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December 8, 2009

All-access pass to Kelly's game plan vs. Pitt

PITTSBURGH -- Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly glances at the stat sheet and shakes his head.

"Look at the time of possession," he says. "Twenty minutes for us and almost 40 minutes for them."

Those weren't the only numbers that stood out to Kelly in the aftermath of the Bearcats' thrilling 45-44 win over Pitt on Saturday that clinched Cincinnati's second BCS trip in a row. The Bearcats totaled 371 yards, throwing for 302 yards and running for 69.

Kelly scans the stat sheet one more time before entering the media room. He thought those pass/run numbers would be a bit closer based on how he felt the Panthers would try to defense his prolific offense, which entered the game ranked No. 4 in the nation.

"It's all about being able to adjust on the fly," Kelly says. "That's what it's about in this offense. We have seen a lot of different defenses. We have an answer for whatever we see. It's just a matter of us being able to execute."

Kelly's team did just that in what arguably was the biggest game in school history.

During the previous week, Kelly allowed Rivals.com exclusive access as he and his staff developed an offensive game plan for Pitt. Here's how the week unfolded.

Getting ready for a tough line

Cincinnati quarterback coach Greg Forest stares at the computer on his desk. It's late on the Sunday afternoon before the Pitt game, and he already has been at it for 10 hours.

Forest focuses on the flickering images of Panthers defenders. There's No. 91, Greg Romeus, a 6-foot-6, 270-pound beast off the edge. There's No. 93, Gus Mustakas, a 6-3, 285-pound wedge in the middle of the line. How will the Bearcats handle these guys?

"That's probably our biggest concern," Forest said. "This is a tremendous defensive line, probably the best front we will see all season. We have to be able to block them and pick up the blitzes."

Forest's focus is deciphering Pitt's blitzes. It's one of the first steps in developing a game plan against a Panthers defense that ranks 25th in the nation in total defense (319.6 yards per game) and 15th in scoring defense (17.7 points per game).

If you walk down the eighth-floor hall of the Richard E. Lindner Center, you'll see every other Cincinnati assistant doing the same thing -- studying Pitt cut-ups on their computer and scribbling notes.

In the lexicon of the Cincinnati program, this is "Assessment Sunday," a "day to reflect/rehabilitate our minds and bodies." To that end, the Bearcats take one last look at film from their most recent game, a 49-36 victory over Illinois.

Each day of the week is given a nickname. There's "Mental Monday," "Intense Tuesday," "Working Wednesday," "Perfect Thursday," "Focus Friday" and "Successful Saturday."

Forest tries to stay in the here and now, knowing this is the first day of a long week.

"Pitt does like to play line games," Forest says. "But they don't blitz much to get pressure because they don't need to. Their front is so good [Pitt is No. 1 in the nation in sacks, with 43]."

Forest looks at his watch. At 6:30, he is to meet with the rest of the staff to begin exchanging ideas on how to beat this Pitt defense. This will be the first step as a staff in building a game plan.

Forest has been with Kelly since 1991, when Kelly was in his first year as coach of Division II Grand Valley State (Mich.). Offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn also has been at Kelly's side since then. They know how each other operates and feed off each another's energy.

Forest reaches up into a cabinet above his desk and pulls out a three-inch binder that reads "2009 Offensive Playbook."

"This is it," Forest says. "But these aren't all of the plays. And we won't use most of them vs. Pitt."

It's time for Forest to meet with the rest of the staff and he must hurry. Kelly doesn't like it when anyone is late.

Let's go to the video

The process of preparing the game plan actually began the week before Cincinnati played Illinois. That's when offensive graduate assistant Marty Spieler began to pore over every inch of Pitt video from the 2009 season, chronicling each play into a complex computer program.

Spieler has indexed each Pitt play by down and distance, formation, blitz, coverage and spot on the field -- and it is all sortable. Each coach has access to the complex breakdown: Just click a play, and a box pops open with a video of the action.

"The cut-ups that are of the most value are the ones when Pitt played a team that runs an offense that's similar to ours," Spieler says. "Pitt's games vs. South Florida and West Virginia are most helpful because they run offenses that are similar to ours. Watching how Pitt defended them will give us some ideas of what to expect."

It's all about the offense

Kelly is a master at game-planning. He loves it. It's his raison de etre dating to his no-frills, low-budget beginning at Grand Valley State. He moved on to Central Michigan from 2004-06 and had more success before landing at Cincinnati in 2007.

His trademark at every stop? A nearly unstoppable offense. Whatever Kelly has dialed up this season, it has worked well. Cincinnati is No. 4 in total offense (472.7 ypg) and No. 6 in scoring offense (39.4 ppg).

"We aren't so much worried about what Pitt will do defensively," Kelly says. "For us, it's more about taking what they give us instead of looking to see where they have a weakness because we do so many things with our formations and tempo, you can't take everything away. It is more about us being disciplined in our approach at quarterback to take what they give us."

By Tuesday, the game plan is done -- but not really.

"Tonight we will cut things we don't like that we ran in practice," Kelly says. "We will watch the practice film and see how it looks and how it fits in terms of what we want to do. It'll be a conversation in the staff meeting room, getting some feedback. If you like it, it stays. If not, you cut it."

Wednesday, Kelly and his assistants clean up the game plan. He also reviews notes he took last season after the Bearcats played Pitt. The notes may jog his memory or spark an idea for a play or formation. He also begins assembling a pool of plays.

"From the passing game, we will have probably 75-80 pass concepts that I can use vs. Pitt," Kelly says. "From a running standpoint, we'll probably have 15 running plays."

For each game, Kelly works up a play-calling card that's roughly 12 inches by 8 inches, which he'll grip tightly all game long. It's a menu of sorts, offering Kelly an array of plays to select from.

