Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
07 Sep 2009
by Robert Weintraub
When I was a young and evolving sports fanatic, there was nothing I enjoyed more than proving my hardcore bona fides by staying up late into the night watching West Coast action. Hockey games from Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum, baseball at the Big A, hoops at the Salt Palace -- and, especially, Pac-10 basketball and football, usually called by a smooth-voiced announcer named Barry Tompkins, fresh off Balboa. Bleary-eyed, I would stagger in to school the following morning and astound my fellow ball-and-puck-obsessed classmates with tales of games unseen by most everyone east of the Mississippi.
Then I would doze off in class.
I thought of those yawn-filled days Thursday, when after many months of endless and repetitive analysis, college football finally returned to a desperately bored nation. Imagine -- we had actually pretended to give a crap about health care reform!
Yes, the games were back -- and after eight quarters of execrable football, I was out valuable sleep, sacrificed to the likes of defensive guru Steve Spurrier and sociopath LeGarrette Blount (who no doubt quoted Elliott Gould: "I must be losing my punch -- I never thought the son of a bitch would get up!"). During one second half stretch, there was the following sequence -- Boise fumble, Oregon interception, Boise sacked for 23-yard loss and intentional grounding penalty on fourth and 1, Oregon fumble, Boise fumble, Oregon stopped on fourth and short. Boise threw in a later fumble for good measure, enraging those who had bet on them to cover 3.5 points and were simply waiting for the put-away score -- which never came despite roughly a dozen opportunities.
After that, I was willing to debate the public option for a couple weeks while the varsity got their collective stuff together.
The initial Saturday of the season was a little better, although the defining moment of the day’s slate was a sack-and-squash of the defending Heisman Trophy winner. Didn’t the NFL outlaw that sort of thing when "Two-Ton" Tony Siragusa beer-belly dropped Rich Gannon in the 2000 AFC Championship game? No such luck for Oklahoma, who replaced Sam Bradford with a redshirt freshman unfortunately named Landry Jones (last seen running dope on a cigarette boat in a Carl Hiassen novel). Jones’ quivering upper lip was covered with a mustache as feeble as his grasp of the offense, and Oklahoma fell to Brigham Young University 14-13. The loss was a shock to Boomer Sooner Nation, who figured the only talking point coming out of the game at the new Dallas Cowboys’ stadium (known also as "Jerry World," for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones) would be punts clanging off the hideously huge video screen.
It was a gritty effort by the Mormon Monsters, especially on defense. Linebacker Coleby Clawson smashed Bradford, and fellow linebacker Jordan Pendleton smashed everybody else. Quarterback Max Hall was brilliant (9-of-10 and a touchdown pass) on the game-winning drive, despite being harried and hurried (had Bradford not been hurt, the story of the weekend might be middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds’ triumphant return to the Sooner defense). The win gives BYU a leg up on Boise State in the “Give the little guy a shot!” arguments coming this winter, when the expletives start flying in the direction of the BCS and all who sustain it. But the Cougs still have Florida State, TCU, and a bitter rival in Utah on the schedule (all at home). Boise only has a trip to Fresno in the Battle For The Milk Can as a potential landmine on the path to beating the disappointed, half-hearted loser of a major conference title game in a lesser BCS bowl.
Besides BYU and Boise, it was a letdown weekend for mid-majors. Nevada and Western Michigan had high-profile opportunities to step on the necks of embattled and widely loathed coaches Charlie Weis and Rich Rodriguez, respectively. But Notre Dame’s Pistol formation whipped Nevada, and Michigan bucked the Broncos with little trouble -- enraging those of us who liked the small fry to at least cover the spread, if not win outright. The Irish seem the more legitimate of the two fallen giants, given QB Jimmy Clausen’s emergence as an accurate deep passer. Two superb wideouts, Michael Floyd and Golden Tate, should help reel in his bombs. Michigan’s freshman quarterbacks, Tate Forcier (The Arm) and Denard “Shoelace” Robinson (The Wheels), will at least sleep in their own dorm room beds before tangling with Notre Dame next Saturday in the Big House.
