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Breakdown: A coach’s scouting report of KU’s offense

For this blog, I have consulted a Div. II offensive assistant coach, someone we'll just call "Coach."

After asking for requests on Twitter, it appears most Kansas football fans want to know what exactly is going on with the Jayhawks' struggling offense.

With that in mind, I decided to switch it up this week. Instead of Coach singling in on a single play, I had him take a look at every offensive play for KU from the first quarter of the Jayhawks' 27-17 loss to TCU on Saturday.

I asked him to take notes, then share with me any general observations he had based on the film.

The following are his takeaways (said in his words) from watching KU's offense in the first quarter:

• "One thing I noticed, TCU was stacking the box pretty good. They had a lot of guys within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. That means they think your passing game isn’t good enough to beat them. They’re going to force you to try to pass to beat them, but they don’t think you can. They’re not going to let you just line up and run it.

• "I thought KU had some nice play designs with motion to give some different looks. Even though they might run some similar-style plays, they were motioning to get into different looks and to try to help out with spacing.


"On the play above, you see how they motion the back out of the backfield? It widens a couple of these defenders down here. I think TCU basically starts out in a seven-man box. It gets the outside linebacker out of the box right here to the right of KU. It makes it a six-man box instead of a seven-man box, which is a little easier to run against.

"On this play, they motion the receiver all the way across the field. It makes the linebackers shift over. They could have run that motion to set up a play for later in the game. It looks like after they hand off to the fullback, they’re looking to see if they’ve got the pitch to Sims going out there to the left. Now they’ve motioned their other receiver over there for an extra blocker if they do come back to run that play later.

"On this one, they’re just motioning from a two-by-two (receiver) set to a three-by-one set, trying to probably get a different matchup, maybe get a slot receiver lined up on a safety or a linebacker. In this case, I think they end up getting him on a corner. Not necessarily the look they wanted, but they were trying to motion to get a matchup they wanted. I’m sure if (the QB) wouldn’t have been pressured, he would have had a little better chance to go to maybe one of these other receivers that was getting a better matchup.

• "I thought the quarterback was sloppy with the ball. He hit the running back on his hip that one time when he was running a play-action fake and put the ball on the ground.

I also thought he was inaccurate with his throws. He threw it to the running back in the flats one time and didn’t give the running back an opportunity to run after the catch. He also threw one behind his receiver over the middle that could have resulted in a first down if he was more accurate.

• "I thought he forced the ball in there a couple times into coverage. TCU is obviously very good on defense, so they had a lot of tight coverage. Sometimes, you have to throw it to a guy who might be covered, and you expect your guy to go and make a play, but I thought he forced the ball a little bit too much.

• "One of the biggest things — and I put three or four checkmarks by it — (the Jayhawks) were getting beat up front. Period. If you’re not going to be able to block the down linemen, it’s going to be hard for you to win a football game. It all starts up front on both sides of the ball, and they were getting physically manhandled up front.


"On this play, you see No. 96 (red circle)? He just takes the offensive guard [Mike Smithburg] and shoves him back into the backfield there. The two D-tackles are just wearing out the guards right there, blowing them up all the way into the backfield. The tailback’s got no chance right there. He could be the best tailback in the world, and it’s going to be hard for you to get yards.

"I will say this: (Running back James Sims), he’s doing all he can. He’s running hard and going downhill and trying to find yards. I’ve got to commend him for his effort.

"On this play, there’s a party at the ball-carrier in the backfield. (Sims) does a good job for getting two or three yards here, carrying a defender for two or three yards. But there are three or four guys that are unblocked right there. I don’t think it's (bad O-line) communication at all. I think it’s guys missing their blocks. When it comes down to it, it’s a one-on-one game. It’s ‘I’ve got to go beat the guy across from me.’

"(TCU has) a four-man rush right here. They’re not blitzing anybody. KU’s got six guys in to protect, including the running back. So it’s six-on-four right here. If I was the (coach) … it’s just a little disappointing that we’ve got six guys into protect, they’re rushing four, and it’s a party in the backfield, essentially. The D-ends both get upfield. You’d like to think your quarterback could step up in the pocket, but then again, both D-tackles are getting great push back into the backfield as well. So the quarterback doesn’t have anywhere to step up and get rid of the football.

