|Cameron Brown and the Titans secondary refused to let John Carroll beat them over the top.
By Steve Frommell for d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
Two of the top ten scoring defenses in the country played the type of game that frustrated so many of their opponents in 2016.
John Carroll and UW-Oshkosh struggled to move the chains against the best defense either faced this season. These teams both came a long way since the regular season opener, a 33-14 Titans win. This time around, every yard came at a premium. The teams entered halftime scoreless, but the Titans came out of the locker room with an aggressive game plan.
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Let's take a deep dive into five plays that ultimately decided this game, a 10-3 UW-Oshkosh win which sends the Titans to the Stagg Bowl for the first time in program history.
John Carroll at its own 35, third and 1, 14:22 first quarter
This play set the tone for the game. Ro Golphin gained nine yards on the first offensive snap of the game. On second and 1, Anthony Moeglin's pass was deflected at the line of scrimmage. On 3rd and 1, the teams went heavy-on-heavy. Moeglin tossed the ball to deep back Arin Pruitt, the Blue Streaks' short-yardage specialist. Pruitt attempted to follow his fullback, wing, and tight end, but Jamier Szymanski and Justin Watson stuffed Pruitt in the backfield. Pruitt finished with five carries for minus-1 yard. The Blue Streaks totaled 107 yards on 30 carries. John Carroll converted just 8 of 18 third down opportunities, while UW-Oshkosh converted just 6 of 14. The Blue Streaks were also 1-for-2 on fourth down. Late in the first quarter, Szymanski stuffed Pruitt again on a third and 1, forcing a John Carroll punt. On John Carroll's next possession, early in the second quarter, Pruitt was again stuffed behind the line of scrimmage on third and 1. Pruitt did convert a third-and-1 opportunity late in the third quarter with the Blue Streaks trailing 7-0, but that drive ended in a turnover.
"We knew this was going to be a dogfight and it was. We just came out on top," said Titans coach Pat Cerroni. "We did very well on third-and-short and fourth-and-short today, which is something we haven't done all year. It was awesome. Their defense is great, but maybe ours is pretty good, too."
The Titans' goal was to take away the Blue Streaks' screen game and play-action passes that set up the deep ball. They did that very effectively. Moeglin finished 19-for-39 for 157 yards, with three interceptions and no touchdowns.
The teams combined for 28 first downs, 12 punts, and three turnovers (all John Carroll's).
"We played some pretty good quarterbacks this year. Our whole game plan was to make [Moeglin] beat us. We weren't going to pressure him," said Cerroni. "We just wanted to stay in front of him and let him throw the ball. We were going to do what we do and make this kid beat us over the top. It worked out the way we planned it. Our players did a great job of executing our game plan to perfection."
John Carroll at UW-Oshkosh 42, second and 5, 2:50 second quarter
The Blue Streaks received the best field position of the game, starting their final drive of the first half in UW-Oshkosh territory. After a 5-yard scramble by Moeglin advanced the ball to the Titans 42, the Blue Streaks took their first deep shot of the game. Moeglin launched a perfectly placed pass to Marshall Howell, who was streaking inside the Titans 10 on a skinny post route. The ball was headed right into Howell's hands around the eight yard line. As the ball arrived, Titans safety Cameron Brown threaded his right hand through Howell's breadbasket, separating the receiver's hands. The pass breakup was another tone-setter. Brown led the Titans with three breakups, to go with a team-high eight tackles.
"Anytime we're going out there, that's our main focus, to keep everything in front of us and not let the big plays happen," said Brown.
"I noticed they dropped back and had max protection. I immediately wanted to look for [Howell] because I know he's one of their big threats. As I'm running, all I'm thinking in my head is 'don't knock him down, don't get a pass interference, and just play the ball.' I just played through his hands and was able to get the ball out.
"At first, I was running so fast, then I noticed he started to slow down and push inside me. As a defender, they teach us here in this program all the time how to slow down, play the ball, and play the hands so that's what I made sure I did."
|Getting the ball in Dylan Hecker's hands opened up the Titans offense and led to the game's only touchdown drive.
By Steve Frommell for d3photography.com
UW-Oshkosh at its own 29, first and 10, 15:00 third quarter
The Titans opened the second half with the ball, tied at zero. Offensive coordinator Luke Venne decided to put the ball in Dylan Hecker's hands. With the all-purpose back taking direct snaps in the "Wild Titan" formation, the offense began humming. On the second play of the drive, Hecker cut back to his left and raced down the sideline for 28 yards, by far the biggest play of the game to that point.
Hecker's versatility put the Blue Streaks defense on its heels for the first time all day. They could not load up just to stop Hecker from running. On one snap, Hecker ran a zone read and handed the ball off to Devon Linzenmeyer.
"Those two are great backs and it gives us the best of both worlds. It puts some different perspectives on the defense. We have that in our back pocket. Sometimes, we use it early in a game. Sometimes, we keep it in the fold until we need it.," said offensive coordinator Luke Venne. "We absolutely were holding it for the point when we felt that we really needed it. We always have something that we're waiting on in case things aren't going as planned, because in a football game, that's what happens."
