Expert Analysis: Clutch against the Kats

Former Stanford center and current Bootleg offensive line analyst T.J. Gaynor (1991-1995) examines the up & down performance of the still-maturing Cardinal o-line and its impact on the Card running game which at times was remarkably effective against UofA last Saturday, especially in crunch time when it really counts. Read on for T.J.'s report and some suggestions of a few things that might help.

Coming Up Clutch Against the Kats

I was ecstatic to turn on this week's game film and see our fearless leader call two of my favorite offensive plays back-to-back. The Card opened with the lead draw play, which I broke down in one of my earlier pieces. Arizona used a base "college 4-3" defense with two defensive tackles, two defensive ends, one middle linebacker, a strongside backer and the weakside or "will" backer. This base package is very similar to our own. Behind it Arizona showed a "cover 2" shell with two deep safeties and two corners playing off our wide receivers about six yards deep. It appeared that QB Tavita Pritchard checked into the play or used hand signals to determine that he was going to run the lead draw when he motioned both arms out to his side similar to the signal a referee makes to indicate an incomplete pass. This is a simple play package that allows the offense to determine a run/pass play selection at the line of scrimmage based on the defensive alignment. In this case Arizona only had seven men in the "box" (the area within the tight end positions horizontally and five yards away from the ball vertically into the defensive backfield) so Tavita elected to go with the base run. Why? Simple math. With five linemen, a tight end and a fullback, the Card has seven to block seven. If one of the safeties had walked down into the "box" it's likely Tavita would have called for a pass.

That's the easy part, getting into the right play, but solid blocking by fullback Owen Marecic, "Fletch" and Mattran created a lane for Jason Evans to scamper through for a nice pickup of ten yards. The tackles also did a nice job selling pass and "drawing" their outside rushers up the field. That's one of the reasons I like the play so much is that it takes the pressure off of the tackles and it also keeps the defensive ends honest on their speed rushes so they can't just scream up the field and try to get to the quarterback on five-step pass plays. As good as this play was, Evans would have gone through to the safety had Brewer's man not make a phenomenally athletic play by jumping up from the cut block Mikal threw at him. Brewer did a good job of getting his man on the ground but you have to tip your hat to the defender. Regardless, moving the sticks on the ground and taking advantage of the natural creases in the defense is a great way to start out a dual in the desert.

Second play, Marecic lines up in a wing position behind tight end Austin Gunder with Evans in a single setback position, seven yards deep. Before the snap, Tavita sends Marecic into shuffle motion across the formation and snaps the ball when arrives about three yards deep behind Brewer, the left guard. An excellent fake of the outside zone run play to the left puts our QB out on a "bootleg" running to his right. Gunder had faked blocking and then sprinted out to the sideline running about five yards deep on a slight angle up the field. The defender did a nice job staying with him but because Tavita is such a threat to run, he abandoned coverage which opened up a nice easy toss and catch to Gunder. Great sequence run and pass to open up the ballgame, taking advantage of the opponent's defensive weakness and capitalizing upon the strengths of our own personnel.

Otherwise there really wasn't as much to write home (or here) about in the first quarter. From the OL perspective, sadly, the highlight may have been Ben Muth's heads-up fumble recovery. The Wildcat front four started to bring pressure and shut down the run, which knocked the entire unit out of rhythm. With about eight minutes to go in the half, the Big Boys™ started to crank things up. Evans had some nice runs with excellent cutback lanes opening up before Mr. McGraw ripped off a 13-yard gash job on another lead draw play behind Fletch, Marinelli and Marecic. The drive was capped with Sherman's beautiful go route touchdown and the line held up just long enough for Tavita to put the ball in the bread basket. On the next play we saw a glimpse of the now en vogue "zone read" play out of the shotgun, made famous by Vince Young at Texas a few years ago. The quarterback starts in the shotgun with the back lined up about a yard to either side of him and a yard behind away from the tight end side. Upon receiving the shotgun snap from the center the quarterback fixes his eyes on the weakside defensive end while he puts the football into the gut of the running back, who is heading on a path across the quarterback's face on a diagonal inside zone running play. If that defensive end crashes down the line, the quarterback pulls the ball and runs into the now voided area on the weakside. If the end gears down and stays home that dynamic opens up a huge cutback void for our running back. I really like this concept for our offense since Tavita runs so well. We showed some traditional "single read option" out of the I-formation as well and it was a unmitigated disaster. I'd like to see more of the "zone read" out of the gun because it's easier for the backside linemen to open up cutback lanes and it also makes the shotgun a balanced run/pass formation.

Boy, the third quarter was a tough one. The line did some nice things, but inconsistent attention to detail led to a lot of breakdowns. Breakdowns interrupt the natural rhythm of the players and the playcaller. That said, it wasn't a shock to see the three third quarter possessions end in INT, fumble and INT respectively. As we moved into the fourth quarter the line really stepped up on the critical 11-play touchdown drive that was capped by Jeremy Stewart's cameo one-yard touchdown carry. By eliminating mistakes and finishing blocks the Fab Five essentially put the game out of reach. On the last two short drives to run out the clock, it was pretty obvious that the Cats' front four had run out of gas. As I said last week, when they had to have it, the Big Boys™ came up in the clutch! When that happens, the odds of achieving victory go up exponentially. It was good to see and I hope to see it again - very soon.

One Final Note: I was watching carefully and couldn't help but notice this kid Brian Bulcke. #39. I have seen him in at fullback and on the defensive line. The guy is a beast! He absolutely blows people up. Has me wondering why we don't see more of him. Personally, I think the staff has to find a way to get that dude on the field more - Maybe put him and Marecic back there together and let Tavita run behind both of them on a double lead out of the gun. Maybe we could see the return of the "Heavy Load" package? Remember that occasional short-yardage backfield of converted defensive lineman Nate Olsen, tackle Jeff Buckey and fullback Ellery Roberts back in 1992? 

About the Author: Thomas Joseph "T.J." Gaynor [LSJU '96] aka "IrishGuru" is a native and current resident of Chicago, IL. A member of the 1991 SuperPrep All-Midlands team, he was a true freshman on the 1991 Aloha Bowl team and started at guard as a redshirt freshman in the 1993 Blockbuster Bowl against Penn State. A true center, T.J. went on to start a total of 33 games for the Cardinal including the 1995 Liberty Bowl, earning All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention honors as a senior.

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