Smart Notes 10/27/09

Paul Johnson don’t want to hear it. It doesn’t get much better than this. Frank Beamer is still steaming from his team’s 28-23 loss to the Yellow Jackets two weeks ago. The Virginia Tech coaches sent in about eleven plays that they believed constituted illegal blocks that should have been flagged — a fairly routine thing to do, though the Hokie coaches believed several of those blocks came on game changing plays. Apparently the ACC officials confirmed that at least four plays included illegal blocks, though that news was leaked by Beamer rather than the ACC itself. Paul Johnson is not impressed:

Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson, a man with a reputation for bristling at criticism, fired back after his team’s practice Monday.

“They got out-schemed. So, it’s illegal to out-scheme them, I guess,” he said. “We blocked them the same way we blocked them a year ago and they weren’t complaining when they won.”

Zing! A different article quotes Johnson saying, “That’s a joke. Put the tape on and watch. Tyler Melton cracked the free safety. He doesn’t even block him. He shields him.”

“They got out-schemed. So it’s illegal to out-scheme them, I guess.” Somewhat supporting Johnson was the ACC saying Beamer should not have disclosed the results:

Doug Rhoads, who oversees the league’s officials, said the Hokies coaches shouldn’t have disclosed the conference’s admission of mistakes and he wouldn’t specify the number of missed calls.

“I would only say that Virginia Tech, just as every team on that weekend, submitted plays for my review,” Rhoads said. “Out of those plays, there are a few the officials missed, a few that were the right call and a few that were judgment calls somewhere in the middle. ”

Johnson said he also submitted about a dozen plays to the ACC that he thought should have been called holding on the Hokies.

“It’s part of the game,” he said. “Nobody from the conference called and told us that we did anything illegal.”

Two non-committal comments. One, Paul Johnson’s offense has always relied on “cut blocks,” which are legal, but when done improperly can result in being illegal “chop blocks.” The line is a thin one, and is not always easy to call. The relevant parts of the rules state:

e. Blocking below the waist is permitted except as follows (A.R. 9-1-2-IV-XI):

1. Offensive linemen at the snap positioned more than seven yards from the middle lineman of the offensive formation are prohibited from blocking below the waist toward the original position of the ball in or behind the neutral zone and within 10 yards beyond the neutral zone.

2. Backs at the snap positioned completely outside the normal tackle (second player from the snapper) position in either direction toward a sideline, or in motion at the snap, are prohibited from blocking below the waist toward the original position of the ball in or behind the neutral zone and within 10 yards beyond the neutral zone (A.R. 9-1-2-XXVI). . . .

So the basic gist is it is illegal if it is a block “back” towards where the ball was snapped from. It’s completely legal on the edge, however, or any inside-to-out block. The way Johnson using his wingbacks and tackles to block downfield can result in gray areas. Again, not necessarily bad or illegal or even unsportsmanlike, but not always easy when the defender is a moving target.

The second thought here is just that it appears to be the season for complaining about calls, particularly in the SEC but also elsewhere. I can say I’ve seen some really horrible calls this year — many documented on film — but I do hope this isn’t a larger trend. It’s not just coaches too. I’m tired of seeing receivers stand up and look for/beg for a flag after every incompletion, and quarterbacks turn into kickers acting for the personal foul penalties for hitting them. The NFL has proposed a rule that would make it a personal foul to grandstand for a flag to be thrown. That’s a rule I could support, though its enforcement too would be difficult.

- Jimmy Clausen, great quarterback? This is not really newsy — he is second in the country in pass efficiency and eighth in yards per pass attempt — but Jimmy Clausen is playing very, very well this year. Indeed, maybe his weakest performance of the year came last week against Boston College, and he still threw for 246 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. For anyone who watched him the last two years, however, this is very interesting: Clausen came in with a lot of recruiting hype, but how did he suddenly morph from befuddled underclassmen into a real playmaker? One answer of course is the exceptional Golden Tate, but there is no question that Clausen has both hit a lot of big plays and protected the football. As Art from Trojan Football Analysis remarked after USC’s win over Notre Dame,

[W]hat caught my attention in the recent Notre Dame game was how easily the Irish appeared to move the ball in the second half through the air. When this happens fans and the media usually jump on the staff for making poor adjustments…Or they vaguely complain about “zone schemes” or “prevent defenses”. Sometimes the criticism is right and sometimes it is just arm chair quarterbacking mixed in with the benefit of hindsight and second guessing.

