July 15 is always a special day for me. Well, at least it used to be, up until I turned 21. Now, I suppose it is just a painful reminder of my arduous journey toward age 30, and after that, toward a retirement community. Life seems bleak in your mid-twenties.
Thankfully, this July 15, my slow but imminent decent into senility can be at least momentarily forgotten, as the opening moments of the big 2-7 will be spent in a Northside Indianapolis Gamestop, where I will retrieve my very own copy of NCAA 09.
Now that I think about it, this might actually be better than my 21st birthday. After all, I began that celebration at the stroke of midnight with two consecutive double shots of Three Wisemen.
But, I digress. Despite the depression of aging, mid-July is still my favorite time of year. I’ve gone through the same cycle of giddy anticipation for years, and it has yet to get old, even if I have. In these, my twilight years, I feel it entirely appropriate to impart some of my knowledge to those who may be discovering NCAA Football for the first time.
Over the next couple of weeks, I will be chucking little nuggets of wisdom in the general direction of NCAA newcomers. Hopefully, this will help expedite your collective sojourn toward greatness. For those of you numerous, crafty veterans out there, these are still good things to keep in your top-of-mind. After all, football is a thinking man’s game. As always, I invite you to contest my ideas, or add your own to the comments below.
Even though lambasting human opponents is far more satisfying, NCAA gamers spend a good share of time squaring off against the computer AI, especially in dynasty play. Thus, for beginners, discovering ways to pummel CPU foes is a crucial first step. Here are some basic suggestions.
Hit the Holes: There is a beginners’ mistake that frequently extends beyond beginners when it comes to running the football, and that is forcing any and all run plays to the outside. Dive plays, inside counters, even off-tackle runs consistently get bounced outside.
My theory on this matter is that it spawned from the SNES/Genesis era of Madden titles, when bouncing outside with Emmitt Smith or Thurman Thomas was nearly an automatic six. Now, however, defensive ends play containment, linebackers dart to the outside to make a tackle for loss, and defensive backs step up and get a hat on the ball carrier. The old Barry Sanders bounce-out is a fossil. Let it go.
The key to running the ball effectively is to hit the hole that the play is designed to attack. Follow lead blockers and pulling guards, and hit the hole with authority. You will see far more 2nd and 4’s if you employ this tactic. Bouncing runs outside unnecessarily is an easy ticket to a three-and-out. Write that down.
Cut-Backs: Now, bouncing outside isn’t always a cardinal sin, but one must be strategic. Speaking from my vast NCAA 08 experience, and my week long love affair with the NCAA 09 demo, cutback lanes are evident in the game, and can be exploited.
"Keep your eyes constantly moving along the offensive line when the play begins, looking for little cracks of daylight."
Hitting the intended holes will not always yield a positive result, even when facing the computer. Depending on the difficulty level, you will find that the CPU can be rather astute at plugging up holes with a mass of angry humanity. When this happens however, there is always a secondary option that becomes available in the form of a cutback lane.
Keep your eyes constantly moving along the offensive line when the play begins, looking for little cracks of daylight. It could be the backside gap between the center and guard, or it could be straight up the sideline. Recognizing these fleeting second chances can mean the difference between a big play and a big loss.
Flipping the Play: There will be many an occasion when the CPU defense magically adjusts to your play prior to the snap.. By shifting linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs, the AI will be in the perfect position to impeded your offensive progress. Don’t fret.
Simply flick the right thumbstick to flip the direction of said running pay to the opposite side of the field, exploiting a weakness or void created by the shifting defense. Easy, right?
Have a Progression: Similar to the dreaded bounce-out faux pas, many new players have a nasty tendency to look at only a single receiver when passing the ball. This leads to bad things. Very bad things. As in sacks, incompletions, and bevy of picks.
The key to passing the ball successfully is to exercise your options. It is natural and necessary to find a primary target. But be certain you have at least a second option, if not a second, third, fourth, etc. If your first target doesn’t seem open, don’t force the ball. Short yardage is better than a turnover. By giving yourself options, you will increase your completion percentage drastically against both the CPU and human opponents.
And do NOT feel defeated by routinely checking down to the RB or TE in the flat. Almost always, my starting RB finishes second on the team in receptions during my dynasties. It is a great way to keep the ball moving in the right direction, and ultimately win games.
Hot Routes: CPU-controlled defenses frequently give away impending blitzes, man-coverage, and double teams before the snap, making them extremely vulnerable to hot routes.
