Huber's Game Notes
Following an embarrassing loss to .500 Herm Edwards coached ASU football I got to thinking about the role of desire in college sports. Most former college and pro players would tell you that the difference between the worst team and the best team, from a pure talent standpoint is about 5-10 percent at most, and usually that gap is much smaller. When I was playing to USC in 2000, we were horrible, ending the season 5-7, the worst team in USC history (until this year). That team had over a dozen future NFL players, including Carson Palmer, Troy Polamalu, and Jacob Rogers. Two years later that same group would be blowing out Iowa in the Orange Bowl. So what changed, how can things turn around so drastically. At least a the college level I believe having a coach who can find the proper balance of competitive desire, ass kicking, energy, player development, and XO knowledge is what makes the difference. Pete Carroll is universally loved by USC faithful, he wasn’t loved by all those who played for him. It’s a personal belief of mine that if more than half the team really likes the coach, than you have the wrong coach. At least half the Alabama players I’ve talked to over the years hated Nick Saban, they respected him, but they hated him. The reasons vary, but usually it revolves around some perceived slight in playtime. Being in those same shoes at USC under Pete Carroll I can relate, but after coaching for many years I’ve seen the other side too. The truth is football players, like regular kids, hate being pushed (for the most part) to their limit. Having to compete for a position day in and day out is mentally exhausting and robs them of any sense of comfort/safety in their role with the team. Some guys can handle the pressure, some guys get left behind, many of those guys end up harboring ill will toward their coach. The old line “to make an omelette you have have to crack a few eggs” comes to mind. College football players with the exception of being bigger, faster, stronger, are no different from any other kids. They’ll be as lazy as you let them be, and are happiest when they are comfortable. The problem from a football standpoint is that comfortable kids, while happy, do not grow and improve. When Pete showed up at USC, he made it very clear that he was going to clear out anybody that wasn’t a 100% dedicated to his vision. He wasn’t interested in what Masters program you wanted to get into or what club you wanted to join, he was interested in winning. Everything else would follow winning. He kept everyone on their toes, made no guarantees to the previous year’s starters, and required even his stars to compete for their jobs day in and day out. He brought in only the best personnel from the highest paid Coordinator to the lowest paid tutor. In the first year he got rid of at least 15 guys. Football was first, and everything else had to fit in around that. All football programs spotlight academics in recruiting; the top programs have a football first mentality and if they tell otherwise they are lying. Everything else falls into the category of, taking care of business.
If this is what happens in successful programs around the country, then the state of affairs at USC should come as no surprise. I will not sit here and pretend to know the inner workings of the Clay Helton tenure at USC. I will tell you that when coach Helton was up for the job at USC, almost every current player showed up and made a plea on his behalf. I will also tell you that I’ve never met a current or former player who didn’t absolutely love coach Helton. When I’ve had a chance to talk to players around the program they talk about all the different academic programs they are involved in, all the extra-curricular activities they are involved in, and how balanced life is as a USC football player. Sound pretty good, right? WRONG. Speaking as a coach myself, if I have that many players who love me, then I’m not pushing them hard enough. I’ve made them too comfortable, and comfortable kids don’t improve. Which is why we have a team full of high touted recruits who can’t beat a .500 ASU team. When I talk to players around the program, I don’t want to hear about how coach Helton lets them come to practice a hour late so they can take that feminine studies class they really like. I want to hear about how hard their coach is pushing them to compete in football and the in weight room. I would have loved my coach too if we only had 1 full contact practice a week, but it wasn’t going to make me better. USC isn’t the NFL, these kids need full speed contact reps in order to improve their blocking and tackling.
It just doesn’t seem like USC coaches and players are making the tough choices and sacrifices necessary to be a top program. Having to choose improvement and competition over comfort steels the resolve. Making sacrifices, builds drive, which feeds desire. Desire is that intangible element that determines the winner of 90% of college football games. USC may have been 10% more talented than ASU, but ASU played with 50% more desire, and that’s why they won.
USC had to adjust the offense this week to account for Sears at QB. We came out run heavy, which was a good look for us. Ware’s North/South running style looked good against the Sun Devils. Ware isn’t as fancy as Carr, but he hits the hole faster. When you are as bad as we are on the offensive line, sometimes a less talent running back who get to the hole faster is the best option. In the first few series Ware was able to hit the hole while the defense linemen were still tied up, but before the linebackers could read and fill the gaps. We mixed in some quick passes and bubble screens, which got the ball out Sears hands quickly and spared him a JT Daniels type fate behind this offensive line. Sears did his best, considering he hasn’t seen a real practice rep since August. He appears to be light on arm strength; but runs and throws well outside the pocket. Which will serve him well behind this line
Running the ball is the best way to be consistently successful at the college level. Just compare Alabama and Texas Tech. Texas Tech is pass heavy, puts up huge numbers. Alabama is run heavy, put up fewer yards on offense, yet wins games at a much higher percentage. It’s because running the ball burns the clock, steals time away from the opponents offense, wears down the Defense at a much faster rate, and breaks the defenders spirit. That’s why USC’s pass heavy offense feels so dissatisfying.
