Gridiron Grandmasters Pt. 5: Manny Diaz Saves Miami’s D vs. NC State

There are several theories as to why Miami’s defense was steamrolled by NC State through three quarters and then completely shut them down in the fourth quarter. Some fans believe that defensive coordinator Blake Baker figured out how to counter NC State’s offense; others believe that players on defense took upon themselves to win the game for the Canes; most fans, however, are convinced that Head Coach Manny Diaz took over the playcalling for the 4th quarter and saved his team and his good friend Blake Baker from a loss and additional scrutiny from the Miami fan base.

Applying the strategic lens of chess to the defensive playcalls, it is clear to me that if Manny Diaz did not take over the literal calling of plays in the fourth quarter, he definitely took over the philosophy of the play calls leading to a more effective result and a victory for Miami.

The chess strategies applied to football in prior articles are for both offense and defense. There is only one distinction which is applied to offensive and defensive playcalls: playcalls on offense are the same as moves by white, while playcalls on defense are the same as moves by black. In chess, there is an inherent advantage in making the first move which is a privilege given to the white pieces. Black’s opening moves that are designed to foil white’s strategy are called defenses.

Defenses can be aggressive or passive. Blake Baker employs one of the most passive defensive strategies in college football known as “bend don’t break” defense. The weaknesses of this strategy was on full display in the first two drives against NC State.

The first drive started on the 11 yard line due to a special teams mishap by NC State. Instead of aggressively attacking NC State’s offense with pressure, Baker called a coverage where Miami’s defensive backs were 8+ yards off of the line of scrimmage, allowing NC State’s quarterback (their third string, no less) to have an easy throw to open the game, giving him an immediate boost of momentum for nothing. The first touchdown came on a trick play QB screen called by NC State when the second string D line came in to give the starters a break. Clearly, the defense was not ready after a bye week, just like they were not ready for Clemson’s trick play a month earlier.

The second drive was just as bad or worse than the first drive. Miami gave up a first down after jumping offsides, an occurrence which happened on multiple occasions throughout the night. After giving up consecutive passes for 24 yards each, Baker called a delayed blitz by its linebackers which left the secondary exposed and DJ Ivey was toasted in the endzone for a second NC State touchdown.

Miami’s run defense by its linebackers was abysmal: two-thirds of the run plays called by NC State on its first two drives led to missed assignments by one or more of the linebackers. What’s worse is that the linebackers are directly coached by Baker! And it was the unit’s poor play that opened up NC State’s run game. As a result, NC State averaged 4.5 yards per carry on its first two drives and forced Miami to focus on countering the running game. Baker’s decision to use delayed blitzes by the linebackers was not only ineffective, it also made the pass defense vulnerable, and NC State capitalized for four chunk plays of 20+ yards in the first two drives.

The only plays which were positive for Miami’s defense on the first two drives were because of excellent effort plays by two players: Quincy Roche blew up a double team on one running play, covered a screen pass which forced an incompletion, and swatted a pass that was almost intercepted; Te’Cory Couch came in on the second drive and created havoc on 2 corner blitzes that were called after NC State was inside the redzone. The defense failed to capitalize on the opportunities created by Couch’s blitzes, but they still were disruptive in an otherwise smooth series of plays for NC State’s offense. In comparison, Miami’s defense was slow and sloppy and gave little to no resistance to NC State in the first quarter.

Throughout the night, NC State’s offense looked unstoppable. Bubba Bolden, Miami’s free safety and arguably its most dynamic defender, never got beat deep, but also was never involved in a play except when NC State caught the ball 20+ yards downfield. His frustration was evident as he was never in a position to make a dynamic play, instead being the last line of defense on all of the big plays made by NC State. Baker’s bend don’t break philosophy was poorly executed and as a result, Miami gave up 410 yards and averaged 6.5 yards per play for the game.

And then, the fourth quarter happened:
Miami’s defense forced two punts, a sack, and an interception, and only gave up one first down; NC State’s running game disappeared with three rushes for negative four yards rushing!

