By Alexander Haynes
The Texas State Bobcats losing 42-27 to the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns on Saturday has put the program in the dangerous realm of losing the season – an essence of the Sun Belt taking steps forward while Texas State is still trying to find an identity. Sitting at 1-4, 0-2 in Sun Belt play, a loss to the Georgia Southern Eagles on Thursday Night would be an indictment impossible to ignore. The individual merits of freshman quarterback Tyler Vitt commanding the pocket during the second-half, Hutch White’s career high game of 11 receptions, Keenen Brown grabbing two receiving touchdowns, or Bryan London once again posting 10 tackles were a glimpse into fundamental strengths. Yet, without the combination of congruent starts to the game, strategy, or demeaning control of opponents, the team has been forced into uncomfortable situations and blunt desperation. With homefield advantage on a short-week, the Bobcats have every need to rapidly turnaround and hit the Eagles in quarter one. For a change, they will become the team enforcing uncomfortable situations.
Texas State Bobcat Headlines
Heading into a short week of play, everything revolves the quality of preparation. Head Coach Everett Withers left a clear message that the first half of Saturday’s loss was unacceptable. He said, “Our good players have to play good all the time, your good players can’t play good 60 percent of the time and not enough of our good players played good…” The headlines of Thursday’s game will be two-fold: how the offense starts and how the defense aggressively attacks the Georgia Southern triple option. During the first-half of the loss, Louisiana netted 350 yards, averaging 7.95 yards per play, while Texas State netted only 110 yards. There is not much in-between on where Texas State needs improve – at this point in the season, it is an either-or proposition.
The second-half of the game gave rise to the quarterback headline which has been evolving all-season long. Vitt appears to be the starter moving forward after commanding the pocket and astutely managing the differing scenarios. Almost surprisingly, there is no quarterback controversy brewing on the horizon. Vitt will be the quarterback until performance or injury lean otherwise.
Injuries are an unfortunate headline which have taken a toll on the defense. Safeties A.J. Krawczyk (concussion) and Pierce Withers (pectoral tendon tear) will be unavailable this week. Defensive linemen Dean Taylor (neck strain) and Jaquel Pierce (ankle) will be questionable for Thursday. Dwindling depth on the team will force rapid personnel decisions and learning this week specifically as the staff began preparing for the Georgia Southern game during the spring.
Turnovers and penalties have taken a turn for the better this season, with Texas State committing only three penalties and no turnovers against Louisiana. Naturally, the trend must continue to become a more prominent headline, but the team is showing improvement with the goals of cherishing the football. Film analysis shows several key incompletions where Vitt threw the ball away instead of attempting to plug an impossible window. On the flipside, the defense is still commanding turnovers, with safety Jashon Waddy stealing his first career interception, marking his improvement since commanding that position. Georgia Southern loves to kill their opponents by killing the clock with tactfully annoying play-calling; hence, a quick turnover can provide Texas State an extra possession to keep their own run-game afloat.
Georgia Southern Eagles Headlines
The Eagles nickname is fitting for their renowned high-flying, high-scoring triple option offense. Heralding their tradition from the 1980’s, the Eagles are a team operating in the realm of chip-shots, short-five yards gains on the triple option over and over, breaking the heart and will of the defense. Schematically speaking, stopping the triple option does not take deep imagination. The focus demanded to stop the bamboozling of trickery and running backs flying from every direction is difficult for many college defenses to maintain.
Eventually one of the short, three- or five-yard gains will turn into a gliding 60-yard gain, ripping the heart from the defense. Under that theme, quarterback Shia Werts has ran for 454 yards and eight touchdowns this season while main option running back Wesley Fields has ran for 379 yards and three touchdowns. The exorbitant rushing yards does not mean the Eagles cannot pass. While Werts has attempted only 35 passes all season, he has connected for four touchdowns and no interceptions. One of those touchdowns even came to Fields on a wheel-route down the right flank.
Head coach Chad Lunsford is in his first year of being a head coach, assisted by complete familiarity with the Georgia Southern players and system. Lunsford has spent 10 years of his career in Statesboro, Georgia, currently in his sixth consecutive year after a short stint to Auburn’s personnel and scouting department. His plan has not been a complete overhaul of the system, optioning instead to bring in new coordinators while returning an extremely athletic and promising corps. Werts, Fields, and eight of the 10 offensive linemen were all members of the 2017 campaign.
