Iffy defenses like N.C. State's can only hide for so long
Posted: Wednesday September 10, 2003 1:25AM; Updated: Wednesday September 10, 2003 11:30AM
By Luke Winn, SI.com
When 14th-ranked N.C. State coasted through its season opener against Western Carolina, most of the nation took away one thing: Philip Rivers, who went a jaw-dropping 26-of-30 passing, was going to have a hell of a year.
Wake Forest offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke popped in the tape the next day and saw something else -- namely, an inexperienced defensive front that didn't get tested against the run by Western Carolina's one-back, passing attack. Not to mention a team that, despite being tabbed as an ACC favorite, had given up 20 points to a I-AA school.
"We felt like, if you're going to go at them, attack them right up the gut, go at those freshmen and sophomores," Lobotzke said. "We were going to get the ball and see how well they could stop the run, because all they did was pass rush in the opener."
Head coach Jim Grobe and his staff knew the threat Rivers posed. So when the Demon Deacons won the coin toss, they opted to keep the Heisman-hopeful QB off the field and try to strike blood first.
"We wanted to get the ball first and let their offense cool down," Lobotzke said. "If you give Rivers and that high-powered offense the ball, and they score, it gets their juices flowing. Now, if you go out and get some points first, they feel the pressure."
And, boy, did Wake put on the pressure. Two early scoring drives of 78 and 80 yards put the 'Pack in a 14-3 hole and set the tone for what evolved into a 38-24 upset. The Deacons battered and confused the inexperienced N.C. State D using a game plan devised from analyzing what went wrong in last season's 32-13 loss to the 'Pack in Raleigh. Lobotzke said that tape was picked apart with a "fine-toothed comb."
Wake planned to run it down N.C. State's throat from the get-go -- "It was just hitting them in the mouth over and over again," guard Tyler Clabo said -- then attack the 'Pack's tight man defense with a new-look passing scheme. In 2002, QB James MacPherson sprinted out of the pocket on passing downs and relied on his running backs for pass protection. This time around, Lobotzke had QB Cory Randolph stay in the pocket while the running backs flared to occupy N.C. State's linebackers, leaving wideouts like 6-foot-3 Jason Anderson, who caught four balls for 87 yards, in single coverage against smaller DBs.
Wake called just 11 passing plays, and completed nine of them, including a 42-yard trick pass back to Randolph from wideout Nate Morton. N.C. State coach Chuck Amato had said to his young defense, immediately after the coin toss, that its "manhood" was about to be tested. Amato's defense was tested and beaten, outschemed and exposed.
A vulnerable defense is easy to overlook when an offense puts up massive numbers, but it's a ticking time bomb. It went off on N.C. State in Week 2, but what undefeated team will it happen to next? Somewhere out there, coaches like Lobotzke are watching tape, licking their chops over these teams:
1. Wisconsin (2-0): Drool over the Badgers' offense, but groan over their D. In a 48-31 win over Akron, RB Anthony Davis went for 247 yards and WR Lee Evans racked up 214. But the UW defense yielded 534 yards to the Zips, 372 by air. The Badgers still may have the right formula to upset Ohio State on Oct. 11, but they could be exposed before that by North Carolina or Illinois.
2. Oregon (2-0): Any conversation about the Ducks inevitably turns to the fashion statement they made in Week 1. But on the field, it may be the same old story in Eugene. Oregon had the Pac-10's worst pass defense in 2002 (third-worst in the nation) and is already ranked No. 96th in 2003 after facing only Mississippi State and Nevada. An injury to top defensive lineman Haloti Ngata hasn't helped, either. When Pac-10 QBs like Andrew Walter get a shot at the Ducks, watch out.
3. Colorado (2-0): Minor league infielder-turned-QB Joel Klatt has been a pleasant surprise for Gary Barnett, who is 2-0 in what was supposed to a down year. But the Buffs rank No. 90 in the nation in total defense after yielding 585 yards of total offense to Bradlee Van Pelt and Colorado State on Aug. 30. Will they be able to stop Chris Rix and FSU on Sept. 20?
4. Kansas State (3-0): The Wildcats' national defensive ranking (27) has been boosted by dates with Troy State and McNeese State. K-State fans will spend most of their time in the coming weeks worrying about QB Ell Roberson's health -- but they should be equally concerned that the 'Cats' D gave up 378 passing yards to Cal in the BCA Classic. Roy Williams and Texas await on Oct. 4.
Northwestern's defense, which allowed 502.3 yards per game in 2002, lacks a reputation for harassing opposing offensive stars. But the Wildcats drove visiting Air Force QB Chance Harridge into a frenzy on Saturday, enough so that he was ejected in the third quarter for a flagrant personal foul. How Harridge actually was provoked, however, has become a point of contention between the two schools.