Just as I was getting excited about USC’s new run heavy/ quick pass offense under Sears, the old USC showed up again. As soon as ASU made adjustments, the mistakes started piling up for USC. Our offensive line has really struggled with any kind of stunting or movement from the defenses this season. It speaks to poor preparation by the players and coaches. Getting good a picking of blitzes and stunts takes countless full speed practice reps and hours of film study. There is no way 1 full contact practice a week will give these guys the reps they need. We have so many blown protections that it makes me question if they are even studying the opponents film.
Things devolved quickly, by the 3rd offensive series ASU was stuffing out run and pressuring our QB with just 3 defensive linemen. This is just mind blowing for me, a 3 on 5 pass protection scheme is as easy as it gets for offensive linemen. It’s a simple fan blocking concept, taught in Pop Warner, but we couldn’t execute it. #77 and #73 couldn’t even successful double team ASU’s defensive end and win. On one pass play in the 1st Quarter, ASU rushed 3 DL’s, 1 beat a double team for the sack and the other draw a holding call on #70. We successfully blocked 1 defensive linemen, with our 5 offensive linemen. The next play ASU sacked Sears on a basic blitz. In the first half, every time ASU brought a blitz, they either sacked, hit, or pressured Sears. We should have fired our offensive line coach after the Texas game. Typically, good offensive lines are tight knit, they spend time together outside of football, maybe even live together. Judging by their play, it appears our guys don’t even like each other.
We know our Offensive line is bad, with the exception of 2016, that’s been the case since Pete Carroll left. Since 2011, all I hear about are the great skill position players were signing. Where are they? Herm Edward, who has been out of football for 10 years, has managed to fill the ASU roster with more athletes in 1 year then Helton has in the last 3. We don’t have a single guy on our roster as talented as #1 or #3 from ASU. ASU looked bigger, more explosive, more aggressive then us. The truth is, besides a couple talented WR’s, and maybe 1 or 2 other guys on defense, we are pretty average at the skill positions.
After spotting ASU a 28-7 lead in the first half, which was the result of poor defensive play, our offense spotting ASU terrific field position via turnovers, and poor field position. It appeared that Sears and Tee Martin figured out some sort of rhythm offensively in the second half. Our blocking didn’t improve, but we did cut back on mistakes. Making use of play-action and rollouts, Sears was able to avoid the still constant pressure and make some big throws downfield to Pittman. Who grabbed a couple balls for touchdowns in the second half. #1 Jones, who reminds me a lot of RJ Soward, added another score with a great catch and run. I suspect that our offensive resurgence in the 2nd half had less to do with improved play and more to do with ASU’s defense letting up in the face of a big lead. When we did get back in the game ASU was able to kick it back into gear and finish us off. So I wouldn’t expect this same type output going forward,
I was 100% sure we sucked on offense since game 1, and no matter of scheming was going to improve that. I was less certain about our Defense; they’ve been hot and cold all season. They showed me enough to give me hope. Every week I think were a few adjustment away from having a really solid group. I’ve been waiting for us to turn that corner since Texas. I made excuses for our defense, blaming poor field position and uneven time of possession on our offense. I was completely wrong; we are just as bad on defense as we are on offense. They had me fooled for a couple months, but now it’s all out there on tape. ASU is not an offensive powerhouse, but we made them look like one. WR #1 and RB #3 for Arizona State looked like men playing with boys on Saturday. When ASU ran the ball #3 would get 2-3 yard past the line of scrimmage before first contact, and would regularly break 3-4 tackles before going down. ASU’s offense line was moving our DL 2-3 yard backwards on every play. This was happening from the first whistle, no blaming the offense this time around. When their QB dropped back he had all day to throw the football. I think the effects of losing Porter Guston and having Cam Smith out injured are really exposing the rest of our defense. Cam and Porter are great players, but more than that they bring great energy and passion to the field. When I watched our defense against ASU, we were flat, no passion or energy. ASU just appeared to want it more than we did.
Our interior guys #51 and #78 were getting handle by ASU’s double teams in the 1st Quarter. Our DL looked lethargic and played high all game long. To combat this we moved our backers up into the A gaps, which forced ASU’s OL to block our DL 1 on 1. This keeps our front 7 from getting collapsed ever play, but it also puts more pressure on our secondary and leave the middle of the field exposed. Which is why you saw #1 make some big play over the middle for TD’s. These type of adjustments are designed to hide weaknesses on your defense. FCS schools do this type of stuff to scheme for much larger and better SEC opponents. So this signals a real problem for us on the defensive front. When ASU wasn’t gashing us up the middle with #3 or beating us deep with #1, they were tearing us up with the option read on the edge. With the exception of a few stops in the second half, this was how the whole game went.