"The first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps."
Run when opponents think you are going to pass. Pass when they think you will run. Utilize odd formations. Break out a funky, unique defense. Take calculated risks. Dominate special teams. Play at an odd pace (either fast or slow). Make playing you offer an experience unlike any other on the schedule. Play like the underdog you are.
This is my wish list for small-budget schools in the oligarchy known as college football. Too many underdogs try to win by playing like heavyweights; it just doesn't work. Play a standard game, and the more talented team will win. You are not the most talented team. Acknowledge that you are not Goliath, then figure out ways to win anyway.
If you read last year's UL-Monroe preview, you know that I am a Todd Berry fan. First of all, he's folksy, as are most people who grow up in northeastern Oklahoma. And who doesn't love folksy coaches? He delivers quotes like the one above, and it warms the folksier cockles of my heart. Beyond that, however, I appreciate the aggressive and creative approach he has attempted in taking on an underdog job. He built, basically, a lifestyle out of underdog tactics in 2010, and it almost earned his team a surprise bowl bid (or at least surprise bowl eligibility). His Warhawks won three one-possession games, almost won a fourth, and finished 5-7.
The Warhawks were bitten by the close-game bug in 2011, however, losing all three one-possession contests; despite a slightly improved overall product, they stumbled because of turnovers, untimely special teams miscues and lack of depth while their rivals in Lafayette went to, and won, their first ever bowl game. Berry enters year three professing that he has the program right where he wants it. His defenses have been salty, and his offenses creative, but in an improving Sun Belt, however, the bar is a little higher than it used to be.
I am rooting for Berry to succeed for one simple reason: I want creativity and aggression to be rewarded. Nothing is more depressing to watch than a David trying to win games like Goliath would. Taking risks occasionally leads to calamity, but if they pay off enough, it might encourage other coaches to take similar risks.
Coaches outside of the SEC, anyway.
ULM is one of the biggest 'Davids' in college football. The resources at the two Directional Louisiana State schools (UL-Monroe, UL-Lafayette) are, like the money, minimal, and to win at a program like ULM means taking anything but a direct approach. […] In 2010, [ULM coach Todd] Berry did his best to do things a bit off-kilter -- running when opponents expected the pass, passing when opponents expected the run, keeping things fast-paced (possibly not the best idea for an underdog), employing the underdog-friendly 3-3-5 defense, etc. -- and the results were decent. […]
Eighteen returning starters and one of the highest 2010 YPP margins in the country suggests that ULM's 2011 ceiling could be rather high ... for ULM, at least. The Warhawks' overall record is still only going to be so good with the three aforementioned
sacrificesbuilt-in losses to Florida State, TCU and Iowa. But all five home games (yes, five ... be thankful you root for a major conference team and continue to take your 6-8 tailgate opportunitieshome games for granted) are winnable, as are road trips to North Texas, UL-Lafayette and Florida Atlantic. The Sun Belt has improved in recent years (five of the conference's seven best teams from 2005-10 played in the last two seasons), but ULM might be able to do some damage. The margin for error will always be thin, but there are some interesting pieces -- and well-utilized underdog strategies -- here.
Funny thing about low margin for error: it doesn't usually hold up against the weight of turnovers and awful special teams. In terms of turnover points, ULM was minus-13.5 in an 11-point loss to Florida International, minus-5.3 in a one-point loss to UL-Lafayette, and minus-11.3 in a 17-point loss to North Texas. They also ranked 117th in Special Teams F/+, screwing up an onside kick against ULL, giving up a kick return touchdown in the final minute of regulation in a three-point loss to Western Kentucky, and suffering a blocked punt in a five-point loss to Arkansas State. Actual strategies and tactics seemed to give ULM a chance at six or seven wins in 2011; execution, and lack thereof, made them 4-8. Four times, the Warhawks outgained their opponents and lost. ULM was pointed in the right direction in terms of the big picture, but the minor details derailed them horribly.
(Of course, it could have been worse. Taking fumble recoveries and dropped interceptions into account, turnover luck apparently gave them a 2.5-point boost per game.)
As a general practice, ULM once again passed a lot on standard downs and ran a decent amount on passing downs. But the numbers suggest they perhaps should have run quite a bit more. A solid line ranked 49th in Adj. Line Yards, running backs Jyruss Edwards, Mitchell Bailey and Centarius Donald combined for a plus-6.7 Adj. POE (which means they were about a touchdown better than the national average in the carries they received), and the Warhawks ranked 61st overall in Rushing S&P+. They were inconsistent but explosive in this regard; the same could be said for Edwards' carries as a whole. He carried 27 times versus Middle Tennessee State, six versus North Texas, three times versus Florida International, and 22 versus Grambling. The run-pass splits seemed to be gameplan- (and lead-) specific, but with the passing game at hand, it is fair to say the gameplan should have possibly been adjusted.
Headed by quarterback Kolton Browning, the ULM aerial attack showed signs of decent efficiency -- Browning completed 58 percent of his passes and threw 13 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. But he took a few too many sacks (sack rate: 6.9 percent), and his receiving corps was almost completely lacking in game-breaking ability. Six players were targeted at least 40 times in 2011, and only one averaged better than 6.0 adjusted yards per target -- No. 6 target Colby Harper (6.8). Go-to guys Brent Leonard and Tavarese Maye, targeted a combined 16.3 times per game, caught 61 percent of their passes but averaged just 11.5 yards per catch. And more often than not, the frequent standard downs passes were just dump-offs to Edwards that went next to nowhere.
