Absolute Zero

  • By Jed Drenning
  • |
  • September 19, 2013 03:35 PM
  • |
Radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. For more from Jed, you can follow him on Twitter @TheSignalCaller

That one looked fun from the beginning.

As the West Virginia offense took the field last week for the first time against Georgia State, I sidled up next to reserve quarterback Clint Trickett, who was charting the plays on the Mountaineer sidelines. I was eager to know what Dana Holgorsen and Company had selected as their first play of the game. I glanced down at the call sheet on the clipboard in Trickett's hands and this caught my eye: "H reverse."

It was enough to tell me that things could get off to a pretty entertaining start. Holgorsen's call was a reverse to speed merchant Mario Alford.

And so it was that redshirt freshman quarterback Ford Childress faked a handoff to Charles Sims out of a loaded pistol, then flipped the football with his left hand to Alford in much the way you would toss your roommate the TV remote as you headed to the kitchen. The shifty slot receiver snatched the ball out of the air as he streaked back across the formation before weaving his way into Panthers territory for a nifty 24-yard pickup behind a Cody Clay block.

Starting things off with a gimmick play was a savvy choice by Holgorsen and his offensive brain trust. Sure, they could have got rolling with a simple handoff. Or they could have gone in the other direction and reached deeper into their bag of tricks to come up with something that yielded a potentially bigger payoff. But that wasn't the point. The reverse was the perfect blend of low-risk and high-yield and it served two purposes. First, it was a shot being fired across the bow of the GSU defense, warning them at the earliest point possible that over pursuit was a bad idea. Second, it got the offense moving and infused a touch of swagger into the young Childress without even dusting off his training wheels.

This was the first snap Childress’ debut start that would include its share of ups and downs but would ultimately result in 359 passing yards and three touchdowns and - most importantly - a 41-7 West Virginia win.

We'll get back to that shortly.

In the meantime, we're left to wonder what this coming Saturday afternoon in Baltimore will hold for the talented young signal caller in his second start. Awaiting Childress and the Mountaineers is a much stiffer challenge that comes in the form of Coach Randy Edsall's unbeaten Maryland Terrapins.

Last September, when these two schools squared off in Morgantown, Terps defensive coordinator Brian Stewart pulled no punches in a game plan that included a laundry list of blitzes. Stewart's intent was clear from the outset: uncork a bottle of turtle whacks and put WVU quarterback Geno Smith under as much duress as possible. On the first snap, Maryland nickel back Dexter McDougle blitzed off the slot. McDougle came in uncontested and did force the issue, though Smith released the ball before the damage was done. On the second snap, with West Virginia lined up in a four-receiver set, the Terps matched heads with straight man coverage across the board and offered up a seven-man blitz. Once again, Smith managed to get rid of the football before the hammer fell, but once again the Maryland pass rush disrupted his timing. The Terps dialed up this same blitz package several more times before the afternoon was over.

In coverage parlance, it's what's known as "zero" - so called because there are zero defenders roaming freely over top to provide deep help. Instead, every defender is doing one of two things: they put their ears back and rush the quarterback or they are locked up in man coverage.

This is the ultimate high-risk, high-reward defensive tactic. The upside? It generates maximum pressure on the passer. The downside? Without safety help, it leaves you vulnerable in man coverage on the backend. If you call it, you better get to the quarterback. And you better do so quickly.
When literary giant Edgar Allan Poe (who is buried in Baltimore just a mile from the site of this weekend’s game) said almost two centuries ago, “The best things in life make you sweat,” he wasn’t talking about cover zero, but he could have been. The thing about zero is that it lays bare all of your shortcomings as a defender. There’s no hiding for an overmatched corner or a sluggish nickel back; there’s no offering them bracket help from a safety or linebacker. As a defender in coverage, you are on your own, playing at the mercy of your teammates who are fighting to get to the quarterback like a pack of wild dogs after a single scrap of meat. If they don’t get there fast enough … bad things can happen to a good secondary.

Zero is a blitz principle that Dana Holgorsen is very familiar with and he expects to see a steady diet of it in from Maryland on Saturday.

"They’re going to pressure. One of the things we didn’t do well last week was identifying the zero blitz. We need enough time to get rid of the ball. They did it six times, got to us twice and hit us twice, and we did the right thing twice. That’s not good enough," Holgorsen said. "Maryland will zero blitz us and pressure us. They might do it every single snap. If they do, we have to handle it."

In short, Holgorsen is telling us it's not hard to connect the dots. If the Terrapins plan last year was to dial up intense pressure on Geno Smith - a quarterback who entered that 2012 matchup with 28 career starts, 1,022 pass attempts and an Orange Bowl triumph to his credit - just imagine what they'll have in the hopper for a relatively untested rookie like Childress.

