Sunday, September 5, 2010

Grant Me This: Capital Offense

ACU QB Mitchell Gale
TOPEKA, Kan. - Chris Thomsen answered the question exactly how a coach is supposed to. In the Clear Wireless Postgame Show last night, I suggested that for all the times last year that the ACU defense caulked a leaky offense, it was the latter unit that was most responsible for his fifth-ranked Wildcats' 34-26 road victory over No. 9 Washburn Saturday night in the Kansas state capital.

He disagreed, noting North Texas transfer Darien Williams' second quarter, momentum-changing interception deep in ACU territory and Kevin Washington's slobber-knocking sack and forced fumble. Coach T called it a great team victory.

Which, of course, it was. As all victories ultimately are. Special teams pitched in, too, most notably Darrell Cantu-Harkless and his blocking brigade on kickoff returns, who repeatedly put ACU in plus field position all night.

Still, with all due respect to Thomsen's diplomacy, no defense can get gashed for four touchdowns and 442 total yards - even against a good offense like Washburn's - and believe that's good enough to win many games, especially on the road against a top ten team.

But what ACU did when it possessed the ball may have made some new believers Saturday night. Despite being outgained in total yards by an even hundy, the Wildcats' offense impressed equally in what it did and didn't do.

What it did produce?
  • 4 touchdowns and a pair of shortish Morgan Lineberry field goals
  • 342 total yards
  • A 50% 3rd down conversion rate (8-16)
  • Clock-munching drives of 7, 8, 9, 11 and 13 plays that helped ACU lead in time of possession by 7 minutes
  • A bona fide passing attack, thanks chiefly to sophomore QB Mitchell Gale and senior WR Clyde Gates: the former completed a ridiculous 80% of his passes - most of which were long, hard throws into small spaces - for 247 yards and 3 TD; the latter snagged 5 balls for 138 yards, 92 of which came on a pair of deep scoring catches
What it didn't?
  • Turnovers: in its last 11 games, ACU is 4-0 when it doesn't give the ball away; 3-4 when it does
  • Drops: Gale only threw 6 incompletions, 5 of which were either broken up by the Washburn defense or intentionally thrown away; only an attempted dump-off pass to Cantu-Harkless was mishandled
More than anything, the offense was efficient. I know that doesn't do it in the way of adjectives for some ACU fans spoiled by recent teams who rewrote NCAA history. But efficiency - especially when sprinkled with occasional fireworks, like the two Gale-to-Gates biggies Saturday - keeps the opponent's defense on the field and yours off. That wins games.

You may have heard Coach Thomsen and me on the postgame show recalling our offseason conversation in which he said he felt considerably better about where Gale was after his freshman year than he did about Billy Malone at the same point. The context, if not the crunched numbers, backs Thomsen up.

Compare the freshman season stats of each:
  • Malone - 126-230 (54%) for 1749 yards, 14 TD, 11 INT, 4 fumbles, 4-4 as starter
  • Gale - 151-250 (60%) for 1709 yards, 10 TD, 7 INT, 4 fumbles, 4-4 as starter
Remarkably similar until you consider this: Gale took over an undefeated team midway through his freshman season, won a pair of road games to help ACU achieve its first-ever No. 1 national ranking, faced four top 25 teams (three of them away from home) and won a postseason game on the road. Maybe Gale had better players around him than Billy did as a freshman. Maybe. (Danieal Manning and Clayton Farrell might have something to say about that.)

But the degree of difficulty each experienced gives the edge to Gale. It's like judging one guy's cannonball against another attempting this.

Each guy emerged as the starter going into his sophomore season because he worked hard in the spring, summer and August camp.

Now compare Malone's first game of his second season with Gale's Saturday night:
  • Malone - 21-32 for 220 yards and a TD
  • Gale - 24-30 for 247 yards and 3 TD
Neither threw an interception or fumbled, and each was sacked twice. Most important, each led his team to a season-opening victory. (Gale's performance earned him the LSC South Division's co-offensive player of the week honor.)

I'm not suggesting Gale is the second coming of the great Billy Don, who only went on to become the most decorated passer in Lone Star Conference history. The good news is Gale doesn't have to be. What he was Saturday night in beating a top ten team on the Ichabods' home turf was more than enough to make Wildcat fans wonder if another legend is in the making.

Mitchie the Kid rides again Saturday night.

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