Lost in the midst of the explosive passing attack and short-lived Bryce Petty Heisman campaign is the fact that Baylor boasts the most versatile and effective running game in the B12. They average 269.2 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry.
Lache Seastrunk is the main weapon and is already at 1k yards on the season despite missing most of the OU game and the OSU game. The next two up, Glasco Martin and Shock Linwood, are tough interior runners great at finding the holes in the Bear schemes and tearing through arm tackles.
Texas fans should also be aware that Bryce Petty figures prominently into the Bear run game with 11 rushing touchdowns on the year though he's managed only 168 net rushing yards (270 if negative plays included). Petty is a decisive runner and effective plowing straight ahead in their option schemes but he's not particularly dangerous in the open field or for inflicting longer runs.
Or at least he hasn't been yet, if Texas gave him running lanes like Chelf, Hill, or Richardson witnessed then all bets are off.
It's unique from other spread systems in a few different ways but the run game is a particularly prominent one. They primarily rely on Inside Zone and Power blocking schemes and incorporate QB reads to throw the bubble screen or keep the ball based on the behavior of individual defenders. Then they use play-action to throw over the top for long touchdowns, though that facet of their offense has been diminished of late with Tevin Reese injured.
In order to deal with the extra-wide splits of the wide receivers, teams can leave themselves vulnerable to the Baylor run game on the edges. This has to be Texas' main concern. There are no Ty Zimmermans or Shaun Lewis' on the Texas roster. Texas cannot mimic TCU or KSU's 2-deep approach to Baylor, these tactics require linebackers and safeties that can navigate the open field and make tackles in space.
Throw that idea out now, Texas will be eviscerated on the ground attempting to rely on a bend, don't break strategy.
Next up is the Oklahoma St. strategy, which involved press coverage, disguise, and exceptional linebacker play. I hope it's obvious why this is also a losing strategy.
There was one other team that made a solid defense of Baylor before eventually buckling under the Bear run game and quick strike potential. Oklahoma's strategy:
This is the strategy Texas should emulate against the Bears. Before I explain what's going, let's backtrack a bit.
Now all year long the Texas team has been one with elite components and shoddy unity. There have been isolated incidents in which Texas' ability to dominate on the DL, blow open holes with the OL, cover receivers one-on-one, and beat single coverage deep have resulted in victories over respectable foes.
Then when Texas was faced with a decent team that wasn't vulnerable to those elite traits, disaster would ensue. Baylor is arguably less vulnerable to Texas' best weapons on defense than any previous opponent. Malcom Brown will be faced with the biggest and best interior OL he's faced all season and may not be able to dominate between the tackles as he's done throughout the year. Texas' pass-rush will only come into play if Texas can stop the run and avoid Baylor taking their shots downfield from play-action. The Texas DB's will need to come ready to avoid breakdowns or double moves by Antwan Goodley and co.
However, when we take stock of Texas' current traits on defense we can see a possible strategy for avoiding the disasters that struck against BYU, Ole Miss, and OSU.
The ability to play man coverage
Baylor has struggled some this year to beat good man coverage on the outside. Most of the time, teams don't dare challenge the Bears with press coverage but this year's B12 is particularly rich in talent at cornerback. Justin Gilbert, Aaron Colvin, and Jason Verrett will all probably finish above Carrington Byndom on the All-Big 12 lists but Texas' ability to lockdown an opponents' top three receivers with Byndom, Thomas, and Diggs is nothing to scoff at.
It's also easy to forget that safeties Mykkele Thompson, Adrian Phillips, and Leroy Scott all have cross-training at corner and can hold up in man better than many other safeties in the league, even if they aren't terribly skilled at performing traditional safety roles on defense.
This will be essential to Texas' gameplan.
Horrendous run-force play
We've detailed how Diggs has struggled this season to maintain the balance of defending slot receivers without giving Texas an angel-soft edge against the run. Attempting to manage Baylor's read-option plays with Diggs spaced halfway across the field with a slot receiver would be unthinkable.
Texas has also struggled this year to corral the sweep on "Power-Read" this season. Baylor runs two varieties of sweep-read. The first you can see above in the clip against Oklahoma. They sweep a WR or RB across the QB with the OL blocking down for inside zone. Petty reads the unblocked end and hands off on the sweep or keeps it himself.
That's basically Veer-option football modified for the spread. They also run Power-Read with a similar read on the unblocked defensive end. The WR or RB who is commonly featured in the sweep is either Antwan Goodley or Lache Seastrunk.
Imagine the Texas facing one of these plays against a four-receiver formation with the nickelback and strong safety split wide and outside of the hash marks. Imagine Santos and another linebacker attempting to chase those guys down without giving up cutback lanes while Diggs is tasked with squeezing the runners inside from his alignment 15 yards away. Not gonna happen.
Weapons on the perimeter
With Steve Edmond out for the year, it's been noted that Texas has four scholarship linebackers available. I'd argue that Texas actually has five scholarship linebackers available, depending on how you define Jackson Jeffcoat.
In the NFL he'll likely be a 3-4 outside linebacker. For Texas on Thanksgiving, he was an outside linebacker, a 3-tech defensive tackle, or a blitzing linebacker depending on your perspective. Gerg lined Texas up in a 3-3-5 with three DE's, if you include Jeffcoat, Malcom Brown, and two linebackers. Jeffcoat blitzed into different gaps all night and wreaked havoc.
