Current lines on the contest between our Texas Longhorns and Bill Snyder's Kansas State Wildcats make the purple ones 11 point favorites.
Now, I've followed some of the point spreads on Kansas State for the last two years and can assure you that this is something of an anomaly. Vegas doesn't expect people to bet on Kansas State against premier teams. Whether that's due to their small alumni base or just the enormous number of people who love to bet on Texas or Oklahoma, Vegas usually penalizes people for betting against Kansas State with bizarre margins. Like Texas -9 last year, or OU -9 this season.
Apparently they didn't feel the need to do so for this contest. Either people have begun to pick up on the easy money that has been betting on Kansas State in the Collin Klein era, or Texas fans have lost their confidence and it's showing up in the lines.
I thought this was interesting given the current turmoil and uncertainty in the program's future. When you start to see changes in the way Longhorn fans behave with their money that's a good indicator that changes could be coming. I personally expect to see Mack stay for another uninspiring season but I don't think anyone should be shocked if changes occur. Especially after the likely outcome of this game, which I will now breakdown for the masochists.
Facing the Wildcat Defense
Snyder's defensive squad is a collection of very solid upperclassmen playing conservative and sound schemes anchored by a superstar middle linebacker, Arthur Brown. Number 4, watch for him Saturday to get a reminder of what good linebacker play looks like.
The defensive line is exactly what has given Texas fits this season, presuming their relative health. They primarily rotate three 6-2/290 pound senior technicians at defensive tackle book-ended by the sturdy Adam Davis (11 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles on the year) and speedy Meshak Williams (8.5 sacks).
They don't give up a lot of ground and they usually get an adequate pass rush.
The Wildcat philosophy is first to stop the big pass play, secondly to stop the run. Consider their response here to Horned Frog play action:
TCU is in the pistol with a halfback and two removed receivers to the field and a tight end on the boundary side. That's a trips formation that present various coverage problems combined with running play personnel. Much of what Harsin does is based on presenting similar personnel and formations to the defense.
Kansas State responds with soft cover-3, a free safety standing 14 yards deep, and a front ready to peek into the backfield. They'll yield a well executed short pass but they are hoping to avoid either a big run or a deep pass.
TCU runs playaction and you immediately see the secondary backpedaling and remaining over the top of the receiving threats. A run faces eight defenders with six in the box. The end result here was Boykin rolling out, scrambling and being lit up after a short gain. No passes over the top, no explosive runs.
If you spread them out they'll generally allow their linebackers to be spaced out of the box to prevent big passing plays but with eyes on the backfield if they get a run read.
The tie that binds it all together for KSU is Arthur Brown. Recall how he played receivers against Oklahoma and you get a sense of what he's capable of in the open field. At 6-2/230 you'll hear a lot about him being undersized for the NFL and more of a late round outside linebacker prospect. Then a Cover-2 team will draft him and deploy him as a weakside or middle linebacker in the vein of Derrick Brooks, London Fletcher, or Hardy Nickerson...and that team will be very pleased with what they find.
He can run with receivers up the seam of the defense, reroute them to the outside, and peel off to make tackles. He has two interceptions on the year so far and might increase that total Saturday night.
His play against the run is similarly strong, primarily for his ability to play laterally.
Here against Iowa St, the Cyclones run up tempo to attempt to pick up a 3rd and 1. Brown is located in the playside b-gap, his two defensive tackles are not even in their stance yet when the ball is snapped.
Iowa St pulls the backside guard and are running "Power-read" based on their read of the unblocked defensive end. The halfback steps out looking to block the nickelback who's coming off the far hash.
The defensive end and nickelbacks do their job well on this play. The play is intended to read the defensive end and make him wrong on the play, but after he stays home to give the QB the "give" read, he then blows up the pulling guard and keeps Brown clean to pursue the play laterally. Meanwhile the nickelback takes on the halfback and forces the run back inside. Great team play all around.
Brown fills the gap very quickly but the Iowa back tries to make a hard cut inside the nickelback to pick up the one measly yard necessary for a first down. Technically he has an angle to try and blow through Brown to at least get the first.
