In the comments of my discussion yesterday on the quarterback situation, many people asked the relatively basic question: "If Wilson is playing so bad, why not just run it?"
That's a valid question, honestly, because we have thrown the ball more than any other team in the conference, including Kentucky. Through five games we have thrown 195 passes (though honestly our number is arbitrarily high because we've found ourselves trailing and thus forced to throw regardless of what we really wanted to do), and even the Wildcats have only thrown it 175 times. So it seems like it's a very legitimate idea, just run it more, right?
The problem is, that's a lot easier said than done.
If we had a great running game, that would be the obvious thing to do. But the harsh truth is that we don't have a great rushing game. If you look at the raw statistics you would think that we did, considering Grant is averaging over six yards per carry and Coffee is averaging over five yards per carry. The truth of the matter, however, is that the rushing attack isn't that good, particularly early in games when opposing teams are expecting the run.
Against Georgia the rushing attack simply could not muster any production early on, as we had only four successes off of eleven first half carries.
Against Florida State it was even worse. We tried to run the ball some in the first half, but it ended in no production whatsoever. Our backs ran the ball eight times, and only one time did it result in a success, and that was on a first and five (due to an FSU penalty) that resulted in a gain of three yards. The rest of the time we tried to run the football, we couldn't get near the yardage we needed to help successfully move the chains.
That's not to say that I don't think we have a pretty good rushing attack, because I believe we do. We have more talent and depth than we did a year ago, and production is significantly better as well. But this rushing attack is, from all I can tell, not good enough to put the entire offense on its back and carry it to a level of acceptable production. It can be good, it can be productive, but it's going to have to get some help from the passing attack when it is going up against very good defenses, and it hasn't gotten it the past couple of weeks.
Further verifying that point, in both the FSU and Georgia games, we ran the ball particularly well in the second half once the passing offense showed some signs of life. Again, when the passing offense is terrible, the running game is terrible. But when the passing offense looks halfway decent, the running game is exceptionally good. As I said earlier, I think it all points to the fact that we have a good but not great rushing attack.
From all I can tell after watching some of the game film of the past few weeks, we can run the ball pretty well when we get some protection from the passing game, but we have no downfield passing attack, and teams just crowd the line of scrimmage. And why wouldn't they? We generally either run the football or throw a short pass, so either way it only makes sense to have the defenders crowd near the line of scrimmage. From a defensive perspective, the only reason you put defenders a significant distance away from the line of scrimmage is to prevent a deep pass, and we can't do that.
So why not throw the football down the field?
That, too, is easier said than done.
Wilson struggles to throw the football downfield, and that's easily apparent. He doesn't have a particularly strong arm, doesn't have great accuracy, and doesn't have great mechanics. Put all of that together, and you're going have a very ineffective deep passer, and that's exactly what we have in Wilson. To be brutally honest in critiquing Wilson, it's a minor miracle if he can just throw a decent spiral on a deep pass, and most of his deep throws could qualify as the clinical definition of a wounded duck. Moreover, Wilson struggles in anticipating the rush and maneuvering in the pocket, so he creates a lot of sacks by improperly moving in the pocket. Dropping him deep in seven step drops and waiting a good while to throw the football -- which is what you must do in the deep passing game to let the routes develop -- is likely to result in a lot of sacks.
Again, easier said than done.
And some people wonder why we don't run play-action more often. Well, why not? Again, teams already have so many defenders near the line of scrimmage, and combined with our unproductive rushing attack against those fronts, there is really no reason for an opposing defense to overly pursue the run. You have to establish an effective rushing attack before the play-action game becomes open, it's an absolute prerequisite for doing so. At bottom, you don't run play-action very often because the opposing defense isn't likely to bite on it anyway.
Moreover, where did the fullback go? Some have bemoaned the absence of a fullback in our offense, and point to the fact that we did quite well against Western Carolina with Baron Huber in the game. And that's true, but what didn't work well against the Catamounts? Even Mike Shula put up 52 against them, but that doesn't mean we should have him involved in the offense. There's nothing wrong with Huber, mind you, but just putting a fullback in the game and moving to the I-formation isn't going to be a panacea. To be successful with that we would have to do mainly the same things that we need to do in order to be successful with the singleback formations that we run.
All of this is not meant to criticize players, and it's not meant to glorify play-callers either. It is, however, meant to show that given our struggles in terms of execution and performance, there is no simple play-calling fix to the situation. In this case, there just isn't a magic wand that the play-callers can waive and make this better. We could try to run the ball more, but unless the passing game is moderately successful, we're just going to run it straight into the line for minimal gains. Yes we could try to stretch the field vertically, but Wilson can't throw the football well down the field, and you can't be comfortable keeping him in the pocket with the ball that long. We could try to run playaction passes, but no one would bite on them.
You get the idea.
The simple truth of the matter is that there is no simple fix in terms of play-calling. If you can't throw the ball effectively, if you can't throw it at all downfield, and if you can't run the ball effectively against crowded defensive fronts, there's just not much you can do from a play-calling perspective to generate a lot of production.
All in all, I think some people tend to overestimate the importance of play-calling. At the end of the day, you are what you are, and there's no magic to play-calling, you just can't waive the magic wand and suddenly call exactly the best possible play all afternoon. Your opponent knows everything about you. They know your situational tendencies, they know your strengths, they know your weaknesses, they know what you want to do, and they know what you want to attack. Moreover, they self-scout, they know themselves, so they know their own weaknesses and tendencies. At bottom, your opponent is generally going to be very well prepared, and you aren't going to slip much by. To use gamer-speak, this isn't like playing on varsity mode of NCAA 2008 where your opponent's sheer stupidity is going to allow you to get away with everything. At this level, the opposing coaches are very bright people who are very well prepared. You do the math.
At some point -- play-calling aside -- you have to be able to throw the football efficiently, you have to throw it effectively down the field in the deep passing game, and you have to be productive in the running game on a consistent basis. In other words, at some point you have to line up and simply beat your opponent. If you're depending on unbelievable play-calling to bail yourself out when your opponent is clearly out-executing you, defeat is almost a certainty. You just aren't going to get it at this level. Your opponent is simply too smart and too well prepared.
And until we can do those things from an execution standpoint, we're not going to put very many points on the board regardless of what plays Applewhite and company call, so you may as well get ready for that. We could have Bill Walsh calling plays for us, and it really wouldn't make a difference.
Let's hope that Saban and company can work their magic and improve execution in the final eight weeks of the season.
When or if that happens, I imagine you'll all be surprised how bright Applewhite and company suddenly appear.