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Transitioning From Birmingham To Lubbock

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After the wailing and gnashing of teeth had subsided, something surprising jarred my memory while I mentally reviewed the Owls' defensive effort (if it can be called that) against UAB.

More often than during any game I can recall under David Bailiff, the Owls appeared to have shown sound assignment principles against the Blazers. The Owls' tackling was as poor as it appeared because more often than not, they were actually in proper position to make the play. So when Bailiff noted on Monday that video review confirmed what I suspected, all I could do was shake my head in amazement. The Owls were this close to executing the game plan.

"We had one of our better days of having so few missed assignments and alignments. We had one of our worst days at finishing at the point of attack," Bailiff said during his weekly press conference. "Way too many missed tackles."

Two days after the debacle, Bailiff continued to hammer at his players' passion and willingness to take risks defensively, and as much as he tried to shoulder the blame for their lack of preparation, there is no getting around the fact that the Owls can't play timidly. It cost them dearly against UAB senior quarterback Joe Webb, whose 415 total yards and four touchdowns made him the obvious choice for Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week honors.

"It was hard to watch," Owls sophomore safety Travis Bradshaw said of the gruesome game film. "It really comes down to attitude. A lot of the attitude out there wasn't like it was last year. Our assignments - we knew what we were doing. We just weren't making plays.

"We know that we're better than that. Next week is another opportunity to prove that we're better than that."

Said Bailiff: "We can be a lot better on that side of the football and should be a lot better on that side of the football. They're a prideful bunch, and you'll see a defense that will be greatly improved."

Perhaps Texas Tech, which is annually positioned near the top of the national rankings in total offense with Mike Leach at the controls, is the wrong opponent to use as a measure for defensive improvement. However, if the Owls simply tackle like FBS athletes, most everyone will be a tad happier. The expectation isn't for a shutout, but rather a defensive effort that can be built upon, one similar to the Owls' performance against UH in the 2008 Bayou Bucket.

The issues on offense aren't so cut and dry. Bailiff was hesitant to roundly applaud Nick Fanuzzi, opting to focus as much attention on his misreads in the running game as his exceptional stewardship of the passing attack. Without disparaging fifth-year senior John Thomas Shepherd, Bailiff made it clear that Fanuzzi was the better quarterback last Saturday by naming him the starter this weekend at Texas Tech. In fact, despite not explicitly saying so, Bailiff effectively put a clock on the quarterback rotation by stating Fanuzzi will remain in the game if, "Nick leads us down the field and we score twice. But I think it's just for the good of this football team that we need to continue that a little longer."

Fanuzzi did err on occasion with the read option, but the only way he will improve in that aspect is through game reps. Now, would Bailiff be prudent in throwing Fanuzzi to the wolves against the Red Raiders and Oklahoma State when he has much more room to develop? No. And with Shepherd providing a welcome change of pace and the potential to eliminate his crippling mistakes in the red zone, there is a justifiable rationale for playing both on Saturday. However, the two-series-per-quarterback rotation should soon go the way of the dodo bird.

"Sometimes you just look at that stat sheet and see Nick was 12 of 20 with a touchdown and 154 yards and everybody wants to say, 'Nick's the guy,'" Bailiff said. "John did a lot of good things in that game, too."

Said senior receiver Toren Dixon: "It's hard for receivers and I know it's tough for those quarterbacks basically playing a series here and there. It takes time. You need reps and you need to be in tune with the game, and coming out every other series makes it hard to get in rhythm."

Sophomore center Keshawn Carrington had an outstanding debut as a starter, drawing the Blazers offside on three occasions while converting 100 percent of his assignments and snapping accurately in a steady rain. He was deserving of Player of the Game honors, and if the Owls can sort out their glut at tailback and receiver, Fanuzzi and the linemen can start the process of getting the entire offense on the same page. The beauty of having Chase Clement entrenched at quarterback was that the receivers knew his arm angle and where the ball would be delivered. With two quarterbacks attempting to orchestrate the offense, constant adjustments are required of the receivers, many of whom earned their first taste of the spotlight. Perhaps that explains key drops by Luke Willson, Vance McDonald and Derek Clark.

