Open wide barkers, wider than the Texas passing attack Saturday cause I'm going to stick another thought or two about the Rice game down your collective pie-hole.
For all our sakes we're going to focus simply on two major themes from the game; why did we see what we did? and What does it tell us?
Eventually I'm planning on treating everyone to a weekly segment called something like "this week in Muschamp Wizardry" where we break down how our favorite Lieutenant handled the offensive attack. Unfortunately this week in Nickel Rover technology labs there was some confusion in the game-tape office and I was unable to secure a copy of the game to study for this purpose. On the bright side I was in Reliant (beautiful place btw) so I got some nice coverage perspective.
Let's begin with the major variable, our opponent. Rice's gameplanned around playing it safe, hoping for a few breaks, and keeping Texas off the field and out of their comfort zone. This was accomplished by the following measures:
1). Don't kick it to Goodwin/Monroe. Yielding field position at the 40-50 yard line is generally an oversafe measure but Rice was more willing to chance it against what they knew would be a vanilla offense than allow Texas to score in one play. You may see this again by vastly weaker opponents using the same gameplan or by conference rivals trying to prevent a big play in specific moments but I'm fairly positive that even with Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt back there the math doesn't support kicking it to the 35 every play.
2). 2-deep with Nickel personnel: Rice didn't really come out of their 2-deep shell the entire game. As people around me kept yelling for the "deep pass" I could only point to 2 reasons why Gilbert wouldn't want to force it down the field...the two safeties, those were the reasons.
It's hard to accurately gauge the performance of the Rice defensive backs because a). Gilbert didn't check down to the Tight Ends much (with Matthews that's a good potential Cover-2/4 beater) and b). Texas stayed very vanilla in the passing game.
That said, they stayed in front of guys fairly well and Gilbert had to hit some tight windows deep. Malcolm Williams was awarded "Offensive player of the week" or some such title and it's because the man is an excellent and already favored target on the deep outs that will undoubtedly be a favored way of securing first downs this season.
Overall the message to the Texas offense was: go ahead and work on your running game, we are perfectly content to sit back and let you try to drive the ball down the field 5 yards at a time. Some of the best college defenses (Ohio State, Monte Kiffin) scheme under the basic premise that consistent tackling and goal-line pressure will ultimately prevent much scoring by a college-level offense because they will inevitably shoots themselves in the foot. We'll come back to this in "what we learned" but Texas acquitted themselves pretty well up to the red-zone. That's where you gotta hope Davis was holding back a lot. Certainly he was holding back better judgment on the sweep with Cody. I'm betting that the lead draw sees heavy use in the red-zone this season. Davis likes it there, I suppose for the way it hits a concentrated area with power when the defense feels pressure to defend the entire field against a quick rifle pass from Garrett.
Two ways to beat the Cover-2, which Colt never really had at his disposal, are the draw and the deep out between the corner and safety. Both are in the playbook this year thanks to Gilbert's arm strength so take comfort in that because that scheme really flustered Texas at times in the last 2 years.
3). Spread Option baby! It's on!
This is hard to defend and one of the underrated elements of the option is that it is designed for the big play. Your zone and power running plays are blocked to provide for 5-10 yard gains when executed properly but big runs only come from missed tackles or bad angles (often created by a speedy or shifty back).
The option is better at accounting for safeties and thus, when executed perfectly, makes a touchdown a very real threat on every run. It also requires a tremendous amount of discipline, patience, and inter-player trust on defense to stop consistently. In other words, it's the perfect way to run an offense if you want to keep the ball from the opposing offense and still give yourself a chance to score on any given play.
Rice could have had a terrible game overall running the ball and still broken a td run or a big play that made scoring easier because of the scheme. It's the best offense for college football and you would see it at major universities more if you weren't selling NFL chances to the elite recruits.
They did have some frustrating success with it but ultimately Muschamp spotted it, swooped down and flew it back up to his pyre for his young hawks to feed on.
Everyone who says this probably sounds like a stupid homer but I thought Rice showed some real quality in this game. I'm pretty sure their option game with McGuffie and Smith (Cedar Park!) proves to be a handful for Conference USA while their defense is sturdy enough to make bowl contention a real possibility.
