During Tuesday's BCI radio show, Josh Carvalho from Mountain West Conference Connection told us about Colorado State's desire to ground-and-pound. If stopped, they could rely on the passing game. A hallmark of the pro-style offense, it's the one true weakness we've seen out of the Don Brown Defense this season.
Before the Maine and Pitt games, we discussed the strength of a pro-style offense. It draws from different formations and packages. The team relies on displaying different looks at different positions. It begins with a theory or a script. It either executes or deviates. It relies heavily on a quarterback's ability to identify the run stuffers and pass defenders, and it relies on an offensive line's ability to block straight ahead in different situations.
One thing the pro-style offense utilizes very well is the combination of playbook ideas. As offensive coordinator of a three-time national champion, Jim McElwain's offense featured a power running game paving the way for an efficient quarterback. That Alabama went to multiple BCS games and won national titles isn't a coincidence; the coaches designed that team to win based on its strengths and continually recruited to the playbook. He's brought that to Colorado State.
In last year's New Mexico Bowl, CSU displayed its diversified attack in varying forms. Kapri Bibbs pounded the ball into the Washington State defense. He displayed an affinity for first contact (0:30), for taking on the first tackler. It didn't matter if he was running inside the tackles or sweeping outside. If the hole presented itself, he looked for one-on-one run stuff coverage, took it on, and fought for yards.
Meanwhile, quarterback Garrett Grayson displayed an ability to throw deep when he connected on a 63-yard touchdown pass to Charles Lovett in the first quarter (0:15).
That type of diversity is not something BC's displayed an aptitude for stopping, at least not consistently. They stopped the run very well against USC because the Trojans ran for the sake of running. The Trojans only attempted 29 rushing attempts for less than a yard per carry. Trailing by multiple scores in the second half, they ran more no-huddle offense and threw the ball more. Once they started doing that, they succeeded in moving the football up and down the field at will. That the Trojans lost was more a result of BC's offense than it was about BC's defense by the end of the game.
The pro-style offense relies on the option to abandon one or the other because of its genetic makeup. Against Colorado in the season opener, they exhibited strong, Pitt-like rushing qualities. Grayson threw for less than 200 yards but connected on a 16 yard touchdown pass. Dee Hart and Treyous Jarrells combined for 260 yards on the ground. The balance-by-design took over the fourth quarter and paved the way to victory for the Rams in the Mile High Showdown.
For the BC defense, the pressure to stop the pro-style offense falls on the unit as a whole. Against Pitt, the Eagle defenders got too aggressive and failed to contain plays. They went overboard in their aggressiveness. Against USC, they stopped the offense when Cody Kessler found himself either under duress or without a truly open receiver downfield. When Kessler had the right amount of time and an open receiver, they moved the football fast and frequently.
When facing the pro-style offense, there's a couple of things we can do to test effectiveness. For starters, the running game can only allow a couple of yards: the old "three yards and a cloud of dust" theory. If CSU can't run the ball effectively, they'll abandon it entirely. BC's offense is the type where stopping one of type of run invariably leads to another type of run that's completely different and equally, if not more, confusing; instead of passing, they can run a completely different set package. If CSU isn't effectively running right at you, they're going to throw. But they will try to establish that run first.
When the Rams throw, we'll see what Don Brown does. The zone defense drops back different guys who cover space, who communicate to one another and switch off. Watching a guy like Bryce Jones shift off of coverage opens someone up for a pass, but the receiver actually remains covered by the safety. If two guys are within five yards of a receiver, he's completely marked even if he looks open. The pro-style offense, with its slants and comeback routes, finds itself flummoxed, and the quarterback holds onto the football. It doesn't matter if the defense gets to him at all or not, if the QB holds the ball longer than four seconds, nobody's open. Of course, if you blow an assignment or don't shift properly, we'll be left watching a cornerback hold his jock strap as someone celebrates a deep pass or wide open touchdown catch.
That gets mixed up with the blitz coming after the QB. Against Maine, there was one play that really sticks out in my mind. The linebacker rushing off the edge got picked up, but Josh Keyes lined up directly behind him. The offense picked up the dual blitz, but they only had time to block one guy. The second rusher, Keyes, got in untouched because, by design, the first blitzer was picked up. That helped the defense in coverage because it was either a) throw the ball away, b) force a pass which may become a turnover, or c) eat the sack.
To measure effectiveness against the pass, watch how long Grayson holds the ball. If you can count to "four Mississippi" and he hasn't made a football move yet (or he's stuck in the pocket), he's likely not completing a pass without busted coverage. If you can't even get to four because the defense is rushing a house of fire, he's throwing the ball away or eating a sack.
This is something BC's done well with but still struggles with at times. The Eagles gave up at least one blown coverage touchdown in every game this year. Against UMass, Jones shifted off receiver Tajae Sharpe, and Sean Sylvia never went with him. Blake Frohnapfel completed the pass in stride, and Sharpe took it the rest of the way.
Against Pitt, Tyler Boyd ate the defensive backfield alive getting open in space while the front seven failed time and time again to stop James Conner's runs.
Against USC, zone coverage gave up chunks upon chunks of yardage in the second half, and Cody Kessler ended up with 317 yards and four touchdowns.
Against Maine, Manny Asprilla either forgot to cover someone or didn't shift off properly, and Dan Collins completed a wide open touchdown pass for the first Maine touchdown against BC since the Calvin Coolidge administration.
The pro-style offense measures a balance of effective passing attempts versus effective rushing attempts. It maximizes efficiency out of different formations and personnel. It utilizes play action as a decoy. It's the polar opposite of what we'll see out of BC, a team embracing its all-run, option offense with decoys, option keepers, and zone blocking. If it's effective, one type feeds the other. If it's ineffective, one type feeds the other. Stop one side, and you'll find yourself sitting pretty at 4-1 with a potential bowl berth lurking on the horizon. Fail, and questions will loom Monday about the defense as ACC play opens in two weeks.