained. Being sound is the most important thing. “What they are looking for is for you to make a mistake.”

Read the whole thing.

Stanford Coach David Shaw on Oregon’s Offense

My affinities are well known, but I think all offenses should strive for this description:

“The thing is, it’s not complicated,” [Stanford head coach David] Shaw said of the Ducks’ offensive scheme. “It’s just complicated during the game. The adjustments they make are so subtle that you don’t realize it until they’ve scored three touchdowns on you. You change to try to cover what they’re doing, and they make another change.

“They spend a lot of time looking at you. They run simple plays and however you’re stopping their simple plays, Chip takes advantage of what you’re doing, which is the brilliance of the simplicity.”