Check The Tape - UTSA

Sep 8, 2021

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I probably say this every time we follow up a win with a loss, but CTT is a lot more fun after a win. Checking this tape was 91% less fun than last week. I think I even started saying things out loud on certain third-down conversions (theirs, not ours).

Might as well get right to it. I checked the tape from the loss to UTSA and...

Break The Waist

Let's start with the illegal formation flag on the punt near the end of the first quarter. Blake Hayes initial punt bounced to the 12. But we were flagged for an illegal formation - "five men in the backfield" was the announcement - and the next punt was returned to the 39. A penalty like that is equal to 27 yards of offense. UTSA didn't have 497 yards this game; they had 524 yards.

UTSA put together a 9-play, 61-yard drive after that to make it 14-0. Would they have punched it in if they had to go 88 yards instead of 61? We'll never know, now will we?

(Sorry - I'll try to stay un-bitter.)

I looked at the formation and didn't see five guys in the backfield, so I checked with a friend who knows these things. He said that the official is looking to see that all of the linemen's heads "break the waist" of the longsnapper. If there aren't six helmets breaking his waist, that means there's six (or less) players on the line, and that means there's five players in the backfield, and that means it's time to pull the flag.

Sounds fairly ticky-tack, but that's the flag that cost us 27 yards. Here's the formation from the broadcast. I put a spotlight on the helmet I don't think is breaking the waist of the longsnapper:

(You know, it would be cool if we could add LED spotlights to our helmets like that. Who could defend us? We should do this. I'm sure it would be perfectly legal.)

Anyway, that was the penalty. And it cost us 27 yards in the game.

Tecmo Super Bowl

I feel like I've maybe used Tecmo Super Bowl as an example in a Check The Tape post before. Maybe it should become a regular feature.

If you ever played Tecmo Super Bowl - the Nintendo football game from... 1991 I think? - you know that when you call a play and the person playing defense against you calls the same play, you're toast. Especially when they can use their defensive player to dive at your feet while everyone else descends upon you.

I found a clip from some gameplay videos online which shows what I'm talking about. This play is over before it starts:

That's kinda like this third down play in the first quarter. This is the UTSA defense as Art Sitkowski gets under center:

They then walk the outside linebacker up to the line and move the safety over the slot receiver:

Two defenders will be headed to the backfield on the snap - the weakside linebacker and that safety who just walked up. They'll meet at Mike Epstein in the backfield and force us to punt.

On the snap, right guard Alex Pihlstrom pulls outside of RT Alex Palczewski and TE Luke Ford:

The play design seems simple here. Pihlstrom pulls and kicks out the OLB (#9). Ford, Palcho, and Kramer collapse that side of the UTSA defensive line and seal them off. And that leaves Daniel Barker (coming from the H-back spot) to block the linebacker one on one. Epstein heads through right behind Barker and hopefully gets the three yards needed for the first down. Interior seal, Pihlstrom kickout, Barker block, Epstein burst before the other linebacker can get there.

But, uh, yeah - it doesn't work out that way. First off (much easier to see this below on the gif), the OLB dips inside of Pihlstrom. Sometimes that's a good thing. If he dips inside, the entire edge is open and Epstein can run forever. But he dipped inside because he knew the play call and the defensive back was blitzing from that side and would protect the edge. So now there's no hole for Barker to go block someone and there's a blitzing DB and a blitzing RB about to meet at Epstein in the backfield.

And to complete Murphy's Law, when those two meet at Epstein, my arrow is pointing to the ball popping out. Thankfully, Sitkowski saw it and pounced on it.

Now go look at that image again. When the defense is being that aggressive, I'd love to leak Luke Ford out of this formation. They've sent eight guys towards the ball and left only three guys to cover the entire defensive backfield. If Ford sneaks out towards the top of the frame there, man, he runs forever.

We'd catch them in stuff like this later in the game. But their early aggression gave them a 14-0 lead.

Here's the full play. Just like Tecmo.

Just no chance at getting the first down. And nearly complete disaster with the ball popping out.


