Can we pretty please get some more defense of this variety next year? You know, when defenders actually play the ball. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
UC finished this year at 4-8, the worst record since 2005, which was also the last time that UC didn't spend the holidays going bowling somewhere. There is no clear cut reason why a team as talented on the front lines as this team played so badly for vast swathes of the year. In the aftermath of the year several theories have emerged each vying for a possible clean and easy answer to the "What the fuck is that?" question that everyone has had about the team and the programs performance this year. There are several factors, a general lack of depth, a rash of injuries that was beyond anything that experienced in the Kelly years, an absence of Senior leadership, the players players never really buying into Jones and his staff and philosophy. It is exceedingly likely that most, if not all of the theories being floated around to explain this year have some grounding in reality. But they all miss the mark in my estimation. When I went through and looked at the final stats for this team there was one thing that jumped out at me, and that was the turnover margin. On the year UC finished ranked 119th in the nation, out of a possible 120 schools. UC had two games where they finished with a + turnover margin, +1 in the 19-30 defeat to N.C. State and the 69-38 win over Rutgers. This season was far and away the worst in terms of turnover margin since the 2005 season. It is possible for a team to have a negative turnover margin and have a successful season simultaneously, look back at the 2008 year. That season UC finished -8 in turnover margin, UC was -15 this season.
The reason that I find turnover margin to be a valuable statistical measure is that it provides the clearest and simplest expression of the quality of one team on a readily understandable scale. + is good - is bad. There are, as ever, exceptions like the aforementioned 2008 team which just found ways to manufacture wins, but the better the turnover margin the better the team. If you look at this years rankings the top 12 teams combined to go 115-32. That is not just a one year thing, if you go back through the numbers you will find that in any give year the top 10 or so teams in turnover margin will usually win around 80 per cent of their games. The other key thing about turnover margin is that it takes into account the quality of both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. The simple premise being that good offensive teams don't turn the ball over at a high clip and good defensive teams force turnovers. UC fell short on both ends of the measurement this year, and there are a couple of reasonable assumptions that can be made about why these things transpired this year.
Lets start with the defense because that is where the real issues are for me. For a start this was a very young defense, we all know that line by now. Only BCS defense without a senior starter, 7 sophomores, true or otherwise starters, just two seniors in the rotation etcetera. Now all of those facts are valid and the undoubtedly played a part in all that transpired on that side of the ball. But none of those things are in and of themselves issues for a defense. Alabama was the second youngest defense in the nation, but they finished in the top 25 nationally in every major defensive stat. The difference between the two defenses is not just about talent and depth, Alabama has China level reserves of both, but the strategy and approach the staff in Tuscaloosa took into battle was far superior to anything brought to the fore by Tim Banks and Mike Bajakian. Alabama's defense ran the same packages and schemes this year that they did last year, despite returning just two starters from the national championship team on that side of the ball. The basic message being that this is what Alabama does on defense personel be damned.
Tim Banks and to a lesser extent John Jancek made a different decision with regards to how to approach the season. Banks and Jancek were presented with a defense that was lacking talent in some key areas, safety and linebacker and was almost entirely bereft of depth. This year on defense basically 20 kids played every meaningful snap. As a defensive coordinator with those circumstances there are really only two strategies to employ, it is either lay back in the most basic and vanilla coverages and schemes imaginable, play good run defense and hope that no one notices your deficiencies in the secondary. The flip side of that is to go balls out with your pressure packages trying to get to the QB as quickly and as often as possible to create as much chaos and confusion as possible to hide your own deficiencies.
At one point this year Tim Banks made an enlightening comment in regards to his chosen strategy. He basically said that because of the limited depth on the defensive side of the ball they weren't really able to use their pressure packages to the same extent that they had at Central Michigan. Which was a stunningly stupid revelation. If you are a pressure defense that blitzes at a high percentage then you should be that with depth or without. Depth should never ever have a bearing on a chosen strategy, talent always should, but depth never. What UC had on defense was it's best defensive end and pass rusher, Walter Stewart, playing out of position at outside linebacker, two safeties in Drew Frey and Wesley Richardson who couldn't cover a soul in a zone scheme but are good in blitz situations and run support, and a group of corners in Reuben Johnson, Cameron Cheatham, and Deven Drane who were put in terrible positions where they had no pass rush to speak of and could never rely on their safeties to give them any help over the top. So it was no surprise that Banks chose to use the coverage schemes and packages that put all the worst traits of his defense on clear display. This is a simulation of how a defensive game plan meeting would go between Butch Jones and Time Banks
Butch Jones: So Tim, it looks like we have a front four that can't generate pressure, linebackers that are OK in zone but terrible in man, corners that are OK in man but get lost in zone and safeties who are decent in run support but are so bad in coverage, zone or man, that they defy a funny analogy to explain how bad they are. What should we do about that?