. . . Only once on these 13 big pass plays did USC run anything resembling a true prevent defense with 3 DL rushing and 8 men dropping into coverage. Clausen escaped the 3 man pressure on that play, scrambled and found an open man. Conversely, USC did run some type of +1 or +2 blitz on 5 of the 13 plays — all five saw completions by Clausen. Notre Dame had two completions in the game of over 21 yards. One came on a trick fake FG play that caught USC off guard. The other come with cornerback #36 Pinkard in straight man coverage versus WR #23 for the Irish [Golden Tate]. Clausen made some very good throws and reads in the game. I doubt USC will face a QB of his caliber again this season unless something funny happens in the BCS rankings. Jimmy Clausen strikes me as very improved compared to the previous two seasons and clearly had more talent around him this season than the previous contests. My respect for his skill level is considerably up after this most recent game.

Art backs it up with analysis of the thirteen plays he mentioned, along with video of those completions, shown below. I particularly liked the very first pass. It looks simple but USC showed a straight “Cover Two” look with the corners in press coverage to take away short, quick routes. It turned out to be a zone-blitz though, with the cornerback blitzing. Clausen saw it, as did Tate, and they hooked up for a simple hitch pass that Tate turned into a first down. A big key to good quarterbacking is in making those kinds of plays look easy. I guess with Charlie Weis, there’s a long-tail in quarterback development, but you can’t say he hasn’t gotten Clausen to that point.

- Crabtree’s debut. I, like many others, was very interested in Michael Crabtree’s debut. And like just about everyone else I came away pretty impressed:
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Smart Notes 10/20/09

Wild thought. Here’s a question for discussion. The Dolphins this season have taken to using a very interesting personnel package for their wildcat looks: two tight-ends and four runningbacks (Ronnie Brown at the “wildcat QB” spot, Ricky Williams as a split receiver/motion back, and then a fullback next to Brown and the other flanker has been a runningback as well). My friend Jerry Gordon speculated that this might be particularly taxing on NFL teams because of the strict 53 man roster limits. Indeed, the Dolphins had a lot of success against the Jets, and Rex Ryan uses a number of six, seven, and occasionally more defensive backs on the field at the same time to bring pressure with. Plus, add to that the fact that the typical NFL “cover” cornerback is not excited about being blocked in the run game, and the extra runningback out there can be a key linchpin for making the jet sweep go, and the personnel in general for opening up creases. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

nicker

- Brophy, delivering. My man Broph has some great stuff up from the past couple of weeks, especially his in depth look at Nick Saban’s defense. I’ve discussed an overview of some of what Saban does, but Brophy provides a nice summary of a DVD series Saban did, with primary focus on single safety or “one-high” defenses — Saban’s favorite.  Brophy has broken the articles into three parts:

  1. Middle of the Field Safety Coverage Principles – Part I (overview)
  2. Middle of the Field Safety Coverage Principles – Part II (Cover 3)
  3. Middle of the Field Safety Coverage Principles – Part III (Cover 1)

It’s best to read all of it, but a couple of good Saban quotes to whet the appetites:

If you’re not matching the pattern and cheating the receiver, you’re never going to make it. You’re going to be watching completions all night long. You’re never going to make it [to the ball].

The simplest and best defense in football is man-free coverage. It covers everything, it stuffs the run, and it defends the middle of the field. It’s the #1 coverage in pro ball . . . basically because you can’t get away with playing Cover 3.