Not all defenses are the same. And I don't just mean formations or "zone vs. man". Some defenses ask players to make plays; some defenses ask players to force the ballcarrier towards other players who can make the play.

If I was ever a defensive coordinator (for the love of God, no), I'd lean heavily into "funneling". Job #1 is to make sure it's not a big play. Job #2 is to tackle the guy.

Here's what I mean. This will take a while but we'll get there.

This is the touchdown that put UTSA up by 10 in the fourth quarter (well, the first of their two touchdowns that put them up by 10 in the fourth quarter). Third and short, bunched receivers to the right, we're thinking run but have to pay attention to the three receivers.

On the snap, Sydney Brown comin'. And both linebackers are pressing up on the line. We're gonna stop this third-and-one run and force a FG.

Which means that as he releases the ball, seven of our eleven defenders are contained in this tiny little blob:

That's OK, though. We guessed run, they passed, they're probably getting the first down now, but we still can prevent the big play. We can prevent the big play, right?

As Zakhari Franklin catches the ball, both safeties (Sydney Brown and Prather Hudson) are headed over to help.

That means that Franklin is likely going to pop it to the outside. He actually does a really great thing here (he was so good in this game), stepping back behind his blocker to let the blocker take Devon Witherspoon while he jumps around him to the outside.

Here's the entire play right here. This is why I'd preach and preach and preach "funneling" if I was a defensive coordinator. Three players are arriving to help (as long as your defenders are hustling, there will always be players arriving to help from the middle of the field). So in the defense I'm running, Tony Adams has one job here. Get to Franklin's right shoulder and prevent him from getting the edge. Sure, he'll get the first down, but forcing him inside will allow the three arriving defenders (Brown and Hansen and Hudson) to make the tackle for a short gain. Just don't let him get outside.

As soon as Tony Adams takes this one step to the right with his right foot, this play is a touchdown. This is him trying to correct and go left, but that right foot means TD.

Now he starts heading to the left, but it's too late.

One thing to note here, and this isn't a shot at Prather Hudson. Hudson is a former walkon at Georgia who worked his way up to special teams there and has now transferred to get into the safety rotation at Illinois. He's reached 99.5% of his athletic ability (I've reached 23%, and that's only because I can putt). He's just not the fastest player. And when people talk about speed and football, this is where we see that the most.

Hudson (orange arrow) came from the far hash to this point. If he was 0.23 faster on his 40-time, his feet would be at the X. But he's 0.23 slower than the Ohio State safety, and that means his feet aren't at the X. If he was at the X, he forces Franklin out of bounds. But he's not, so Franklin scores.

Again, not a shot at Hudson. He can only run as fast as he can run. I just watch plays like this and think about a footrace between our safety and an Ohio State safety. Start at the far hash, run to here, and by the time Hudson and the Ohio State safety reach this point, that's how far in front of Hudson he would be. And he'd make this tackle (and dozens of others). That's football.

Hudson still might have gotten to Franklin on this play, actually. Or at least had a chance to dive for his feet. But when the guy blocking Quan Martin gave him one final shove, he shoved him into Hudson's path:

Meaning Franklin...

...would skip into the endzone.


Here's the full play. To me, there's one thing that stops this. Tony Adams sprinting between the two blocks to protect the edge. Sure, it might mean Franklin cuts back inside and Adams can't make the tackle. But if he did that, one of three Illini defenders prevent the touchdown. If he gets outside, he's gone.

(He was gone.)

I have the perfect name for my future defensive scheme: Funnel Cakes. You'd come play for me if my defense was called Funnel Cakes, right?

How To Attack Aggression

If you want to know why some of our touchdowns were so easy, well, go two sections up and look at UTSA sending eight guys towards the backfield on third and three. When they're aggressive like that, you can use it to your advantage. Like the first Daniel Barker touchdown.

Here's the alignment on the snap. Barker is lined up at H-back on the right.

Pre-snap, Barker motions over to the left side. The UTSA defensive coordinator begins sweating because he knows he's sending the linebacker on that side.

Now it's a very simple route. Casey Washington and Donny Navarro drag the defenders to the right while Daniel Barker wheels around behind them into the void.

