The problem with college football is that it is the king of the small sample size. There are only 12 games (maybe 13 or even 14 on a good year) and we derive so much meaning from those games that it can be difficult to get an accurate perspective on the performance of one team or even one player. The only sporting event that surpasses it in this regard is the World Cup or the Olympics which happen quadrennially.
Making accurate statistical reads on a team, or indeed a player is very difficult because there just is not enough data to go on. Because of that the focus of fans and analysts shifts to outcomes rather than process. We can all see outcomes when watching a game either in person or on TV, the process is harder to see. But focusing on the outcomes can easily lead fans to the wrong conclusions.
As I was leaving the game Saturday with the roughly 10,000 other people that stayed until the bitter end I heard several variations on a theme. The theme was that Gunner Kiel had a terrible performance and cost the Bearcats the game on his own. You see the stat line, the four interceptions, the constant faltering in the red zone and its hard to escape that conclusion. But if you watch all of his snaps closely enough the outlook changes.
Temple's approach on defense is to limit big plays and to force offenses to methodically work the ball down the field. To make that plan a reality Temple is extraordinarily aggressive, they bring pressure from odd angles, they send big blitzes more than almost anyone else the Bearcats will play this year and they lock their defensive backs in tight defacto man coverage more than anyone else UC will see this season. When they don't lock up in man they play some of the more exotic coverage schemes* you will see at the college level. Temple does everything they can to disrupt opposing quarterbacks, but they hardly made a dent on the Bearcats attack. You have to go back to Temple's 31-24 loss to Navy last year to find a game where Temple's defense gave up as many yards as they did against the Bearcats Saturday. Gunner Kiel did not have his best game against the Owls, but it is a huge stretch to say that he played badly. Down to down Keil was very good, but he made a handful of errors and in those errors the game turned decisively in the favor of the Owls.
*For example I twice saw the Owls run what looked like two different overages on different halves of the field. To one side it looked like quarters coverage with the safety and corner both taking deep vertical routes. But the other half of the secondary what looked like an inverted cover two (more on that below). The end result is something that looked kinda like a cloud cover three, but was completely different in terms of how the defense got to their shape.
Woody Hayes was fond of saying that there are only three things that can happen when you throw the football, and two of them are bad. This pass should have been the routine first kind of bad, an incompletion. On the one hand this was a ball that shouldn't have been thrown. It was a lazy route from Mekale McKay, he created no separation and no window for Gunner to throw into. On the other hand that was exactly the kind of window that Gunner had been fitting throws into all game long. It wound up being the second kind of bad as Tyler Matakevich came up with an incredible diving catch of the deflected pass. This set the Owls up with possession at the UC 27. 6 plays later P.J. Walker found Robby Anderson for a 13 yard touchdown, it was Temple's last score of the game.
Gunner Kiel's first interception was a low percentage pass into a tight spot, this one is different. To the play side the Bearcats had a simple concept. The inside receiver (Alex Chisum) runs a five yard hitch, the outside receiver (Johnny Holton) runs a post route behind. If you watch the play from the endzone angle you can see that Temple is in a cover two. The way you can tell that is that the middle of the field between the hashes is open. Quarterbacks read from the safeties down, but the system of reading a defense is more about answering a series of questions. The most important of them is MOFO or MOFC?* Determining the answer to that question tells the quarterback which side of the field, and thus which route combination to focus on.
*MOFO = middle of the field open, which means no safety between the hashes indicating cover two or cover four. MOFC = middle of the field closed, meaning a safety between the hashes a strong indicator of cover three
The Bearcats don't always mirror their route combinations on both sides of the field, meaning they run different passing concepts on each half of the field to beat specific coverage's. So for example the Bearcats might pair a smash concept to one half of the field and a slant concept on the other side. In those two combination the offense has a "beater" for any coverage the defense could conceivably run. The key to making that work for the offense and the quarterback is knowing what coverage the defense is in. The coverage doesn't tell the quarterback everything, but it sketches out the rough shape of what they are doing.
On this play there is a lot going on with the Temple defense, They show pressure pre snap as they have five defenders within two yards of the line of scrimmage, three of them being down linemen. To the offensive line and the quarterback that signals blitz, and technically it is a blitz as the Owls send four defenders. But its not a conventional blitz by any standard. The Owls, in a dime defense with six defensive backs send both of their slot cornerbacks, drop both linebackers and a defensive tackle into coverage. After all that motion and signaling it is just a four man rush which the Bearcats line deals with easily, as they did the entire game. Behind that the Owls ran a cover two (remember, the middle of the field was open), but it wasn't a standard cover two, it was inverted. To invert a coverage scheme sounds more complicated than it is, it just means changing which position performs which role.