The nine-play, 71-yard drive was capped by a Brett Kasper run. That was another nifty play design, with the Titans lining up in a jumbo formation. Three backs lined up behind Kasper in a two-tight end set. Kasper faked a handoff to his right, then rolled out on a naked bootleg to his left. He had one man to beat, and was able to spin through Jovon Dawson's attempted tackle.
UW-Oshkosh's different formations and constant shifts and motions, inspired by former Colorado School of Mines and current Montana coach Bob Stitt, allowed the Titans to rely on their versatility. The drive jumpstarted the offense and gave the Titans some much-needed confidence.
"They did a really good job of adjusting to our numbers. We try and use formations to gain hats and numbers," said Venne. "When we put Dylan in, we can balance the formations back out. It was a big factor for us to bust one and get that sense of 'okay, we're going to be okay today.' We needed a little momentum today. We were struggling, obviously. It was nice to hit the big one and let everyone else play loose."
Hecker carried 18 times for 74 yards and Linzenmeyer rushed 14 times for 42 yards. Kasper was an efficient 11-for-17 for 81 yards.
"It was tough to run the ball on them, so a lot of credit to their defense" said Hecker. "It kind of came down to who wanted it more. We're just happy that we came out on the winning side."
The offense's diversity was limited for most of the game, after Dom Todarello was injured on a punt return in the second quarter. He did not touch the ball again, finishing with three catches for 33 yards and one carry for three yards. He broke two of the Titans' longest plays in the early going.
Most importantly in a low-scoring game such as this one, the Titans did not turn the ball over.
|Christian Bettin's first career interception couldn't have come at a much better time.
By Steve Frommell for d3photography.com
John Carroll at its own 22, third and 8, 11:46 4th quarter
While the offense protected the ball, the defense continued its turnover dominance. The Titans intercepted Anthony Moeglin three times, increasing their postseason turnover ration to 15:2. In their last two wins, the Titans have forced 11 takeaways without giving the ball over.
Moeglin's first two picks were not egregious. The first one wasn't even his fault. It was a perfectly placed ball to Eddie Williamson down the right sideline. Williamson couldn't haul it in. As the ball ricocheted off of his hands, it landed in the arms of Cole Yoder, who was racing toward Williamson. Yoder secured the interception, but the Titans could not convert the turnover into points. The second pick was an athletic play made by defensive lineman Justin Watson, who leaped at the line of scrimmage and snatched the attempted screen pass out of the air. Again, UW-Oshkosh could not turn the takeaway into points.
"It took everybody on our depth chart to step up," said Brown. "We played as a unit. It took the entire defense to make some plays."
The third interception was different, and more impactful. It was the first true mistake that Moeglin made, the pass he surely wants back. The turnover was the result of film study and communication.
The Titans knew what to expect when John Carroll lined up in a bunch formation to the right. Backup cornerback Christian Bettin did a great job of sitting underneath the intended receiver just in front of the sticks. It appeared as if Moeglin didn't even see him. The throw was easily intercepted. Bettin returned his first career interception 22 yards, down to the John Carroll 12.
"I looked at our safety Johnny [Eagan], and we kind of knew what was coming. We had seen it before when they were bunched up like that," said Bettin. "He just made the right call, and I executed the game plan. I just did my job."
That turnover allowed the offense to put points on the board, as Eli Wettstein nailed a 32-yard field goal after a quick three-and-out. Taking a two-score advantage put all of the pressure on John Carroll for the remainder of the game. The interception by Bettin was the game's biggest turning point.
"We knew what their strengths were and what their weaknesses are," said Bettin. "We knew we wanted to make them run the ball. We were going to give them the short stuff and not break."
John Carroll at UW-Oshkosh 35, second and 10, 0:12 fourth quarter
The Blue Streaks had one last chance, needing to go 80 yards in 1:48 with no timeouts, trailing by seven. Moeglin drove his team into UW-Oshkosh territory, but it took 10 plays and 1:36 to reach the Titans 35.
After spiking the ball with 16 seconds left, John Carroll thought it had time to run two plays. But, the chain crew was not set when the ball was snapped before the spike. After the officials made the Blue Streaks reset and wait for the clock to wind, there were just 12 seconds left after Moeglin's spike. Still, that should have been enough time for John Carroll to take two shots at the end zone, or run a shorter play to set up a better look at a touchdown attempt.
The Blue Streaks never had a chance. UW-Oshkosh dialed up a perfect play call, Branden Lloyd burst through the middle for a sack, and the Titans punched their ticket to Salem. Reese Dziedzic ran a delayed blitz from his middle linebacker position. That forced Blue Streaks running back Ro Golphin to pick him up; Lloyd, lined up at right end, looped around and followed Dziedzic through the middle, unimpeded to Moeglin. The stunt was an aggressive call, but it prevented the Blue Streaks from getting second shot at extending the game.
"Our linebackers made the call, either Reese or Branden. Him going in there and making that play was huge," said Brown. "I thought it was a great call. Two Hail Marys, anything can happen. It's better to get it out of the way rather than roll the dice."
The Titans coaching staff puts a lot of faith in its veteran defensive players to make their own defensive calls. The players stepped up and made the right calls at the right times all day, especially on the final snap of the game.
"Once it was done and over with, it was a good relief," said Brown. "I was pretty excited that that's the way to end. We pride ourself defensively on stepping up and making the big play."