Kyle's been busy bringing you too much information about the Hawaii passing game. Kyle's done a great job of breaking down both the statistical details and the historical development of June Jones' system. It boils down to this: Hawaii moves the ball very well through the air, even against defenses that are far better than average against the pass, using a scheme that's not your father's run and shoot.
The question is how. The answers are many. They include:
a) June Jones' experience: The modified "run and shoot" attack that he's been building for over 20 years just plain works. The guy knows how to get the ball down the field, and he's seen most everything that defensive coordinators have dreamed up to stop the pass-happy scheme.
b) Colt Brennan: Even with a passmeister like June Jones, somebody has to execute the strategy. Brennan is a master of it. He doesn't have the strongest arm of any quarterback. He's not a big threat to get out of the pocket. But he is uncanny at making the presnap reads and checks that are required to make the run and shoot work. "The shoot" differs from the so-called "west coast" offense in that so many of the quarterback's reads are presnap as opposed to postsnap. Remember this point for later.
c) Blocking: I have a weird habit of staying up to watch the late, late ESPN2 games during football season. That means I've seen Hawaii 3 times this season, most recently against Washington. Each time I've come away impressed by their O-Line. They're not the most physical group. If they had to line up and run the ball 15 times straight against an elite defense to kill the clock, they couldn't do it. But that's not what they do. Instead they keep defenders out of the passing lanes, do not allow penetration and keep a uniform "bubble" pocket from which Brennan can distribute the ball. These things, they do very well.
Why am I listing Hawaii's strengths? Because keeping them in mind is critical to understanding how to counter it. Kyle already pointed out that he's not an X and O kind of guy, but he still did a fantastic job of laying out the basics of stopping the run and shoot. I'd like to expand on those basic principles. I think there are three keys, in no particular order:
1) Multiple, disguised looks to destroy the presnap reads. 34Hawk and Kyle already pointed out that one of my favorite "X's and O's" sites, Smart Football, recently did a good article on June Jones' scheme and some of the bedrock concepts that it relies on. One of them is simplifying the reads that receivers have to make. While there are all sorts of things you can do in terms of pass coverage, Hawaii's receivers don't really care what they are. As Kyle pointed out yesterday, they are looking very generally at where the defensive backs and linebackers will be so that they can slink into the holes in the coverage.
This is where disguise is key. If we can keep Brennan and his receivers guessing about whether we're playing 2 deep or 3 deep, we can disrupt their reads. Even better is the ability to drop defensive linemen. As much of a liability as Marcus Howard may be against the run, he could be solid gold in this game. I'm guessing that Howard will really get to play a role similar to the outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme. If you recall the Alabama game from earlier this season, you'll remember that Saban used a 3-4 scheme in which one linebacker sometimes played on the line with his hand down and other times dropped into coverage. That 'backer is the reason the 3-4 came into vogue in the NFL as a means to stop the run and shoot. Having a guy who can line up in the same place and either rush the passer or drop into coverage is a huge asset.
2) Pressure from the front 4. There was a time when defensive coordinators tried to stop the run and shoot by just dropping 6-7 guys into coverage and clogging the passing lanes. It generally didn't work. The reason is that the 4-5 receivers who are out in the pass pattern will find the holes, and may even create holes using picks, scrapes and other techniques to manipulate the defenders. And a good quarterback will pick this kind of coverage apart. The shoot can't be reliably stopped from the receiving end. Instead, you have to disrupt the passer. That's why a good rush from the defensive line is essential. If they can get pressure it shortens the time that Hawaii's receivers have to get into their routes, but more importnantly it makes it harder for Colt Brennan to pick them out, especially if we've disguised the coverage as outlined above. I think you can also expect Dannell Ellerbe and the linebacking crew to try to get to Brennan at all costs. The best case scenario for us has Brennan doing his Jared Zabransky impersonation: ailing, concussed, and suffering from PTSD by halftime. Even if we don't get to him, pressure up front will help disrupt the angles and passing lanes that the short to intermediate passing game relies on.
3) Solid cornerback play. Corner play is the keystone to any pass coverage scheme. If you can't guard people deep and along the sidelines, you're in serious trouble everywhere else. I expect Asher Allen and Prince Miller to get a lot of work. Hawaii's receivers are sure-handed and smart. The good news for us is that none of the guys in their receiver rotation is bigger than 6'2 and 190 pounds. Only one is over 5'11. So, we should be spared the sight of our smallish corners losing out on jump balls.
This will be a great test, as the corners will have to not only play physically, they'll have to play smart. Hawaii will try to get them out of position by flooding the corners with 2 and even 3 receivers, setting picks and going deep selectively. The corners will have to read, react and execute. Perhaps most importantly, they cannot get frustrated. Hawaii will get in their shots. They will make plays. The key will be whether they can string enough of them together to get in the endzone consistently. Tackling will also be important. Hawaii is not going to throw a lot of jump balls. Instead, they'll count on their guys to catch the ball and run with it. Tackling in bowl games is usually not that great because players have not played a game for a month or more beforehand. If our corners tackle poorly, it will be a long and embarassing night.
That's a short look at some of the keys. Bottom line, I feel alot better that we've had a month to get ready for this thing. I also get the impression that our defense is looking forward to this game because they view it as a challenge. Let's hope it is a challenge they're up to. I'd also recommend looking at the links Kyle and 34Hawk already provided. There's all kinds of info out there on the intertubes about the run and shoot, and you X and O types will really enjoy it. What are your thoughts about stopping Hawaii? Anybody got any ideas?