Credit must be given to the players for giving incredible effort in the fourth quarter. 3 of them stood out: 1) Nesta Jade Silvera was a man possessed in the fourth quarter with two tackles for loss and two QB pressures; 2) Quincy Roche had a sack and contained the running game when the linebackers missed their run defense assignment yet again; and 3) Te’Cory Couch came in on two different drives and blitzed from his corner position, leading to a knockdown and sack on both blitzes.

But did the playcalling change? I believe it did. Miami still ran Baker’s base defense, a 4-2-5/4-3 Cover 2 hybrid that had been exposed all night on the numerous zone flood rollout left plays called by NC State to assist its left-handed QB. However, three differences show that there was a dramatic shift in how the defense was run in the 4th quarter.

First, the defense as a whole was positioned closer to the line of scrimmage in the 4th quarter than it was during the rest of the game. This meant that even when the linebackers missed their assignment yet again, other players were nearby to cover for their mistakes and limit the damage.

Second, all of the players were far more aggressive in defending their zones during the 4th quarter, to the point that three Canes were grouped on one receiver while a second was open on NC State’s only first down in the 4th quarter. This aggression was not present throughout the rest of the game, and it paid off with a tipped pass and an interception to win the game for Miami on NC State’s last drive.

Finally, Te’Cory Couch was turned into a blitz machine in the 4th quarter. He had blitzed throughout the night, starting with NC State’s second drive. But in the 4th quarter, his positioning was changed fairly drastically. In the 1st quarter, Couch was repeatedly sent from the left side of the line which was the short side of the field and the strong side of NC State’s quarterback. This allowed the quarterback to see the blitz coming and allowed him to react in time. In the 4th quarter, both blitzes were sent from the wide right side of the line and thus the blind side of NC State’s quarterback, leading to pressure and bad passes. By sending Couch from out wide, it was also more difficult for the quarterback to even tell that he was blitzing, as he had to come from farther away. But, by disguising its coverages, Miami was able to move Couch close enough to get a jump on the offensive line when the ball was snapped, creating great opportunities for Couch to succeed. Miami did not disguise any of its coverages in the first quarter and rarely did it during the rest of the game.

All of these points are, of course, circumstantial, as the only way to prove that Manny called the 4th quarter is if he admits to the public that he did, which he will never do to protect Blake. However, what I do know is that Manny is the same coach who created the turnover chain and preached a blitz-heavy aggressive defensive philosophy which generated turnovers for 2 years before he became the head coach. Blake Baker does not have the same philosophy and the decrease in turnovers by the Canes over the past season and a half proves that. The only logical explanation as to why Miami came out playing aggressively close to the line and using disguised blitzes in the 4th quarter is that Miami started following Manny’s philosophy.

In chess, it is almost impossible to dramatically alter one’s philosophy in the middle of a game, especially once you reach the endgame. The player who attempts to change gears in the middle of the game leaves too many things unaccounted for and typically loses. A crucial element of the endgame is to “think from the end” and use the endgame as the goal that you strive for throughout the game. As such, one’s moves in the beginning and middle of the game are made with the endgame in mind. The defensive playcalling in the fourth quarter was based on a different philosophy than the first three quarters, and as such there was no “thinking from the end” that could have been done by Blake Baker. Manny Diaz implemented his philosophy in the 4th quarter and it was more effective than Blake’s. It is irrelevant whether Manny actually called the plays or not because from a chess perspective, Manny was dictating the strategy, and the results speak for themselves.

Should Manny take over the defensive playcalling? Absolutely. In terms of “thinking from the end”, Miami’s offense excels when it has more chances to run plays fast and score relentlessly. Whoever is physically calling the defensive plays should be using Manny’s philosophy, as it is more successful in generating turnovers. By giving the offense more possessions through turnovers, the team as a whole will get better, plus Miami’s defense will be more dynamic which will make both the players and the fans more excited. Make it happen, Manny.

Chess is cool. Go Canes.

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