Here's why the UTSA DC was sweating. He knows his play call has the left OLB dropping into coverage while the weakside linebacker is blitzing. So the OLB on the left will drop into a zone to cover no one while the WLB will blitz and leave two guys to cover three receivers.

On the snap, here comes the WLB:

Could be an issue getting the pass off, but Mike Epstein picks him up.

This image is fuzzy because it's a screencap from a camera that was moving, but for Tony Petersen, seeing the backs of these two defensive backs is the most beautiful thing he's ever seen. Yes, as soon as the WLB blitzed it was probably a touchdown, but there's always a chance they have something in there where that outside corner drops his guy and chases the wheel. But once you see the players' names like this...'s OVER.

Here's the gif. Watch the WLB leave them in a two-to-cover-three situation.

Wish we could have done that two more times.

The Most Obvious Hold In The History Of Holding

There's bad calls. And then there's absolutely horrific calls. This one is absolutely horrific.

I don't even need to point out where it happens. Here's the gif:

I just don't understand how that gets missed. It's third down. That's where the ball went. He grabbed his shoulder and tugged. Just a casual fan watching the game could see it because the ball was already en route.

Oh, and also, the towel on his waist...

...ends up here:

A linebacker is trying to cover our fastest receiver. His only chance is to hold him. He grabs his shoulder with his left hand and while reaching for something else to grab, pulls the towel out of his waistband.

No call.

It did not change the game. We allowed UTSA to come into Champaign and put up 500 yards. This is not "if we had only gotten that first down" or anything like that. It's simply one of the worst missed calls I can remember in Memorial Stadium the last five seasons. Just so awful.


See if I was in charge I'd have a conversation with Chase Brown and Deuce Spann and get Deuce the #2 jersey. Chase was #28 at Western Michigan - can he just go back to that? No disrespect to Chase - we need him - but I also need our two receivers to be One and Deuce wearing 1 and 2. This has to happen. It's our first chance at having a Thing in a long time.

I mean, who knows if Deuce even stays at receiver. I still want to switch up our offense and put him under center. But if he keeps making plays like this, it will be hard to stop One and Deuce.

I think you can probably figure out how he got so open on this play, so I'll take this opportunity to talk about the defense. The look that UTSA is showing here is the defense we stayed in most of the spring game. Two stand-up defensive ends, three linemen between them, and then two linebackers, two cornerbacks, two safeties.

After the spring game, I wrote about my fears with that defense facing an offense like Purdue. And this is why.

Before the snap, Deuce goes in motion. This brings the cornerback inside on that side of the field.

But the cornerback stops on the edge. I'm not saying that this defense always stops the corner at that edge - this is just their playcall for this play where the corner doesn't follow the receiver across the field - but this shows my fears with that formation against motion-y offenses.

The corner stops on the X, and the safety starts pointing and yelling something. Not sure what their call would be here, but it looks like he's yelling something to the weakside linebacker:

It's basically already a touchdown right here. Unless the two DB's on this side of the field have a call to drop their assignments and pick up the wheel (which leaves another receiver uncovered), it's already over. The rollout to the right holds some defenders and the two wide receivers drag everyone out of Deuce's way:

Here's another "when the coaches in the pressbox see the back of this guy's jersey, they already know it's a TD" situation. Again, I don't know their defensive call here - perhaps the safety was pointing and yelling to this DB to release and take away the deep edge - but numbers-wise, they were screwed as soon as the corner stopped following Deuce in motion. They have five guys on the line, which means they have six guys in back - two on the left, two in the middle, two on the right - and we just sent three to the left.

Seeing the number on this jersey means it's a touchdown:

I mean, he's so incredibly open:

But, uh, hey Art. I know you saw him open and thought "do NOT overthrow this". But you can give it a little more than this. Deuce is fast.

Incredible footwork from Deuce to stay inbounds and score, though.

One and Deuce.

WAIT: Deuce and The One. I like that better.

Clock Help

A high five to the clock operator. While watching the second-to-last play on Saturday night, I started to get worried that it would be the final play. But thankfully, the clock operator had a quick trigger finger.

