The oft-repeated Mike Tyson quote is that everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth. For the UTEP Miners, the plan may have been flawless, but Northern Arizona put on a clinic of sudden change football on their first series of the game and punched UTEP squarely in the kisser.
If you believe in momentum, then turnovers and sudden change philosophy must be near and dear to your heart. We're not sure such a thing as "momentum" exists in the world of athletics, specifically college football, but the critical and necessary mentality that follows a turnover can cost you dearly. For the offense, a series after a turnover is blood in the water, a chance to attack. For a defense, it's all systems on alert because chances are you're going to absorb the best the offense has to give.
On Saturday night, UTEP won the toss and, after a touchback, took over at the 25-yard line. They were on schedule; they had their new uniforms, their new coaching staff, new philosophy, and new culture. On first down the Miners ran a counter trey, popped off five yards and were now ahead of schedule.
On the sideline, the UTEP defense is watching and keeping warm. In most offensive series, they'll be huddled in front of a whiteboard adjusting to the opposing offense. Typically, if the Miner offense faces a third down, they'll start getting their battle rattle together, strapping up just in case. You'll often see them drift down the sideline to anticipate a punt.
On the first series of a game, the routine is different, especially in an opener. The defense has no rhythm, and they usually aren't adjusting, though perhaps getting last minute reminders on keys or tendency. The first series of the season involves anticipation and, maybe, larger than usual butterflies.
On second down UTEP's offense is stuffed for no gain, setting up a third down. Time to start buckling in, just in case, then on third down, the worst case scenario plays out, Northern Arizona picks off a Ryan Metz pass and the Lumberjack offense has the ball in plus territory. No media timeout, no time to prep, no time for keys, just get a personnel grouping and go hold the fort.
Northern Arizona knows this, and they get right into their jugular attack, seizing on the field position.
The first three plays are the key here, NAU isn't doing anything extravagant or gimmicky, they want plays with a high success rate, and they want to go fast. Real fast.
Here are the first three plays after the turnover.
Notice a few things, first; Northern Arizona runs three base pays, a stop route to the boundary and two stretch plays to the boundary. Again speed is the key, not scheme. The Lumberjacks don't substitute, so UTEP can't either to slow the pace. The Lumberjacks run three plays in 43 seconds, a lightning pace.
Second, Rod Marinelli, a longtime NFL defensive coordinator preaches the importance of getting lined up, running to the football and then getting lined up again. It's simple, teach guys to line up and run to the football. Alignment is key. It may seem simple, but lining up correctly can adversely affect run fits, coverage, and spacing. Just line up.
Notice on the second and third play how many Miners are looking to the sideline for the play rather than at their key. Note the inside linebackers are shifting to their spots even as the ball is snapped. As a result, the backer isn't there to fill, and it's five yards before the NAU back meets any resistance.
Third, and most telling, is how UTEP fails to do the little things that would mitigate damage. On first down, they fail to tackle the receiver on the stop. Four Miners fail to prevent the first down. On the third play the Miners are in position, but he loses his feet, and the running back scampers for a first down. Defenders work on footwork, remaining on balance, and using their eyes to keep their head up at every practice, those principles go out the window because NAU caught the Miners off guard.
The Lumberjacks went 25 yards, deep into UTEP territory in 43 seconds of actual time, not game time. Then they take a breath, make a few subs, and get into their red zone offense.
Here the alignment dictates the coverage, UTEP has single high safety and the corner is giving him a man key with his hips and shading inside. This looks like an RPO based on the line look and how the Lumberjack receivers to the boundary side go downfield to stalk block. The corner on the wide or field side opens his hips early to run, and that gives the receiver the key to break in, and it's pitch and catch.
Here's our last clip, two plays later NAU will punch it in, but before then, they take advantage of UTEP's defense playing from its heels.
Pre-snap, NAU's quarterback sees no safety help, he also suspects he's getting a blitz. He's going to work to the out route to the right of the formation rather than the bubble set up to the left. With no safety help, the corner is on an island, and he's giving ground. This makes the route and the throw easy.
Five plays the Lumberjacks are inside the three-yard line, knocking on the door and UTEP is stunned. The plan looked great until NAU punched them in the mouth.
When coaches preach staying engaged on the sideline and being ready at all times, this is what they are trying to avoid. On a sudden change, you have to guard against the worst case scenario, whether that's a team playing high tempo like Northern Arizona, or a team taking a shot at a splash play downfield.
On the last two plays, at the goal line, UTEP defenders had their hands on their hips. They'd only defended six plays, but NAU used the Miners lack of organization and excess of adrenaline against them. When you're tired, focus more critical. The Lumberjacks attacked with speed and simplicity, and the Miners didn't have an answer. In the fog of the sudden change, UTEP lost its bearing and its coaching. They would regroup later in the game and perform pretty well with little to no offensive support.
The first series wasn't the ball game, but it did set a tone for the rest of the evening.