And this is where the plot starts to thicken. On one hand, the Maryland defense is fresh off a six-sack performance in last week's win at Connecticut. On the other hand, the Huskies threw for 349 yards against a Terps secondary that - against West Virginia - will be absent both its starting cornerbacks. Junior Jeremiah Johnson, Maryland's closest thing to a shutdown corner, is out until November as he mends from an injury suffered against Old Dominion. The Terps starter at the other corner spot - the aforementioned Dexter McDougle - was lost for the season when he injured his shoulder at Rentschler Field Saturday night.

The loss of two starting corners would be alarming for any defense, but that might ring especially true for a team that we can all assume is still bent on playing a healthy dose of cover zero against West Virginia's freshman trigger man. Don't expect the personnel changes to force DC Brian Stewart to give up on the obvious plan to pressure Childress - at least not entirely. The replacements for Johnson and McDougle (senior Isaac Goins and true freshman Will Likely) are capable cover men that have logged significant playing time (both were actually starters in the Terps season opener) and the new tandem expects to hold their own against a WVU receiving corps that's still experiencing some growing pains of its own.

The complications for Maryland could, of course, arise when West Virginia spreads the field with four- and five-receiver sets and the Terps respond with their nickel and dime packages. This will force names onto the field that have recently occupied a much lower rung on the Terrapins depth chart - names such as cornerback Jarrett Ross, another true freshman, and sophomore Alvin Hill. Hill, in particular, was targeted with extreme prejudice by Connecticut in the final minutes of last week's game and he didn't fare well.

This presents some interesting considerations for Dana Holgorsen and WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. Do they simplify things for their freshman quarterback by loading the backfield with a talented stable of backs in the diamond formation? Sure, such an approach puts West Virginia in position to provide maximum pass protection for Childress and it could provide him with perhaps an even more effective running game to lean on. The problem is it also allows Maryland to line up with just two cornerbacks on the field, in effect masking one of their biggest personnel question marks. The second approach would be to try and force the more untested members of the Maryland secondary off the bench and onto the grass by using a more significant portion of three, four and even five-receiver sets.

What will Holgorsen and Dawson decide? I'll wager it's a combination of both. The key will be keeping Brian Stewart and the Terps defense guessing and prevent them from getting a beat on Childress. The last thing you want to do against a unit so clearly intent on pressuring your young passer is develop tendencies. Staying a step ahead in this chess match will be crucial - and it could be the key to keeping Ford Childress off his back.

Speaking of Childress, let's take a quick peek back at his performance last weekend as he became the first redshirt freshman quarterback to make a start for West Virginia since Jarrett Brown did so in a 41-39 triple overtime classic against 13th-ranked Rutgers in 2006.

Here are a couple noteworthy things I noticed while studying the film:

- In the first quarter from his own 20-yard line, Childress lined WVU up in the pistol to face a second down and seven. Ford took the snap and scanned the field. A linebacker blitzing from the backside was initially held at bay by tackle Quinton Spain, but as Ford continued to hold onto the football, the defender squirmed underneath Spain and latched onto the left ankle of Childress. With the linebacker literally wrapped around his leg, Childress fired a perfectly placed ball to Cody Clay for a first down. This play showcased the good and bad of the young Childress. Yes, he needs to become more urgent in his approach and get rid of the football more quickly, but this play also demonstrated Ford's sheer strength and his mental immunity to the chaos that takes place in the pocket.

- Continuing in the first quarter, West Virginia faced a second and eight from its own 29. The Mountaineers went heavy with a tight end right (Russell Haughton-James, a converted guard now wearing #89) and a wing to the same side in the form of Cody Clay. Childress took the snap and offered a play fake to running back Dreamius Smith. As he did on most of his play action opportunities against Georgia State, Childress did a nice job of concealing the football during the fake and sinking his shoulder just enough to bait the free safety. Defenders on the backend are sometimes taught to monitor a quarterback's shoulder level to determine if a play is actually a run or if it is a play action fake. This worked in Ford's advantage here as his fake was convincing enough to sell the safety on it.

On this particular play, WVU max protected, keeping eight blockers in and sending only two receivers into the route. One of those receivers, Ronnie Carswell, ran a square in, or a “dig” route, from the wide side of the field. The other, Kevin White, lined up to Ford's right, the short side, and attacked GSU cornerback Demarius Mathews on a deep post cut. In some circles, this route combination (the dig complimented by the post) is referred to as “America's play” because virtually every team in America runs some version of it. This is part of the beauty of Dana Holgorsen as a tactician. Sure he's made his name offensively with up-tempo schemes and turbo-fast touch passes, but he's also not afraid to sprinkle in a dash or two of the most fundamental passing concepts used over the last half century when preparing a game plan for his freshman quarterback.