• "I also saw that TCU was blitzing a couple times, and KU didn’t check out of the play. A lot of times, if you see that blitz or you go on a double-cadence [bluffing the snap call, then backing off the snap to get a chance to change the play if needed], sometimes you can get out of the play and get into a play that might be better versus that blitz. Also, that’s tough sometimes if a team disguises their blitz, but the blitz jumped off the screen at me like that just watching the video one time, you think they’d be able to read it and figure out a better play to run.


"On this play, TCU brings those two linebackers right there up the middle; just a pretty standard ‘Bullets blitz' is what that’s called. They’re both blitzing the ‘B’ gap [space between guards and tackles on each side]. If you see those two guys coming, you know you’re probably going to have man-to-man out on the edge. You might think about checking out of this run play and getting in a pass play. They stick with it, and the one 'backer goes unblocked and makes a big play in the backfield.

"We’ve got certain checks that we give our guys: ‘If you see it, get out of it.’ Sometimes we’ll go on double-cadence to make sure we’re seeing exactly what they’re doing. That’s how we do it, but I know other guys do it a little bit differently. Sometimes with these blitzes, you’d want to get out of a play.

• "I also notice they ran a couple read-option plays with no real run threat. There’s a read-option, they weren’t blocking the defensive end, but the quarterback isn’t really a run threat. He just was basically giving the football to the tailback without one guy blocked on the edge and expecting him not to bend back in and make the play."

So what were Coach's overall thoughts after watching the film?

"You’ve got to give the other team credit, too. I know TCU has a good defense," Coach said. "They’ve got great players on their team. That’s obvious.

"But there’s things on this tape where a guy is getting physically whipped one-on-one. I’ve got to man up. I’ve got to step up to the plate and do my job. It’s 11 guys across the board doing their job. That’s why football’s the greatest game on earth: It takes all 11 guys for success to happen.

"It just looks like they’ve got a lot of improving to do, and if not improving, they’ve got to do a better job in recruiting as well to go find better players to match up with some of these better teams."

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Charlie Weis should embrace risk with this year’s Jayhawks

Kansas head football coach Charlie Weis goes over his depth chart and other changes to his team with an audience of media members on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013.

Kansas head football coach Charlie Weis goes over his depth chart and other changes to his team with an audience of media members on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. by Nick Krug

SB Nation college football writer Bill Connelly never understood why former Kansas football coach Turner Gill ran the type of offense that he did.

Because KU faces a talent discrepancy against nearly every program it faces in the Big 12, Connelly believes Gill would have been better suited with an offensive philosophy more creative — or at least something that would give Big 12 defenses a different look.

“The bottom line is if (Big 12 heavyweights) are well-coached and recruiting well, you can’t beat them just trying to push them around and staying conservative,” Connelly said. “You have to figure out ways to take chances.”

According to Connelly, that’s the continuing mission for second-year KU coach Charlie Weis, whose team will most likely be an underdog in each of the nine conference games it plays this season.

Connelly — his advanced college football metrics like S&P+ and PPP+ have been used by teams like Texas and Ohio to get a deeper understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses — devotes a chapter in his recently released book, “Study Hall: College Football, Its Stats, and Its Stories” to underdog tactics. In that section, Connelly examines strategies that less-talented teams should use to try to gain an edge.

It basically comes down to this: As an underdog, you want to increase the variance — or the number of possible outcomes — in a game.

“You might lose by more sometimes,” Connelly said, “but you’re more likely to steal a win here or there, too.”

Connelly says Weis is off to a good start already as far as risky strategies go. The coach has brought in more than 20 junior-college players this year while looking for a quick fix to KU’s talent woes.

“If it weren’t high risk, then everybody would be doing it. Everybody would just be recruiting half their class from jucos,” Connelly said. “So clearly there is a downside to it, and it could very much not pay off. But if you’ve got a situation like what Weis inherited, where Gill just didn’t recruit very well … (Weis) is trying to win quickly, and this is the path to that.”

