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Watching Film: Slipping Away

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Looking back at the Bulls’ close loss at Georgia Tech

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 USF at Georgia Tech Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

That one stings. You had a chance to go on the road and beat an ACC opponent. The defense was excellent, save for a few plays. The offense remains inconsistent but seemed to find more of a rhythm later in the game. You get the ball down to the one-yard line with a chance to take the lead and you kill your own drive with self-inflicted mistakes. The Bulls let a huge chance to win the game literally slip through their fingers on Saturday.

USF played better in almost every facet of the game than they did in game one. And even though they played far from their best game as a team, they should have won this game. If two questionable referee decisions (third down pass interference on Sails and the goal line fumble) go in USF’s favor the Bulls win this game 17-7. Like I said last week, the margins are thin.

Georgia Tech had a good plan, but they didn’t really do anything different than they had previously. There wasn’t anything the Bulls weren’t prepared for schematically. The game was going to come down to who made the silly mistakes. The two teams were pretty evenly matched. The game was like that Spider-man meme with the two Spider-men (?) pointing at each other. Except one of the Spider-men was a little drunk.

Let’s look at why USF lost, what they need to improve, and what they did well in game two.


Self-Inflicted Wounds

When looking at some of the metrics we have previously discussed, it was obvious why the game was so tight.

USF actually had slightly better field position on the whole, but that was somewhat due to Tech getting the ball on the three after the goal line fumble. Still, the field position difference was negligible. Georgia Tech did slightly better on third downs, but neither team was great. USF also went 2-2 on fourth down tries so the third down conversion different was negligible as well.

Turnovers were even, but they probably shouldn’t have been. Turnovers can be somewhat random, but it sure felt like the Bulls caused all four. They created two turnovers on defense with a great tipped pass and a perfectly timed/placed hit. USF also caused their own turnovers. One was a muffed punt, which is becoming a recurring issue through two games. The other was when senior running back Jordan Cronkrite tried to extend the ball over the goal line and then fumbled the ball when trying to pull it back into his body. While it certainly looked like he broke the plane with the ball, there is a reason Bill Belichick has threatened to cut players for extending the ball out in traffic. The risk isn’t worth it.

The biggest difference on Saturday between the two teams was penalties. Georgia Tech was called for two penalties for 20 yards. USF was called for nine penalties for 95 yards, with two of them being quite costly when looking back at the game.

The first was the pass interference called on a third-and-eleven. The call was questionable, and if K.J. Sails had turned his head, I don’t think it would have been called. The contact appeared minimal but it extended a Georgia Tech drive. The Bulls got another 15 yard penalty a play later giving Georgia Tech nearly 30 free yards (second penalty was half the distance to the goal) on a drive they started at the USF 43. All Georgia Tech had to do to score a touchdown was gain 13 yards. If that first penalty isn’t called, the drive is over and a touchdown is off the board.

The second penalty also likely took points off the board. The USF defense forces a turnover and their offense comes out with a big play that gets the ball down to the one yard line. Based on this study, when teams have a first-and-goal at the one yard line, they score 95% of the time. Before the ball is snapped, left tackle William Atterbury has a false start penalty. This unforced error makes it first-and-goal from the six yard line. While you are still very likely to score from this yardage, the penalty dropped the chances five percentage points. The Bulls are able to gain the penalty yardage back but fumble the ball away on third-and-goal at the one. Having two more snaps at the one would have certainly been beneficial.

The Run Game

After the first two games, one of the biggest areas that needs to improve is the run game. The offensive line has struggled mightily thus far this season. The passing game has shown glimpses of promise, but the run game hasn’t been able get on track at all this season. While the yardage total improved from week one, there still wasn’t much room to run. In fact, the quarterbacks out-gained the running backs 69 yards to 24 yards against Georgia Tech. This total includes the 48-yard rush by Blake Barnett. Without that great individual play, the numbers would look much worse.

So, what the problem? Why can’t USF run the ball? Some of the problems have just been poor line play. As much as fans don’t want to hear excuses, some of the issues are simply settling into new schemes. These execution errors extend to all positions on the offense. Luckily, errors of execution can be corrected. We can look at a few plays from the game to see these issues and how they can be fixed.

