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Spaulding Roundup: Mike Johnson Talks Conservative Offense, Barr Down And Jerry Rice Earns a Scholarship

Reports pegged yesterday's practice as a 'typical' but well-tempoed session. While Richard Brehaut is officially the starter this week, Kevin Prince did get some reps, and threw a few good passes. Brehaut was also said to be more comfortable leading the team - at least as much as someone can tell from practice. On Brehaut, Ted Miller wrote a piece for the ESPN LA blog arguing that Richard's development over the next several weeks will tell whether Coach Neuheisel survives past this season in Westwood. Even Ted knows that Brehaut is the Bruins (and Neuheisel's) best hope for 2011.

Mike Johnson talked to the beat writers after practice, with the reporters focusing their questions on a conservative offense that has failed to display much of the aggressiveness that he had promised before the season began. Part of his justification for the game plans has been the uncertainty among his personnel, particularly the Brehaut/Prince situation but also on the OLine.

"You have to understand the offensive line and who they are. You got to understand if you put them in too many situations, what’s going to happen. You have to understand the growth of your quarterback and flip-flopping the quarterbacks early and not giving one guy all the reps, and that situation. It’s a culmination of all of that. If you drop back and throw it 30, 40 times, how many sacks are you going to give up?

"We have a defense that’s trying to find its way. It’s important that we don’t extend their reps. For me it’s a process of putting all that together and trying to make sure you put the offense and the team in the best situation to win."

During the press session, he discussed specifically the Oregon State game and what led to the wildly unballanced and conservative playcalling in Corvallis.

"If you look at that first half, we had three opportunities where we had guys running down the middle of the field wide open and we couldn't get it off. We had protection issues, guys pushed back in the quarterback's face. That changes the whole game. Had a play with 42 seconds to go, fastest guy matched up against a linebacker, and we couldn't get it off. If you make those plays, you're talking about a 250-yard passing game and a 220-yard running game, and you have proper balance.

Going to Covallis, I thought it was important we stayed in 3rd-and-6 or less - if you look at our third downs, we were better on third down and we had four or five 3rd-and-ones. After the Texas game, when we came out and threw it early, I thought it was important we didn't put our team in that situation.
We were in control of that game for the most part, and when we had to battle back - that touchdown when we got out ahead again, they were throws. There's a time when you have to open it up. From our standpoint of growth of confidence, I think it's important you put them in situations for them to be successful."

So essentially, his explanation is that the offensive line was struggling to contain the Beavers D-line in the 1st half, which apparently led to him abandoning the passing game. With the struggles of the Bruin offense in the second half, after the passing attack was left behind, someone might have figured out that throwing the ball - or at least the credible threat of airing it out - had led to some success earlier in the contest. Regardless of the aggressiveness - or lack of - of the playcalling, he believes that execution is the key to this team scoring points. Excuse me for any flashbacks to KD's failed implementation of the west coast offense in Westwood - execution is important of course, but even the best run offense is going to have a difficult time gaining yards when the defense knows exactly what is coming.

"It takes all 10 guys and the quarterback throwing it to execute and get that touchdown. It came up exactly how we drew it up and we didn’t get it off. Every team we’ve played, if we executed, we scored, whether it’s Texas, San Jose State, Houston or Oregon State. That’s what I’m putting the emphasis on. It doesn’t matter what play we call. It’s about executing that play."

Coach Johnson's focus on 3rd-and-6 (or less) is interesting. While that is certainly more favorable than 3rd-and-10, off the cuff it does not seem like it leads to a particularly high rate of conversions (someone will soon chime in to prove me wrong, most likely ;P). Particularly with the return of the run-run-pass theme of playcalling, setting a gain of 4 yards on 1st and 2nd down as a target really does not make much sense. If the offense were throwing the ball more in early downs, I could see that due to the risk of incomplete passes, but when so much of the offense is based on running the ball, with a basic play that (as detailed before the season by 03rd9) is designed to reliably pick up 3 yard gains, one would think that the focus would be getting in shorter yardage situations on 3rd down.

As freesia noted in yesterday's roundup, a number of Bruins are dealing with injuries. Anthony Barr was one of those guys, and Wednesday saw a bit more clarity as to his predicament. An MRI performed late Tuesday found a meniscus tear in his knee. Peter Yoon reminded ESPNLA readers that both Brett Hundley and Jamie Graham have had this surgery in 2011, with physical recovery times of 4-6 weeks. If surgery is required, Barr would likely be able to return for the final couple of games of the season (but would the coaches actually utilize him?). In other injury news, Andrew Abbott and Jamie Graham were fully participating in practice; Jamie is expected to be available to play on Saturday, and Tony Dye told Jon Gold that he will also be able to play this week.

And to close with some happy news, the program announced that Jerry Rice Jr has been awarded a football scholarship, taking effect in the Winter Quarter.Jerry hasn't made it into a game yet, but like his dad has put in the long hours on the practice field. As he said after practice yesterday:

"I’m happy to know that my hard work is paying off, but it’s not over yet," Rice said. "I’m never satisfied. I’m working to get on the field."