Coin toss at the Texas State and UTSA game in 2017

Bobcats Run Down the Road for I-35 Rivalry

By Alexander Haynes
Sports Reporter

There are rivalry games and then there are rivalry games that impact legacy. Intrigue in rivalries can often be built around muddied hyperbole – Saturday’s gridiron showdown between the Texas State Bobcats and University of Texas San Antonio Roadrunners could not carry more implications and less hyperbole. The ramifications of a loss, even a close loss, are ridden in despondence for Texas State, searching for a decisive victory after flopping an early lead to lose 41-31 at the whim of the South Alabama Jaguars. Conversely, the optimism of a decisive victory over a rival which shattered the Bobcat’s will in a 44-14 mockery last season would provide an aura of competitiveness. As both Texas State’s Head Coach Everett Withers and UTSA’s Head Coach Frank Wilson are in their third seasons, a season where the painting of consistent success should be coming into view, Saturday night’s game in the Alamo Dome is crisp insight short-term and long-term trajectory.

Texas State Bobcat Headlines

After an exhaustive loss to South Alabama, blowing a 24-16 halftime lead, there is little doubt where the weight of the headline lands. As linebacker Bryan London said during Monday’s press conference, “Baby steps are cool, but eventually you have to take leaps and bounds to get where you want to go.” The offense dwindled, the defense let eight explosive plays rattle their demeanor, and a muffed punt punctuated a string of subtle errors.

After a 1-2 start, Texas State must find a way to not only get back on track, but to convincingly establish a plan moving forward. Coach Withers himself has established this as a season of goals being established and success arising from a competitive training camp. Beating rival UTSA is a goal the season’s retrospect will astutely judge.

One of the frustrating points in last Saturday’s loss was an injury to quarterback Willie Jones. As the sophomore quarterback was rattled by the sharp pain, it was an event spinning a sorrowful demeanor, creating a waterfall effect of bad plays. Fortunately, Jones was only suffering from a severe cramp according to Coach Withers and will be full to go this week. He showed no hesitation on his leg during Tuesday’s open practice. Utilizing one quarterback and building rhythmic, consistency is a simple essentiality for offensive success.

Pressure on quarterbacks, or lack thereof, had further frustrating ramifications on Saturday. South Alabama was able to meditate on their route trees and pass in their dink and dunk scheme at will. With only two sacks in three games, the aggression loftily discussed in goal setting must be turned into functional output. The simple goal for a defense is to disrupt a quarterback’s timing and make him meditate on falling under the power of a human steam roller.

On a positive note, the enforcement of fumbles has been one part of Texas State’s defensive aggression turning into ascertainable results. London forced two fumbles in the home-opening win against Texas Southern, cornerback JaShon Waddy another two against South Alabama, Hal Vinson one, and Frankie Griffin the other. Kordell Rodgers has recorded two interceptions and Jarron Morris one. With 2.7 turnovers per game, Texas State is tied sixth in the nation in the tenacious takeaway game.

The opportunity to capitalize upon other team’s mistakes is blooming, the matter is controlling their own mistakes. For a picture of the efficiency which the offense and defense must improve on, penalties come into view. The defense currently ranks 41st in the nation (top thirty-percentile) for least first-downs allowed (averaging 17.7 per game). However, two first downs per game have come from defensive penalties. Mitigating those self-inflicted wounds would move the defense into nearly the top 15 percent on first-down mitigation. The offense moves itself backward an average of 79.7 yards per game, tied-fifth most penalties in the nation at 9.7. Aggression and competition are complementary traits to turn a game plan into a winning formula, but that aggression must be appropriately channeled.

UTSA Road Runner Headlines

Heading into Frank Wilson’s third season, UTSA was expecting some rebooting after losing key players. The expected term might have been better put as planned rebooting with new coordinators for new, higher expectations. The results have been dysfunctional rebooting with UTSA suffering three embarrassing losses to start the season. After dropping their opening game at Arizona State 49-7, then losing in a home fight against Baylor 37-20, and losing another blowout 41-17 at Kansas State, the UTSA Road Runners are seeking success and a win in any shape.

USTA’s 2018 plan needed to solve replacing both the offensive and defensive coordinator positions, four senior linemen, a senior wide receiver, a starting quarterback, revolving the defensive line position, and inserting two new starting cornerbacks. With the long list of needs, weak performance and the inconsistency of youth were destined to pop-up. But not for 2.5 yards per rush (127th) or only 17 first downs per game despite running 69.3 plays per game (51st). Replacing a starting quarterback has given way to only 50.9 percent completions. Defensively, the disaster can be summarized in 482.3 yards per game at an average of 7.5 yards per play. Yes, the program has faced only power-five schools, but is now treading the water of controlled chaos.

