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?
14 Sep 2009
By Robert Weintraub
Last weekend’s Ohio State game with Navy reflected the Battle of Jutland, an even affair marked by late dramatics in which both sides could claim victory. Saturday’s epic collision with USC was more like the Battle of Midway. The Buckeyes, playing the Japanese fleet in this exercise of the mind, dominated the encounter until a historic few minutes turned the battle -- and the tide of history.
If you prefer a landlubbing allusion, Southern Cal’s Long March was worthy of Mao. I had just about written off the Trojans as a work in progress, obviously talented but still a little green at key positions. Then the greenest, keyest of them all, freshman quarterback Matt Barkley, led USC on what was (unofficially but essentially) a 95-yard, game-winning drive. It was second-and-a-mile at his own 5-yard line, with nothing but tribulations for the USC offense behind him and with 105,000 baying Ohioans all around him -- and the next thing I knew, the kid from Newport Beach (try a Balboa Bar next time you’re there) had his team in the end zone with less than a minute to play. It was an exceptional moment in what seems sure to be three years of them (after Sam Bradford’s misfortune, I wouldn’t take odds on Barkley staying in school for his senior season). The drive was reminiscent of the one four seasons ago in South Bend, when the “Bush Push” got USC past Notre Dame (or for you older fans, the 1980 Rose Bowl, when the Trojans went 83 yards, almost all of it on runs by Charles White, to pull out a 17-16 win over ... yep, Ohio State).
(Painful aside -- there was another spectacular 91-yard drive in Ohio this weekend. Unfortunately, Cincinnati’s late march against Denver was undone by a tragicomic fluke play that dovetails nicely with the franchise’s absurdly ill-fated history. While the Buckeyes mean nothing to me, on Sundays I am a rabid Bengals fan, so naturally I’m writing this column from the fetal position.)
Poor Aaron Corp. USC’s would-be signal caller got hurt a few weeks ago, leading coach Pete Carroll to pull the trigger and go with his star recruit. Barkley took a Bradford-like smash to his shoulder in the game, and the cameras caught Corp warming up, a wistful look in his eye. But after that drive, it looks like transfer time for the Corpuscle.
Joe McKnight was the executor of the drive. Despite his slight frame, he often serves as USC’s closer back, first among equals in the Trojans' never-ending platoon of runners. He is deceptively strong and willing to buck defenders for extra yards. And, as he showed Saturday, McKnight is an excellent receiver. The one thing he did wrong on the drive was blitz pickup -- his whiff on the first play led to a sack that got the Men of Troy into a serious pickle. Fittingly, Joey Mac got his team out of trouble with a slithering run and a sharply timed route out of the backfield. I also liked his leap for the paint on the two-point conversion. Barkley will get the chicks, but McKnight is one hell of a wingman.
In the losing locker room, coach Jim Tressel has to look in the mirror and wonder why he ordered throws late in the first half with a 10-7 lead and spotty quarterback play. The incompletions allowed USC to get a cheap three before the halftime gun -- points that proved to be the decisive margin. Coach Sweater Vest pulled a similar stunt against Navy, going for it and failing on fourth down in field goal range, allowing the Middies to get back in the game. Someone needs to remind him that Terrelle Pryor may be the next Vince Young, but he is like VY was as a sophomore -- a galloping colt still prone to locking in on receivers, misreading coverages, and looking uncertain in the pocket.
Ohio State’s offense was mostly futile, but the defense was a force. No one yammers about slow Big Ten athletes in the presence of linebacker Brian Rolle and his crew. The defensive XI were a wrecking crew Saturday evening until the USC offensive line, led by fantastic center Dan O’Dowd, got some momentum going and, at long last, enforced its collective will. By the way, Brian is indeed related to NFL players Antrelle, Samari, and Cinnamon Rolle.
Completing the terrible day for Buckeye fans, Michigan defeated Notre Dame, found its own freshman quarterback/folk hero, and looks like it has finally recaptured its missing mojo. Quarterback Tate Forcier is not nearly the passer Barkley is, but he resembled Doug Flutie on Saturday, scrambling and improvising his way to several big plays. Darius Fleming, the Irish linebacker Forcier left tangled in knots en route to a critical touchdown scamper, would swear Forcier is Pat White.