What we learned about Texas:
1). The running game: Texas came out and ran power with Huey pulling and stalled at the line of scimmage. They did it again behind Mason Walter's pull and went for 18 yards. Huey played well but Mason Walters is probably better now than anyone who started last year save maybe for Ulatoski. This interior OL can absolutely be the best since 2006 and I would leave Walters there indefinitely unless/until they want him at Left Tackle because he brings a lot of value to the running game.
The zone running still needs work and Mack highlighted backside blocking and making cuts as the primary reason.
To make clear that distinction, on your basic zone play the linemen are all moving quickly in the direction of the play in order to cut off the intended pursuit by the defense in that direction. Ideally, you double team the defensive linemen and move them to an unproductive location and quickly advance upfield to obstruct linebackers and safeties. The trick though is that the offense fully anticipates the defense adjusting and beating them in that direction, and that's where the cutback comes in.
In the instance of a cutback, the linemen will screen off the defenders in the direction they were already over-pursuing while the backside linemen run back away from the direction and re-engage the defenders staying home who would otherwise destroy the cutback. The easiest way to do that when you are 300 pounds is to come back and cut-block them. Since Mack doesn't want his guys doing that to Sam Acho or Kheeston Randall in practice it takes time for them to build that schematically essential skill.
Cody Johnson ran better than I believe he got credit for, he simply isn't a zone-back and that scheme is still a big part of what Texas is doing on offense. When Greggy called power Cody was a wrecking ball through the hole and I think he has some potential in the counter as well.
Tre Newton doesn't have the force to plow through in the power play like Cody but he does have the vision and cutting abilities you want in the zone-back.
Fozzy Whittaker has to demonstrate the patience in the zone and the willingness in power but I think he has the most complete skill set. They only ran Counter with Fozzy but he ran behind his blocks like a pro and made that play look better than it has here than any year since 2007 when Charles ran it. I'm betting on Fozzy as the flavor of the week after Wyoming.
You should expect to see all of them continue to get action and I've just told you what each needs to do to establish himself as the main guy. I still like Cody although the coaches are giving Newton the nod this week because I think power is the best play in the book right now and Cody is hardly incompetent in the zone.
Don't fret too much about the continuation of the 3-headed monster, what matters is still getting positive yardage out of all the runs, setting up play-action/protecting the quarterback, and being able to run in short-yardage and at the goal-line
2). Marquise Goodwin is Texas' own Percy Harvin or DeSean Jackson. There are a couple of ways to use guys like this, ideally if your speed demon is skilled enough in hauling in the deep ball you will see teams play off him and give him a lot of room underneath, which is perfect.
Check out Urban Meyer's schemes and you see that Goodwin's skills fit in perfectly with what Davis is trying to do on offense this year. Cost-risk analysis says Goodwin may be one of the most valuable Longhorns this season.
In the Alabama game we saw Gilbert complete a few WR screens to Goodwin (the kind where the OL get downfield, not the bubble screen) that Colt-Shipley never mastered. It's an invaluable weapon and one that OU has abused Texas with for the last decade. In Rice we saw the same thing and it's going to be a play worth running 3-4 times in just about every contest.
In your basic hitch passes, WR screens, jet sweeps and backside reverses in the zone-running game Goodwin is a monster. All of these plays present explosive potential from a missed tackle or bad angle while preventing Gilbert and the offense from putting the ball where it is likely to be taken away.
Before we move on, credit to Greg Davis for bringing in Monroe to run the backside reverse and handing off to Newton. That shows an encouraging awareness of tendency, showing the defense something obvious and then punish them for jumping on it. Of course Monroe's presence still guaranteed a play of that sort but still, this is a step up in napkin schemery.
3). Defending the edge:
Curtis Brown is very content to be Deion Sanders-lite and present little in the way of physical play in the running game. Chykie Brown...let's just say he has motivational issues...he is actually a solid tackler in the running game but he isn't an asset on the edge like a Cedric Griffin or Aaron Ross who played like extra safeties on the edge.
Blake Gideon, we all know the story. He showed some risk aversion in his run support that still drew some ire for it's unphysical nature but at least he didn't give any 80 yard gifts to McGuffie on a whiff. That's his best bet for this season, just make the tackle. In the screen game he is a little more adept at making the big hit.