The first play comes on the first USF drive of the game. The Bulls have a third-and-one at their own 23-yard line. USF is in 11 personnel (1 back and 1 tight end) in a new formation, a kind of tight trips with the tight end in a sniffer alignment.

Pre-Snap

The Bulls are going to run a power play. Power typically gives you a double team on the front side, with a blocker kicking out the end man and the backside guard pulling to the front side. With how GT has lined up defensively, it looks like a good play. The back will follow the pulling guard, who in this picture would be pulling the lone linebacker or possibly even the safety. If the play is blocked up well, you have your back, at worst, one-on-one with the safety.

Power

Post-snap, you can see that there hasn’t been a ton of movement up front. You still have the guard pulling to lead the back out front but there is a ton of traffic where he wants to go. Georgia Tech has slanted to the play side. The right tackle climbs to second level correctly based on the pre-snap defensive alignment, but he may have gone too quickly. The right guard is expecting to have a down block based on the play and pre-snap alignment. The slant causes the defensive tackle to cross his face. If the tackle was able to be a little more patient, him and the RG could have doubled the defensive tackle back to the linebacker. This would have cleared up some of the traffic. Regardless, if the end hasn’t been kicked out, but rather logged by the tight end, the guard should adjust his path to go into the next open gap. Backside you have the defensive end in process of shedding the block.

The guard isn’t quite sure exactly where to go. The back, knowing the offense only needs one yard to get a first down, actually beats the guard through the hole. There is still a small seam for the back, but the backside defensive end gets off his block and makes the play.

The next play is on USF’s third drive of the game. The Bulls start the drive first-and-ten at the six-yard line following a 55-yard bomb of a punt by Tech. USF come out in 10 personnel (1 back and 0 tight ends) with two receiver stacked on either side of the formation.

The defense has to respond to the stack by taking their overhang players and putting them out over the stack. USF is going run zone read. So just by play and formation, the Bulls have a seven-on-six number advantage. Georgia Tech is going to blitz the box backer to the top and execute a scrape exchange on the bottom. A scrape exchange is a common tactic to disrupt the zone read. The end will take the back and the backer will loop out for the QB. With the end crashing, the quarterback will often pull because that is his read. The looping linebacker will be sitting there waiting for the QB.

The end hesitates a little on the back and the quarterback hands the ball off. The linebacker up top blitzes the B gap, but the guard does a good enough job pushing him wide. The left tackle is doing a good job of climbing to the linebacker backside as well. The play appears to be inside zone. There is a ton a traffic between the center and left guard but the play side A/B gap, which I assume is the back’s aiming point, is open.

You can really see the open gap from the end zone view. There is definitely a lane big enough to run through. The left guard is losing leverage on the backside defensive tackle, but with the center making a stout block on the defensive tackle to his side there is room. With the linebacker blitzing and the spread stack formation, there are no second level defenders left. If the back is able to hit this hole he will be one-on-one with the safety.

Instead the back sees the backside defensive tackle’s helmet poke through and decides to bounce the run. Unfortunately the guard has pushed the blitzer wide, and the back runs right to him. If the back stays on the yellow line and makes the safety miss he scores a 94 yard touchdown.

Again, the end zone view shows a hole created by the o-line.You can see what the back saw, but I think he would have been through the hole by the time the DT comes free. If he stays on the yellow line he probably hits his head on the goal post.

The Good

As discouraging as the result was, you should be encouraged with how much better the team looked in most phases. The defense especially played excellent, and created a lot of negative plays for Georgia Tech. Let’s look at how USF used a pre-snap alignment on defense to take advantage of the new pass protections at Tech and create a big sack on Saturday.

Georgia Tech has the ball second-and-fourteen on the 44 yard line. They come out in 11 personnel and a Trips Open formation with three receivers to the right and one to the left. The Bulls have four down lineman and a linebacker walked up onto the line of scrimmage.

