Film Study: 4th and 24

We continue our film study series on the plays that defined the 2017 seasson. Last week we looked at SMU's improbable fourth and 26 conversion against Cincinnati. This week all Houston had to do was go 24 yards against South Florida. No problem for the Greg Ward starter kit D'Eriq King. 

The Situation

Houston and #17 USF exchanged scores, going back forth until USF kicked a potential game-winning field goal with a 1:46 to play. A solid Cougar kickoff return got Houston to midfield. The Cougars went backwards, losing fourteen yards in three plays, facing a do or die fourth and 24. 


Houston deployed a trips set with three receivers to the boundary or short side, one to the field side. They've also got a back to King's right. 

As a defensive coach, you've got a choice to make and these choices often get you into trouble. You can either lay back, drop into coverage, try to make the play on the ball or play aggressive and bring extra pressure. The conservative approach floods the passing area with green jerseys and makes it hard for an offense to find space. The aggressive approach usually involves some man coverage scheme and sacrifices pressure for coverage. 

Here Charlie Strong and his defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary decide to rush four, drop seven and play sticks coverage. They're going to concede short gains in order to protect the yard to make line. Funny thing is, the scheme worked, but sometimes, in the words of Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday, "you gotta fight for that inch." 

The Play

Without the benefit of the All-22 film, we can't know for sure but this looks a lot like an all-verticle route scheme, the same play that Alabama won a national title with a few weeks ago. The Cougars send everyone on nine routes, beyond the sticks and lets God sort'em out. 

King's job is a little more nuanced than just trying to throw the ball over that mountain. He's trying to put enough air under it give his guys a chance to react while getting the ball to the first down. King buys time by rolling to his dominant hand and then throws the ball up for grabs. 

There's a reason coaches are a surly bunch. No matter how much they drill, gameplan, and prep, at the end of the day none of that matters if their players don't make a play. Good coaches lose games and jobs over the failure of somebody to make a play. 

A brief aside, we aren't fans of the idea that you just knock a Hail Mary down. When do we ever ask players to knock the ball down other than that specific situation? Never. We run oskie/tip drills, scoop drills over and over again to create instinctual players and then tell them to forget all that and play volleyball on the most critical play of a given game. Instead, just go keep the other guy from catching the ball or better yet go get it yourself. 

Well, unless you're a linebacker who's got hoof hands, then knock it down. With your hooves. 

Here the USF linebacker does everything right, but somehow, Courtney Lark manages to locate the ball in the mass of bodies and bring down the biggest catch of his Houston career. Again, the Bulls are in great position, three defenders make a play for the ball, but one Cougar goes up and gets it. It's normal to say he "wanted it more" but that negates skill, luck, and instincts. Here Lark made a great play on the ball that wasn't even 50/50, it was at best 60/40. 

Houston needed 24 and Lark got them 30 - first down Cougars. Four plays later King scampered 20 yards for the winning touchdown and a signature win in Major Applewhite's first season in charge. 

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