By Alexander Haynes
Football, much like life, is a line of ebbs and flows, and when the flowing takes a sharp pivot south, the challenge becomes, “reverting back to training.” After leading the South Alabama Jaguars 24-16 at half, the Bobcats were met with a second-half defined by “a lack of rhythm,” an injury to quarterback Willie Jones, and defensive play that gave up one big play too many. In the fervent words of Head Coach Everett Withers, the Texas State football team did not finish their mission. Coach Withers boiled the game down to nine staple plays that resulted in the Jaguars storming with control for a 41-31 win; five defensive plays which alone totaled 190 yards, a muffed punt, two interceptions, and a busted coverage in the secondary. The positives from Saturday are rich study points to build on. The negatives, however, leave a rich pessimism heading into rivalry week at the Alamo Dome. As the Bobcats prepare, they are running straight into the blunt end of fighting their own mentality while focusing on the gameplay needed to conquer the University of Texas San-Antonio Roadrunners.
The Light in the Dark
Losing the opening Sun Belt Conference matchup to South Alabama, especially considering several momentous opportunities which were left untapped, will take focus to overcome. Coach Withers began his Monday press conference iterating some of the finer points of that positive focus.
“We accomplished things we wanted to do in the game,” Withers said. “We wanted to have more explosive plays, we wanted to take some more shots down field, we had more opportunity than we did in the first game… I think we threw the ball to nine receivers or more.”
The offense would complete passes to 10 different receivers or running backs, including true freshman Javen Banks who would finish the game with two reception for 82 yards. Epitomizing the explosiveness Withers discussed, Banks’ singular touchdown was a 42-yard reception which Coach Withers elaborated upon.
Aside from, “…Really talented, really athletic, really good, long speed,” Withers detailed how Banks has a knack for finding the ball. The play previous featured another long-shot downfield from Jones, only the pass trailed his wide receiver. The next play had Banks breaking the outside of the defense, but another pass attempt with the ball trailing. Instead of giving up on the route, Banks fought back to the football and was rewarded with a touchdown. The aggressive, heads up play from Banks will hopefully be seen more throughout the season, with Withers offering, “As a young freshman he has a lot of talent. He has been doing it since training camp, so he has earned right to continue.”
The running game, although averaging only three yards a carry over the span of 52 carries, had moments of explosion as well. Jones had his career-long run of 50 yards, while running backs Anthony D. Taylor and Robert Brown had long carries of 15 and 13 yards, respectively.
Coach Withers praised the crew of running backs, stating, “I think Anthony Taylor had an unbelievable game, he is the fastest guy, but you talk about a tough, physical inside runner. I think Robert [Brown] came in and did some really good things. I am pushing our offensive staff to allow him to do some more things.” He further notated that all of the running backs are special teams contributors, a factor of the multi-dimensional, athletic contribution across the board.
A Defensive Emphasis
The Texas State defense was aggressively strong for most of the game, enforcing a front-seven mentality that boxed in the opposing running backs. South Alabama’s lack of trickery with fly-sweeps and misdirection runs was one of Coach Withers bright points to the game stating, “Defensively, I felt like we did a good job stopping the runs we needed to. A lot of misdirection runs, and our interior did a good job stopping the run there.” There were also four forced fumbles, three recovered by A.J. Krawczyk, Ishmael Davis, and Markeveon Coleman.
However, there was also the whelming flop of the remaining plays. After making quarterback pressure a priority last week, no sacks were recorded on top of a mere two quarterback hurries. Four receivers had long-catches over 20 yards, including Jamarius Way hauling in a 63-yard touchdown early in the game to start an 11 reception, 173-yard outing. Maybe the most concerning sign was South Alabama’s quarterback rotation, or the lack thereof. After Head Coach Steve Campbell iterated that he would use this matchup to continue the quarterback carousal, only Evan Orth played, completing 24 of 33 passes for 226 yards.