Browning, a junior from Mabank, Texas (which, Wikipedia tells me, is a town of 2,000 in the northeastern portion of the state), had sporadic success in 2011 -- 8.5 yards per pass attempt with three touchdowns versus Troy, 5.6 with a touchdown and two sacks versus UL-Lafayette, 3.6 with two picks and four sacks versus Florida International -- but he has certainly shown solid potential. He and the entire corps of last season's running backs return, which gives offensive coordinator Steve Farmer something to lean on as he figures out what he has in the receiving corps. Four of the top six wide receivers (Leonard, Maye, Harper and Je'Ron Hamm) return, and redshirt freshmen Rashon Caesar and Courtney Davis should be able to pretty easily match the production of departed seniors Anthony McCall and Luther Ambrose. But the lack of a gamebreaker could obviously still be an issue. Maye and Hamm probably have the most potential in this regard, but their numbers still leave something to be desired.
The returning skill position players will need to improve simply to account for the fact that the line might regress a bit. Five players with starting experience return a total of 68 career starts (guard Jonathan Gill is a three-year starter), but three multi-year starters are gone. The line was probably the best unit on the offense last year; we'll see if the new guys are as strong as the old ones.
The ULM defense seemed to hold something in reserve for the best opponents. They confounded Florida State for quite a while in an eventual 34-0 loss, and they held Arkansas State to just 24 points. They tended to confuse opponents early (56th in first-quarter S&P+), but they didn't necessarily have the athleticism necessary to finish the job once opponents adjusted (87th in the second quarter, 93rd in the third). On this side of the ball, Berry's "the third year it leaps" theory will be put to the test. He has quite a few interesting, fast newcomers, but the experience is reasonably low compared to last year.
As solid as ULM's offensive line was last year, their defensive line may have been stronger. Or at least, their front six. The 3-3-5 formation is known as much for confusing quarterbacks as anything else, but ULM was downright strong against the run -- 50th in Rushing S&P+, 28th in Standard Downs Success Rate+, 22nd in Adj. Line Yards; opponents knew it, too, rushing six percent less than the national average on standard downs, seven percent on passing downs. Ends Ken Dorsey and Troy Evans combined for 25.5 tackles for loss, and linebackers Cameron Blakes and R.J. Young combined for 13.5 more. The Warhawks attacked and swarmed on standard downs, and it quite often put them in great positions despite the fact that they occasionally leaked some big plays. On passing downs, the D seemed to go more conservative (their Success Rate+ sank to 91st on such downs), but still, ULM made it difficult for opponents to sustain long drives, thanks in part to a wonderfully active front six.
There is quite a bit to replace up front, but there is hope that the turnover won't be too damaging. The top three ends (Dorsey, Evans and Jordan Landry) are all gone, as is tackling-machine linebacker Jason Edwards. Blakes and Young return, however, and in Edwards' place steps Austin Moss, an Arkansas (via junior college) transfer who was a four-star recruit out of high school. The 226-pound junior is already listed as a starter. On the line, there is a lot of hope for tackle-turned-end Kentarius Caldwell (5.5 tackles for loss, four passes broken up in 2011) and redshirt freshman tackle Gerrand Johnson, originally a Missouri signee. Defensive coordinator Troy Reffett had a lot of juggling to do here, but at the very least the unit should be more athletic than a year ago. Athleticism is only part of the battle, of course, but it is something.
For all of ULM's interesting features up front, they struggled to close out drives. The pass rush dissipated on passing downs, and the defensive backs either weren't aggressive enough or simply weren't good enough to make plays. For better or worse, there is a decent amount of turnover in the secondary as well. All three defensive backs with at least four passes defended in 2011 are gone, leaving behind corners Vincent Eddie and Otis Peterson (a solid 2010 contributor), safety Isaiah Newsome, and a host of untested players thrown into more important roles.
After serving as a sacrifice to what are currently three Top 30 teams (Arkansas, Auburn, Baylor) to start the year, ULM will encounter the six-game stretch that will define their season. They host Florida Atlantic, South Alabama and UL-Lafayette, and they visit three eminently beatable teams (Tulane, Middle Tennessee, and the less beatable Western Kentucky) on the road. While an 0-3 start is all but certain, this six-game stretch could see them go anywhere between 6-0 and 1-5. They will probably need to go at least 4-2 in that stretch to reach bowl eligibility, which we will define as the success-or-not line. I don't know if there would be a bowl available to them at 6-6 -- the New Orleans Bowl might be interested, though UL-Lafayette could be a factor there too -- but just reaching the .500 line would be a nice step forward.
I am honestly not sure what to make of the Warhawks heading into 2012. As I mentioned, I like Todd Berry (just as I'm learning I like almost EVERY coach in the increasingly competent Sun Belt), and there are clear reasons for hoping he succeeds, but the schedule once again packs little margin for error. Sweep your four conference home games and take out Tulane and Middle Tennessee on the road, and you have your six wins. But with any misstep along the way, it will be difficult to find another win among the other six games. Current projections have them fourth in the Sun Belt, but they have to prove that they can establish more efficiency on offense, overcome losses on defense, and make something out of their dreadful special teams unit, or else a damning slip-up could be rather likely.
While we're here, let's watch some college football videos from SB Nation's new YouTube channel together: