This week in Offseason ruminations I'm again digging back into the 2011 season via the Big 12 Digital Network which has allowed me to review so many 2011 league games. Today we begin to examine the greatness that was the RGIII Baylor Bears.
Early in the course of the Big 12 season we had an outcome in Manhattan that seemed to reveal 2 important truths for the upcoming season. First, that Baylor's victory over TCU must have been more about a finally depleted Patterson defense than it was about Baylor's offensive prowess, and/or secondly, that Snyder's KSU was probably (again) going to be better than expected.
The first point proved to be completely false as Baylor eventually shredded enough of the league's better defenses to establish their greatness in the minds of even Heisman voters. The second point was only further emphasized by RGIII's careful dismantling of the first assumption. For details on how KSU managed this huge victory continue after the jump:
The game began like so many other Baylor victories, with RGIII finishing a lightning quick drive with a scoring pass that made clear to the Wildcat defense that they could either adjust to the tempo or be swept away like Santa Anna's army at the Alamo in my revisionist childhood playtimes.
Eventually the KSU bend-don't-break strategem would slow down the Bear mauling but RGIII still finished with 11.2 yards per pass attempt.
As part of their bending, the Wildcat defensive strategy takes great care with the alignments of their backers. Snyder made it a point to play more base 4-3 with a spread-sized SAM linebacker (likely in imitation of Venables at OU) this season and the Wildcat backers align to the receivers, meaning that middle linebacker Arthur Brown is frequently lined up outside of the box to better fullfill his coverage assignments. They then play him only 3 yards off the LOS and rely on his phenomenal lateral quickness (and their solid DT play) to prevent explosive runs up the gut of their defense.
This approach, with Brown's fairly shallow alignment and necessarily aggressive response to run reads, left quite a burden on the KSU safeties that RGIII punished with the Bear inside receivers and play-action game. RGIII alternated between flipping the ball downfield on the overmatched Zimmerman/Hartman combo (both solid players) and punishing the smallish corner tandem of Garrett and Malone with bubble screens en route to a 23-31 for 346 yards and 5 TD's game that could have been a lot worse if not for some late Wildcat heroics.
Despite Baylor scoring "only" 35 points on the day, there was very little that the KSU defense did effectively to prevent them from piling up yards through the air save for 4 exceptions that made all the difference.
First there was Meshak Williams, who sacked Griffin once and prevented him from sitting back and dropping bombs all day as he had against TCU. Williams will be back next season to continue his fire-retardant pass-rush moves and will probably be one of the best edge-rushers in the conference in 2012.
Secondly there was the run defense. Now, when Baylor lined up 4x1 with their sprinters 10 yards off the EMOL (end man on line), and then ran Inside Zone-read with Ganaway...it was virtually unstoppable all year. Ganaway needed only to be able to break an occasional arm tackle to ensure 3-5 automatic yards on a decently blocked play. The 4 removed receivers combined with Griffin's elite deep ball skills and the fact that all 4 of those receivers had track-star speed guaranteed 6 in the box, at most, to handle the run game. And all 5/6 of those defenders needed to be aware of Griffin, a 5th track star on the field.
Compounding these schematic nightmares was that Griffin was a master of the shotgun play-action fake as well as throwing on the run. I don't think there's ever been a more dangerous Shotgun play-action/vertical offense than the 2011 Baylor Bears. (With 2012 in mind: BU loses much of their interior OL, their demi-God play-faking deep tossing QB, 2 of their better receivers, and Ganaway. Most of the formula that made 2011 so good).
So what did Baylor do when they wanted to run the ball in short-yardage or protect their lead in the 2nd half? They brought in big personnel and invited all the Wildcat defenders back to the LOS where they could out-physical a team built around speed.
Baylor ran for 83 yards on 30 carries for the day and consequently could not control the ball or the clock.
Third there were the late heroics of Arthur Brown who chased down RGIII on a roll-out and brought him down for a loss on a crucial late-game drive and then made the game-sealing interception over the middle. He finished the day with 8 tackles and put his name on the list for most effective defenders in the conference. I would align him deeper and position him to have even more impact in the passing game but then I'm not a defensive coordinator, or a wizard.
