Sept. 6, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
After time to digest tape and gauge reaction from Saturday night's 23-21 season-opening win at Vanderbilt, Skip Myslenski checks in with a further review on the contest...
One week ago, while recalling the hot practices of August and anticipating his team's season opener at Vanderbilt, 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald was as clear as a pristine pond that offered a glimpse of its bottom. He wanted his team to run the ball better this fall than it had a year ago. He had also emphasized that fact during the summer and now anticipated doing just that.
But then the 'Cats journeyed to Nashville and their ground game was, well, once again grounded. It netted just 143 yards on 46 carries, exactly matching their average (3 ypc) of a season ago, and 82 of those belonged to quarterback Dan Persa. "We were a block away, a finish away, from taking three-yard runs into six-yard runs and six-yard runs into 12-yard runs," Fitzgerald would say this Monday. "I give credit to Vanderbilt. I thought they had a very good plan on defense. I thought we had a good plan. We just need to execute better."
"I think going into the game we had a good scheme and a great plan. The execution just wasn't there," the offensive tackle Al Netter would echo minutes later. "It's got to be the entire offense on the same page. But we found (in reviewing the film), multiple times one or two guys not doing the right thing and it hurt us. . . I think it was just poor execution. We know we can be better. We were disappointed in our performance. But we're excited to get the opportunity to go back out there and improve."
With that admitted, it was no surprise then that the 'Cats had 11 of their rushing attempts smothered for losses. "The most we've had in a long time," Fitzgerald said after dropping that number into the public spotlight.
"About half of those," he then went onto explain, "were when we targeted the wrong person. So we had someone (a defender) on the perimeter free, which was a little disappointing."
"We had an assignment, we had a couple finishing issues. We knew they were going to knife under us on the perimeter a few times and we allowed it to happen. So some things we had breakdowns on that we had worked on. We didn't see anything different. We didn't see anything we didn't prepare for. We thought as coaches maybe we over-prepared our guys, maybe we had too much on their plates. During the off-season, I think we studied every (Vanderbilt game) and probably got them prepared for too much. . . Sometimes I think you can get paralysis by analysis."
Here is the simplest way to understand what all those words mean and why it is necessary for an offensive line to execute en masse: Think of a glove. Now think of how useless that glove is in mid-February if one of its fingers has a gaping hole in it. Now you have an idea of that line's effectiveness if one of its quintet misses a block or blows an assignment or breaks down in any way.
Fitzgerald, as any good coach would, was careful not to criticize running back Arby Fields, who often jitterbugged against the Commodores and ended his evening with negative yardage. "As I look at some of the plays he got carries on, our execution wasn't great, he said. "But" -- and the guess here is this is a message he delivered to Fields himself -- "at a certain point you've got to stick your nose in there and fight to live another day."
Persa, of course, was the 'Cat catalyst on Saturday, torching Vandy with not only his arm, but his legs as well. Which is why, in this age where big hits are all the rage and a staple of highlight shows, we wondered if Fitzgerald worried about him getting rung up while scampering about. "No. I want to win. We're going to do whatever we can to win and if we've got to run the quarterback, that's what we're going to do," he said. "If I start worrying about things that are out of my control, I'll be hitting the golf course with a buddy and I'll see ya.
"At the end of the day, it's football and we've got to do what we can to win. Yeah. Do we have to take some carries off of Dan's hands? Yeah. Sure. Absolutely. But there were a bunch of runs there, they were trying to blitz us and you can take advantage of people blitzing. Run right by them. Dan was out of the gate. . .(and) when you have a dual threat quarterback, it presents a lot of problems. For a defense, you have to be sound. If you're not sound, that kind of young man can make you pay. If you try to play max coverage, he can scramble. If you try to blitz him, our offense takes advantage of that. So I think a dual-threat quarterback really gives you a lot of trouble as a defensive coach."
Said Persa himself when asked about the work he put in against Vandy: "The past few days, my body hasn't been too bad. So I was perfectly fine with that load."
It is well known that Fitzgerald is as passionate as a Latin Lover and that, as a rule, his team reflects his ardor. But following the Vandy game Persa wondered if, on this occasion, it had managed that, and then Monday he followed up by saying: "I think we were a little bit flat. I think everyone was really focused. But it just seemed like we were flat at the beginning of the game and throughout the game. But luckily we came on at the end and did well when it counted."
Why were they flat?
"I don't know. Maybe first game jitters, guys worrying about themselves. I don't know. It could be a lot of things. I thought in the locker room we were really focused. But we weren't talking enough. We weren't bouncing around enough."
"I agree with that," said linebacker Nate Williams. "I think there was some lack of enthusiasm on the sidelines. It has to really come from within and sometimes you've got to bring someone else with you. So we've got to get on the younger guys this week and definitely get them prepared to be excited."
"It's the first game, you're getting back into it. . .," is what Fitzgerald said about this. "(Then) as I walked around the locker room post game, I was shaking a lot of young peoples' hands, it was their first time in the arena, the first time going through a game. It'll be better this week."
In this era of instant analysis and instant communication and instant mashed potatoes, the tendency always is to want the answer now. But that is as short-sighted as it is dangerous, a fact especially true when considering a team coming off its opener and looking at a season that will end after Thanksgiving. So it is impossible to now make a prudent judgment about these 'Cats. "We're still trying to figure out who we are after one game, if that makes sense," says Fitzgerald, making perfect sense. "After one game and camp, we have a pretty good idea of what our identity is and who our playmakers are. But as we continue to move forward it's going to continue to solidify itself.
"I wish we were like the NFL. You have four preseason games. You learn a lot more about yourself. But we don't get free agency. We can't pick up guys off the street when you have injuries. . . We've got to coach better, we've got to execute better.
"The good news is we won. We won. So. Move. On."
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