Based on initial alignment, the right guard believes he will have the defensive tackle to his side. On the snap the USF defense will slant from an over front into and under front. The defensive tackle will cross the right guard’s face and hold his eyes. The right tackle sees the walk-up linebacker and fans out to pick him up.

Post-snap you can see the right guard moved to track the slanting defensive tackle. The right tackle fans out for the blitzing linebacker and opens a huge hole for the defensive end. The right guard realizes his mistake but it’s too late.

All the right guard can do now is chase. You can also see a few different Bulls winning their matchups.

The play ends in a big sack with the QB surrounded by USF defenders. And it all started with how the defense lined up.

While the defense played great for the vast majority of the game, the offense showed some signs of life in the second half. Backup QB Jordan McCloud came in and the Bulls hit a couple of big pass plays in his quarter plus of action. Let’s take a look at the scheme on those plays.

USF has the ball on the GT 20 yard line after the defense made a great play intercepting a tipped Yellow Jacket pass. It’s third-down-and-five and USF comes out in 10 personnel with two receivers on either side. Georgia Tech is going to bring a blitz by the boundary nickel and play Cover 1 man free behind it.

USF is going to run a route that will look similar to one we saw last week but with a new wrinkle on it. Last week, USF ran an inverted Smash concept with the outside receiver running the corner and the inside receiver running the speed out.

Week One Inverted Smash

This week the Bulls ran inverted smash return to both sides. This play is great against man, especially after showing the inverted smash on tape the week before. The outside receivers will still run the inside stem corner routes. The inside receivers will run a speed out and then after a few steps out, pivot and return to the middle of the field. The defenders covering the inside receivers will fly to beat the receivers outside anticipating the out route, leaving themselves vulnerable when the pivot occurs.

Week Two Inverted Smash Return

It’s a great scheme and the offense executes it beautifully. The outside receiver inside stemming also creates a rub effect that the defender has to run over the top of to stay on the out route. The line does a great job picking up the pressure here.

The receiver, Johnny Ford, pivots back inside, and the DB is lost. Ford now has a ton of open space. The line and the back make a great pickup here. What really impressed me about Jordan McCloud was his ability to sit in the pocket even with a lot of chaos happening near his feet. A lot of young quarterbacks feel that pressure and pull the ball down too early. I’m guessing McCloud knew pre-snap that he had exactly what he wanted and was going to get the ball out.

The ball is thrown on time and on target. Ford catches it on the run with nobody around him.

The play was perfectly executed all around, and Ford runs into the end zone untouched.

The next big passing play followed another turnover forced by the USF defense. The offense comes on the field with a first-and-ten from the USF 45-yard line. They are in 11 personnel with two receivers to the left and a wing tight end and one receiver to the right.

The Bulls will run a smash concept to the bottom of the screen and a switch verticals concept to the top. They will use play-action to hold the second level defenders. Georgia Tech will bring one of the linebackers from the field and drop their boundary end into coverage. There is a safety in the deep middle of the field just off screen.

The play-action fake holds the boundary end for a moment and the corner follows the receiver inside. This allows the tight end, Mitchell Wilcox to slip out uncovered. The line does a great job picking up the blitz. The QB has a nice pocket to step into and make his decision. McCloud does a great job here with his eyes. He holds the one high safety in the middle of the field. His eyes combined with the outside receiver’s route coming inside up the hash opens the tight end outside even more.

Once he hits the last step of his drop, McCloud finds Wilcox with his eyes and delivers the ball. The throw is again on time and on target. Wilcox makes a spectacular run after catch, taking the ball all the way down to the one yard line.


As a fan, you can be upset with the result but there were some positives in how the team played. They didn’t play their best game and still should have beaten an ACC school with top 50 talent. There are a lot more positive signs than negative ones. The team has taken steps in the right direction and continues to play hard. I don’t see anybody quitting on their teammates or their coaches.

The next game is against South Carolina State. This will be the first game this season where USF has the talent advantage. Every facet of the team has things to work on, and this week should provide a great opportunity. Win this game and you get some positive momentum going into the bye week before conference play. The team showed that they learned some lessons from week one. Do the same this week and get the first win of the year.