Monday, October 27, 2008

Preparation Precedes Performance

If you are prepared properly, you can create opportunities within the sphere of your opposition..

"... When the army has penetrated deep into hostile territory, leaving far behind many enemy cities and towns, it is in serious ground. ... In serious ground I would ensure a continuous flow of provisions. ... Take advantage of the enemy's unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions. ... Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy's unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions. ..." --- Sunzi Art of War Chapter 11

October 26, 2008
So Spread Out, So Hard to Catch

TULSA, Okla. When Rice Coach David Bailiff prepared for Tulsa’s fast-paced no-huddle, spread offense, he noticed that the videotapes had recorded some of the action in midplay.

He wondered if the missing tape was a bit of gamesmanship. That was until his team lost, 63-28. Not only could Rice not keep up with Tulsa on the field, but the Owls’ video staff also could not keep up with recording the Golden Hurricane’s offense.

You think they’re starting their camera late, Bailiff said in a telephone interview, but then you realize that’s just how fast they’re going.

All season, opponents have been playing catch-up to No. 22 Tulsa (7-0, 4-0 Conference USA) and its offense, which entered the weekend ranked first in total offense (624.7 yards a game) and scoring (56.6) in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

In his first season as a starter, the fifth-year senior quarterback David Johnson has blossomed into a stealth Heisman Trophy contender and thrown for 2,397 yards. He led the nation in touchdown passes (31) and passing efficiency (212.8).

Under the energetic second-year coach Todd Graham, Tulsa could be on the verge of crashing the Bowl Championship Series, despite having the smallest enrollment of any top-division member (4,165). Entering Sunday’s home game against Central Florida, Tulsa is ranked No. 19 in the B.C.S. standings and is halfway to its goal of posting a 14-0 record and winning the Orange Bowl for the first time since 1945.

I’m going to have to study his offense and see what new wrinkles that we can put in, said Michigan Coach Rich Rodriguez, a spread-offense guru, for whom Graham used to work as a defensive assistant at West Virginia.

Of Tulsa’s remaining regular-season opponents, only Houston entered Saturday with a winning record. Tulsa’s toughest challenge could be at Arkansas on Nov. 1.

But that is only if the Razorbacks can figure out how to slow the Golden Hurricane offense, which tries to snap the ball in the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock. Tulsa has outscored their opponents by an average of 56.6 to 27.1 this season.

It just feels like the opposing teams have no chance, the senior wide receiver Brennan Marion said.

The up-tempo offense
, which Central Arkansas Coach Clint Conque called smoke and mirrors after losing to Tulsa last month, causes alignment mistakes and fatigue among defenses. The hectic offense has been known to leave opposing players gasping for breath. Tulsa has outscored opponents by 302-118 after the first quarter.

They have the fastest-paced offense I’ve ever seen, said Bailiff, a 27-year coaching veteran.

Tulsa’s dynamism can be traced to Graham, who was hired in 2007 after he coached Rice to its first bowl in 45 years in his lone season there. Before that, he was the Golden Hurricane’s defensive coordinator for three seasons under Steve Kragthorpe, who left for Louisville in 2007.

A plastic orange with 14-0 written on it and a Bible turned to Psalms sat on a desk in Graham’s office, and The Art of War was in a bookcase.

Graham, the son of a single mother with an eighth-grade education who raised five children, arrives for work at 6 a.m. daily, and sleeps twice a week in his office on a blue air mattress that his wife bought. He makes his secretaries answer the telephone, University of Tulsa, home of the champions.

His players often tease him for his telling them to do a handspring out of bed in the morning to ensure a positive attitude.

I’m fired up to be doing this, said Graham, 43, who has six children. Can you believe I get paid to do this? It’s a great job. I don’t want to be around the fellowship of the miserable. I am jacked that I get to work.

But even though Graham had recruited many of Tulsa’s players during his first stint with the team, they seemed unsure about his boundless enthusiasm when he returned.

In his first team meeting after being introduced as that coach, Graham stated that his goals for last season were a 14-0 record and an Orange Bowl victory. His words were met with awkward silence.

We were like: ‘This guy is crazy,’ the senior offensive tackle Rodrick Thomas said. ‘He’s rambling. He’s way too ecstatic and needs to calm down.’

With the innovative Gus Malzahn as a co-offensive coordinator, Tulsa led the nation in total offense at 543.9 yards a game last season. It also became the first team with a 5,000-yard passer, three 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard running back in N.C.A.A. history.

But instead of playing in the Orange Bowl, the Golden Hurricane whipped Bowling Green, 63-7, in the GMAC Bowl to finish 10-4.

Undeterred, Graham announced in a team meeting in January that his goals for this season were again a 14-0 record and an Orange Bowl victory. This time, his players nodded in agreement. As a reminder, the trophies from the university’s 1945 Orange Bowl and 2005 Conference USA championship were placed on the field during every off-season workout.

We bought in this year, Thomas said.

As chaotic as Tulsa’s offense looks, there is logic to it. Malzahn is required to design a game plan within Graham’s parameters, which are based on his 22 years of coaching defense.

If I just let him do whatever he wanted to, he’d throw the ball every play, Graham said of Malzahn, who had previously been Arkansas’s offensive coordinator.

Graham, who is sure to be mentioned for prominent coaching jobs after this season, requires establishing the run to set up play-action passing. Ideally, he wants an equal mix of passing and rushing plays.

Graham also mandates multiple formations with simplicity in plays, sets with multiple tight ends, the option and even the triple option out of the shotgun, as well as misdirection in rushing and passing. He also demands five plays a quarter to throw the ball deep outside the hash marks and continual changes in the spacing in formations.

We basically run on offense everything I hate to defend, Graham said. We’re going to be in the left lane, man. We ain’t in the right lane. We’re in the left lane, hammered down.

Even Johnson occasionally seems to marvel at the offense.

There’s a lot of stuff that I’ve never seen before, said Johnson, whose only major scholarship offer was from Tulsa. I don’t even how it’s going to work sometimes, but then it does. It’s just crazy.

Despite the lack of national attention relative to their ranking, Johnson and his teammates hardly seem to mind. He just seems glad that Tulsa is finally getting respect locally.

At a recent home game, Johnson recalled not seeing fans in the stands wearing Oklahoma and Oklahoma State apparel for the first time in his career.

As we keep winning, our sphere of influence is getting bigger, he said.

Trying to catch them, either on tape or on the field, is the challenge.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company


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