"No one else can read the chart but me," he says. "It is set up for my brain. If you looked at it and it wasn't set up for your brain, it would be foreign to you. Each concept is color-coded by different types of passes, whether it is quick-game or play-action. Or we want this play because it gives us max protection with two guys on Greg Romeus on this play.

"Each play has a color code based on the triggers I am talking about."

Maybe it's time to run

Kelly has seen enough film and knows what to expect from Pitt. It's all about the front four, a dominating group that brings the heat like few others.

"When you are a spread team that throws the ball, pressure comes with the territory," Kelly says. "Everyone has brought pressure all year, and it hasn't been effective. We have a lot of answers to pressure. They have had great success rushing their four down [linemen]. I would be very surprised if they change greatly and bring a lot of pressure [with blitzes]."

Last season against the Panthers, Cincinnati completed 81 percent of its passes (26 of 32 for 309 yards) in a 28-21 victory. Kelly thinks Pitt will do all it can to flood zones in hopes of making it difficult to pass -- and that means Kelly plans to come out running.

"We have worked really hard to assume that they are going to do some things to make it difficult to throw, and that is emptying the box, playing more three down [linemen], and we are going to have to run the football," Kelly says. "That is what we are preparing for. "

What about the backup QB?

Kelly always is looking for a new wrinkle. That's why he carries his notebook around with him. He's always doodling and dabbling, looking for an edge. And he thinks he has one that could help beat Pitt -- using sophomore backup quarterback Zach Collaros.

Collaros led the Bearcats to wins in the four starts he made after starter Tony Pike injured his non-throwing arm. Unlike Pike, Collaros is a nifty runner who excels at improvising and making plays with his feet. Those skills could come in handy against Pitt.

"I think there's a chance we could play Zach Collaros more than they would think," Kelly says. "We played Tony pretty much the whole game last week. But we think there's a place for Zach in this game, a quarterback who runs. They had a little bit of a problem with the quarterback from N.C. State [ Russell Wilson ] being very athletic. So there may be a place in our game plan for Zach.

"I think we will feel it out and see where it goes, and then make a decision from there."

Picking on the safeties

It's Thursday, and Cincinnati coaches continue to fine-tune their offensive plan.

"We told the quarterbacks to expect the most difficult situations and react to the easiest instead of the other way around," Kelly says. "Yesterday and today, we spent a good amount of time on man-to-man and cover zero. We probably spent a little more time on trying to break their tendency on being a line up four, rush four, play zone. That hasn't been successful for most teams against us this year, so we are expecting them to bring pressure."

Kelly thinks he has found a position he can exploit -- the safeties. They are physical, run-support players.

"We have been working on the vertical passing game against their safeties," he says. "That is a matchup that we think is favorable on our side. They can cover, but that's certainly not their strength. They are physical, down-in-the-box kind of players. We want to be able to step on their toes and push them vertically."

The plan calls for the Bearcats to put star wide receiver Mardy Gilyard in motion to get him in matchups with the safeties.

Kelly also has re-examined how he will run the ball against Pitt. Looking back at last season's game, he laments that he tried to run the outside zone play too much.

"They are very good inside," Kelly says. "To me, their defensive ends get a lot of the notice because of their pass-rush ability, but their two inside guys are outstanding against the run. We have to be able to spread them out and run north and south moreso than east and west. We were too much east and west last year. We have got to hit it downhill and be much more efficient that way than going east and west."

Is that a video game?

It's Friday, and time to head to Pittsburgh. The Bearcats will make the trip by bus, stopping at a Ramada Inn in Zanesville, Ohio, to eat lunch. Once in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati will do a walk-through at Duquesne University before checking in to the Pittsburgh Marriott.

At the hotel, the team will have its special-teams meeting, then break out into offensive and defensive units.

"Our quarterbacks will play a XOS simulator," Kelly says. "It's like a PlayStation. It is linked into Pitt and their defense and our game plan. The quarterbacks get about 30 questions."

OK, let's see if this works

It's game day. The game plan has been devised, implemented and tweaked. Now, it's time to see if it will work.

"I don't think there is a ton we don't know about each other," Kelly says. "We each have 11 games of film on each other.

"When you talk about a game plan in this game, it will be about making adjustments on the sideline. And being able to have answers. The team that makes the best adjustments is going to be in a good position."

That team was Cincinnati.

Pitt ended up bringing more pressure than Kelly thought, causing him to abandon his plan to run the ball. Those plans to use Collaros? They were scrapped as Cincinnati's deficit grew at one point to 31-10. Instead, Kelly passed, passed and passed. The Bearcats trailed 31-17 at halftime, and Pike was just 8 of 23 for 84 yards, with two interceptions and no touchdowns.

"Did I ever consider benching Tony?" Kelly asks rhetorically, noting he had three interceptions. "No. With the hole we had to climb of, I thought we needed to stick with Tony. He gave us our best chance to get back in the game."

Kelly's idea to run more north and south proved to be wise. The quick-hitting runs between the tackles helped negate the speed of the Panthers' defenders. Cincinnati ran for only 69 yards, but it was enough to help keep Pitt a bit off-balance.

The matchup edge Kelly thought the Bearcats would have on Pitt's safeties proved to be one of the most fruitful items in his game plan, especially in the second half. Once Cincinnati sorted out its protection issues, the Bearcats were able to get Gilyard and Armon Binns in mismatches against Pitt's safeties. Gilyard finished with five catches for 118 yards and a touchdown, while Binns made five grabs for 104 yards and the game-winning touchdown.

"We just stuck with Tony, and he kept throwing," Kelly says. "That last pass for the game-winning touchdown was something we had been working on all week. We got the matchup we wanted, Tony saw it and hit Armon with a perfect pass.

"It doesn't get any better than that, does it?"

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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