Notre Dame may have had its BCS hopes diminished (although that unbusted trust will shoehorn the Irish into a big game unless they completely collapse), but they finally have a dynamic offense. It’s less due to Charlie Weis’ “Decided Schematic Advantage” (Weis had his own clock management issues late in this one) and more due to the stellar play of wideouts Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. The latter has a vertical leap that would shame half the NBA. Floyd’s nick to his knee in the fourth quarter was critical -- it’s not a serious wound, but he missed the drive that could have iced the game. In his place, freshman Shaquelle Evans was slow out of his break, and a wide open third down conversion was left wanting. A short Notre Dame punt later, and the Wolverines were ready for a last-second victory.
Speaking of special teams, the two contests in Georgia were lousy with big plays from the “third phase.” On Thursday night, Georgia Tech and Clemson offered a fake field goal for a touchdown, a pooch punt returned 85 yards for a score, and several clutch field goals. The Georgia and South Carolina special teams units were even more entertaining -- or sloppier. Georgia had 204 kickoff return yards in the first half, including a 100-yard score. There was a critical blocked extra point, a nice fake punt by the Gamecocks, a snap sailing over the head of the punter for a safety, and six field goals, including a 50-yarder by Georgia's Blair Walsh. If Penn State is Linebacker U, and USC is Quarterback U, then Georgia is Kicker U (John Kasey, Todd Peterson, Billy Bennett, Brandon Coutu, and now Walsh -- not bad). It's worth mentioning that South Carolina’s special teams coach is Shane Beamer, son of the special teams master Frank Beamer of the Blacksburg Beamers (Virginia Tech).
The Georgia Tech game also showed the best subtle adjustment of the weekend. Clemson’s inside beefeaters, defensive tackle Jarvis Jenkins and Brandon Thompson, had shut down the triple option and Georgia Tech back Jonathan Dwyer for most of the game. So Tech coach Paul Johnson, the Maharishi of the option attack, changed quarterback Josh Nesbitt’s read from the end to the tackle, a maneuver called the “mid-line option.” Nesbitt started to check if the tackle turned his shoulders in toward the B-back, Dwyer, and when he did, Nesbitt pulled the ball back and ran it through that vacated hole. Nesbitt ran nine times for 44 yards on that drive, which resulted in the tying field goal. Tech pulled out a 30-27 win after Nesbitt completed only his third pass of the game, a 39-yarder on third-and-11, no less, a read known as the “desperation chuck option.”
Oklahoma State did not adjust particularly well to success. Seven days after the supposed “biggest win in program history,” Oklahoma State came crashing to earth like Skylab in a 45-35 defeat at the hands of Houston. The Space City Boys burned Oklahoma State for 37 points a year ago, but surrendered 56 and 699 total yards. This time, the Cougars tackled infinitely better, and Oklahoma State quarterback Zac Robinson was terrible. It’s worth remembering that, before the Georgia game, rumors flew that Robinson was injured. He has been a shadow of his 2008 self so far this year, so perhaps he is infirm. As for the other triplets, running back Kendall Hunter was hurt in the game, and receiver Dez Bryant counterbalanced an electrifying 82-yard punt return touchdown by letting a pass go off his hands. That pass was then picked off and returned for the game-sealing score.
Houston, featuring a style similar to Texas Tech (which is nice, because who wants to schlep to Lubbock, Texas, if it can be avoided?), and fronted by the excellent quarterback Case Keenum, worked Oklahoma State's apparently not-greatly-improved defense with multiple bubble screens and quick hitches. The Conference USA athletes broke Big 12 tackles and outran Big 12 speed all afternoon, leading T. Boone Pickens to consider diversifying his donation portfolio. Somewhere, David Klingler is smiling.
This game also served as a nice example of why no one should take my Thursday afternoon picks seriously. Not only am I an idiot, I am weak-willed -- I loved Houston (+15.5) all week, then saw that the Stat Brothers, Fremeau and Connolly, both had Oklahoma State winning comfortably. So not only did I change my mind, I made the Cowboys my lock of the week. When it comes to intestinal fortitude, I fall somewhat short of Matt Barkley.
7. Penn State
8. Ohio State
9. Ole Miss
10. Boise State
11. Georgia Tech
12. Virginia Tech
19. Notre Dame
21. Oklahoma State
Lurking: Oregon State, South Carolina, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Tulsa, Boston College.
30 comments, Last at 17 Sep 2009, 4:18pm by PHn