(With 2012 in mind: KSU loses their stud NT Kibble but return Meshak Williams on the edge, Arthur Brown up the middle, both corners including 7 INT-Malone, and the better of their 2 safeties).
Finally, the KSU defense decisively won the other portion of the physicality contest (the 1st portion being run defense) by forcing 2 fumbles and the crucial INT. One of the downsides to the AirRaid and spread stylings of many Big 12 teams is that you trust 180 pound sprinters to hold up to the poundings and ball-stripping swipes of defenders whereas a downhill running team is asking the same of 215 pound running backs and outside receivers.
Which leads us to the KSU Offense and Collin Klein.
Watching the KSU attack in review you get a better sense of their philosophical similarity to our own offense, and the general wizardry that Snyder concocts in his dark tower. They are all about unbalanced formations and asking questions of the defense. "How do you handle QB Draw with trips receivers bunched to the field? Okay, how do you play Outside Zone-read vs. 2x2 with Tight ends to the field and Twins to the boundary?" Snyder, like Harsin, finds the defensive back with run-support responsibilities, puts them in an impossible schematic bind, and then assaults them with backs named Hubert. If they'd had Daniel Thomas back they would have been really scary.
By moving pieces around, mixing in wildcat looks, employing the unbreakable Klein with a diverse package of run-concepts, and utilizing well executed combo blocks they squeezed yards out of a mostly unimpressive cast of skill players.
Klein ran for 113 yards on 25 carries and added 146 on 28 pass attempts with 3 total TDs and 1 interception.
Hubert and their Wildcat operator, Pease, combined for another 90 yards on 21 carries with 1 TD.
Through that steady, if pedestrian, 4.1 yards per carry attempt KSU won time of possession 38:47 to 21:13. That's how you allow Griffin to fling the ball around at 11.2 yards per pass and still win a ball game.
In a head to head comparison:
RGIII: 378 yards on 43 plays, 8.8 yards per play, 5 touchdowns, 1 turnover
Klein: 259 yards on 53 plays, 4.9 yards per play, 3 touchdowns, 1 turnover
All yards aren't created equal, there are strategic advantages gained by running the ball that seem to outweigh the considerable advantage in total yards gained by throwing the ball.
I believe that running the ball is inherently less likely to result in turnovers because big players are less likely to fumble than smaller players and because while fumbles are often created by chance, interceptions can occur as a result of any number of mistakes by the offense. Bad read, bad throw, bad route, defense knows where the ball is going, tipped ball by defensive back, tipped ball by defensive lineman, etc. Even more fumbling-prone option teams tend to hang on to the ball more easily than a team that throws 50x per game.
Additionally, running the ball can lead to controlling the clock, physically intimidating the opponent, and lends itself to misdirection. Ultimately though, I think that the way in which it enables a team to maintain possession of the ball is key.
It would be silly to argue that Klein, the primary offensive catalyst for the Wildcats, outplayed RGIII in that game. But Klein's offense generated fewer turnovers and held onto the ball, thus, victory by a slim margin (36-35).
Kansas State pulled this crap all year, and this victory was mimicked by Iowa State in their victory over OSU later in the year. Because of the conference's move towards speed and the lack of practice or personnel choices devoted to handling Power running games there is a real vulnerability amongst Big 12 teams to a squad like KSU...or Texas.
If Baylor had possessed even a passable run defense this season they would have won this game, likely their final encounter with A&M, and possibly even their contest with OSU. Looking ahead to 2012 it doesn't look much better for them. Their middle linebacker and surprisingly quality defensive tackles are all gone, leaving them with their overmatched safety tandem and useless defensive ends.
Their offense will probably coalesce around a modified identity and be a solid unit but I foresee a slip back into barely bowl-eligible mediocrity until they get some more athletes in their front line on defense. All their remaining sprinter-receivers aren't going to look as good if they can't run the ball and run play-action like RGIII.
Meanwhile the contrarian Wildcats march on. Hopefully we can mimic them as well, particularly the part where no one can knock their best player out of the game...