Especially in the last five years, the offensive coordinator has been a source of frustration for USF fans. Either they aren't playing to their own team's strengths, or they get stale and predictable, or in some cases they pick the wrong time to get cute and creative (see the name of this blog). So even though it's not a complete picture of how Todd Fitch manages an offense, I wanted to go back and look at how East Carolina played in last year's Liberty Bowl to find some thing that we might be in store for this year.
First off - East Carolina absolutely should have beaten Arkansas. They bottled up the Razorbacks on offense, who went 0-for-13 on third down and only scored one offensive touchdown (on a deep ball). After the first possession of the game, Arkansas was barely able to sustain a drive. The only reasons they escaped with the win were Patrick Pinkney basically giving them 10 points with two bad interceptions, and ECU's kicker missing three field goals in the last minute of regulation and in overtime. (Bobby Petrino admitted as much afterwards when he said he wasn't sure who outplayed who, which in coachspeak means "we should have lost.") The Razorbacks were the only team in the entire 2009 season to win a game against an FBS opponent in which they did not convert a third down.
Other than that, it was a coherent and logical game plan for a team that had less talent almost across the board. They wanted to control the clock and keep the ball out of Ryan Mallett's hands, and they did. East Carolina held the ball for almost 38 minutes, held a ridiculous 88-56 advantage in plays run, and outgained Arkansas by over 100 yards. They stuck to the run even when it wasn't working very well, because the game plan wasn't to make big plays and score a lot of points. And it was good enough to win.
Let's take a look at three points of interest.
Offensive personnel - This has been my personal pet peeve for years. USF often had way too many players in their running back and receiver rotations, and they were on tight schedules. Even if a guy was running hard, or catching everything thrown his way, they might not stay in the game. The situation a player was going into didn't even matter. The all-time low was sending Lindsey Lamar into the game at running back with the Bulls backed up on their own goal line and the score still 0-0 against FSU. They gave him the ball on first down and he barely made it out of the end zone to avoid a safety.
In the Liberty Bowl, ECU handled personnel almost like it was an NFL team. Dominique Lindsay and Giovanni Ruffin got 46 carries between them. The same 4-5 wide receivers played the entire game. The subfreezing weather in Memphis may have had some small part in this because guys weren't getting overheated, but there were no wholesale substitutions going on. The only minor shuffling was with the fullbacks and tight ends, which leads to my next point.
The H-back and the pistol. Ken noticed the H-back when he was at practice in Vero Beach last week. It resembles an offset-I formation, but the fullback is lined up closer to the offensive line than the running back -- sometimes only a yard or two behind the line of scrimmage. Against Arkansas they used it like an offset-I, and they also used it a few times as a kind of bunch formation with another tight end in the bunch.
The H-back can help open up holes faster when you're running between the tackles, and it makes it tougher for linebackers or safeties to get into position and fill the running lane because the H-back is on them sooner. On the flip side, if you decide to throw a pass, the H-back is often too close to the line of scrimmage to help pick up a blitz, especially one off the edge.
ECU also used the pistol formation on 14 snaps. The pistol is a cross between a shotgun and an under-center formation, where the quarterback lines up 3-4 yards behind the line to take the snap, and the running back lines up another 3-4 yards back. This gives the QB a little extra time to find a receiver, but it also gives him the ability to hand off to the running back so defenses can't just tee off on the pass.
A few plays combined the pistol and the H-back. (There's a package of plays in USF's NCAA Football 11 playbook out of the pistol with Richard Kelly lined up next to B.J. Daniels.) And ECU's second touchdown came on a quick pass out of the pistol to Dwayne Harris lined up in the slot.
Finding something that works and using it. Now this made me happy. In the second half, Todd Fitch figured out that the Pirates could control the line of scrimmage with the ace formation (two tight ends, two receivers, one running back). Sometimes it was a regular ace formation, and other times it was an ace twins formation, where the two WRs line up on the same side. Lindsay and Ruffin were picking up a good 5-6 yards a carry out of those formations, and although Fitch didn't go to it exclusively, he didn't forget about it either. When East Carolina was pinned back inside their own 20 in the middle of the fourth quarter, Fitch went back to the ace to get them out of the hole and down the field. It flipped field position, and when Arkansas went three and out (again) and got off a bad punt, the Pirates had their first chance to win the game.
That's really important to me -- when you find something that works, keep doing it. Don't be like, "Oh, we can run the ball! OK, let's go five wide now." Based on this game at least, Fitch can do that. If he keeps doing it at USF, it's going to be a welcome change from a few too many games in the past.