The high-scoring routs (154-91 scoring output) and a 4-1 record are exemplary of how the new coordinator hires have boosted the offensive athleticism and the secondary on defense. Bob DeBeese was brought from New Mexico where his offense executed a more imaginative version of the option offense, incorporating explosive plays into the myriad of proverbial paper-cuts. To properly execute a true triple-option offense, a team must have a crew of running backs who can quickly substitute, equally presenting a threat. The demerit on Georgia Southern is a smaller cast of running back threats. DeBeese has mitigated that roster hole by building timing into the play-calling. His explosive plays are designed on disguise; hence, any type of athlete can score on any one play opposed to the traditional option offense where only explosive athletes are threats for the explosive plays. A matter of schematics assisting players instead of players bolstering the scheme.
Defensively, there is a mix of boring and tedious performance, borderline breaking. However, that would be overlooking what defensive coordinator Scot Sloan brought in from Appalachian State. Returning a bevy of defensive players, Georgia Southern operates with brimming intelligence, creating opportunities for cornerback Monquavian Brinson to lead the team with 36 tackles, safety Joshua Moon to play the entire compass of the field, or sophomore linebacker Chris Harris Jr. to command a veteran-savvy position. The defense may not be exciting, posting a mere six sacks, nine fumbles, six interceptions, and they do allow an average of 4.2 yards per rush. Exciting has been replaced with execution and precision, an aura of bouncing to smart assignments.
Scheme, Players, and Game Flow to Watch For
As Georgia Southern flies high off a 48-13 win over the South Alabama Jaguars, they are once again seeking to post high offensive numbers with what can only be described as wizardry. The triple option offense is about mixing a concoction of perceptive distractions, tiring the defensive line, and making linebackers lazy by the third quarter. If Texas State gets caught up in the perception of the presentation, then they too will be a victim of the sweeping fakes and versatile offensive sets. The defensive matchup comes down to focus; cliché, yes, but none the less, true.
Stopping the triple option puts a major focus on the Texas State 3-4 defensive line commanding the offensive line down the line of scrimmage, thus disrupting the play set. The Georgia Southern offense can execute from any multiple sets – two back shotgun, two back pistol, I-formation pistol, one back pistol with a fullback motion, etcetera – to run the same premise on repeat. The true formation takes place after the snap is called. Players fly from their original position to their assignment slot. If the defensive line presses into the backfield, then running backs will be delayed arriving to the assignment, disrupting the entire timing of the play.
As an example of this, one of Werts’ rushing touchdown came on a play-fake from a standard two-backs, shotgun play. On the goal line, Werts has the option to keep the ball or send it for a handoff for a A-gap run. He keeps the ball, faking the hand off, then scurries to the right for an option sweep. The trick comes from the lead blocking tight end. Instead of motioning pre-play, the left aligned tight end runs as if he is going to block inside for the A-gap run after the snap (hence, he must make up a ton of space in a second). To add confusion, the tight end never blocks, turns into a third option for Werts to consider, and once Werts keeps the ball, the tight end becomes a lead blocker into the endzone. In short, not only does ball movement have options, blockers have definable options as well to evolve one formation into a myriad of plays.
Defensive ends have priority to penetrate the center gap and handle the pulling tight end. Thus, the Texas State defense is dictating blocking options, not the offense. Linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks can then execute based on assignment instead of needing to look everywhere for an incoming blocker. The game will be about how well the defense plays for the man next to him, everyone working as a flowing unit.
Offensively, Texas State must execute with precision, taking advantage of the lack of turnovers Georgia Southern enforces. In the past weeks, the offense has cut down on the amount of penalties incurred. The next step must be a dedication to a game plan from the first snap through the end. The matchup against Louisiana saw only 10 carries to running backs. Although Vitt was efficient with 28 completions on 39 attempts for 296 yards and three touchdowns, the lack of balance was the reason Texas State trailed heavily.
Georgia Southern operates out of a 3-4 front with the premise of afore mentioned, veteran operators. Outsmarting them with trick plays (a la White’s touchdown pass) will be an option once vanity takes over – hence, the more balanced approach of pounding the ball with passes through the middle to Brown will be important to keeping safeties from stepping up to the box. Facing a 3-4 front, Brown’s alignment can be drawn toward a linebacker, thus putting him in an opportunistic scenario to scorch the middle. He will draw more safety attention, removing a would-be tackler from the box, while also giving White isolated coverage on the outside.
Coming off a short week, Texas State will have the comfort of home to balance out their strategy and play style. Five weeks into the season, and whatever planned balance has been consistently knocked off. There is no more room for that to occur without the season coming down to unbalanced and futile quaint victories here and there.
Featured image by Justin Manor.