Harridge was thumbed for throwing a punch at the midsection of NU defensive line coach Jay Peterson, who had come onto the field to congratulate players after they had just stripped Harridge of the ball and recovered the fumble. Video shows that Peterson's elbow and forearm made contact with Harridge's head as he reached out to celebrate with Wildcat linebacker John Pickens.
Air Force thinks the jab was intentional, and has submitted the film to the Mountain West Conference, the Big Ten and Northwestern. "When we slowed it down, it looks pretty deliberate on tape," assistant AD Troy Garnhart told SI.com. "[Peterson] hit him pretty good." Falcons coach Fisher DeBerry agreed, telling the Denver Post, "If I had done something like that, I think they probably would fire me and rightly so."
Northwestern tells a different story. The school's athletic department said Monday that, "It's clear to us that Jay Peterson was going out to congratulate John Pickens and he just brushed Harridge. Our coach would never do that [hit a player]. There's no question that the video showed it was unintentional." In the Chicago Sun-Times, NU head coach Randy Walker called Air Force's claim "the most preposterous thing I've ever heard. ... I know what I saw, and it is the furthest thing from the truth that our coach went after him," Walker said. "That allegation is way out of line. They can think what they want, and I'll just leave it at that."
Gerry DiNardo is one paranoid dude. The Indiana head coach, now 0-2, was upset -- and perhaps rightfully so -- that his team had to travel to Washington last Saturday and play with Pac-10 refs. But his main point of contention was this: "I knew I was in trouble when the guy kept saying, 'The Huskies are doing this and the Huskies are doing that.' I've never heard the head official talk about the opponent with their nickname."
Proponents of an NFL-style playoff system in college football -- myself included -- who listened in to Monday's teleconference after the BCS pow-wow, had to hang up feeling disheartened. If you're still under the impression that an all-out playoff ever will happen, wake up. Now.
If N.C. State's T.A. McLendon is unable to play against Ohio State on Saturday -- and all signs point to the RB being out -- it's extremely tough to see the Wolfpack pulling off an upset at the Horseshoe. Without McLendon, N.C. State becomes so one-dimensional that even a superstar like Rivers can't save the 'Pack.
Here's where readers get to chime in. This week's question: In the current AP top 10, which team has the most vulnerable defense? Be sure to explain your answer.
Last week, we asked: Is a two-quarterback system, when the tandem is Randall-Vick, Martin-Leak or Greene-Shockley, the way to go, or should a coach settle on one man behind center?
The best answers:
Georgia does gain strategically by using D.J. Shockley as a complement to David Greene, but I sometimes observe (maybe not objectively) that Greene loses momentum. The secondary purpose behind Mark Richt's choice seems to be keeping two talented QBs happy enough to stay with the program. Perhaps only the very top tier schools (if those) can ask a highly recruited QB to wait in the wings 2-3 years until their predecessor graduates (just look at Brock Berlin).
Personally, I think the media is deliberately trying to create conflict between Bryan Randall and Marcus Vick. What a disservice to both of these great quarterbacks. Virginia Tech fans will always support Frank Beamer's decisions with both the team and his decisions about his dynamite quarterbacks.
I think the best thing to do is stick with one QB. I understand the temptation to put an athlete of Vick's caliber on the field, but having the same guy in the huddle leading you, every drive, every game, creates a bond, and linemen usually would prefer to have the same guy in the trenches with them. You want to get that second playmaker on the field? Put him in if No. 1 struggles or when the rout is on.
Use a two-quarterback system if you have the talent. Your backup quarterback needs the experience if the primary one goes down with an injury. The ability for a QB to go a complete season without an injury is becoming more difficult with the increased size and speed of the current defensive players.
Normally, a one QB situation may be better for all the known and sundry reasons. Now let me ask you a question -- if YOU had a multitalented speedster who was poised and cool under fire (freshman or not), who could throw precision passes with a cannon arm (much like Marcus Vick), would YOU let him sit on the bench? Next question?
A coach should definitely settle on one quarterback. Just ask John Cooper.
There is never a case for a dual-QB system. How can a coach expect a QB to be his "field general" if the man is constantly looking over his shoulder for the other QB, and constantly being pulled in and out of the game? It's bad for rhythm. Secondly, how can a coach ask the men's teammates to recognize the young men as "field generals" if he himself is indecisive on who that should be? If you have two playmakers at QB, then experience should win out, even at the cost of keeping a good player on the sideline.
Luke Winn is college football poroducer for SI.com. The Beat appears every Wednesday on the site.