So what are some other high-risk, high-reward strategies that Weis should consider to increase his chances of pulling off a Big 12 upset or two?

Give different looks

One way an underdog can get a slight edge is by giving opponents something completely different to prepare for in the span of a week.

A good example of this was Texas Tech’s “Air Raid” offense under former coach Mike Leach. The Red Raiders found their own niche with the offense and thrived by doing something that no one else was doing.

Connelly believes KU might already have some of that covered with the pro-style offense that Weis runs. The coach’s announcement that he was going to play Tony Pierson as both a running back and wide receiver — much like West Virginia’s Tavon Austin was used last year — also could give KU a new offensive wrinkle.

Connelly says there are other ways teams can succeed by being different. For example, Iowa State has been able to pull off some upsets in recent years with a run-based offense that works because instead of trying to get smaller and quicker, the Cyclones have focused on making their players bigger and stronger.

Defensively, Connelly says a team that plays a base formation out of the ordinary — like a 3-3-5 — can potentially gain an advantage by making opponents prepare for something they don’t normally see.

Go for it

Many statistical studies have said the same thing in recent years: Football coaches don’t go for it enough on fourth downs.

In many instances, the benefits outweigh the risks.

Connelly gives the example of fourth-and-goal at the opponent’s one-yard line.

“Really, not going for it is the risk,” Connelly said. “In those types of situations, the field position that you give your opponent if you don’t convert the fourth down, it’s still worth something.

“A lot of coaches play it safe to their own detriment, because it’s less risky to go for it at that stage, and a lot of people don’t look at it that way.”

Though there are situations when a field goal is the call on fourth-and-goal at the 1 — down two with three seconds left would be one — for the most part, teams are giving away potential points because of conventional coaching wisdom that actually isn’t beneficial. These types of fourth-down decisions aren’t limited to the red zone either. Connelly said once a team crosses the 50, going for it on fourth-and-short isn’t tremendously risky, and in fact, could pay off big.

One coach who believes in this is Bob Stitt, who has led Colorado School of Mines — a school with major recruiting obstacles because of its high academic standards — to 11 winning seasons in the last 13 years.

Stitt views a fourth-down conversion as a “turnover” for the offense. If his offense converts on fourth-and-3, then the opposing defense has to stay on the field after believing it had already accomplished its goal on third down.

“That’s a great situation to take advantage of a defense that might be more talented than you,” Connelly said.

Weis already appears to be a high-risk guy when it comes to fourth downs, as the Jayhawks’ 32 fourth-down conversion attempts in 2012 tied for the eighth-most in Division I.

Playing against tendencies

Connelly groaned every time he heard a TV announcer talk about how much Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez had improved his throwing mechanics in 2012.

Connelly knew from watching that wasn’t the case.

“His passing motion still was just awful to watch,” Connelly said, “but they were much more successful because they were passing at times that opponent really thought they would run.”

The Cornhuskers were putting Martinez in a position to thrive by passing on downs like first-and-10 and second- and third-and-short.

By being unpredictable, the Huskers allowed Martinez to complete a high number of short passes while also keeping themselves out of third-and-longs.

“They took advantage of defensive tendencies and defensive assumptions,” Connelly said, “and stole free yards via the air.”

In the end, Connelly says it comes down to doing whatever you can to keep a defense that might be bigger, stronger and faster than you from becoming comfortable.

Results?

So what can a high-risk, high-reward strategy do for a team?

Connelly says it’s a lot like a college basketball team shooting a lot of threes and pressing against a heavy favorite.

“It might fail miserably,” Connelly said, “but if it succeeds, you can actually pull an upset here or there.”

In college football, where wins are most important, a coach can be rewarded if he’s not afraid to “risk it up,” even if that means that a blowout loss is possible.

Connelly gives the example of going for it on fourth-and-4 from an opponent’s 40-yard line. Yes, an incomplete pass could give the opponent the ball near midfield.

But what would a conversion do for the underdog?

“You’re giving yourself a chance to win that you didn’t have before,” Connelly said. “ If you’re at a program that has hardly won any games over the past two years, why wouldn’t you do that?”

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