Extra Points: Can Indiana spoil Justin Fields' Heisman, Playoff dreams?
College football insider Matt Hayes tackles the biggest topics ahead of Saturday’s games.
The blitz is coming
Admit it, you can’t see it, either. How in the world can Indiana beat Ohio State?
The short is answer is by making Ohio State QB Justin Fields feel like he’s playing 15 on defense instead of 11. But that’s a long road to get there.
The good news for IU is that’s what its exotic and successful blitz packages have done to opponents this season. The Hoosiers bring it from everywhere on the field, and the overloads, the safety and corner blitzes, and zone blitzes and zero blitzes, all are designed to one specific thing: get the quarterback out of his comfort zone.
Now, the bad news: Fields is one of the best quarterbacks in college football at not getting rattled, and more important, return to his throwing frame (or as close to it) after he has been knocked off a set.
In other words, no matter how many times Fields is pressured, his ability to move and slide in the picket and reset and throw is critical to the Ohio State offense. His ability to escape and pick up yards in the run game or throw accurately on the run is absolutely deadly to defenses.
He has done it time and again since taking over as the Buckeyes’ starter last season.
“Making him uncomfortable is the key,” IU coach Tom Allen said.
That’s a whole lot harder than it sounds.
“The biggest thing he has going for him is he throws well when it’s dirty, and that can suck the life from a defense,” a Big Ten defensive coordinator told me. “You think you’ve got him, or you’ve got him pressured and he has to get rid of it, and he slides or he finds a crease and his eyes are always down the field. He’s always looking to extend plays. They weren’t that strong in pass (protection) last year as they had been in the past, and it hasn’t changed much this year. It’s just what he does to combat that that kills you. He has thrown 3 interceptions in 2 years, and 2 of them were wrong routes (by the receiver).”
Indiana has blitzed on 41% of dropback throws this season and is averaging 3 sacks a game. The sacks, though, are just the glamour numbers. Affecting the quarterback – his ability to throw the ball accurately, timing, anticipation – is where the real disruption begins and ends.
The Hoosiers have forced 12 turnovers, and those exotic blitz packages and pressure have been the foundation of a defense that gives up yards but makes game-changing plays when it has to.
Will Muschamp’s firing at South Carolina has underscored a reality that even COVID can’t overcome: If someone is willing to fork over the cash, coaches can and will be fired during a pandemic.
It doesn’t matter what you’re owed (Muschamp will be paid $15.3 million to not work for South Carolina), all it takes is one or more deep pocket boosters to make a change. The question: Who’s next?
We’ll start this process with the understanding that if you’re going to give Muschamp $15 million to try to restart South Carolina, one would think the idea of paying a little more to restart USC or Texas or Tennessee might not be as ridiculous as it sounds.
Clay Helton, according to the Los Angeles Times, has a $21 million buyout at USC after this season. Tom Herman’s buyout is $15.4 million at Texas, and Jeremy Pruitt’s buyout is $12.8 million at Tennessee.
“It’s crazy that we talk about those numbers like it’s Monopoly money,” an American Conference athletic director told me this week. “It’s so out of whack. Do you know what I could do with $15 million? Do you know how many programs that have been cut all over collegiate sports could be saved with $15 million?”
Like it or not, this is how big football works. So when you watch USC play at Utah this weekend, know that what would be inconceivable to most (paying huge walkaway money), it’s cold, hard reality to just about every Power 5 school.
When you watch Michigan try this weekend to turn around a 1-3 start at Rutgers, imagine what will happen should Michigan lose as a heavy favorite. Jim Harbaugh, the 4th-highest paid coach in college football, only – think about that, only – has a $6.3 million buyout.
Tennessee’s game last week against Texas A&M was postponed, more than likely delaying yet another ugly loss for a Vols program that has lost 4 straight and needs a minor miracle to avoid losing 7 of their last 8 to finish the season – and maybe 8 straight if Vanderbilt (which also could be looking for a new coach) backs up recent success against the Vols (Vandy has won 3 of the last 4 in the series).
Kansas vs. Texas was postponed this week and will be made up Dec. 12. By that time, KU’s winless streak will have hit 13 in a row under Les Miles ($8.5 million) and 17 of 18. Meanwhile, Herman might just need that game to get another season in Austin.
“I see a lot of people complaining about coaching contracts,” an agent told me this week. “Why? Because these guys want security? If these buyouts aren’t part of the process, then what? There has to be a check of sorts on universities just dumping guys and starting over, and walking away without any financial risk.”
Just for the curious, the top 6 buyouts in college football, according to USA Today:
- Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M: $53.1 million
- Dabo Swinney, Clemson: $50 million
- Ryan Day, Ohio State: $45.4 million
- Nick Saban, Alabama: $36.8 million
- Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma: $30.9 million
- Scott Frost, Nebraska: $25.3 million
An overlooked benefit
Looking for trend to watch play out this weekend? Watch how Alabama plays at home against Kentucky.
Numerous coaches have told me over the last month that an overlooked positive – if you can call it that – from postponements or cancelations of games is the ability to rest and refocus. A majority of the major Power 5 heavyweights have come back stronger from extended breaks due to COVID (see: Wisconsin, Florida).
“You’ve got a bunch of guys grinding for months, physically and mentally, and the season finally arrived and they’re playing and the next thing you know, they’re told to stop,” a Power 5 coach told me. “Now they have a reason to stop. They’re allowed to stop. You can breathe again and recalibrate things. You’d be shocked at the increased teaching that happens during those breaks. It’s a heightened awareness because you know it can be taken away at any moment, and you better do everything you can to make it count.”
When Alabama plays Kentucky in Tuscaloosa Saturday, it will be 3 weeks since the last time the Tide played, a 41-0 win over Mississippi State. Alabama had played 6 straight weeks prior to the Mississippi State game and had pushed through COVID as hard or harder than any team in the country.
Alabama was one of the first teams to extensively test players, and its stringent protocols have been paramount in keeping the program from experiencing a breakout that can pause a season. That’s as big a mental grind as the game itself.
Watch how well the Tide plays this weekend against one the SEC’s better defenses — after 3 weeks of rest and recalibration.
Come back and play
One of the lost benefits from this COVID season is the free year of eligibility given to every player.
In layman’s terms: This season doesn’t count against a player’s NCAA clock, no matter where he is.
If you’re a true freshman playing this season, you still have 4 years of eligibility starting in 2021. If you’re a junior this season, you’re a junior in 2021. Get it?
The intriguing thought for 2021 is how many draft-eligible juniors, seniors or even 5th-year seniors, will delay the NFL to stay one more season in college football? At the top of the list are quarterbacks on emerging teams: D’Eriq King of Miami and Ian Book of Notre Dame.
Understand that players, for the most part, want to play in the NFL and, more important, get paid for playing game because there are only so many potential earning years. But the advent of an NCAA bylaw that will allow players to make money off their name, image and likeness could be a game-changer.
Suddenly, those who stay for another season – even draft-eligible juniors who in years past would leave – have a chance to earn money marketing themselves. And let’s face it, Book and King aren’t exactly NFL prototype quarterbacks – but both could lead their teams to huge seasons in 2021.
“There will be a lot of recruiting happening over the next couple of months – players currently on the roster and high schoolers,” a Power 5 coach told me. “If you have a guy that you’ve invested a few years in, and he’s an all-conference type player who may not be fast enough or big enough for the NFL, you better believe he’s a bigger recruit than some young dude in high school – even if that recruit is a 4- or 5-star guy.”