Against the Bear run game this strategy would be annihilated by a steady diet of zone runs and double teams from their massive OL. At least on run downs, on 3rd down this could still be a useful package.
However, the important takeaway from that performance was how Jeffcoat can move around in different places than just a traditional 4-3 end.
Jinkens played last year as a weakside linebacker, a role that was then snatched up by Steve Edmond when Jinkens' circuits were overloaded by the Diaz playbook. Since then, he's been seen in two roles: As a SAM linebacker on the edge against formations with a tight end, and as an outside force player in Texas' 46 packages they've used against Diamond formations.
If Texas were to play the base defense and simply plug Jinkens into Edmond's role...you could probably expect a decent number of assignment busts and costly errors. Ditto for Tim Cole.
The best DL in the B12
Even with Chris Whaley out Texas has a fantastic DL. Malcom Brown is a 1st team All-B12 choice, Cedric Reed is the leading tackler with Edmond out, and the bench has players that could start now at most of the other B12 programs.
The only problem for Texas has been forcing teams to attempt to run up the gut against the strength of the team when there are such easier paths to the outside. Even Baylor, which loves to hammer the gut of a defense, will gladly attack the perimeter early and often in this game.
In order to bring the teams' athleticism and pass-rush to bear against...the Bears...then Texas will need to tweak the strategy this week.
The solution to this problem has been staring Texas in the face all year in the anti-diamond package: The 46 Nickel defense.
Texas can play their typical Cover-1/Cover-3 defenses from this defense, as well as bring all manner of man-blitzes. The keys are the SAM and Buck positions, filled by Jinkens and Jeffcoat respectively. Their number one goal every play is to keep the play inside of them so that Santos doesn't have to attempt to chase plays out of the box.
Meanwhile our Nickel is absolved of primary run-force duties and can focus on playing coverage. If Texas doesn't play the 46, then they invite this favorite formation of Baylors in which their TE Jordan Navjar is in the box as a halfback and can add an extra blocker on the edge or the interior in one of Briles' numerous run schemes.
If Texas plays their base 4-3 (Nickel) against that formation and asks Jinkens and Santos to read and react to these schemes, there will be breakdowns. By using the 46 alignment, Texas simplifies Jinkens' role and allows both Diggs and Santos to do what they do best.
If Baylor goes to the four and five receiver sets, Texas still doesn't necessarily have to respond by using dime personnel:
Adrian Phillips locks down the 2nd slot receiver and Jeffcoat and Jinkens continue in their role of funneling every run between the tackles. This is essentially what Oklahoma did with their 3-3-5 package, although they would arrive at this destination with disguise and as part of various Fire Zones they ran.
Let's review what this offers and takes away from Texas:
-Texas' terrible force play from the secondary is removed as a factor in the ball game and the 'Horns are better positioned to take away the outside sweeps and bubble screens of the Bear offense.
-We don't have to watch Jinkens and Cole put on a linebacker performance that would make Joe Paterno role over in his grave.
-The coverages don't change and Texas can still drop seven or bring six as Gerg does in the base packages.
-It's already sort of in the playbook. We've only seen this look against the diamond, but many of the roles and assignments are consistent. In other words, Texas wouldn't have to install an entirely new defense.
-One-on-one matchups for the DL with their hands in the dirt. The unholy trinity of Cyril Richardson, Stefan Hubner, and Desmine Hilliard will be unable to get up to their normal bullying and double-teaming because Jackson, Reed, and Brown will be across their faces waiting to burn past them if Baylor attempts to reach them with the OT's.
-There's no help here for the secondary if they struggle with the Bear passing game, and the free safety is going to be looking to fill over the top on running plays so his ability to reach the sidelines on deep passes will be very limited.
-Adrian Phillips can be removed from the run game equation. In this look, Texas probably plays Phillips as the SS with Thompson deep at FS. Unless Akina/Gerg trust Thompson to play outside on an island and use Phillips as the FS then Texas' only truly good secondary run-player won't be used against the run when the Bears go spread (more than three WR's).
-Less margin for error. If Jinkens and Jeffcoat can't stay outside and squeeze in pullers and lead blocks, there could be big trouble. If Santos can't fill properly between the tackles on an inside run by Seastrunk, then Mykkele Thompson's run support is the only thing between the Bears and six points. Similarly on the outside, a blown coverage or a bite on a double move could be all that it takes to set up Petty for an easy toss and six points.
-Consequently, Mykkele Thompson needs to have his strongest game of the year. We probably rather rely on someone else, although his range as a deep safety is strong. Of course, Texas could try and fit Phillips here and play someone else on the edge.
-Commitment. Texas will need to rep this and build it heavily into the gameplan for it to be successful. If they try and mix it in periodically they set themselves up for assignment busts and easy points. The Bears' run game is too diverse to tackle it with several different approaches.
As my Pastor Jordan Ogden likes to say, "people face trade-offs," I see little reason to believe that Texas can line up as they have throughout the year and have any hopes of stopping the Bears. However, Texas does have some elite qualities to their defense to go along with the hideous warts.
An aggressive approach like the 46 combines strategies Texas has already employed this year and offers a glimmer of hope for corralling the Bear running game and thereby eliminating the play-action strikes that make them so terrifying. Don't be surprised to see Gerg reach for this scheme or something similar on Saturday.