Less than one week to go. My God, the humanity.
Only a handful of days remain until midnight, July 15th, 2008, the collective Christmas Morning for fans of EA Sports' NCAA Football series. If you are anything like me, you have spent the past few weeks bouncing between NCAA '08 and the NCAA '09 demo, putting a fine coat of polish on your stick skills. Most likely, they have accumulated a thin layer of rust since being forced into hibernation in the early months of 2008.
Playing against human opponents affords a luxury that facing the CPU does not: the ability to scout. Take full advantage.
These finely tuned talents of yours will be more important than ever this year, namely because of the new online dynasty mode. No longer will your gridiron mettle be tested primarily against an AI-controlled adversary; rather, to enjoy all NCAA '09 has to offer, you must learn to readily conquer human opponents.
To veterans of the series, it is no secret that playing against human competition is a whole different animal than beating up on the CPU, game after game. For beginners, however, playing a living, breathing foe can be a bit of a system shock the first time around. To follow up on last week’s beginners’ tips, here are a few pointers to keep in mind when facing (or preparing to face) human opponents in NCAA '09.
Playing against human opponents affords a luxury that facing the CPU does not: the ability to scout. Take full advantage.
Scouting can be done in a number of ways. If you are playing in an offline dynasty (i.e. multiple players on a single system), you can simply watch everyone else’s games during the season because chances are you will do this anyway just for fun -- so you might as well learn something while you are at it.
Simply viewing games or playing exhibitions is worthless if you don’t know what to look for...
The same goes for an online dynasty -- if you happen to live within close proximity of the other players. Since there is no way to spectate others’ games online, watching in person is your only option. But if you are like me, playing in dynasties with others who live throughout the country, you are simply S.O.L. in terms of actual game scouting. Instead, make certain that you try to play each of your dynasty-mates in an exhibition contest or two prior to first season’s outset. It is a good idea to play with the actual teams you will be using as well.
Simply viewing games or playing exhibitions is worthless if you don’t know what to look for, however. Whether you are watching your opponent or facing him, you absolutely MUST pay close attention to his/her play-calling. Do they run on every first down? Do they favor the play-action in short yardage? Do they favor attacking certain parts of the field, for instance, the flats or over the middle? And how about defense? Do they tighten up the coverage and come on the blitz? Or do they sit back in zone and force opponents to beat them through the air?
Within all of this, one of the main things you want to look for is your opponent’s crutch plays. Hours of playing against the computer have conditioned most players to rely on a very small set of plays in crucial situations. With the game on the line (depending on down and distance of course) most players unwittingly limit themselves to just a handful of plays, or even a single option. Learn those options, and you have an edge.
You may even want to keep a notepad handy to take little game notes, depending on how hardcore/nerdy you want to be about it. Keep track of play calls, corresponding to down and distance, and also to formations. Knowing these situational tendencies can give you a leg up when choosing the right defense to call, or when making pre-snap adjustments.
Just a helpful little hint: You may want to set scouting guidelines prior to plopping down with a pen and paper to watch your dynasty-mates’ games, as it may rub them the wrong way. If note taking is allowed, I recommend an honor system of just scouting the on-field action, making spying play-calling screens off-limits. You don’t want a dynasty full of Belichick's, after all.
Make Yourself Un-Scout-Able
Just as you must perfect the art of scouting, you must also work to thwart others from nailing down your tendencies. The best way to do this? Learn your playbook. All of it.
As you prepare for your dynasty, I highly suggest spending a fair to ridiculous amount of time going through your entire team’s playbook in practice mode. It may sound tedious and mildly pathetic, but it is the best way to both balance and expand your offensive attack. For those of you who have dabbled in real-life football on any level, you may recall that repetition was the key component to success. You ran a play until it was executed perfectly, then you ran it about a hundred more times. While I am not suggesting that sort of commitment with NCAA '09, you should get the general idea. Preparation is paramount.
Just a pointer or two for your practices: First, I recommend focusing mostly on passing plays. Running plays are more instinctive, and require less active thought.
Just a pointer or two for your practices: First, I recommend focusing mostly on passing plays. Running plays are more instinctive, and require less active thought. Passing plays are much more complex and dynamic, and thus, require more time to master. I suggest running each and every passing play multiple times against the Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 1/Cover 2 Man, and a popular blitz play (Nickel Under Smoke comes tot mind). Adhering to such a regimen will allow you to see how each of your passing plays work against the most commonly called defensive schemes.
