Take, for example, a recent West Virginia University practice. The defense dominated the offense, allowing no touchdowns on drives that started from midfield or further. It also racked up three turnovers and stuffed a pair of fourth down plays. Based on those observations, it could be assumed that the offense is in trouble in 2009, correct?
Well, maybe, but maybe not. Practice scripts from scrimmages are often set to work on different aspects of the game, and are rarely, if ever, set up to attack the specific defense being faced. The defense, of course, does the same thing, and while there is some cross-scripting between the two (for example, the offense may want to run some plays against a certain defensive look), such game-specific actions are usually reserved until going against the scout team (which runs the plays and sets of opponents) the week before a particular game.
That's not to say that there aren't areas of concern with the offense's performance. The recent shuffling of linemen and the inability to pick up first downs on short yardage chances remain as big concerns, as does the consistency of the passing game. However, labeling the offense a bust because it had a bad scrimmage session isn't fair – or accurate.
"That's what the coaches are trying to do," senior wide receiver Wes Lyons said in explaining the plays and outcome of that scrimmage. "They want to put drives together, but they want to work on different situations too. There are always things you can take away from and learn on, no matter how it comes out."
Lyons was not trying to excuse the offense's play on the day. He readily admitted that the defense held the upper hand. But his point has merit, and leads to another – controlled scrimmages are different than a game.
In a real game, there's a flow – at least, in well-played games. An offense or a defense can get into a rhythm and take control of a contest. In a controlled scrimmage, that doesn't happen often. Typically, a scrimmage session might start with a series of plays from the team's own territory, say, around the 35-yard line. Play continues until a turnover or fourth down occurs, then reverts back to the starting point. Field goals aren't kicked when the team gets into scoring position (work on that is set for another period), so there's no boost for the offense that picks up three or four first downs or hits a big play. The stops and starts simply provide a different feel to the action.
WVU also spends time on "coming out" plays – a series of plays for use when backed up against its own goal line. The end point of those series comes when the offense gets two first downs or the defense gets a stop. The offense did just that a couple of times in this particular scrimmage, but then play was halted and the ball returned to the starting point. Who's to say that those "drives" might not have ended up as scores?
"That's tough on the quarterbacks," Lyons said with a laugh about those plays. "But they are working on it, and we are working on throwing the ball coming out of our own end zone. It's another thing we have to get better at and keep working at."
Of course, the offense gets the advantage later on, as it starts plays from the defense's twenty-five, nine- and finally two-yard line. The latter is to work on two-point plays, while the close in starting points allows the defense to work on its red zone stops. Again, the key is not to look at how many scores were made, but at the individual components of play. Did the defense make a couple of stops or get a turnover with its back to the wall? Did the offense execute and avoid mistakes that would take it out of field goal range? Were assignments carried out correctly? Those items, and the improvements therein, will often tell more than just the number of touchdowns scored.
On this afternoon, the offense held the upper hand, scoring on just about every possession and avoiding the big mistake. So while the theme of the afternoon was defensive dominance, the offense still had something upon which to hang its hat.
"We're still trying to improve and get better," said Lyons of the camp process. "Some things went well, but some things went [the defense's way]."
That improvement starts at the individual level, where review of the day's work via tape is an important precursor to the next day's practice. Lyons, for example studies the video record to pick up defensive tendencies and identify areas for improvement.
"I look at the defense and the way they play you different every time," he explained. The defensive back might line up inside when I want to go inside, so I will need to work on ways to get where I want to go against that [technique]. The next time he might line up outside, which makes it different."
While everyone want to know the statistics from a scrimmage, which provide a first-glance idea of the outcome, there's a lot more going on than just who gained how many yards or scored a couple of touchdowns. Certainly, those are important, but they aren't the whole story. The offensive and defensive scripts, the situations being worked on, and the personnel involved all have a big effect on the outcome of the day's work. The moral? Don't be fooled by just looking at the raw numbers. It's the day-to-day improvement process that holds the key to the season.