And then this explanation of the “RAT” call from Cover 1 from Brophy:

The main nuance of this coverage has to do with a challenging/conflicting assignments for the backers. Because the main thrust of the defense is to stop the run from the inside out and [to] keep[] the defenders playing fast, the premise is to keep the linebackers focused on the backs and TE. Saban uses an alert code (RAT) to prevent a potentially ‘coverage breaking’ route.

“RAT” is used to alert inside backers [that the] strong safety [is] passing off his responsibility ([i.e., the] tight end) to the inside linebackers. When the second receiver (tight end) stems inside ([i.e., like on a shallow cross]), the strong safety, [if he] ran with him, []would be immediately vacating the perimeter ([i.e.] where the run game would likely be attacking) as well as [getting in the way] of the (run game) pursuing linebackers. To [avoid] this hazard, when the tight end stems inside [as on a shallow cross], the strong safety will declares/yells “RAT!”. “Rat” means a guy is coming into the funnel (is being funneled) and the remaining defender in the hole should cut/reroute and jump this receiver as he approaches.

This call accomplishes two things. First, it alerts the next backer over (Sam) that the strong safety will take his assigned man (first back out), and he should now adjust to the second back out strong. Secondly, it tells the Mike, who is the “rat in the hole” that he is going to have company soon (crossing tight end) and can jump this route as it comes.

As I see this, it is Saban’s way of getting a “floater” or “robber” player while keeping exactly who he wants on the various backs, tight-ends, and inside receivers — i.e. controlling the matchups. As a bonus, again courtesy of Brophy, is a video of ‘Bama in Cover 1 looks. And, of course for more, you must read the “holy grail” of defensive playbooks, Saban’s 2001 LSU book.

- Pellini, (un)-interrupted. Tough week for Bo coming off a big and disappointing loss to Texas Tech. But Brophy came through again with audio of a clinic talk Pellini gave while still at LSU on his defense. It’s well worth the listen.

- The testing of Mike Leach. Speaking of Tech, I have previously noted that Mike Leach is particularly adept at producing one prolific passer after another, and credited much of that to his system of drills and pass-happy practices whereby all his QBs get lots of reps. That theory will be challenged this week, as the Captain will likely be forced to start third-string redshirt freshman quarterback Seth Doege, due to injuries to his first two quarterbacks, Taylor Potts and Steven (“Sticks”) Sheffield.

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Oklahoma and a walk on the outside

Links to two bits of mine that appeared today:

Smart Notes 10/6/09

Going for two. I’ve gotten a bunch of emails asking whether Rich Rodriguez should have gone for two instead of kicking the PAT to send the game to overtime against Michigan State. I didn’t get to watch the game closely, but we know what happened: Michigan kicked the PAT and Tate Forcier promptly threw an interception, and Michigan State scored to win the game. The logic of most people who say Rodriguez should have gone for two appears to be something along the lines that Forcier looked dog tired and they needed to win then, and that Michigan had all the momentum and should have used it on that play. I don’t know if I have a definitive answer, but here’s how I look at those judgment calls.

You’re basically comparing two probabilities: One, the chance of succeeding on the two-point play, and second, the chance of winning in overtime. Both numbers have some precedent but also can get clouded by who you’re playing at that moment, how well you’re playing, etc. If Wichita State miraculously gets into that same position against Florida, I’d probably tell them to go for two because, under the NCAA’s unique overtime format, each team has a roughly 50/50 shot at winning before taking into account talent differential, at which time Florida would dominate. We know that two-point tries are successful something between 40-50% of the time, and that is probably greater than the chance of going toe-to-toe with Florida — hence take your 45% chance of winning right there. For Florida, it is the opposite: you want the game to go on so your natural advantage can take over; so kick the PAT and let’s do this. It’s all an offshoot of David and Goliath strategies.

How does that play out in Michigan’s game? Well if Rodriguez thinks he has the better team — including momentum — then it seems to me you play for overtime. That’s because even if you’re better your chance of getting the two-point try caps out at about 50%, whereas the starting point for your chance of winning in OT is 50%, plus whatever natural advantage you have. Had they been playing Southern Cal, the decision is probably the opposite.