The call almost paid off - almost, but not quite. Yes, the free safety Rashad Stewart bit up on the Childress fake, but the cornerback Mathews remained in fair position. After a short crow hop at his own 22-yard line, Childress released a high, arcing pass that traveled to the Georgia State 30 and, in effect, slowed his target down and amounted to a jump ball between White and the cornerback. White was at least afforded the chance to out leap the defender and make a great catch, but he didn't. With the free safety beaten, however, and the corner in a slight trail position, Childress would have been better served to use the full effect of his rocket arm. This was a ball he should have placed deeper and more toward the opposite hash mark. Such a throw would have given White a better opportunity to explode toward the ball and create separation from the defender, perhaps even catching it in stride and reaching the end zone. The miscue was a matter of placement, not arm strength. A missed opportunity for sure.

- Later in the first quarter, WVU faced a third and eight from its own 29. In my view, this was a rite of passage play for Ford Childress. The Mountaineers lined up in a "trips open" formation (three receivers left, a single receiver to the right side). On the snap, Georgia State rushed five, but they did so from a zone-blitz look that originated from the trips side of the formation. The inside linebacker, meanwhile, buzzed the flat to that same trips side before retreating to cover the curl zone 10-12 yards deep. This whole sequence created a sudden void in the middle of the field.

With an unblocked blitzer bearing down on him at high velocity, Childress kept his focus downfield and spotted Mario Alford streaking open into that middle void at a depth of 15 yards. As the blitzer left his feet in a full sprint to crash his shoulder into Ford's hip, Childress easily could have wilted under the pressure. Instead, he faced the music and fired a picture perfect strike to Alford for a 20-yard pickup and the first down. Also impressive was that the force of the blitzing linebacker prevented Childress from being able to follow through on this throw. It was all arm. This was a big league play.

- Later in the game, WVU went to the well again with the “America's play” concept I described earlier. This time, however, the free safety wasn't so easily deceived by the play fake and remained in position. Seeing the safety floating deep to take away the post, Childress didn't miss a beat. He simply reset his feet and fired a perfect shot to Ivan McCartney on the crossing route for a neat pickup of 20 yards.

- The lone interception thrown by Childress came, ironically, against cover zero. It was a third and 11 play at the GSU 26 yard line. It's obvious that Childress needs to develop a better understanding of game situations. When you are facing a third and long in field goal range, you have to expect pressure and be more judicious with the football. Such random acts of immaturity are certainly understandable for a kid making his first start, but they have to be rectified against better teams like Maryland. WVU lined up with two backs in the backfield and three receivers on the perimeter. GSU matched heads in man coverage with no one deep (remember, that's why it's called "zero") and brought pressure with eight. Childress saw the inside linebacker blitz and reacted with a hot throw to Mario Alford. The problem? Alford wasn't open, nor did he break off his route in anticipation for the blitz. The Panthers nickel back, Brent McClendon, had played it soft, stowing away with inside leverage and reading Ford's eyes. He simply stepped in front of Alford's route for an easy pick.

There were, of course, other high and low points for Childress, including a few balls that were overthrown and a handful more that were dropped, but by and large it was a positive first showing for a young quarterback hoping to improve each time out.

A few random thoughts in closing...

- Through three games the Terps have been penalized just seven times. WVU has been flagged 17. In a matchup expected to be tight, that's worth discussing.

- Seven times in the first half last week WVU forced Georgia State into a third down situation that was seven yards or longer, including five that were 10 yards or longer. You're going to win a lot of football games if you stay ahead of the chains like that defensively.

- Last year, quarterbacks loved facing West Virginia. This year, punters do. Opponents have already punted 22 times versus WVU (including 10 by GSU last week). Compare that to last season when the 22nd punt by Mountaineer opponents didn't come until game seven.

- The Terrapins racked up 500-plus yards in each of their first three outings and started the year by scoring 40-plus points in each of their first two games. That latter feat marks a first in program history for Maryland.

- A year ago, Maryland offensive coordinator Mike Locksley called one of the better games of his career against West Virginia. With the quick game and a combination of boots, perimeter screens and simple timing routes thrown on rhythm, he coddled true freshman quarterback Perry Hills all the way to a 305-yard, three-touchdown performance at Mountaineer Field. Don't expect the Terps offensive plan to be so measured this time out. Locksley is comfortable with the versatility of senior quarterback C.J. Brown (six pass TDs, five rush TDs) and his play selection reflects that. This Maryland offense looks less like it did last fall and more like the hybrid, spread attack Locksley directed as the OC at the University of Illinois five years ago with Juice Williams under center. The biggest difference between this Maryland team and those that West Virginia has faced in recent years is the level of talent – and depth – at the offensive skill positions. All things considered, this will be a very legitimate test for a Mountaineer defense eager to prove that the first three weeks of 2013 haven't been an aberration.

Make no mistake about it – this game serves as a pivotal proving ground for both sides. Remember the days when the outcome of the Maryland game would so often serve as a harbinger of West Virginia's season?

Those days are back.

I'll see you at the Inner Harbor at the fifty!


Jed Drenning, West Virginia University Mountaineers, WVU, Maryland Terrapins, M&T Bank Stadium, NCAA football

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