Meanwhile, last year’s huggable outsiders, Utah, won ugly against its weak in-state rival Utah State; Mid-American Conference favorite Central Michigan was shut out for three and a half quarters by Arizona en route to a dispiriting 19-6 loss; East Carolina squeaked past Appalachian State of the FCS (formerly Division I-AA) 29-24 -- App’s star quarterback Armanti Edwards missed the game after a tough loss to a lawn mower; and in perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend outside of Dallas, Troy, the most unlikely NFL pipeline (DeMarcus Ware, Leodis McKelvin, Osi Umenyiora) in the nation, were ambushed by Bowling Green, 31-14. Last season, the Falcons stunned Pitt and LeSean McCoy in the opener -- this one may have been even more shocking. While there may be another non-BCS school making a big splash come January, the gap between have and have-not appears to have grown since last season.
Alabama won’t be upset by a Mountain West team again. Any question marks about a rebuilt offensive line and the debut of quarterback Greg McElroy were resoundingly answered at the Georgia Dome. The Tide leaned on Virginia Tech with bigger, stronger bodies until the Hokies collapsed. Tech played with great passion, had some breaks, made several special teams plays -- and still lost by ten. McElroy replaced John Parker Wilson, who was as much a Tuscaloosa fixture as Dreamland BBQ. I’m ready to say, after a single start, that McElroy will be better: He withstood a fiery defense and his own inexperience early, hung tough, and made plenty of plays in the second half. Once he figures things out, and locks in with T.O. Jr., a.k.a wide receiver Julio Jones, Bama is set at quarterback. The running game, defense, and special teams are already championship quality.
Not so in Georgia. Living in Atlanta, I was exposed to endless tales of Dawgs’ quarterback Joe Cox’s impressive leadership ability. Usually, that means the arm strength is lacking, and that is the case with Cox -- and not just in comparison with the departed howitzer of Matthew Stafford. Granted, Cox’s first start came in the cauldron of T. Boone Pickens spanking new Windfarm Stadium, against a Top 10 team, and he had the flu (non-swine variety -- he keeps kosher). UGA was supposed to have a major advantage with it’s huge offensive line and deep corps of skill players against Oklahoma State’s wobbly defense, but it didn’t play out that way at all (losing Trindon Sturdivant to a knee injury for a second straight season doesn’t help). Bill Young, the “Defense Whisperer,” is the new Cowboys defensive coordinator, and he has already earned his salary. The unit that was shanked for over 400 yards per game in 2008 held Georgia to 257, and forced three turnovers, including a big sack-and-strip of Cox with 10 minutes to play. The fumble came moments after a dubious penalty wiped out a long punt return that would have set UGA up with first and goal at the Cowboys 2-yard line. On such heads of pins are entire seasons balanced. The Cowboys, with continued defensive improvement, wide receiver Dez Bryant’s brilliance, and Bradford’s injury, emerge as the main threat to Texas in the Big 12 South. It’s Cowboys vs. Longhorns, Man vs. Steer, on Halloween in Stillwater, and both should be undefeated -- although that Cowboys defense will be tested far more by pass-happy Houston and quarterback Case Keenum next Saturday than they were by the leadership of Joe Cox and UGA.
Here's a subjective ranking of quarterbacks who started their first games in college football over the weekend.
1. Blaine Gabbert, Missouri
2. Matt Barkley, Southern Cal
3. Chris Todd, Auburn
4. Terrance Cain, Utah
5. Ryan Mallet, Arkansas
Now then. Time for One Foot Inbounds’ initial foray into the world of polls (the Blogpoll, to be precise). A couple of notes on the subjectivity of the rankings: quality of opponent is critical, thus Alabama ranks ahead of Texas and Southern Cal. But I don’t hold with the notion that a team can’t fall if it wins. While 'Bama is toying with Florida International next weekend, SC will be in Columbus to battle Ohio State and its outstanding two-point conversion defense (note: Navy succeeds in the passing game out of run formations. On the biggest play of the season outside the Army game, they telegraphed the pass with the formation, and it had no chance). So a win by USC is likely to vault them over every school not based in Gainesville.
Also, TCU is Top-25 worthy but not considered because they have yet to play, and OFI doesn’t rank teams on spec.
5. OK State
7. Penn State
10. Ole Miss
11. Ohio State
12. Boise State
14. Georgia Tech
16. Notre Dame
18. Miami/FSU winner
21. North Carolina
25. Oregon State
Lurking: Michigan State, Missouri, South Carolina, Arkansas, Stanford
39 comments, Last at 10 Sep 2009, 1:13pm by Will Allen