The other thing you notice from this is that slight differences in the probabilities can vastly change the right outcome. We know the estimates for overtime and two-point tries, but this was late in the game and therefore those probabilities were dependent to an extent on what had happened earlier. Not necessarily when or how Michigan scored, but fatigue, injuries, and how good the teams were coming in does matter to help revise probabilities going forward. (Again, I’m trying to distinguish revised estimates of forward-looking probabilities with backward-looking events that should have no effect on the decision to go for it or not.) Thus I think Rodriguez’s judgment call (in just this situation at least) was sound at least in the sense that there is no compelling argument that it was flat wrong. If he thought he had the better team — and the records of the teams going into it seemed to indicate that — then overtime seems the wiser move. The bottom line is two-point tries are not high-percentage plays.

(Here’s a thought experiment someone once asked me. This question assumes we know the probabilities with certainty, which if course unrealistic but here goes: You have the ball on the 23 yard line and are down three. Your team and the other team are completely evenly matched. There’s only one second on the clock; time for only one play. Your field goal kicker is mediocre, and is 50/50 from that distance (40 yards) — i.e. 50% of tying the game by kicking it. Or you could go for it and run a pass play, which you estimate had a 33% chance of succeeding. What do you do and why?)

- Big 10 Q&A. I did a Q&A over at The Rivalry, Esq. with the excellent Graham Filler. Topics including Juice Williams, Northwestern, etc. Tomorrow is a post involving me hemorrhaging about Purdue’s ineptitude.

- Mizzou’s run game. The very sharp Dave Matter of the Columbia Daily Tribune takes a look at Gary Pinkel’s Missouri’s running game.

- An easier case. If the Rodriguez situation above is a push, Raheem Morris is not so lucky. Brian Burke shoots up the new Tampa coach’s thought-process:

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Mumme Pollin’

Always a sucker for any reference to one of the weirdest, most entertaining coaches of the last decade, I’m participating in the Mumme Poll, a creative way of ranking college teams. But the best part about the poll is that you, learned reader, get to participate as well. How does it work? The website explains:

This is accomplished by means of conducting the voting in two very different ways from other football polls:

  1. The first vote does not take place until after the games of Week Six have been played.  Voters are not asked to evaluate teams based on preseason expectations and are not expected to use those as a baseline from which to rank teams for the rest of the year.
  2. Rather than being required to rank twenty five D-1 teams in order of preference, Mumme Poll voters submit ballots of the top twelve teams in the country, without ranking (other than to designate the top five of those twelve, for use as a tiebreaker).  The poll rankings are then compiled by means of approval voting; that is, the teams are ranked in the order of the total number of times they appear on voters’ ballots.

The ballots won’t really start in earnest until the end of week six, but register now.

Smart Notes 10/2/09

Actual Xs and Os. California Golden Blogs does an interview with Art of Trojan Football Analysis. Well worth the read.

james_carville_rose_bowl

- James Carville was born that way: Via Blutarsky:

James Carville (a huge LSU fan), in response to Tony Barnhart’s question “how did you become a college football fan?”, had this to say last night:

How did I become a college football fan?  How did I become a heterosexual?

- Food for thought. Although cleared to play, Bob Stoops is keeping Sam Bradford out against Miami for safety reasons. Meanwhile, Urban Meyer says that Tebow is “ahead of schedule.”

- Synecdoche, Kraghtorpe. It’s been a hard run at Louisville for Steve Kragthorpe, particularly as he has tried to replicate the success of Bobby Petrino before him. Tonight, he faces a must-win against Dave Wennstadt’s Pitt Panthers, and if he doesn’t win the calls for his head will be louder than ever. Yet while BCS school coaches get paid to deal with that kind of scrutiny, you have to feel a bit bad for his son Brad, a junior quarterback at perennial Louisville, KY power, Trinity High School. Aside from the scrutiny of being Steve Kragthorpe’s son, Brad has battled turf toe all season, and even got yanked this season when Trinity was crushed by Ohio power Cincinnati St. Xavier, 43-13. His head coach, the excellent Bob Beatty, said of pulling Brad Kragthorpe, “It’s called turning the football over. You can’t do it.” He had fumbled and thrown an interception.