Now you may ask, what is the point? Isn’t this just a colossal waste of time, when I could be diving right into the dynasty itself and learning on the fly? Well, maybe. But do you recall when I said almost every NCAA player has a certain amount of "crutch plays"? Running through your playbook in practice mode will go a long way to eliminating any and all crutch plays. The more plays you are comfortable with, the more unpredictable and dangerous you will be.
Setting Your Audibles
In case you forgot, NCAA '09 contains a sweet little feature called formation audibles. From this season onward, you will now be able to completely change your play from the line without changing to a different formation, which is generally a dead-giveaway of your intentions. The importance of this feature is vastly understated.
After you go through each and every one of your plays in practice mode, you should be prepared to pick your favorites from each formation. A little tip, however: pick plays that feed off each other or that begin in the same way. For example, choose a run and play-action pass that begin with the exact same action. Or if you are an option team, pick an option pass play to accompany a speed option audible. You get the general idea.
A lot of your opponents will suffer from a fatal flaw when lining up against you on defense. They will call plays, and play the field just as they would against the computer. It is easy to do, seeing as how the defensive playbook is bare-bones compared to its offensive counterpart.
Playing a multitude of games against the CPU generally conditions players into one of two monotonous defensive strategies: over-blitzing and over-zoning. Here are some passing tips to overcome both.
Over-blitzers bring the noise on almost every play. Linebackers, safeties and nickel/dime corners alike propel into your backfield kamikaze-style. Frequently, such gamers also tighten their coverage on the outside to prevent your receivers from achieving a clean release into their routes. The goal of such a tactic is to delay the receivers just enough for the blitz to reach your quarterback. If successful, this simple scheme can be mightily frustrating. Blocking hot routes are an obvious remedy, keeping your TE or RB in to give you a precious extra second or two to find an open man. However, in my experiences, I have found a couple of other simple tricks that would make the Pope swear, provided he was an Over-Blitzer.
Blitz plays generally have a single primary area of attack, either inside or outside. Inside blitzes come from inside linebackers (and the occasional safety), while outside blitzes come from outside 'backers and nickel/dime corners. Now, if the blitz is coming from the inside, the fastest fix is to call an inside slant or in-pattern for your slot receiver or TE. This is generally good for a quick 6-10 yards. If the blitz is coming from the outside (for instance, the nickel corner), I highly recommend motioning your HB or TE to the outside, and sending him on a fly pattern. Upon the snap, take a quick drop and fire a bullet to the streaking TE/RB, roughly 5-7 yards deep. Although not foolproof, this minor adjustment can make for some monumental gains, forcing your opponent to immediately re-evaluate his strategy.
Beating Over-Zoners: Cover 2
Over-zoners are gamers who typically control a linebacker or safety, and sit back in a Cover 2 or Cover 3 all game long, daring your to throw into the teeth of the secondary. If such an opponent is astute at controlling a linebacker or safety, passing the ball can become very difficult.
The Cover 2 is one of the most popular defenses for the typical over-zoner, and the first step to beating it is recognizing it. At the snap, watch the safeties and linebackers. If the safeties move at a backward angle as to halve the field while the linebackers “fan-out” to cover the medium middle, you are looking at a Cover 2. Such a defense is designed to protect against short and medium passes, while providing some a moderate degree of vigilance in the deep zones. If you become partial to hitches, outs, and slants, the Cover 2 will give you fits. As a whole, however, the Cover 2 is exploitable.
Playing good offense will require you to get yards however possible.
The most glaring weakness of the Cover 2, however, is the outer sidelines between the shallow corner and deep safety. Within this defense, the corners will cover the outside flats, while the safeties will retreat to prevent the deep ball. This leaves a nice chunk of real estate wide open between them. The easiest way to decimate an opponent who is sitting back in a Cover 2 all day, is to attack this area. One very easy trick is to send two receivers deep to one side of the field. I recommend sending the inside slot receiver on a fly pattern, and the outside receiver on a fade. The slot receiver will reach the safety first, immediately capturing his attention. Just as the defending safety is adjusting to cover the fly route, your outside receiver should be breaking into the aforementioned sweet spot on his fade route. Hit him in stride, and move the chains. Take that, Cover 2.
Beating Over-Zoners: Cover 3
The Cover 3 is slightly more complicated, and in my opinion, a much more complete pass defense than the Cover 2. On snap, look once again to the safeties for a quick tell. The safeties will move in opposite directions, one moving back to cover the middle deep third, one moving forward to cover the shallow middle. After making this read, quickly check the outside corners. If they are retreating to the outside deep thirds, it is a classic Cover 3 scheme.
