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14 Sep 2015

OFI: Superstars Shine

guest column by Ian Boyd

After Week 2, some of the chaff is already getting separated from the wheat in college football. A few preseason candidates for postseason glory -- such as Boise St, Arkansas, Oregon, and Notre Dame -- have taken grievous hits in the win-loss column or to their key personnel.

Week 2 also saw BYU win a second consecutive game with a late Hail Mary pass from their 22-year-old, true freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum. After stepping in for the inevitably injured Taysom Hill in Week 1, Mangum has demonstrated some real potential. Look for BYU to possibly have their big breakthrough season at some point in the next few years by virtue of having a talented quarterback in his mid-20s leading the charge.

We also learned who some of the stars in 2015 are going to be, and many of them are running backs. Florida State's Dalvin Cook was terrifying at times in 2014, but his season was defined in part by his costly fumbles against Oregon in the playoffs. His season in 2015 so far has been defined by averaging 8.6 yards per carry as he does a credible Reggie Bush impression every week.

We already knew Ezekiel Elliot was in line for a big, possibly Heisman-winning season but he has been joined by Georgia's Nick Chubb (8.8 yards per carry!), Alabama's Derrick Henry (7.8 yards per carry), and LSU's Leonard Fournette (159 yards in the Tigers' opening victory over Mississippi State) as 2015 looks to be the year of the running back.

Odds are good that someone who plays this position will win the Heisman unless a passer out there can take advantage of a split running back vote to gain the needed electoral votes to become king of college football.

It won't be Malik Zaire, who had just about put Virginia away when he broke his ankle, sidelining him for the rest of the season. It could be Cody Kessler, who eviscerated an overmatched Idaho team and has the USC Trojans sitting at 2-0 heading into their first major test against Stanford. It might also be Conner Cook, who played the part of game manager for the Michigan State Spartans as they took vengeance on the Ducks with a classic formula of defense and running the ball.

With Week 2 in the books, the 2015 season is starting to clear up and reveal a fairly familiar picture with Ohio State in the middle of everything, but who knows what remaining surprises may be in store. It is college football, after all.


  • Cody Kessler had a monster season statistically in 2014 with 3,826 passing yards and 39:5 TD-to-INT ratio, but he lost top target Nelson Agholor, whose 104 catches, 1,313 yards, and 12 touchdowns were a big part of Kessler's overall production.

    No worries. The Trojans have plenty of JuJu left in their wide receiver corps and Kessler's new favorite target (JuJu Smith-Schuster) has needed very little time to reach 281 receiving yards as the object of Kessler's attention.

    The USC offensive line, headlined by first-team All Pac-12 center Max Tuerk, has dominated its first few opponents and allowed the Trojans to gain 9 yards per play on the season. With a passing game closely tied to the run game through RPOs (run/pass option plays) and traditional play-action, the Trojans are a very balanced offensive squad schematically. The fact that they have so much experience and quality along the offensive line and at quarterback makes it all too easy for them to set up all of their skill players for big success.

  • Oregon's new quarterback Vernon Adams had some predictable struggles against the Michigan State defense and its highly aggressive zone blitz package. Adams was sacked four times, picked off twice, and missed a wide-open Byron Marshall for what could have been a game-winning touchdown pass. Experience matters oh so much in a game played between college-aged men.

    Michigan State also controlled the tempo of the game and turned it into a slower, run game-focused contest where their victory was going to be nearly inevitable. Oregon ran the ball 39 times (removing sack yardage) for 151 yards, good for 3.8 yards per carry and not good enough to measure up to the Spartans' 197 yards on 37 carries (5.3 yards per carry).

    The Ducks' only chance was to make up ground by being explosive in the passing game but Adams' errors in this phase of the game merely served to seal the deal.

  • The Rice Owls put forth a fascinating losing effort in Austin against the Texas Longhorns, who were looking to rebound from a crushing loss to Notre Dame in Week 1.

    The Owls had 29 first downs to Texas' 11; converted 66.7 percent of their third downs to only 37.5 percent for the Longhorns; produced 471 yards to only 279; held the ball for 44:12 of game clock to only 15:48; and yet lost 42-28.

    As you might have guessed, while Rice dominated the box score, Texas dominated turnovers, special teams, and explosive plays. With a special teams touchdown, defensive touchdown, +4 turnover margin, and two passing touchdowns of 30-plus yards, Texas got much more bang for their statistical buck.

  • Butch Jones committed two classic blunders in Tennessee's heartbreaking late loss to the Sooners.

    On their first drive of the game, Tennessee went 50 yards and faced fourth-and-goal just inside the Sooners' 1-yard line. Statistical models increasingly emphasize that the correct choice here is to go for it and likely gain six points with a touchdown, with the worst-case scenario being that your opponent is left pinned in a precarious spot from which he is likely to punt the ball back to you in favorable position.

    Jones opted to kick a field goal. His team would eventually lose in over-time.

    The second half featured a Volunteers offense trying to run clock and protect a 14-point lead, which is a risky strategy against an up-tempo spread passing team. The Sooners offense inevitably woke up as the Tennessee pass-rushers tired, their defensive coordinator ran out of disguises, and Baker Mayfield began to figure out how to beat their coverages.