And it seems that living up to the expectations of a Petrino is becoming part of the Kragthorpe experience. Adding to the pressure on Brad Kragthorpe is that he not only must follow in the shoes of Brian Brohm, who won a couple of state titles as quarterback for Trinity, but also those of Nick Petrino — Bobby Petrino’s son — who successfully quarterbacked the team to at least one state title, though I don’t have all the numbers in front of me. And tonight, while his dad fights for his career against Pitt, the younger Kragthorpe will start in one of the most attended high school games in the country, against Louisville St. Xavier, in a game expected to draw over 35,000 attendees (for a high school game!). Louisville St. Xavier is favored to win.

- Speaking of Kragthorpe, one of his former players, Mario Urrutia, who flourished under Petrino but flopped later is back in the news, having been activated in Tampa Bay.

- This is ridiculous but overall kinda great. From BHGP.

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Smart Notes 9/25/09

The “ski-gun.” I’ve been getting a lot of questions about a funky shotgun triple-option offense run by Muskegon, MI high school. (“Ski-gun” or “skee-gun” refers to Muskegon.) It’s basically Paul Johnson’s flexbone triple option offense run from a pistol set. They use a shallower pistol-gun set than does Nevada, but that’s because Nevada is more focused on traditional runs than with the quick hitting veer. Below are some clips of Muskegon’s triple: first the give reads, second the QB keeps, and third the pitches.

- Clock mismanagement. The commentary after the Dolphins lost to the Colts was partially about how much time of possession matters (my view is not that much, but I have more to say on it later), but even more about the ‘Phins awful clock management at the end of the game. And it was bad.

The biggest issue was they had no sense of urgency. I do not like teams that scramble and run around frenetically, but they were very lazy about it. They wasted a lot of valuable seconds, and there is little reason the game should have ended on second down from where they were on the field. They also spiked the ball unnecessarily. As I’ve said before, in college a spike is almost never necessary, except to get your kicking team on to the field. In the NFL, because the clock doesn’t stop except on out of bounds, incomplete passes, timeouts, and the two minute warning, a clock play might be necessary if there is a gang tackle and time is flowing off the clock, etc. But I’m still very skeptical because I firmly believe you can call a play with the same amount of communication as necessary to indicate a spike play. In this case though the Dolphins bad clock management overshadowed their improper spike because they ran out of time rather than downs.

How can you get better? Here’s the best drill I know of for being ready for the two-minute drill. It should be used to finish practice at least once a week, and I know of a team that ends every practice with it. The ball is placed on the practice field at either the 5 or 10. The quarterback and first team take the field; the coaches line up on the sidelines, just as if it is a real game. (You need a manager or ref to set the ball.) The point is to replicate the game-like scenario. You can use it against no defense but it is best I think to go live against the first or second team defense (and work on that planning as well), but don’t use any tackling to the ground. (I.e. routes, blocks, etc are fully speed but no tackling.)

The offense then runs its plays but, after every play, regardless of the play’s outcome, the ball is set 10 yards ahead, i.e. to the 15 or 20 and so on. The coaches signal the play in (or the quarterback does), the players deal with the time management, and the coaches keep a stopwatch.

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My breakdown of Miami’s downfield passing game

Available over at Dr Saturday. Thanks as always to the good Doctor, so check out my analysis of Jacory Harris, Mark Whipple, and some thoughts on what Virginia Tech might do in response.

Shameless self-promotion

Apologies for the slow blogging the last few days. I was traveling quite a bit and have been spreading myself a little thin . . . . I have contributed to a few things elsewhere, so check them out:

Me on Mike Leach and TTech; on the Solid Verbal Podcast

Blogging will be slow today, but in the meantime enjoy two sumptuous offerings: