Entering Saturday’s game both offenses were expected to post big numbers offensively, primarily in the passing game. Surprise surprise, Neal Brown and Bobby Petrino’s teams both had 216 yards carrying in the season opener. The most perplexing issue for UK fans was the perception that the hyped-defensive line wouldn’t have trouble slowing down WKU’s running attack. Surely the UK Dline that was on average 30 pounds heavier wouldn’t be able to be pushed around by the WKU offensive line. The Dline took heavy criticism from fans and media alike for the poor performance; criticism I want to put to an end.
What people need to understand is the role of a 4-3 defensive line (and defense in general), is that each player has a gap responsibility. Dlinemen are taught to engage the Oline with arms extended, holding down their gap while freeing linebackers to make plays. Za’Darius Smith didn’t believe Western was giving them fronts they weren’t prepared for, “not really, we were all on point- it was just gap responsibility.” After watching film, the Dline did an exceptional job throughout the game holding their gap; runs up the middle were often gobbled up by the DTs or the RB bounced outside, with the ends preventing plays from being stretched to the outside.
Where WKU got most of their yards was off of cutbacks. When re-watching the game, the initial lead blocker received contact immediately (usually from Avery) with the covering OLB arriving on scene too late, giving Antonio Andrews & Co, too much time to pick up steam. Even the easy reads -like following a pulling guard- were missed at times by the LBs, turning 3 yard runs into 12 yard runs. Avery Williamson had 14 tackles and a fumble recovery, but knows that it still doesn’t cut it, “I’d say just not filling our gaps well, that’s the biggest thing. I had a few mistakes in the 3rd quarter where I just didn’t hit my right gap- we practiced and we practiced it but you see something and you think you’re doing the right thing, when you’re really not. It just happens sometimes, everybody makes mistakes.”
While you can’t blame all run defense woes on linebackers, you can’t say that the Dline got dominated upfront. Of all the short yardage plays on 3rd down, only twice could you say they got beaten off the ball- there was simply no linebacker there to make the tackle in time. Coach Stoops isn’t one to put down his players, blaming the entire team for the run defense woes.
“I was very disappointed, and I can’t put it all on any one person or any one group. Any time people are getting big chunks on first, second down like they’re doing, then that’s poor team defense. It was at all levels. It was Dâ€‘linemen trying to do too much, and it was poor pursuit at the second level by the linebacker position on things that we worked extremely hard at, and then it was poor position and poor reaction from the secondary in certain situations. So it was everybody.”
The one critique I could find watching film is defensive lineman failing to easily get off blocks, but that criticism kind of hits a wall when Stoops believed they were ‘trying to do too much’. The poor OLB play could be attributed to the variety of players that were subbed in and out of the game. Consistency can only help the defense’s superstar Avery Williamson, “It does feel good to have one guy in there that you’re comfortable with, one that you’ve been playing with.” The staff is attempting to mitigate this problem by putting TreVaughn Paschal in the starting Will linebacker position. TreVaughn had 4 tackles Saturday- matching his 7 game total from last season- providing solid pass coverage and a bigger body to slow down the run game.
While this isn’t run related, I also didn’t appreciate the pass rush criticism on the Dline either. The unit did start slow when it came to putting pressure on the QB, but that’s for a couple of reasons. First, the Petrino/Brohm offensive play-calling completely eradicated any chance of a pass rush on the first few drives. There were few 5 and 7-step drops, using play-action and 3-step drops to get the ball out of Brandon Doughty’s hands quickly. Simply put, you can’t get back to the QB in less than 2 seconds. Secondly, the nature of facing a new person head-to-head takes some time to adjust to. After playing against the same offensive lineman for a month, it’s easy to learn how to exploit their tendencies. It takes awhile to ‘figure your guy out’, but once they did, Doughty actually took a good amount of heat. He was only sacked once, but hit 3 times with the ball in his hand and twice after his release. Of Doughty’s 34 attempts, about only half of them provided pass rush opportunities. Getting to the QB 6/17 times isn’t great, but it’s a start.
While the DLine’s play wasn’t stupendous, it wasn’t atrocious either. They failed to control the game defensively, but even in a Stoops’ system that encourages playmaking on the defensive line, 6 tackles by Za’Darius Smith is a ton for a DE. You can’t expect for d-linemen at any level to account for more than 40% of the team’s tackles- Saturday they had 28% of the team’s tackles. There is room for improvement, but the debut performance up front wasn’t as bad as everyone thinks.
Some other Notes From Watching Film
– The roughing the passer call on Mikey Douglas that eradicated a UK fumble recovery will earn that ref a mark on his record. The call was made when Doughty was knocked to the ground only .47 seconds after releasing the ball. No person can blame a game on one bad call, but it can degrade some confidence when a ref won’t let you have fun and smack a QB around. On a positive note, Douglas had a great game when subbed in to keep Mister Cobble’s legs fresh.
– Nothing can kill a drive like unforced errors. While the dropped passes were in short supply compared to last year, the 5 false starts were more than enough to kill the offense’s rhythm. Zach West lost his starting LG spot at camp, but after the many mental errors he has returned to his starting role.
– Khalid Henderson had a roller coaster of a day, but unfortunately it ended on the down slope, losing his starting job to TreVaughn Pascahl. Henderson was second on the team with 1o tackles, but his pass coverage was poor. One play he got completely turned around, proceeding to miss a tackle before getting back up and forcing the fumble. This perseverance makes me confident that we haven’t heard the last from him.
– If you thought there were a lot of Freshmen playing last year, this year may be even more youthful. Saturday the Cats had 11 players make their first career starts in the game (five on offense, six on defense), which is a school record for most first-time starters in a game, according to records kept back to the 1993 season.
Roushanalizing, kind of like rationalizing but only better, Thanks @AFlenerKSR