Here's what I mean. In most games, this clock probably expires. It hits two seconds when the ball is in the air. It then slips through the guys hands, hits the turf, the ref blows his whistle... and that whole time it stayed at two seconds:

I'm guessing they would have reviewed and put one second back on the clock. When watching the video, I used my stopwatch and the whistle happens right when 0:01 would have changed to 0:00. But still, no way there was 0:02 on the clock. The ball didn't even hit the turf until 0:01.

Somewhere there's a UTSA blogger saying "I know we won the game but THIS CANNOT HAPPEN".

Still Close

One final thing. After ALL of that - so many mistakes, so many "third and seven for UTSA and... they complete the pass for a first down" radio calls - we were this close to tying it:

That's the spot where Casey Washington's foot kicks up a tiny bit of rubber pellets as he tries to get a toe down. All of that awful - falling behind by 10 twice in the fourth quarter - and we were still 14 inches from tying it.

That's how far his toe was out of bounds. I totally measured it and everything.


thumpasaurus on September 8, 2021 @ 01:48 PM

Schematically, we did what I hoped we'd do on offense and went after Sincere McCormick. I thought taking our chances with the passing game was better than allowing him any room. Turns out we weren't really equipped to deal with their passing game. Dude got it out of there FAST too.

The frustrating thing is that they were basically playing us on defense like we were playing them. I don't know that they executed it better, but their offense executed the counter to that defense way better and more often than ours did. That's really discouraging and it's shades of EMU running our defense better than us.

The only thing that's got some hope alive here is that now we've seen that we have a long way to go, but we've played two games with these coaches and these new schemes. Teams that are well-coached get better over the course of the year. Are we well-coached? Can we exorcise the "plucky upstart G5 team" demon in four weeks? Can we put it together to beat Rutgers in two months?

Efremwinters84 on September 8, 2021 @ 01:49 PM

Basketball aficionado and a relative football novice here. Your analyses are so darned educational. Great work....and thank you.

IlliniJoe81 on September 8, 2021 @ 02:42 PM

This is what I wanted to see.

I thought the coaching staff made adjustments (great to see!) but the other coaches beat us with a superior game plan and a more talented team than UTSA deserves to have.

I'm not too down on the new coaching staff (still better than most we've had) but we were outcoached.

ktcesw on September 8, 2021 @ 05:21 PM

As soon as we saw a consistent eight in the box, it is time to abandon the run game and throw the football. We were so intent on running in the 1st and 3rd quarters, we were playing right into their hands. I don't have a problem with running the ball but, not against eight in the box. That has always been my problem with BB. You can do whatever you want against 6 or 7 man fronts but, an 8 man front is begging you to pass the ball. Also, I definitely agree with you with defenders funnelling the ball carrier.

Chief4ever on September 10, 2021 @ 12:02 AM

They dared us to throw it, and we just did not have the qb talent to do it. The scores you highlighted showed insanely wide open receivers that had to make great catches of bad passes. More slants, bubble screens, TE releases would have made all the difference. But you need someone that can get rid of the ball quickly with decent accuracy. Box was stacked to stop the run. We didn't respond.

Subortus on September 8, 2021 @ 08:57 PM

Regarding your segment about the need for defenders to "contain" and "funnel" a ball-carrier toward other defenders, I agree with your basic premise. However, in your analysis you seemed to give Quan Martin a free pass. It seemed to me that he was primarily at fault. He completely failed to shed his blocker; he caused congestion; and he basically got in the way of both Tony Adams and Prather Hudson.

skibdaddy on September 9, 2021 @ 02:25 PM

It might be the same play as the Tecmo bowl play, but UTSA had an edge blitz called and we appeared to audible out of a run toward that blitz to the other side, which was perfectly countered by UTSA calling an audible to counter the counter and that defensive play blew up a run and a drive for us too.

Basically, they schematically beat us up and down the field. I was also disappointed that we weren't able to dominate the line of scrimmage against supposedly smaller, weaker and less experienced players.

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