But Brown cleans things up before the first down marker and handles the late cut by the runningback with relative ease. This lateral speed helps tremendously in playing the run from outside the box, or reaching outside zone runs, sweeps, screens, draws, etc.
He's not bad in a broom closet either. I could litter this post with examples of Brown filling blocks in the trenches, on the run, etc. He presents serious problems against our offense for his ability to play inside out and make tackles on the perimeter or in the scrum.
Behind him, the KSU secondary gets physical play from corner Allen Chapman while Nigel Malone is the ballhawk that pulled down seven INT's last year and has four this season. If Safety Ty Zimmerman is healthy, he adds another ballhawk and physical tackler in the open field as well.
Against all this we pit the Case McCoy experience.
There are two offenses that have had strong results against the Wildcat defense: The OSU Cowboys who scored 30 points due to explosive passing plays, and the Baylor Bears who spread out an injured defense and ran through them.
Balance is the key. The Wildcats couldn't stop the OSU zone running game without giving up some explosive pass plays, but they intercepted four Cowboy passes and scored 44 points so it hardly mattered.
Baylor's vertical passing game, arguably the best in the country, required too deep an alignment from KSU's Zimmerman-less safeties to provide extra run support and Baylor's run game went bonkers.
So how does Texas stay balanced offensively in this game? Texas' approach has to include vertical passing to the middle of the field to keep the KSU safeties deep. Secondly, they need to get the ball to Daje Johnson and Johnathan Gray on runs and short passes as much as possible in order to create explosive plays with minimal risk.
The bigger question is, how will Kansas State choose to silence the Case McCoy cult following? There are two schools of thought on how to best exploit Case McCoy: One is to aggressively deny the Texas running game and play soft coverage on the outside. The hope here is to make Texas beat you with short completions and counting on mistakes and good tackling to kill drives. This is the KSU way.
It's hard to imagine McCoy executing in the short passing game consistently well enough to punish KSU for this tactic. Asking him to beat soft coverage deep with his arm is out of the question.
The other philosophy on crushing Case is to bring out the competitor in him. Case's scrambling improve routine, where he resembles a frontiersman running around and taking pot shots at horsed Commanches with a .22 caliber handgun, might be something Kansas State wants to bring out.
They could do this by overloading the run, playing press coverage, and mixing in blitzes. There's the chance that Daje Johnson or Mike Davis burns you, but then there's also the chance that you gain five sacks, three interceptions, and hold Texas to negative rushing yards due to TFL's.
More likely is a combination: Cover-3 and Cover-4 with soft coverage on the outside but the corners encouraged to jump recognized routes and safeties instructed to come aggressively in run support.
Any of these tactics is likely to find tremendous success and a handful of turnovers.
Facing the Wildcat offense
Essentially it is exactly that, the wildcat offense that took the NFL by storm several seasons ago.
The Power-Read, one of the main contributions of the original Wildcat offense, is the foundation of the KSU offense. The trick with this concept is that it asks the QB to navigate the interior lane, normally a duty for a feature back, while the other back runs a sweep. The other concepts in the Wildcat's run game include outside zone-read, inside zone-read, QB counter, QB draw, RB power, option, etc. The QB is heavily featured in most of them.
It's an even more diverse run game than Harsin features but it requires the presence of two legit runners in the backfield. Of course, this is what makes Collin Klein so special. His patience in setting up blocks, his ability to cut and dart through holes, his power to break arm tackles, and then his ability to swallow up yards in the open field with his long legs...he's basically one of the best power backs in the country.
His partner John Hubert has proven to be a very capable running back in the mold of Hodges Mitchell, or a homeless man's Darren Sproles. He's an elusive interior runner with the ability to bounce off tackles and spin through holes.
The offensive line had to replace most of last year's starters yet has managed to match their cohesion and technique while upgrading the overall athleticism of the unit. They have a tight end and a fullback on their depth chart and they aren't the kind that teams suddenly discover when gameplanning for Texas, these guys are featured in the offense. Their fullback will probably play in the NFL.
If you've watched Texas play this season you could probably just read the above section and have a pretty good idea of how this game is going to unfold. I'm not sure there has ever been a running game better designed to exploit the particular weaknesses of this Texas defense.