    Before the last two drives of regulation, Mayfield was 8-of-25 passing with 84 yards, zero touchdown passes, and two interceptions. Down the stretch of the game he completed 11-of-14 passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns.

    You can't play conservative and cling to a weak lead against a team that is designed to play from behind. Butch Jones and Tennessee learned this lesson the hard way on Saturday night as they watched what would have been a massive home win slip from their grasp.


  • Shock Linwood, Johnny Jefferson, and Terrence Williams, running backs, Baylor.Under Art Briles, Baylor has always been a much more run-centric team than commonly assumed with a "veer and shoot" offense built largely around power and option football combined with extreme spread alignments and relentless vertical passing.

    These three backs have totally dominated Baylor's admittedly weak schedule thus far in the year and combined for 372 yards on 44 carries against Lamar on Saturday. When you have a wide receiver corps that includes returning 1,000-yard receivers like Corey Coleman and K.D. Cannon, the ability to hammer the ball on the ground for 8.5 yards per carry is a big deal. That should help new quarterback Seth Russell as he learns to take better care of the football (he threw three interceptions in Week 2).

  • Devante Bond, outside linebacker, Oklahoma.Last year the Sooners decided to move hybrid player Eric Striker out to nickel, despite the fact that he was the team's best pass rusher. This backfired when the Sooners couldn't get pressure without blitzing him off the edge and consequently found their entire defense became predictable and easy to target.

    With the emergence of Devante Bond opposite Striker as the other outside linebacker on the field, the Sooners have solved this dilemma. Bond had two sacks against the Vols, another quarterback hurry, a forced fumble, and came within inches of breaking up multiple passes to the flats. Look out Big 12 -- the Sooners may have a nasty and unpredictable pass rush in 2015.

  • Chad Kelly, quarterback, Ole Miss.The biggest questions for Ole Miss in 2015 centered around whether they could replace crafty quarterback Bo Wallace and whether they could finally establish a physical run game. The jury is still out on Question No. 2, but Question No. 1 seems to be answered after Kelly led another explosive offensive effort with a 20-of-25 performance, throwing for 346 yards3 four touchdowns, and zero interceptions. The biggest question in Week three will be whether he can match Wallace's magic against the Tide in Tuscaloosa.
  • Nick Wilson, running back, Arizona.The Zona tailback had more than 200 yards of offense against Nevada with 194 on the ground and another 30 through the air for good measure. Of Wilson's 23 touches, nine generated at least 10 yards as the back made great use of the space afforded to him by RichRod's spread offense

    Some pundits may have picked the wrong Arizona team to make noise in the Pac-12 South in 2015.


  • Arkansas loses to Toledo?The expected outcome from Arkansas replacing passing-oriented offensive coordinator Jim Chaney with the more run-focused Dan Enos was a Razorback team that would use the pass more sparingly and as a constraint when opposing teams loaded the box to stop their potent run game.

    Then Enos had quarterback Brandon Allen, who's hardly known for being a proficient passer, throw the ball 53 times in a 16-12 defeat at the hands of the Toledo Rockets! Allen was somewhat effective, averaging 7.8 yards per attempt, but the Hogs couldn't get enough explosive plays in the passing game and made errors near the end zone that prevented scores. Good things happen when you make a team play left-handed.

  • Auburn's run game struggles: When Jeremy Johnson took over at Auburn, following a line of Gus Malzahn quarterbacks that included 1,000-yard rushers Nick Marshall and Cam Newton, it was understood that the quarterback position was going to need to assist the power run game with his arm moreso than his legs as they had done in the past.

    Against Jacksonville State in Week 2, this did not prove effective. The Tigers were baited by loaded run fronts to throw the ball 32 times, which yielded 236 yards and two touchdowns but also two interceptions and a much closer game than a team ranked sixth in the nation was anticipating given the level of the opponent. Much, much closer. Auburn trailed 20-13 late in the game and failed to control the tempo with their option run game as they have been accustomed to doing against unranked and ranked opponents alike in the Malzahn era.

    The Tigers had a 50 percent success rate against the Gamecocks and 50 percent of lead running back Peyton Barber's standard down runs were successful, which set up Jeremy Johnson to have to execute early and often in the passing game. Turnovers and near catastrophe ensued.


  • The Michigan State offensive line: It was easy enough to predict that Michigan State would be able to plug in another tailback and run the ball well in 2015. When they had to replace future NFL star Le'Veon Bell they did so with Jeremy Langford, who ran for 1,422 yards in 2013 and 1,522 in 2014. Their big offensive line, cast of strong blocking tight ends and fullbacks, and big-armed quarterback Conner Cook guaranteed that they'd find someone to run through the holes.

    Against Oregon, the Spartans found two backs who could be good enough to carry the load behind their phalanx of blockers, both of them freshmen.

    Madre London hit the 100-yard mark on his 17th carry of the game while L.J. Scott ran for 76 yards and two scores on only 11 carries. The two combined for 179 yards at a clip of 6.2 yards per carry.

    Credit to the offensive line that have made the running back position at Michigan State a revolving door of 1,000-yard runners. It also kept quarterback Conner Cook clean against the Ducks pass rush, with zero sacks surrendered.

Posted by: Ian Boyd on 14 Sep 2015