By Alexander Haynes
Bobcat Football Traveling to ULM for Brewing Rivalry Game
Impetuous scoring, explosive offense, and 146 combined points have been the descriptions of the past two meetings between the Texas State Bobcats and the University of Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks. However, Texas State has been on the losing end of both matchups; in fact, their 2016 victory was a 16-3, defensive masterpiece in Bobcat Stadium. To put the terms of Saturday’s matchup in Monroe, Louisiana more precisely, it will take a continuation of the defense playing with ferocious precision. ULM operating out of a whimsically structured spread offense is a major contrast to the triple option of Georgia Southern – a contrast, however, that provides the perfect test for a defense’s flexibility. At the same time the matchup is a test for the defensive congruity, the overall presentation of the matchup is, according to Head Coach Everett Withers, a brewing rivalry between two schools in deadlock for recruiting competition. The matchup brings equal pressure on the coaching staff’s presentation for future players as well as the beginning of a team finding play-style identity for more immediate results.
Texas State Bobcat Headlines
The lack of defining play style and a 1-5 record can summarize the rather pessimistic season for Texas State Football. From a meta point, the team is now operating with two young quarterbacks – Tyler Vitt and Willie Jones – and running away from their core philosophy. On Monday, coach Withers stated the team’s goal identity on offense is power running and explosive passing. While the explosive passing part is tangentially secured through tight end Keenen Brown and promising sophomore wide receiver Jeremiah Haydel (two touchdown reception in the past two games), the power running game has been a pipe dream. In the first quarter of the Georgia Southern matchup, Texas Stated ran four ‘power running plays’ (power running defined by A-B-C gap runs to a running back*) – in the remaining quarters, they ran three.
*Note: the coaching staff may be defining quarterback runs and draws as a type of power running play. Traditionally and analytically, however, quarterback runs have been categorized as option or finesse running.
The lack of balance from the initiation of the game has limited the playbook, forced the team into desperate situations, and thus not given the running back committee a swath of opportunity. The underlying factor is a lack of consistency on the offensive line, producing frustrating, long second or third downs. Thus, the first goal for the team’s performance is to arrive on the field against ULM firing on all cylinders.
On the positive end of the spectrum, the Texas State defense is coming off a Thursday night game where they held the Sun Belt’s first-ranked running team (Georgia Southern) to 164 yards of rushing after 52 carries. Bryan London (11) and Nikolas Daniels (10) lead the team in tackles amidst three additional sacks from the team. According to coach Withers and safety Jashon Waddy, the stalwart performance was a result of the defense playing with pride, fully realizing the urgency needed.
The major hinge point, however, is the type of offense the team stopped. A triple option is a major juxtaposition to ULM’s spread offense which combines elements of option, power and finesse running with explosive passing. While last week was a test for analyzing backfield movement, this week will be a test of analyzing downfield movement, ensuring crossing routes and pre-play motion do not confuse and misalign the secondary.
Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks Headlines
On the precipice of a turning point, the tenaciously, opportunistic 3-4 ULM Warhawks defend their home and season record on Saturday. Win, and they enter the latter half of the season at .500 with momentum enough to shock the Sun Belt. Lose, and they fall back to the thematic of an explosive offense with one of the nation’s worst defenses. Seeking his first winning season after taking over in 2016, Head Coach Matt Viator is stuck in the awkward quandary of a veteran offense and a rebuilding defense; a mix which has severely inhibited the functionality of balance.
Riding the tune of a 45-20 victory over the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, the offense is operating almost at will. Junior quarterback Caleb Evans’ 1,622 yards and eight to six touchdown/interception ratio may not be the most impressive stat line, but those numbers undercut the command he brings from the pocket and an ability to average 4.6 yards per run, finding the endzone five times.
Running back Derrick Gore, a redshirt senior, has brought in only 57.71 yards per game, but that undercuts his hyper efficient running. ULM’s offense is a true team-effort, which makes the spread attack potential even scarier – threats come from anywhere. Between Evans, Gore, and other players who get a chance to pop the front-seven, the team averages 5.1 yards per rush (34th in the nation) for 166.7 yards per game.
Completing the picture are veteran wide receivers Marcus Green (31 receptions) and R.J. Turner (27 receptions). Green has tacked on five explosive touchdowns to his 31 receptions while also haunting the special teams’ segment of the field with witty return moves. In total, Evans has completed 10 or more passes to six different wide receivers.