In a traditional cover two the safety has the deep half of the field. Any route or pass that goes beyond 10 or 15 yards is his. Underneath the safeties the five underneath defenders usually take up positions to defend areas of the field; the flats to either side, curl zones (also to either side) and and the hook*. The corner almost always takes the flats with the linebackers (or nickel or dime) taking the hook and curl zones. Inverting that scheme just means switching the roles of the safety which now has responsibility for the flats and corner, which now has deep half. The benefit to inverting cover two is that your corner now has the freedom to play what amounts to press man against a receiver on any route where the receiver runs vertically straight down the field, such as the post on the play above.
*For more on this go here.
On the second interception Kiel correctly reads cover two, he correctly reads to attack that coverage with the post and yet he still threw the interception because the Owls didn't even run a standard inverted cover two, on this play Wells and Matakevich swap responsibilities as well with the linebacker taking the flats and locking up Alex Chisum in the slot. This in turn leaves Wells unoccupied by a Bearcats threat. Because of that he was able to sit in a robber technique and read Gunner Kiel's eyes. This play is so emblematic of what makes the Temple defense so good. Against Temple a quarterback can follow every rule that they have for reading defenses, follow each and every step correctly and still wind up with the wrong answer.
This play is a reprisal of the last one. The Owls are in a cover two, the Bearcats run four verticals flooding the two deep safeties with four receivers. There is no universe where two deep defenders can cover four deep receivers. Its math. Stop me if you have heard this before, but this isn't just a standard Cover Two its really a Tampa Two*. That means that there is a defender who's job is to carry any vertical route down the center of the field to its conclusion. In most cases that defender is usually a linebacker and linebackers tend to be ill suited to the job of defending someone like Shaq Washington.
*Which means its effectively a cover three
As Temple ran the Tampa Two it was Alex Wells as the deep middle third defender. There was a moment before the pick where Shaq Washington was briefly open. But Gunner was late with his decision, late with his throw, and Wells read it and broke on the ball perfectly. Its another case where the Bearcats have the right play to beat a coverage, but there is enough of a tweak to the coverage to beat the Bearcats play.
This play is conceptually very different from the first interception, but the end result was exactly the same, a diving Tyler Matakevich interception. UC ran a slant combination with Chris Moore and Alex Chisum. Temple has it completely locked up. There is no window, four Temple defenders surround Chris Moore. An inch perfect pass has a chance to be caught. But in that situation, with that much time on the clock against that defense...its best to live another down. Remember there were 13 seconds left on the clock. Time enough for a couple more plays, maybe even three if you are lucky. Instead Gunner forced it, and paid the price.
In the aftermath of Saturday's game while walking out of Nippert with a few thousand of my most disgruntled friends so many people were ready to straight up give up on Gunner Kiel. Sentiments like these were not hard to come by. The old adage that the most popular person on campus is always the backup quarterback was certainly true on Saturday.
A big part of that is people thinking that Temple is and should always be a pushover, but those people are blind to how good the Owls have become on defense. Seriously, good look finding 15 defenses that play at a higher level than the Owls. Its not hard to find 15 defenses with more top to bottom talent than the Owls, its probably not that hard to find 30 of those. But finding 15 defenses that play better and more cohesive defense than the Owls....seriously good luck with that. Still against the best defense UC will face all season Gunner Kiel went toe to toe and more than held his own.
His stat line isn't great, the 123.98 passer rating he posted will almost certainly be the lowest rating he posts all year. yet Kiel averaged 8.2 yards per attempt against a defense that returned everyone from a group that allowed 6.1 yards per attempt a year ago. No one thinks of performance in those terms, everyone harps on the two throws into tight windows that resulted in Matakevich interceptions (both could be considered drops by the way). Everyone thinks about the two times Temple baited him into those Wells interceptions. That Kiel managed to see through Temple's disguises and execute on the other 48 plays doesn't rate.
I didn't always like the results of Kiel's decisions against Temple, but I find it hard to fault his process. Yes he forced some throws, but more often than not those plays ended in catches or deflections instead of interceptions. More than anything I like the mentality that Kiel brought to the game. Unlike Christian Hackenberg he took it right too the Temple defense, he didn't keep it safe and conservative, he pushed the ball down the field and took his shots. That is what you have to do against a defense as aggressive as Temple is. It didn't work out in this case, but that doesn't mean that you move on from Gunner Kiel. To all but the daftest fans he is the Bearcats present and future quarterback. Trust the process.