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The Aftermath: Basking Edition

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Thursday night, I was doing a little extra work on some N.C. State stuff (more on that later), so I missed Butch Jones' postgame presser, but as I came up to catch the tail end of it, I was locked outside.

Fortunately, the five players requested to speak to the media were hanging out waiting to go in as well. So I started talking with Isaiah Pead and Zach Collaros, who were still wired from the 44-14 win. We were joking a little bit about the running ability of ZC -- which was illustrated last night as he ran nine times for 52 yards and two touchdowns.

PeadVsNCState.jpg"Zach's got the wheels," Pead said. "That's the general. He will do it all."

The conversation shifted a bit to the dynamics of the zone-read running game utilized between the two of them.

Collaros was talking about what he looks for and why the two of them have so much success with it.

"It's all how they are playing their defense," Collaros said. "NC State did a lot of moving, slanting the D-line. So my read became the end of the line of scrimmage guy which would be a Will linebacker or Mike. Our offense did a good job of knowing our zone blitzes and stuff. All you got to do is give him a crease and a cutback lane."

Collaros, while not a burner like Pead (who is?), is extremely effective as a ball-carrier. His vision and shiftiness are apparent. And have been apparent since the first play of the emergence of his career at USF. 


Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian showed more dedication in utilizing Pead/Collaros as a 1-2 punch than we've seen. There's no denying the effectiveness.

Take this into consideration. UC rushed for 240 yards on Thursday.

It has rushed for 175 yards or more only six times since Jones' arrival. Want to know the common theme between all six of those?

Those represent six of Jones' seven wins.

You could rationalize that because a team will tend the run the ball more when leading, that's where the connection lies. Sure, you would be right. But try this next stat on for size when judging the significance of the running game.

Last year, UC averaged better than five yards per rush on four different occasions. Those would be four victories against Indiana St., Miami, Louisville and Rutgers. When they failed to rush for more than five a lug they were 0-8.

The theory took a small hit when the Cats lost to Tennessee despite averaging 6.8 yards a rush (only 26 carries). They also beat Akron with only 3.64 yards per carry (Much of that diminished with numerous second-half runs with second team stuffed as the clock ran out).

Stilll, without doubt, UC's  best performances and nearly all of their wins came when the running game was effective. It's the clear common thread.

Thus, where the chemistry between ZC and Pead comes into play. Particularly Thursday night you saw it in the progress made in much-maligned short-yardage situations that doomed the Cats in Knoxville.

As part of the short-yardage package adjustments UC sent three players in motion and let Zach and Isaiah pick which way the ball would go.

It worked well, not only during short-yardage but during the course of the game. Pead's 27 carries for 167 yards help validate that.

UC was three for three on third-and-short situations (one other opportunity never occurred due to a false start on Andre Cureton).

Third-and-1: ZC rush, 3 yards, TD drive
Third-and-1: ZC roll out, complete pass Travis Kelce, 6 yards, TD drive
Third-and-2: Converted, but personal foul Randy Martinez

Both played off the defense reacting to the prowess and respect for Pead as a ball-carrier.

Of course, Pead claims he can be much more than that.

"I got the arm, too," Pead joked, looking over at his quarterback, "but I let him do that."



--- Two other elements of the running game stuck out in retrospect. The offensive line had yet another fantastic day. Sure, NC State was decimated on the defensive line. They already were without two starters when another, star DT Brian Slay, injured his foot. Tom O'Brien said they were playing a walk-on and freshman on the line.

All that said, the Cats allowed only one sack despite 34 passes and 21 blitzes called by the Wolfpack. Oh yeah, and 240 yards gained on the ground. By the tail end of the second half it was apparent UC was physically dominating on most every snap up front.

The UC lineman saw it, too. 

"The line they did their thing today," Pead said. "They outphysicaled them. They performed and they were calling them out. They said keep running the ball, keep running the ball, coach. We may have a pass play drawn up and then we'd say, 'No, we want to keep running.' We want to take their will away. I feel that is what they did. They let me do the things I was able to do."

Can't say enough how much I love the concept of the line looking at a pass play and calling out for another run. It says something about the confidence this collection of guys have in each other. I wrote about it last week, but its more apparent now than ever, they have transformed from perceived weakness to strength of this team.

The other aspect of the running game is the ability to now salt games away pounding the rock. In the Brian Kelly era, UC would put teams away with its quick-strike offense, but continually allow the other team's offense on the field. That's not the case now.

By the time the Bearcats took a 34-14 lead with 2:57 left in the third quarter, UC ran 24 offensive plays. Fourteen of those were runs and that includes three pass attempts from inside the 5-yard line where the Cats were set on attempting to throw a TD from a goal-to-go situation. Take those out and you have 66 percent of the plays on the ground.

More importantly, they soaked up 11:30 of the final 16:13 with the ball in their hands and Wolfpack offense on the sideline.

"It's definitely a different philosophy," Collaros said. "Coach Jones said all the time we want to be a physical team first, offensively, defensively and special teams and we want to be able to run the ball. We won a lot of games in the past, but to win consistently you have to have a running game. We are fortunate enough to have a back like Isaiah and back coming off the bench like George (Winn), whose doing well."

Here's some more from Isaiah last night.

 


--- Pat O'Donnell booted the second-longest punt in UC history last night. His 76-yard bomb was no product of favorable bounces. This rocket flew a good 60 or so in the air. Not only was it 76 yards, but buried N.C. State at its own 3-yard line.

Who was one of the first people to greet him when coming off the field? Former Bearcats punting star and current Bengal Kevin Huber.

"I probably shouldn't have," said Huber, who jokingly took credit for teaching O'Donnell how to do it. Huber said he worked O'Donnell during the summer when he was down there.

The craziest stat is that O'Donnell's kick was the second-longest in school history, but Huber doesn't own the record. That belongs to Mike Connell, who hit a 78-yarder in 1976.

Regardless, O'Donnell's punt was a game-changer.

"That was a big play," Jones said. "Even though we gave up the PI to give them the first down, still the field position was critical. I thought that was a big part of the game with Pat's (O'Donnell) punt."

--- Tony Miliano had been struggling, particularly with long field goals. He already had two blocked this year. Instead, he hit a career-long 48-yarder with room to spare. It was just that kind of night.

--- On Twitter I jokingly kept calling the Bearcats the Turnover Margin Express. The turnaround this team has made from one year to the next in the category is amazing.

Last year, they finished at minus-15, 119th in the country.

They gained a total of 14 takeaways in 12 games last season. They now have 16 through the first four. Their turnover margin of 3.5 per game is second nationally to Rutgers (4.0).

Last month, I wrote about the greatest turnover margin turnarounds in recent BCS football. The only program that compares to what UC had done was Baylor who flipped from 119th to 4th in the country.

It seemed every bounce went against the Bearcats last year, but this season its been the opposite.

Here's Drew Frey, who had the first interception of the night, summing up the game.

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