South Alabama never did anything flashy, and in some regards was anti-flashy. They simply executed to perfection when explosive plays were called. The only consolation from Coach Withers was, “[the defensive errors] were all simple things, which can be corrected, which is the pleasant thing. But the unpleasant thing is why… We have to correct and take ourselves off the schedule, so we can play our opponent and not us.”
Enforcing turnovers has been and will continue to be a priority moving forward. “Aggressive defense,” is the term that has been used to identify the desired defensive picture. Every Monday practice has begun with a turnover tackle circuit, and every future Monday will begin with a turnover tackle circuit.
Intense practice is the unquestionable source of how the team will improve. When introducing linebacker Bryan London, who also spoke to the media on Monday, Withers shared a quick story.
“You ought to take the time to watch the game tape and watch Bryan London and Aaron Brewer play,” Withers said. “I asked Bryan this morning in the team meeting, ‘Does the game slow down for you on Saturday,’ and he said, ‘Yes, it does.’ I asked why, I asked a bunch of our players why and they said because you practice hard. I said, ‘Yes! You practice hard and the game slows down.’”
Mentality Moving Forward
Game film, practice, and hurdling over the UTSA Roadrunners is 10 percent of the challenge. As the adage goes, 90 percent of the game is mental, and overcoming the plight of a second half letdown will be as big of a challenge for the Texas State team. Of the first two goals on the team, foremost is to, “Play great first down defense, and play explosive and efficient defense.” Second is to, “Protect and cherish the ball on offense and take it away on defense.” That must be the overarching dialogue heading into the rivalry with UTSA.
At the end of the conference, Coach Withers provided a lengthy commentary on how the team will avoid a pessimistic attitude when turmoil hits in the future.
“We talk all the time about don’t rise to an occasion, revert back to our training, and what we didn’t do is revert back to our training as the game went on, as the game went on, as the ebbs and flow of the game occurred, we didn’t do a good job of that. And again, I take a lot of that on me as the head football coach. I have to help the team understand… My message at half time was we have a mission that is not over yet, and we have to finish a mission, and we didn’t do that. And I go back, how did we practice, how did we prepare, the things we could have done better as coaches, myself being the head football coach… Being able to put our guys in position to close out the game, to handle the ebbs and flows, the ups and downs… Again effort is not an issue, do we have enough talent to win that game, yes… Did we eliminate some of the problems we had in weeks one and two, yes. There are some plays maybe we can correct and practice or how we prepare and I have to look at that as a head coach and see how we can fix those things.”
Chasing Down the Road Runners and Bryan London
In 2017, the UTSA Roadrunners beat Texas State 44-14, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth of the Texas State players. In the words of the emphatic defensive leader, Bryan London, “It is tough to call it a rivalry if the games look like they did last year, so it is up to use to make it a rivalry.” Aggression, progression, finishing games – all the themes that players were dwelling on after the South Alabama loss will form the battle at the Alamo Dome.
The questions for London focused heavily on Saturday’s matchup. One of the quotes he shared regarding recovering the defensive, not allowing explosive plays, focused on a Coach Withers quote.
“We just got to focus on those [explosive plays]. Coach Withers has a quote he always uses, ‘It is not about the quality of your good plays, but the quality of your bad plays, because those are the ones where you get behind,’” London said.
The play of the front-seven, focusing on the quality of every down, will be a major point of emphasis according to London.
The defense is progressing in that category, “playing more sound as the weeks progress.” However, London will never be satisfied until the team finds a way to get over the hump. “Baby steps are cool, but at some point, you have to take leaps and bounds to get where you want to go.” He discussed taking losses personally, regardless of score, and a desire to get back to business.
The fire London often displays on the field, as he is now the leading tackler with 28 and an additional two forced fumbles, was on display in his final quote regarding the pass rush. “Pass rush is all about want to. If you get a single block, you have to beat a man. You have to find a way to get to the quarterback.”
The injury report was not explicitly orated upon, but two important players were named. First, the injury which hobbled Jones during quarter three was only a lower-leg cramp. Second, freshman wide receiver Jah’Marae Sheread broke his toe and will be out for a few weeks.
Featured image by Justin Manor.