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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Commentary

Methodical run game new face for Cougars


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Junior running back Ryan Jackson and the Cougars have seen running lanes open easier because of sophomore Greg Ward’s speed and elusiveness at the quarterback position. | Justin Tijerina/TheCougar

The Cougars’ offense has gone from OneOfTheFastestUnitsInTheNation to one of the   slowest    the     program      has       seen        in         a           long          time.

Fans can kiss the Cougars’ triple-espresso, rapid-scoring offense goodbye (at least for this season) and welcome in a run-heavy regimented offense that moves more like a snail compared to the teams in the past half-decade.

In the past three games, the Cougars’ time of possession has averaged nearly 35 minutes, the first time they have averaged more than their opponents since 2007, and even though the offense ranks 100th in the nation in yards per play (5.14) — a raised eyebrow compared to being ranked three times in the top five three of the last six seasons — the offense has still been able to average its season-scoring average of 28 points per game in the three wins since quarterback Greg Ward took over as the starter.

The sophomore signal-caller has helped his Cougars rip off three straight wins and propelled a team back into conference championship aspirations after many began to question whether the team with high expectations in the preseason would even reach a bowl game after starting out 2-3.

In this offensive scheme, more run-heavy, it is less complex than it was when the Cougars were chucking it more than 40 times a game before Ward was inserted. He has been efficient in his 26 averaged pass attempts per game, and the Cougars have not turned the ball over in 10 quarters.

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With the threat of taking it to the outside off zone reads, sophomore quarterback Greg Ward’s speed and elusiveness has helped put the Cougars back in the conference championship contention with a dynamic rushing attack. | Justin Tijerina/ The Cougar

Three-headed monster

Ward’s elusiveness and speed out of the shotgun formation accompanied by either — or sometimes both — junior running backs Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson, has given defensive coordinators nightmares. All three have split the amount of carries since Ward took over. Jackson has rushed 41 times, Farrow 40 and Ward 37, combing for seven touchdowns in the stretch.

The varying run formations that include shotgun with zone read plays have confused defenders enough to allow the Cougars to average better than four yards a carry while averaging 45 rush attempts per game; most importantly, gaining positive yardage on first and second down.

“(Defenders) have been keying on me a little bit, and me carrying out my fakes have helped open holes and running lanes for our running backs,” Ward said.

Head coach Tony Levine said, “It may not seem like much, but if a linebacker has to hesitate for just a half second, wondering if he has the ball (or not), it has allowed our offensive line to get a better angle. The motion has hurt their linebackers’ vision.”

Keeping it simple

The Cougars have been playing small ball, and most of the passes Ward completes are short and high percentage (the Cougars’ 5.9 yards per pass attempt ties for 115th in the nation), which has put the offense in a good position to move the chains and eat some time off the clock.

In the Cougars’ first five games, they struggled to sustain drives by converting just 34 percent of their third-downs; now, the offense has converted 45 percent of its third-downs since Ward, who has since completed 73 percent of his passes, took over.

This scheme offensive coordinator Travis Bush has built tailors perfectly to Ward and his versatile skill set, and the team is finally clicking on all and seems to  have found its stride.

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