Of course, there's also KSU's passing game, which has three main components. There's the vertical play-action game, the play-action rollout, and some simple spread concepts. Klein has mastered all of them and has proven to be deadly accurate, though he has one of the slowest releases you'll ever see. He makes up for it with placement and buys time for himself with the threat of the scramble.
Their tight end, Tannahill, is an effective receiver in the play-action game, as is their fullback Braden Wilson. Chis Harper, Trumaine Thompson, and Tyler Lockett fill out an underrated receiving corp that can make you pay when you isolate corners against them in open spaces. Hypothetically, if you made Kansas St. one dimensional they would all become far less effective but not impotent. Klein beat Texas last year with a deep out and then a back shoulder fade to the end zone in their two minute offense, so they are plenty dangerous in their own right.
Last season, Texas dominated the KSU OL and obliterated Klein with Fire Zones that eliminated the easy throws over the middle with which he thrives while successfully containing him in the pocket.
Unfortunately, if your hot defenders in the Fire Zone don't fill the easy passing lanes than the overall result is that too few rush the passer to hurry the throw and too few stay back in coverage to take away the dangerous routes. We don't execute these nearly as well this year.
The smart thing would be to play lots of 2-read and Cloud-3 defense with Vaccaro playing nickel regardless of KSU personnel and force them to earn their way down the field against our still mostly superior athletes. Really that's been the wiser course all year but it's rarely been what Diaz has chosen.
Will he choose A). Emphasize simple schemes and try to teach his defense to be sound against the many diverse concepts in the KSU offense or B). Attempt to cheat KSU by firing blitzes and stunts based on an anticipation of their play calls and put them behind the chains with negative plays?
I think we all know the answer, and the result.
As for KSU, the presence of Case McCoy on the other side of the field really begs for a strategy to play fast and increase the total number of possessions in the game because there is near certainty that Klein will make more of the KSU possessions than McCoy will make of Texas' opportunities.
However, by it's very nature Snyder-ball mercifully limits the total number of possessions in a game because the purple wizard knows that his senior heavy squads will usually prove more efficient in a short game than poorly deployed Houston and Dallas kids.
Kansas State has always had Mack's number. In part because they've caught Texas at opportune times, and in part because they are our antithesis. There is no entitlement in Manhattan and no compromise in order to land the best young talent. They are a roster of players that were mostly overlooked by major colleges because of grades or lack of athleticism and then recruited to a desolate part of Kansas and fashioned in Snyder's fires into a disciplined, confident, and physical machine.
Consequently the matchup has often gone down like the Battle of Chancellorsville.
Last year Texas was ready to match the Wildcat's physicality and found themselves pitted against a similarly injured and tiring team. Nevertheless, the Wildcat's discipline and Klein's steady leadership still willed a victory while Ash self-destructed and the Longhorn offense played hot potato with a victory the defense gently laid in their hands.
This season Texas is clearly over matched. Kansas State has better players and are playing at home with a chance for a conference title and BCS appearance. A Texas victory would also enable OU a share of the Big 12 title after they demolish TCU earlier Saturday. Fantastic motivation for Texas.
Finally, Collin Klein is still in the running for the Heisman trophy and could potentially reclaim it with a brilliant performance. Our typical ineptitude on defense could screw hopeful Aggy.
Kansas State has every reason to deliver a Red River style beatdown to the Longhorns. They have every needed advantage, and have had all the time in the world to plan the murder to perfection with a bye week over Thanksiving.
I won't pretend to know what Mack's job security is like right now but the growth that the team has experienced this season could be easily forgotten with a demoralizing blowout in this game. If he doesn't have the team ready with an aggressive gameplan with cohesion in all three phases to protect Texas pride in a vulnerable moment it will be a tremendous failure that demonstrates that he's either quit or been assured that he's done enough to be retained.
Either would be disgusting. I'll be watching with a keen eye to gauge our staff's interest in gameplanning for this contest while also prepared to be willing to laugh at the dark comedy that will ensue if they haven't prepared as though their jobs were on the line.
What else can you do? It's Kansas State week.