It is easy to forget - after the big early explosion - that this is a game Vegas had dropped to -3. This was supposed to be a nail-biter - and it was essentially over at the end of the third drive.
That is a credit to our players and our staff - and the game plan. This will not be an all unicorns and rainbows summary - but it probably should be. Our guys set the tone immediately - and the defense never took the foot off the gas. That was a convincing road win on a bowl team's turf.
The positives are many: and the obvious improvement over last year was the pressure on the QB. It was good - it was well disguised, it put a good team into a panic mode. The last series of the half - three MTSU runs just trying to get a first down told a lot - they were whipped in the first half. Many veterans played well - and Oren Burks and Ryan White were flying all over the place early. Charles Wright was explosive and probably had the biggest impact of the "newcomers." Smith and Odyingbo made their share of plays too - and Leolao and Wynn were solid up the middle. Wynn made the hit on the INT. We had another early INT called back on a questionable PI call - and another sack produced a fumble that bounced straight to an MTSU player. This could have been a much bigger score than 21-0 at half. Dominant as it was. I might add, in the fourth quarter Smith could not grab a tipped INT at around the five-yard line - a tough play, but for a defense that played a great game... there were three or four turnovers we could have produced that we did not.
The pass d was good - but we expected that. The pressure on the QB made it even better - and we have not seen that during CDM's tenure. Another plus: the kickoffs were not returned and that makes a huge difference over last year. The punting was largely good - but MTSU did nearly break a punt return late - the coverage was better than last year... but still has room for improvement.
Again, CDM's clubs had never scored more than 12 on opening night - and had never won: so this was an explosion of offense. Improvement noted. Shurmur was really good - especially early when it still mattered. He was 13-of-14 to start the game. No turnovers. Sherfield and Lipscomb were great - and Webb was an obvious threat out of the backfield. The first screen was so beautifully done - it was my favorite play of the game. Stunningly well executed. Something we have missed for a few decades. The 70+ yard wheel route in the second half only further highlights that when you get RBs out in space they are weapons.
When you insist on running them up the middle ALL GAME long, they are not. And that remains a bit of a problem for me. Webb was wasted up the middle almost all game. We hand the ball up the middle about 80 percent of first down calls - and, no surprise, opponents are ready for it. Play action - just not used.
I recognize we took the foot off the pedal intentionally to some extent - but that has been a problem for CDM's teams. We let inferior teams hang with us - and then you get a result like last year's SC game. Our second half offense was quite reminiscent of that game. I would like to see a little more killer instinct from the offensive coaching box generally - but I cannot really fault grinding out clock last night. Just why not give them a few wide runs to think about? MTSU's d did not get better in the second half - they stuffed the box and took away the short lanes daring us to go long - the same thing NC State did. And they rushed the passer more - risking that we would not have time to go long again or the stones to risk an interception. It worked - it was a 7-6 second half. We had only 15 first downs in this game. Our total offense in the second half was basically one play - but it did ice the game at 28-0.
I am happy - we were 8 of 16 on third down. We had a nice passing game when we needed it (ironically the "bomb" to Lipscomb was likely the worst throw of the night - a dying quail where Lipscomb had to come back and make a nice play.) Shurmur saw the field well and hit 9 different receivers. We held MTSU to an 0-fer third down. 0-12 to be exact. The first half was textbook CDM: 19:39-10:21 in time of possession. We won field position repeatedly. MTSU had 72 yards of total offense.
Our red zone execution was not great - because we could not run well and always ran up the middle - which meant it was second and 9 in the red zone a lot. Our missed field goal from dead on was sobering. Basically, it was a perfect opening game - a rough and comfortable road win where the staff can still holler about a lot of things. But the main thing they should question is why they don't run wide ever - in the first drive we faked a wide run and the MTSU d lost all composure and it produced a big play. We rarely even faked wide after that.
Finally, to praise the offensive scheme - we ran several well-conceived pass patterns, flooding a zone where the MTSU safeties had a lose-lose proposition. Wherever he committed, the other receiver was going to be open. Shurmur had time and made his reads. It was a good job - basically an A in the passing game. The running game was a C- and that is probably generous.
The hit that hurt Pinkney really bothered me. I hope he is okay. He looked like he could be a difference-maker on offense. He seemed justifiably angry about the hit.