Tim Banks: Tampa 2
Butch Jones: Won't that just accentuate in inherent weaknesses of our personnel. We need safeties who always play deep as the deepest and an effective pass rush to make that defense work. We don't have the personnel to make that defense work. The secondary will just get shredded in coverage. We need to try to come up with something else. What do you got?
Tim Banks: Cover 3
Butch Jones: Our secondary players don't understand zone relationships and responsibilities well enough to make that scheme work. We need some fresh new ideas.
Tim Banks: Quarters
Butch Jones: You are clearly not listening, I think to maximize our chances we need bring more pressure. Zones work great if you have a front four that can generate pressure on its own. We don't have that. We need to bring five or six to get to the QB.
Tim Banks: What about a zone blitz?
Butch Jones: That could work, and Walt Stewart is perfect for the zone blitz because he can rush the passer and be adequate in pass coverage. Yeah, we will defiantly give that idea a go, it should work perfectly.
Tim Banks: Great, so Tampa 2 it is!
Butch Jones: Yeah, for sure! Wait, what...
I am pretty sure that is what happened at every game plan meeting, but I can't confirm that. So Banks employed a strategy that put all the worst traits of the defenses personnel on one of those rotating stages they have at car shows. That allowed opposing coaches could study this defenses deficiencies from every available angle. With that in mind it is no wonder that this team was so abysmal forcing turnovers. Every single offense the Bearcats played was the aggressor and UC wound up forcing just 14 turnovers all season long, which ranked in the triple digits. So the defense couldn't generate takeaways for a few reasons. But that in and of itself is not a herald of impending doom, last years team only forced 19. But that team was +9 in the margin because they only turned the ball over 10 times in 13 games. That is the one area where UC was a major letdown.
On the year UC put the ball on the ground a whopping 29 times, 14 interceptions, all by Zach Collaros and 15 fumbles. Interceptions I don't mind as much, I am not happy about it, but of the two numbers it is easily the more justifiable. But 15 fumbles is flat out ridiculous. That number would be high for an option team, or one that just ran the ball incessantly. Ball security is something that has to be preached, extensively, in the off season by the coaches.
Lets talk about the interception total. 14 is a high number, doubly so for a quarterback as accurate and as talented as Zach Collaros, but it is one that I can live with. There are extenuating circumstances to be sure, starting with the change in the offense. Under Brian Kelly Collaros was playing in the most QB friendly offense imaginable and the results were spectacular. Everything Kelly did was based off of the vertical stems, and the offense was special for its ability to leverage open multiple holes in zone schemes and conversely for enabling receivers to improvise and option against man coverage. That's why every single Kelly coached team, save his first at Central Michigan, has completed at least 60 per cent of their passes.
Jones and Bajakian's offense is a lot more intricate and complicated than Kelly's. It requires a lot of fitting the ball into tight spaces on simple curl and stop routes and Collaros didn't exactly pick it up quickly, he struggled with his accuracy and decision making early and late in the season. The biggest thing is that Bajakian never really taylored the offense to the strengths of Collaros. Zach is deadly efficient when he is out on the edge of the defense on designed roll-outs and play action passes, much less so when confined to the pocket. When the offense was humming on all cylinders Zach would be on the edge working the play action and making generally good decisions. However for vast swathes of the season the staff forgot what he was good at and would try to confine him to the pocket, like the UConn game. Does Collaros need to improve his decision making from the pocket? without question, but this staff needs to do a better job of putting him in the places where he is most comfortable, which is outside. They seemed to forget that fact for games at a time and act surprised when he would make bad decisions in the pocket. The last mitigating factor in terms of interceptions was the offensive line play, which ranged from terrible to average at times but which was, for the most part, well below average for this level of competition. Moving on.
The good thing about turnover margin as a statistical measure is that it usually changes drastically for teams on the extremes of the margin from one year to the next. Phil Steele has devoted what seems like years to the study of the phenomenon with his Turnovers equals Turnaround section. Where the basic premise is that any team as far down the marginal scale as UC was will experience a big turnaround in record, and he is usually right about it. There is hope for the future on this particular front, some self scouting on the part of the staff would be a fantastic place to start.