Attempting to boost a young offense, Wilson hired Al Borges as his offensive coordinator. Having coached at seven different schools, including running the 2004 Auburn Tiger offense which finished 13-0, Borges is a purported creative offensive mind. The hope was his ingenuity of interworking the west coast principles into a spread formula would pay capitulate new starters to early success. Despite a sluggish start to that evolution, relying more on running back senior running backs Jalen Rhodes (5.8 yards per carry) might be enough to spark the offense.

The 2017 defense was under the operation of Pete Golding, a defensive mind focused on generating pressure with disguise at the line of scrimmage. Golding’s success pushed him into Nick Saban’s tree house at Alabama, leaving former linebacker’s coach Jason Rollins to the task of tapping into a new crew of players with the same, emphatic energy. The confused defense has generated no energy, making the genius of Golding look brighter and the rebooting work more troublesome than first thought.

In summation, UTSA will be spending Saturday not only looking to prove their domination of Central Texas football, but to prove they can display a semblance of rhythm.

Texas State football players running onto field
The swarm of the Texas State Bobcats football team runs onto the field to the sounds of an expressive crowd ahead of last season’s game against Houston Baptist University. Photo by Justin Manor.

Scheme, Players, and Game Flow to Watch For

If precedent offers insight, Saturday could be a day notated with unrhythmic offense stuck in growing pains and the turnover battle determining the winner. Only small glimpses of the explosive spread offense from Texas State or UTSA’s combination offense have been seen, making true intentions difficult to pinpoint. Defensive manipulation has headlined the immediate aftermath of both offenses.

No matter, based on past seasons and formation concept, the UTSA offense runs a creative offensive based on west coast and spread principles. The two philosophies could not be farther apart, yet at the same time come together in a neat package. The team can run bunch formations with the quarterback under center or spread out to three wide receiver sets from shotgun. The run game is used to establish rhythm, the metronome of the offense, with options between draw plays, the wide run-pass-option, or pounding counter runs.

One example of how differing run formations operates in the offense was seen in a touchdown against Baylor. Aligned in pistol (a short shotgun) with a tight end positioned outside of the offensive line, another directly behind the offensive tackle (he will be labelled Y), and a running back two-yards behind the quarterback’s right side, the handoff went directly to the running back. The trick, however, was after the handoff; the offensive line crashed left while the Y pulled outside. The Y tight end is the player the linebacker reads after snap, and thus as he pulled outside with the quarterback following, hinting at a wide RPO play, the linebacker pulled away from the box. The true tight-end crashed inside to box in the defensive end, and despite having no lead blocker, the running back had enough room to push himself in for a goal line touchdown due to an extra second derived from the linebacker committing to the faux RPO.

While the running game is used as the physicality metronome, especially with Jalen Rhodes’ style of down-hill pounding, the inside hand offs lead to a classic west coast offense play action from goal line bunch. A simple play fake from a bunch formation, 12 personnel (one wide receiver, two running backs) can effectively pull linebackers inside and put a bigger tight end on a smaller safety or corner. Furthermore, by rolling away from the wide receiver, the full back has an empty flat to leak into without confrontation.

As the pass game is operating at a 50 percent completion rate, UTSA will most likely come out run heavy, intertwining passes once the offense is in rhythm. Hence, much of the weight for the Texas State defense to create chaos lies within the realm of the front-three pushing the UTSA line straight into the running backs. The fundamental creativity in the offense involves setting up tempo to pull players inside of the box or outside of the box, opposite from the true play direction. Crashing the offensive guards will shut down counter plays, then force the RPO to become the only option. From there, London, Nikolas Daniels, and Griffin can read the quarterback, stretch the play, and make the 2.5-yard average even smaller.

The pass attack from UTSA is built on west coast spacing from spread formations. Rather than quarterback coming from under center, he will start in shotgun with wide receivers aligned wide already. The west coast formula is observed in the multitude of short, safe routes that force cornerbacks to declare toward one receiver. One play will utilize an under route into the middle of the field, taking the linebacker or down-hill cornerback, a curl route, committing a zone safety to the short side of the field, and a deep route to the outside of the field which isolates a wide receiver. Ideally, the check down will read the deep route, and if the safeties do no properly pass the receiver from zone to zone, he is hit for a big play.

The problem for UTSA, and where Texas State can create disruption, is the offensive line’s youth has led to defensive ends and linebackers plundering the quarterback. Thus, an extra running back or tight end must stay in to block. The tight end or running back should be the magic point for Borges’ offense, leaking out to create a fourth option in a vacated flat. Without that extra receiver, blitz packages can be called at a higher rate, knowing the flats are dead.

In poetic terms, the flowing aggressiveness of the defense can entirely shut down UTSA, take the ball away, and give time for the Texas State offense to jovially operate. In true rivalry and classical football terms, this is a game boiling down to physicality begotten from academically finding the football.

Featured image by Justin Manor.

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