The explosiveness, however, is matched with a defense spinning in depth and inexperience. Opponents are converting third downs at a 50.56 percent rate, run 72.1 players per game (44th worst in the nation), complete 73.9 percent of passes (second worst in the nation), equal their offense in yards per run allowed at 5.1 (21st worst), leading to 38.57 points allowed per game. The inexperience has bluntly created a defense unsure of how to react, leading to a lack of confidence after early setbacks, and by this point in the season, systemic confusion. Substituting the depth on defense almost creates more confusion than productive play. Regardless of the 2018 results, the defensive unit is a major point of contention for ULM and defensive coordinator Mike Collins.
Scheme, Players, and Game Flow to Watch For
Philosophically, the goal for Texas State is to turn the ULM offense into a facsimile of their defense: confused. The potential dynamism of the offense operates at will between the 30-yard lines. Once the field shortens, and the 20 yard-line approaches, they are incredibly inefficient operating in mud and the short-game. The team converts only 42.1 percent of third-downs, score a mere 24.57 points per game (102nd in the nation), with only 19 of 29 red zone trips resulting in points. In short, a lack of finishing power has limited an otherwise talented offense.
The goal of the operation is to spread the defense out (cliché, yes, but an important distinction in a moment) through the pass attack. The passing goal is not far removed from any other spread offense – isolate more athletic wide receivers in man-man coverage or separate zone defense and find the transition hole. Evans is a mature and veteran quarterback, putting an emphasis on being able to find where young zone defenders lazily or unconfidently drift into their coverage segment, leaving a hole between defenders for the ball to find its way into Green’s lap.
The other problem Green and Turner create is their pure speed. Unless a safety is over the top to provide middle-route assistance, most corners are unable to bump and run with stated speed. Hence, this revolves the classical point that ULM has recruited players specific to their offensive concepts.
One touchdown for Green came on a split wide receiver formation left, with one wide receiver right. Aligned in the slot with man-man defense, he simply took off, beating his man with quick feet off the snap and running on a rope. The wide receiver to his left ran a curl route, drawing a corner down into the flats, while the wide receiver to the right ran an out route, impetuously garnishing the gaze of the safety away from Green for one essential second. Although the safety attempted to assist covering Green later in the route, he was too far gone.
While the previous example was how the ULM offense isolates their speed, the following is an example of route concepts allowing wide receivers to break free. Aligned in trips right, with one wide receiver left (set to run a simple go route), Green took off on a five-yard dig from the slot while the outside receiver ran a 10-yard dig. The defense was spread out, and after the snap cumbersomely blocked one another; the corner who was on the 10-yard dig prevented the high corner from reaching Green, which meant speed was on a slow linebacker. The innermost receiver ran a 10-yard post route, which quickly turned into a coy, blocking route. Evans hit Green as he dug into the inside of the field (quick recognition), and upon the catch, the post route receiver astutely turned and converted the crossing safety into a pancake with his block. Green was gone.
While much of the above is the magic match of players fitting an offense, Evans and Gore’s running capabilities add an additional wrinkle. After forcing opposing defenses to gawk at the wide receivers, a simple option run from shotgun turns into frustrating five-yard gains. Multiple times this season Evans has kept the ball, faking an A gap run to Gore, and beat the defense to the edge for a touchdown. Once the defense has spread out, the wide receivers do an excellent job of manipulating and blocking downfield.
Taking the ULM offense in stride, Texas State has a heavy challenge on defense. Stopping the offense will be a major test for Waddy’s communication and leadership and the cornerback’s physicality. Their ability to stop speed will stem from playing smart, bump and run coverage on the outside, with safeties floating into their proper zone and luring Evans into a bad throw. If a coverage linebacker can break out of the conundrum created from one of the under-routes, he could quickly pick off the pass and give the Texas State offense another opportunity to thrash.
Furthermore, the simplest way to observe the game flow might be the defensive ends. They have dual goals in the game – sacks and sealing the edge in the run game. Pressure, an almost non-existent force from the Texas State defense until last week, will force Evans into quicker throws, not allowing him to observe the evolution of a long draining pass to Green or Turner. Sealing the edge will be key to turning the ULM run game into an efficient heap. Their run game succeeds by balancing the outside attack with power runs, keeping linebackers guessing. Sealing the edge disavows their ideal playbook, and ULM is unproven to convert on power running.
To sum it up, the Bobcats need to make the game aggressive and uncomfortable for the finesse of ULM’s team.
Featured image by KTSW Multimedia.