September 10, 2009
Xs and Os on Saturday's Ohio State-USC showdown from the proprietor of the essential Smart Football.
Pete Carroll doesn't want to get burned twice. We all know the most heartbreaking loss of Carroll's tenure came at the hands of Vince Young's magnificent performance in the 2006 Rose Bowl, where he dashed USC's hopes of a three-peat with over 200 yards passing and rushing. Young played an otherworldly game, and it's quite possible no defense could have stopped him on that stage.
But Carroll knows he didn't design a very good gameplan for Young, either. In assessing Ohio State's own duel-threat nightmare, Terrelle Pryor, earlier this week, Carroll lamented facing another Young-esque phenom, but also insinuated that his philosophy toward running quarterbacks has changed:
"Everybody has trouble with them," Carroll said. "I just think it's the hardest thing to defend, a running quarterback."
Carroll said USC's defensive scheme is more advanced now and that he has learned to "respect the QB position as a threat."
How well Carroll's "advanced" approach deals with Pryor's scrambling ability could be the critical factor in the outcome Saturday night: Sans a string of mistakes by USC's freshman quarterback, the only realistic scenario for an OSU win is for a breakout out game from its star quarterback, the game we've all been waiting for him to play but haven't seen yet beyond inconsistent flashes.
Adding it up. Against Texas in that historic Rose Bowl, Carroll centered his defense around lining up in a "two-deep shell," or a defense with two deep safeties to defend against big plays. There was some logic to this: You want to "contain" Vince Young, and a Cover Two look allowed the cornerbacks to play short and aggressive, funneling everything into the middle linebacker and the safeties, who would be there to clean up.
Young thwarted Carroll's plans by throwing often and accurately in one of the most precise passing performances of his life, completing 30 of 40 attempts on mostly short throws to his slot receiver or tight end in the spaces vacated by the Trojan linebackers preoccupied with Young's potential to escape. Texas receivers averaged only nine yards per reception, and tight end David Thomas had a career night with 10 catches over the middle, including a few crucial third down conversions.
One of Carroll's strengths is his ability to adapt. As part of his newfound "respect" for the mobile quarterback, he saw that the problem was not the nature of the blitzes or yelling at guys to keep contain on the outside. Instead, he had a math problem: He needed another guy "in the box" to account for the quarterback as a runner. Fortunately for USC, this was fairly easily accomplished within its usual schemes.
Specifically, Carroll runs a version of the 4-3 defense known as the "under." He's been around the under front since at least 1977, when he was a graduate assistant at Arkansas under Lou Holtz (head coach) and Monte Kiffin (defensive coordinator).
The basic idea of the front is that the strongside linebacker rotates down and actually aligns on the line of scrimmage, just outside the tight end. In respect, the defensive linemen shift to the strong side, such that one of the defensive tackles actually lines up as a nose guard over the center, though slightly shaded over. In this coverage Carroll's safeties, especially the incredible Taylor Mays, are integral because he asks them to be able to play deep coverage and rotate down to play run defense or cover a receiver man-to-man.
USC doesn't see many offenses designed to exploit a running quarterback on the West Coast, but "under" expert Jerry Gordon explained to me that he expected Carroll's defense, when presented with a three-receiver, one-tight end, shotgun set, to line up with two deep safeties and rotate one down at the last minute. From this look, Carroll's favorite coverage has traditionally been Cover 1 -- straight man coverage with a deep safety playing centerfield. The interior defenders are assigned to different offensive players, though they will often use what's called a "banjo" technique, which simply means that two defenders are responsible for two offensive players, and they will take whichever one heads to their side, rather than chase them in either direction.
This is the type of look OSU can expect most of the night: Nothing fancy, but man coverage on the outside and more bodies inside to help against the mobile quarterback. And that "banjo" technique with the interior defenders assigned to the quarterback? That's what coaches and commenters mean when they talk about assigning a defender to "spy" the quarterback.
So is it that simple? USC can just play man and totally shut down Ohio State and Pryor? Maybe, if the Trojans' men consistently diagnose the action and physically beat their counterparts. But maybe not.
The Senator as tactitian. At one time, Jim Tressel was considered one of the best playcallers in the country, and willing to take changes to exploit the talent on hand -- think back to the three, four and sometimes five-receiver sets the Buckeyes deployed with Troy Smith pulling the trigger to shred an outstanding Michigan defense in the winner-take-all blockbuster against the Wolverines in 2006. (And remember that Tressel's father, a legendary Division III coach, ran the run & shoot.) As compelling as it may be to use Vince Young and Troy Smith as precedents for putting spreading the field with Pryor in the shotgun, though, there's no guarantee Tressel is thinking along the same lines.
Let me stress that, to beat USC, Ohio State will have to throw the ball effectively. Pryor is not quite a polished passer at this point, and big plays in the passing game will have to come from play-action. But although Tressel is sure to lean heavily on his patented power runs early in the game, none of OSU's young backs have made much of a name for themselves yet. This is clearly Pryor's offense, and all signs point to Saturday as the national coming-out party for the raw talent that made him such a coveted recruit.
Assuming USC will use the loaded fronts with man coverage on the outside, including a spy for Pryor, OSU has a few options in the way of counterpunches. The first has to be the basic zone-read. This is something Tressel used with great success with Troy Smith, and, as Trojan Football Analysis showed, the zone read was far and away the Buckeyes' most successful play against USC last year, averaging a hefty 6.8 yards on five attempts.
The Trojans have several ways to defend the zone-read, but with good formations Tressel should be able to spring Pryor or put his running backs in position to succeed if SC overplays the quarterback.
The other play that I'd like to see but that was only marginally successful last season against the Trojans was the speed option. Against USC's under front, the Buckeyes should be able to formation the play in a way that can get Pryor on the edge of the defense quickly; and since USC's defenders will spend much of the time in man coverage, they should have their backs to the ball and won't be able to react quickly to a run play.
Tressel tried dialing this play up last season, but the then-very raw Pryor didn't attack very well (and Tressel probably was wary of his freshman fumbling the ball). More importantly, the line seemed incapable of blocking USC's front.
From there, I think Tressel has to show confidence in his young quarterback and just turn him loose. At times the Buckeyes have used Pryor on a variety of designed runs, but most of them amount to little more than "Terrelle, you're very fast, so why don't you just run around the defense please?" The play I would focus on would be a simple lead-draw, where Pryor would drop back t throw, then follow his running back's lead-block on an inside linebacker. With the Trojans' defense spread out in man -- and the defensive line rushing hard upfield to contain Pryor in the pocket -- OSU's best bet is likely to use that design against USC and get Pryor going up the middle.
Although they are starting a true freshman quarterback in his first road game, sent a huge swath of their defense to the NFL and will be without a handful of starters on both sides of the ball, USC is still the favorite here, and deservedly so. Yet for Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel, this is the sort of game where legends are made, where a young, talented quarterback still looking to make his lasting mark does so in spectacular fashion against a juggernaut with few apparent weaknesses coming. It happened in the Rose Bowl four years ago. If Tressel is able to keep the Trojans honest with short, safe completions and get Pryor into space with the ball, it can again.