Weakness on the edge was a major problem against Alabama who could adequately block the front well enough to get to the edge and prey on a secondary that had been getting soft from a steady diet of Big 12 tater tot offenses.
It's not actually so considerable a problem this year and you can consider that an erasure of one of the remaining weaknesses of Muschamp's ever-growing Texas unit. The name of that eraser is Kenny Vaccaro.
Count me amongst those who prefer the Big Nickel to the Chykie Brown Flying Circus. He's your ultimate Nickel Rover, playing the slot at (for a safety) a fairly high level while offering linebacker quality tackling and striking. His love language is physical touch and he seeks it out on the gridiron like RansomStoddard on a crowded subway.
Additionally, he demonstrated discipline in staying with the pitch man on the option and being aware of play-action in his limited time as a deep safety. If he can continue to harness his natural aggression with discipline he has to be a starter. You combine what he offers with Aaron Williams and Christian Scott and the weakness on the edge becomes a strength. Screw Chykie, he can languish on the bench and plan his pro-day workouts if he doesn't want to put in the focus and sacrifice, White and Byndom need snaps anyway.
The zone-blitz is very popular in football for the following reasons (that's right, another list)
A). It requires usage of multiple athletic defenders, which is already the trend in defense.
B). It allows overload blitzes where offenses waste blockers, is confusing to read and can be done in groups of 4-5 where you don't have to sacrifice all your coverage.
In general, in a zone-blitz you bring pressure from a linebacker, safety or corner and you fill that hole in coverage by dropping a defensive lineman back. For instance, at a super-basic level, you might drop the right end back into the flat normally defended by a linebacker, drop that linebacker into middle coverage and blitz the middle linebacker with the left side of the line.
There are a million different scenarios of how you can move around your defenders, provided they can get there, into places where the quarterback won't expect them and in doing so bring enough pressure in one place where the OL won't have the numbers to block it.
There are a few traits which make this particularly devastating.
1. Excellent coverage corners who can make breaks on the ball in the air. Check.
2. A ball-hawking deep safety (Ed Reed) who can key in on the quarterback's wild eyes and get to where he desperately attempts to go with the ball. Eh.
3. Linebackers and defensive backs who can blitz. Check.
4. Defensive linemen who can drop into coverage. Check.
In general I favor 2-deep coverages and using alignment to free up high-level players on your d-line to get pressure. Then again, so does Muschamp, but you can expect some strong usage of this system as well. It's a multiple defense after all. He dialed up 1 or 2 of these at the end of the first Rice drive and that was that.
For OSU's Air Raid offense, or any of the other offenses in the Big 12 in which the quarterback makes most of his reads pre-snap, (virtually all of them and certainly our friends in Norman and Lincoln) hitting the QB with zone-blitzes is like asking them to explain fractional-reserve banking and its role in the current economic crisis.
Beyond the abundance of good material on this site I recommend a lot of the coverage by BurntOrangeNation including this piece by InDKR'sShadow I really enjoyed.
Peter Bean also has a nice bit over there in defense of the smurfs who are getting all kinds of hate from Longhorn fans who find themselves naturally disposed to despise anyone who draws crucial attention away from our football program.
I have this to say for the Boises of the world, and Scipio Texas has probably already said it, but while they get all kinds of positive attention for their annual victory over a BCS Power out of proportion with the scope of the victory this simply means that they will get disproportionate abuse if they lose such a game.
While it may not be as hard as winning all your big games and still having enough juice to survive contests with the Pokes and Red Raiders there is a lot to be said for coming up big in every primetime opportunity when all your program's hopes are at stake every time.
Speaking of Scipio, didn't he like the VaTech power game against Chris Peterson's lot? In 2 years the Broncos have manhandled the Oregon zone attack and the VaTech power-option and are beginning to look Belichek-ian in the way they are consistently prepared and equipped to bring down the most important features of their primetime foes. If they can bring down the Air-Raid next how can you not be impressed?
Finally, if you aren't reading NateHeupel and the crew at BoomerandSooner then you are depriving yourself of the joy of rivalry. Go feast on the meltdown against Utah State from a tempered observer. I'll be watching the 2000 MNC rematch with great interest. Probably twice if the Nickel Rover Technology Center gets up and running.
Any remaining thoughts?