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TDS Film Room: Breaking Down the USF Offense Vs. ECU

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Why did the offense sputter all night?

East Carolina v South Florida Photo by Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty Images

Fresh off an ugly 20-13 victory over the East Carolina Pirates, the South Florida Bulls had a much-needed bye week this week to figure out what went so incredibly wrong for the Bulls last Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium.

How could the offense not even reach 300 yards after putting up 626 yards (7.5 yards per play) the week prior at Illinois? The offense seemingly went up and down the field against the Illini, and save for multiple self-inflicted wounds the score line would look much different than the 25-19 final.

I’ve watched the offensive game film four times this week and three things have stood out to me as to why USF had such a rotten night versus ECU.

ECU Had A Really Good Gameplan

ECU defensive coordinator David Blackwell (former USF Co-DC in 2009) decided that the best way to attack the Bulls’ offense was to take away any east-west plays, i.e. screens, sweeps, jets by funneling everything into the middle of the offensive line.

He accomplished this by having his two defensive ends line up in “wide-9 technique” to isolate and occupy the two best offensive linemen the Bulls have in LT Eric Mayes and RT Marcus Norman by forcing them to drop deeper into pass protection and leaving LG Hal Roberson, C Michael Wiggs, and RG William Atterbury to fend for themselves on any stunts, blitzes and other exotic ways the Pirates decided to attack USF.

From our friends at The Phinsider:

Typically, the “Wide-9” technique player is a pure pass rusher, and usually a speed rusher to be more specific. He aligns himself out wide, angled back toward the quarterback, and has limited run responsibility on the play. His whole job is to get to the quarterback. These are the defensive ends who excel at getting off the ball, blowing past the tackle, dipping their shoulder around the turn, and reaching the quarterback as he completes his drop.

The Pirates employed this technique nearly the entire night with the notable exception being the 66-yard touchdown pass from Blake Barnett to Darnell Salomon.

Along with this technique, the Pirates were very good at disguising their blitzes and ran some NFL-caliber stunts to confuse the offensive line. At least one stunt got to Barnett for a sack in the second half (which we’ll get to) and another nearly got to him on the long completion to running back Johnny Ford in the first quarter.

The Bulls ran up the middle most of the night because that’s what the defense was giving them. Barnett kept the ball twice on read-options and one resulted in a TD and the other went for a gain of eight yards because the defensive end flew up the field to attack the QB, and left a big hole on the left side.

The ECU secondary has been especially good this year with the exceptions of the big plays. They’ve broken up 16 passes in three games, including four against the Bulls. Five different DB’s have at least two pass breakups. They were physical with the USF receivers and forced two “coverage sacks” last Saturday.

Although ECU lost to North Carolina A&T, they surrendered just 269 yards of offense (4.48 yards per play). The Pirates coughed up the ball three times and allowed multiple chunk plays to A&T to lose that game.

Against UNC, the Pirates gave up 395 yards of offense, but pitched a shutout in the second half and allowed just 92 yards after halftime.

I think we can agree ECU’s defense is much better than in 2017.

USF’s Offensive Line was #Bad

As mentioned above, ECU took out Mayes and Norman with their ends forcing Roberson, Wiggs, and Atterbury to make sure the pocket stayed clean for Barnett.

Well, it didn’t.

I counted five missed assignments or completely dominated plays for Wiggs in the first half, including twice on the first two plays of the game. Wiggs was also responsible for the NFL Blitz-style sack on Barnett in the second half when he snapped the ball before anyone was ready. (We sure Cam Ruff used up all of his eligibility?)

With the edge rushing by the Pirates forcing Barnett to climb the pocket to avoid sacks, he was met with constant pressure up the middle because the interior offensive line couldn’t win their battles.

Roberson and Atterbury each allowed a sack and Roberson was also the man responsible for the extra point getting blocked.

Aside from some early difficulty (and a blatant hold on the Barnett rushing TD) Mayes likely graded out as the only winner along the offensive line. Head coach Charlie Strong pointed out during his only media availability this week that Mayes had a good game.

Norman on the other hand wasn’t great on Saturday.

This play happened on 3rd and 5 with 5:50 left in the fourth quarter and ECU LB Bruce Bivens goes around Norman like he’s not even there to sack Barnett and end the drive.

In the first quarter, running back Jordan Cronkrite motions out to his right to set up a screen pass to him. Every offensive lineman cut blocks their man at the snap, except Norman’s man gets around the block attempt and bats down the pass from Barnett as Cronk had a convoy of blockers for him set up.

At 6’6”, 301 lbs., Norman may have trouble staying in front of speed rushers and it will be something to keep an eye on the rest of the year.

It wasn’t all bad for the offensive line. They did a fantastic job of giving Barnett AT LEAST five seconds on the Salomon touchdown and then Wiggs and Roberson were able to open up a hole and get to the second level on Cronkrite’s TD.

All of the Injuries

Even with the plethora of talent that the Bulls have, they have succumbed to the injury bug this year. On Twitter I mentioned this could be the “Season From Hell” injury-wise where the team is never fully healthy and is always missing one or two keys guys.

Key players who have missed time this year:

  • RB Duran Bell (Ankle)
  • RB Jordan Cronkrite (Ankle)
  • RB Trevon Sands (undisclosed)
  • RB Elijah Mack (Ankle)
  • WR Ryeshene Bronson (Knee)
  • WR Jernard Phillips (Undisclosed)
  • WR Terrence Horne (Torn ACL)
  • TE Mitch Wilcox (missed second half vs ECU)
  • LG Demetris Harris

Plus, WR Tyre McCants was seen limping off the field. The bye week was at the perfect time.

Wilcox got rolled up by Cronkrite on a screen pass in the second quarter (which was nullified by two USF penalties) and did not return to the game. USF missed him.

Without Wilcox in the game, the Bulls went 10 personnel (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR) in the second half and it didn’t work well. Offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert then decided to bring in Ole Miss transfer tight end Jacob Mathis instead of using four wide receivers. Mathis was not targeted as a receiver, but he was on the field for Cronkrite’s game-winning 80-yard touchdown run (he missed his block though). It’s clear Gilbert likes having a tight end on the field and without Wilcox, Barnett didn’t have his security blanket and one of the better run/pass blockers on the team.

This team hasn’t been healthy all season, especially offensively. If the Bulls can get close to 100% for next week at UMass I think we’ll see an offensive game more like Georgia Tech and Illinois (sans mistakes) than ECU.