Saturday, November 08, 2014

Trojan Postmortem

Last night was the first Friday of November, bringing with it a full moon and the opening of the high school football playoffs in Ohio. As a member of Division II, had Troy made the playoffs, they would have played last night, and I would have been there. Alas, they did not, and so instead I watched one of their opponents from this season (Cincinnati Northwest) play on television. For what it's worth, they lost to Kings.

The years pass and football seasons come and go, but one thing that never changes from year to year is how the end of the season always sneaks up on me. During the non-football portion of the year, it's what I look forward to, what I'm thinking about in my quiet moments, and that time seems to pass so slowly. Then August rolls around, the first game kicks off, and the next thing you know it's November and it's done, and back into waiting mode for me.

In past years, I know I've promised season recaps and then failed to deliver them. In 2012 and 2013, finishing both seasons with losses to Piqua and ending with disappointing records, I've been a little too disheartened to actually look back, despite the best of intentions. Not that this year was any less disheartening--just look at that 1-9 record, and unfortunately, the "1" wasn't the season finale with Piqua--but this year I have some things I definitely need to say.

It's time for some real talk: I have no idea what has happened to Troy football.

I think back to the late '90s, the teams that were led by Ryan Brewer, by far the best high school football player I've ever seen or expect to see, and that were just loaded with talent all over the field. Then I go back earlier than that, to when I was in high school, starting with the '91 season. Troy only made the playoffs once during my high school days, in 1992, but even then, those teams were never anything less than solid. When the OHSAA announced its plans to expand the playoffs to include eight teams per region instead of four, I remember thinking that Troy would rarely if ever miss the playoffs again. That expansion happened in 1999, the first post-Brewer season for Troy (had it happened a year sooner, the Trojans, at 8-2 and #7 in their region, would have made the playoffs in all four of Brewer's seasons); in the sixteen seasons since, the Trojans have actually qualified for the playoffs just four times.

So. Obviously I was wrong about how the Trojans would fare under the expanded system. It seems to me that the talent available to the Trojans football team has thinned considerably since those heady days of state rankings and relatively frequent playoff berths, and I am at a complete loss to explain why. I've been out of Troy for much of that time, but I don't feel like the demographics of the town have changed so much. I've heard some people point to the establishment of Troy Christian High School as a possible explanation; while it may have some very small effect, it can't be the sole factor--it's a small school, Troy is not the only community they draw students from, and they only have twenty players on their team.

One thing I do wonder about: it seems that football has been (at least somewhat) de-emphasized in the grand athletic hierarchy at Troy High School. There used to be a "Touchdown Club," a booster group dedicated solely to the football team; I'm pretty sure that no longer exists, and has been rolled into the all-sports booster group. If that's the case, I have to wonder in what other ways focus has shifted away from football, and what kind of effect that can have on the program. I have no idea - just blue-skying it here.

I also have to wonder about the offense. In the last few years of his tenure, longtime head coach Steve Nolan (now the head coach at Troy Christian) was adding some more modern elements to his traditional ground-and-pound Wing-T offense, but it remained a conservative, run-heavy offense. When Scot Brewer came aboard as head coach in 2012, he scrapped the Wing-T entirely, but has stuck with the run-first philosophy. In an era of uptempo spread offenses that like to air it out, I have to wonder if this philosophy is one that kids don't want to play in. Again, I doubt this is much of a factor, but is it one at all? Honestly, no clue.

Whatever the case, something has to be done about the offense, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty dreadful this year. That's what I would point to as the main cause for Troy's final 1-9 record this season. The defense was pretty stellar, all things considered, but the lack of offense was just too much for them to overcome. The Trojans only topped 300 yards of total offense once all year, with 388 in, not surprisingly, their 27-0 win over Sidney. Five times they failed to gain 200 yards, and twice they didn't even make it to 100.

I mentioned that Coach Brewer went away from the Wing-T when he took over, and indeed, this year Troy ran almost entirely out of a spread formation with the quarterback lining up in a pistol/shotgun. Despite that, 66% of Troy's offensive plays (344/519) were run plays. Now, my football fandom was established watching Coach Nolan's Wing-T, and I love a run-heavy offense...but if you're going to run a spread, I do feel like there needs to be more balance. The spread can be great for a running offense, but only if the defense believes they have to spread out to defend the pass. It was pretty obvious that defenses this year were loading up to stop Troy's run game, knowing they were going to rely on it, and willing to take their chances with the pass. Unfortunately, the Trojans didn't/couldn't make them pay for that. I'll note here that on their 344 rushing attempts on the year, Troy gained 3.31 yards per carry; on their 175 passing plays, they gained 4.87 yards per attempts, and 11.37 yards per completion. Now, the 43% completion rate (75/175) wasn't ideal, obviously, but still, a few more passes would, I think, have been a good idea.

It's also worth mentioning that the rushing offense was pretty apparently at its best when Elijah Pearson was getting the bulk of the carries. He had 52 rushing attempts in the first three games, and then I think he had some injury issues, and only carried the ball 34 times the rest of the season, including none against Wayne and just one each against Trotwood and Piqua. He finished the year with 445 yards on 86 carries, a respectable 5.2 per. No disrespect to Brandon Lee, a good, hard runner and fun to watch, but Elijah brought a different wrinkle to the offense that they just couldn't replicate with anyone else. Fortunately, he'll be back for the Trojans next year, and with Josh Browder joining him in the backfield and Hayden Kotwica back at quarterback, the Trojans will at least have some offensive weapons to work with.

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