That’s not to say that the corner won’t make a great play on the ball, but he will be vulnerable just the same.
Before each passing play begins, give the CPU some time to tip their hand. It will not happen on every play, and at times, the AI will be sneaky and disguise coverage and fake a blitz. But, by recognizing tells and adjusting receiver routes accordingly, you can learn how to pick a defense apart very quickly.
Your first look should be to the safeties. Have they taken a step up, or made a subtle lateral move? If so they are likely in some sort of man coverage, and not providing help over the top for the corners. Now is the time to send your outside receiver on a fly or fade route, as they will likely be in man coverage with the corner, and the probability of a successful deep pass is substantially higher. That’s not to say that the corner won’t make a great play on the ball, but he will be vulnerable just the same.
Another easily read safety tell is a double team. If one or both of the safeties move forward and to the outside as to mirror the outside receivers, it is an obvious double team. Now, you will want to send your slot receiver or TE deep. Chances are, they will have a favorable match-up with a slower linebacker or lesser skilled DB. Again, this will increase the potential for a big play.
Your second look should be to the linebackers and or nickel/dime DB’s. Are they creeping up to the line, shoulders reared, ready to strike? They might be making a beeline for your QB on a blitz. Now’s the time to call a slant or hitch route with your WR’s and take advantage of the empty space blitzing defenders are leaving behind. This won’t always lead to big gains, but it will help with you achieve first downs.
Lineman/Linebacker Audibles: You will learn very quickly that defensive plays designed to stop the run are not always effective without some pre-snap adjustments. I cannot even count the number of times I’ve been in the 4-4 defense with a run blitz called, only to see an opposing tailback break through the line and scamper for six. It’s incredibly frustrating.
The secret to stopping the CPU’s running attack is to slant your defensive linemen and to shift your linebackers. Now, picking the correct direction to slant/shift can be a bit of a guessing game. Guessing wrong can easily put you on the short end of the scoreboard.
There are too main things to consider when choosing where to slant/shirt. The first is obvious even to the untrained eye, which is the ball’s location the field. A play beginning from one of the hashes will create a natural wide and short side of the field.
Logically speaking, there is more room to run on this wide side, making it more desirable target for the offense. Slanting the defensive line and/or shifting the linebackers toward the wide side of the of the field will reduce this natural advantage.
Another important factor to consider when employing these slant/shift tactics is the strength of the formation. Without getting to in-depth into formation strength, an easy way to determine strength of formation is to look for the tight end and fullback. The location of these players oft determines the direction of a running play due to their blocking ability. When guessing which way to shift/slant, the whereabouts of TE’s and FB’s is a good variable to consider.
"The logic behind this rule is simple: these zones’ strengths lie in within the range of yardage needed for a first down. It is far from a perfect philosophy, but is a good starting point."
Man-Up: When starting out as an NCAA gamer, I highly recommend depending heavily on man-coverage schemes, preferably with some over-the-top safety help. Until you become astute at controlling linebackers and/or DB’s, zone coverages are risky. This is largely because drop-zone defenses produce a minimal pass rush, giving the CPU ample time to pick a zone defense apart. Until you can skillfully control linebackers and the secondary, zone defenses can be a liability.
Man coverage packages are more advantageous to the beginner because it is less likely for receivers to get wide open. Even if a receiver can catch the ball in space, man coverage generally keeps a defender or two in the vicinity to make a tackle.
Zone Tips: Even though I recommend leaning on man coverage for the majority of your defensive scheme, it is foolish to play man all game long. You need to mix it up, if at least slightly.
There is one basic rule of thumb that I rely upon when choosing a zone coverage against the CPU. If there are between 5-11 yards for needed for a first down, I call a cover 2. If 12 -17, I will call a cover 3. If 18 or more, the right call is a cover 4. The logic behind this rule is simple: these zones’ strengths lie in within the range of yardage needed for a first down. It is far from a perfect philosophy, but is a good starting point.
Blitz Liberally: Creating pressure on the offense is a good thing. Pressure breeds mistakes. Sacks, fumbles, errant throws, you name it. Blitzing frequently is the best way to create these opportunities. I recommend favoring plays that blitz multiple defenders to the same side of the field. This can easily create havoc in the backfield, with either your blitzers or freed-up lineman penetrating the backfield. Judging by the reduced impact of a standard pass rush in the NCAA 09 demo, blitzing may become more important than ever.
Next week, I will look at some simple ways to quickly improve your game against human opponents, a necessity this season with the new online dynasty.