But beyond the solid effort on special teams, Bailiff was pleasantly surprised by the youthful offense. Had the Owls managed to convert those two first-quarter penetrations into the red zone, perhaps the outcome is different. But those failings shouldn't mar an otherwise strong effort by a unit with two new starters on the line, two quarterbacks in relatively foreign roles, and several skill players asked to make significant contributions for the first time. The triplets are sorely missed, but it might not take the Owls too long to reload on offense. Not long at all.

"We're going to get consistently better on that side of the football - fast" Bailiff said. "We're a little better now than I thought we would be."

Back to the defense for a second. The Scott Solomon Experiment will be shelved, with the junior from San Antonio moving back to his natural position at end this weekend. Perhaps Solomon will get a rep or two inside, but by and large the decision to move him inside to tackle did not pay the sort of dividends Bailiff and the defensive staff had eagerly anticipated.

"I don't know if you're going to see him as much inside anymore because I thought we lost some of what he's been able to do being at defensive end," Bailiff said. "When he played end he got off the ball well because I thought he was very confident, but when we moved him inside sometimes he was late off the football and wasn't as disruptive as we though he would be. So there may be just some special situations where we put him down in there."

Getting senior tackle Chance Talbert, who took eight snaps at UAB, up to speed will only help.

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6 Comments

Will Talbert be able to play significant time at Tech?

I'm not sure if I should feel good or bad about the fact that the defense played their assignments well. Their performance seems worse but I guess it means that at least one thing doesn't have to be fixed. Or it means that they played the proper assignments but were given the wrong ones to stop the opponent.

Owl-88: Talbert should play more against the Red Raiders and, according to Bailiff, the defensive calls were accurate more often than not against UAB. - MK

Good stuff, MK.

Glad to see our coaches quickly make adjustments at QB and with #13. Any word if things might change a little at RB?

Agree with your trepidation, Owl-88, but I'd lean toward encouragement that our assignments were played well. As we acclimate to game speed and stop facing Vince Young incarnate, we should start making those plays.. we'll see though.

At Ease: I was surprised to see The Scott Solomon Experiment fail because Solomon plays with such passion and intensity that I expect anything he does to work splendidly. However, he belongs at end, so perhaps he will have a greater impact there this weekend. As for tailback, Bailiff was pleased with what Smith, Knox and Ross provided. Perhaps the split will shrink in the near future. - MK

Hey MK, are we going to see more work this week in pads to improve on the tackling?

Also, OT, do you have an ETA of the Men's basketball schedule? I've seen a pieced together schedule online from another site, but there are still some holes left to be filled.

d1owls4life: I'm curious to see if more workouts in pads or more work on the fundamentals of tackling does the trick. As for the schedule, it should be officially released sometime this week. Lots of red tape to cut through on that one. - MK

MK, just saw your twitter update. Did something catastrophic happen to Calhoun's knee? Don't remember seeing it, although I did tune out during the 4th quarter.

So unfortunate to see his career end. What do you think of Briggs?

d1owls4life: Do you remember the play when Calhoun blitzed up the middle and missed making the tackle on Webb? Well, when he planted his leg on that play he felt something pop. It was his ACL. In all honesty I am pretty bummed because Cal was one of my favorite guys who I wanted to see get some redemption as a senior. Getting hurt sucks; getting hurt as a senior triply sucks. As for Briggs, I like him - a lot. He runs well and seems to be instinctive, which is something the older LBs - all of whom played another position in high school or at Rice - lack to an extent. - MK

I do seem to recall that play. I figured it had to be something subtle. That is such a shame for him. No chance to take a medical or is he not interested in that?

d1owls4life: I haven't spoken with Cal so I don't want to assume anything, but if he is on pace to graduate on time, he'd have to weight the importance of rehabbing from ACL surgery to get on the field to play a role in 2010. That's a tough road. - MK

Sorry to hear about Calhoun. Wishing him a speedy recovery.

As for the Solomon experiment, I always thought that putting him inside on most downs didn't make sense. The pros have the right idea of moving certain types of DEs inside on obvious passing downs, but not trying to make it an every down kind of thing. I certainly wouldn't do it against the mammoth TTU line except in obvious passing situations; otherwise, he would just get worn out by the guards or center.

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