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Defensively Speaking: UNLV review

Yesterday’s game was full of everything we’ve seen over the last few years under Coach Helton’s leadership. There was extraordinary talent on display including: excellent recruiting results, another break-through quarterback (JT is the real deal with much to learn), perimeter skills on offense, good running backs…and on defense, well that is what the rest of this article is about. But some acknowledgements first are in order.

• Jake Olson continues to inspire not just his team mates, Trojan family but his extraordinary example and attitude transcends many boundaries and reaches many, many people. Now that is a legacy.
• Chase McGrath (player of the game in my view, btw) knocking down 5 of 5 field goal attempts and perfect on all four PATs. Very impressive performance
• Significant and welcome improvement in punt and KO returns
• Was that a Pac-12 officiating crew??!! They called a good game, go figure

More on team observations later but now about our defense:

• Senior leadership showed up but especially Gustin, Smith, Tell and Marshal and Dorton all played well and made key plays. Not perfect but at a higher level than most of our other defensive players. If you watched Cam Smith get into throwing lanes that is play recognition and “feel” obtained only by repetition and success. His recognition is as good as Matt Grootegoed or Lofa Tatupu.
• Monster game by Pola-Mao with some great plays including a FF on UNLV’s first offensive series. Pola-Mao has much to learn about alignment, keys and reads but he knows how to get to the football and make a hit.
• Coach Clancy Pendergast substituted freely…we’re not used to seeing that and underscores our depth in talent and our pressing need to develop it more fully. Defensive substitutions were ongoing throughout the game not just late in the 4th quarter.
• Defensive plays of the game; 1) Porter Gustin tackling Rogers outside the box. His closing speed was more than impressive…wow and 2) Tell’s hit on Rogers to force a 4th down punt near mid-field in the first half. That was a stopper for sure without question.

Now about the scheme CP used. Nothing we haven’t seen many times before but with some different personnel. CP’s defense is designed to control offensive players more than control gaps. Sure, there is single-gap scheme designed into the base defense but with the purpose of offsetting mismatches and create an uncomfortable QB. It’s not designed to control the line of scrimmage (LOS) physically per se. However, it is designed to create negative plays and control the up-tempo read-pass option offenses (RPOs) prevalent in the Pac-12. Not my favorite philosophy of defensive football but CP has a proven successful track record against many teams in the conference (out of conference ranked opponents is another matter).

Early in the game it was our usual 2-4-5 with a nickel package with the occasional dime package thrown in. Sometime in the second quarter I started noticing more hard slanting by the DLs. I say it that way as the DL is almost always moving in a direction versus a straight read or even a smash call. That may be why most of our sacks (5 yesterday) are via DE/LB with the occasional (Tufele) big play up the A/B gaps. We almost never twist our DL (CP hates to run guys out of position) so we use secondary and LBs to challenge the QB and pressure the pocket protection. I think it is quite the irony that our defense always seems more comfortable against Stanford’s type of physical offense than the RPOs CP’s system is designed to control.

Our safety play was a crap shoot. It is apparent that our secondary safeties & nickel backs struggled to be positioned correctly on many plays. This is an experience problem that needs to get corrected…fast. I suppose Bolden’s situation was a contributing factor as he is unable to play for the foreseeable future. The physical play was fine but the mental mistakes and missed assignments have to get corrected. Tell has quite a challenge on the field making those check calls and Bradford has to get this done in the film room and practice field. Cam Smith can’t make the secondary calls it has to be Marvell Tell and the rest of the guys have to hear the call and play it. These are early season mistakes but we have a steep hill to climb with our schedule and not much time to learn and correct.

Regarding the 70-yard run, well first hats off to UNLV coaching staff who did an excellent job overall and for that play call, preparation and setup. Nobody on our defense really recognized the mis-direction play. We had three secondary players (both safeties and a nickel) past the center line in pursuit of the QB. Point of attack was well blocked by UNLV and our guys didn’t get off their blocks. Boom…UNLV in the lead.

So, what beyond the middle of the secondary has to improve by next week?

• Pili can’t keep getting pushed past his gap on slants. He creates a huge hole when that happens and Smith or Tell can’t always fill it
• Get off blocks fast…much faster
• Corners will be challenged next week on man press coverage. It was interesting that UNLV went after Biggie on the first deep fade route. Biggie defended it perfectly
• Physical challenge next week…get tough and do your wind sprints
• Punter needs to kick the ball

This team is looking like a talented team that is still putting it together. Not a surprise. The O-line’s performance will largely drive the success of this team. Can we run block or only pass block?

Kevin Bruce

Kevin earned his MBA and BS in Business Administration/Finance & Econometrics from the University of Southern California, where he also played four years of varsity football, serving as co-captain and playing in three Rose Bowls. Kevin’s college honors included All-American (AP-Honorable Mention), All Pac-8 Conference - Linebacker (1st) and Academic All-American, two NCAA National Championships (football), NCAA Post Graduate Scholarship recipient and Trojan Diamond Award-outstanding graduating senior. He is a member of Football Writers Association of America and is a contributor to WeAreSC.com.

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