One of the best pieces of advice I can give, however, is to run the ball. Run all day.
My main recommendation to thwart the Cover 3 is to attack the flats. As the corners adjust deep (and before the linebackers adjust over), there is a brief moment where the outside flats are wide open. Wide receiver screens are a perfect play call against the Cover 3. Hitches and quick outs will work well also.
One of the best pieces of advice I can give, however, is to run the ball. Run all day. While the Cover 3 is a great pass defense with few discernible weaknesses, it is a pass-first scheme all the way. A lot of defenders will be shifting away from the ball at the snap, which can create some big, big running lanes. If you find yourself up against an opponent with a propensity toward the Cover 3, keep the ball on the ground more often than normal. Your adversary will be forced to adjust, or give up 250 rushing yards.
Slant Your Linemen
Last week, I advised newcomers and veterans alike to stop the run game via a strategy of shifting linebackers and slanting the defensive line. When it comes to facing human opponents, however, I implore you to use only half of this strategy.
Shifting linebackers is effective too, but it is a dead giveaway to the offense.
Slanting defensive linemen is a powerful tool. From your scouting, you should have a good idea how your opponent likes to run the ball, whether it be toward the wide side of the field, strength of formation, or simply just to the right. Almost everyone has a habit. After you pick up on such a pattern, slant your linemen in that direction before the snap when anticipating a running play.
Shifting linebackers is effective too, but it is a dead giveaway to the offense. If linebackers (or defensive line, for that matter) happen to shift in one direction before the snap, a good player will simply flip the running play to the opposite side and run away from traffic. Slanting your line is far more subtle, yet it is surprisingly effective in reducing your opponent’s running lanes.
Stop The Option
Getting optioned to death? Cheer up. It has happened to all of us. However, there is definitely a way to nip this in the bud.
Far too many games are lost because of emotion. In order to find habitual success against human opponents in NCAA Football, you need to check your emotions at the door.
Call or audible into a QB spy defense, then, call a defensive line audible to contain, causing all four linemen to fan out. This will keep a linebacker following the QB’s every move, while turning the pitch man inside, where your containing defensive ends will greet him. A skilled option gamer may still get the best of you from time to time, but QB spy and contain hand-in-hand will level the playing field.
You may not know it, but disguising coverages is a big deal. If left alone, your DBs and LBs will move around, giving all kinds of subtle cues to your opponent as to what defense you may be running.
While it may be excessive to do so every play, I recommend frequently using double coverage audibles before the snap to confuse your opponent. What I mean by a “double” coverage audible, is to actually call two coverage audibles prior to the snap: one as the offense lines up, and another just before the snap. For example, let’s say you are playing a basic Cover 2, but want to make your opponent think you are blitzing. Simply call the “Show Blitz” coverage audible as the offense lines up. Then, a few moments later, shift back to normal. Or, say you are in fact blitzing. In that case, leave your defense alone at the outset, and move to the “Show Blitz” alignment at the last possible second.
Timing is everything here. You want to give your foe just enough time to make the wrong read, and shift out of it just as he prepares to run his play under false pretenses. You don’t want to wait too long, otherwise you might get caught out of position and won't be able to actually execute the called play. It is definitely a delicate balance, but if perfected, it is a deliciously dastardly device.
Controlling The Linebacker And/Or Safety
Probably the most important tip on defense is to learn to skillfully control a linebacker or safety. You have much more flexibility with these positions, preventing you from relying on the CPU to make stops in the passing game. Although rushing the passer with the defensive end is fun, it’s just too predictable for the human vs. human game. Taking command of the middle linebacker or strong safety gives you a great deal more flexibility to make plays on defense.
I highly recommend taking a look at this article, and also play numerous exhibition games using just a linebacker or a safety. The more comfortable you become, the harder it will be for human opponents to exploit your defense.
THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT PIECE OF ADVICE
Far too many games are lost because of emotion. In order to find habitual success against human opponents in NCAA Football, you need to check your emotions at the door. I know it may sound a bit too Zen for the subject matter, but it is true.
Controlling your emotions is the most important piece of advice you could learn from this article.
Through these 3,000+ words, hopefully I have been poignant enough to keep you awake and attentive. Hopefully I’ve said something that can help. But surely, through all of this, there is something I’ve left out. Perhaps even something I got wrong. Let me know, and hang in there, only a few more days of suffering until the best single day of the year.