Will Muschamp faced the Air Raid four times while with our Texas Longhorns and came out 2-2. He slowed the 2008 Tech offense somewhat but was ultimately burned by that juggernaut and had a similar result against the 2010 Oklahoma State crew. In 2009 he was able to slow down Leach's attack but he did so with the benefit of a secondary loaded with 4 excellent coverage players and linebackers that could make plays all over the field.
In 2010 he utterly demolished Tech only to see Holgorsen draw the score up even with his additions to the offensive system, a vertical passing game and a more emphasized rushing attack. It's a tough offense to handle and no one has found a magic bullet yet.
Manny Diaz is currently 0-2 against the Air Raid and his last defeat was an eye-opening experience that hearkened back to Carl Reese's attempts to handle Mangino's Air Raid offense in 2000.
I'm as shocked as Scipio that the lesson Diaz drew from his first encounter with the Air Raid was to attempt to out-scheme the offense with increased stunts. The nature of the spread out formations and vertical threats on the safeties means that if you get beat at the 2nd level, there's a good chance that the 3rd level won't be able to save the play with a touchdown.
Now due to mercy from the football gods, Holgorsen doesn't have the benefit of an offensive line and zone running game with West Virginia Mountaineers that has been groomed for years by Joe Wickline. All he has is a Colt McCoy clone, the closest thing to Percy Harvin I've seen yet, and an even better Quan Cosby. The supporting cast around them isn't bad either...except on defense.
This offense puts the defense in a terrifying position, do you play it safe and try to keep them in front of you the whole game? Geno Smith is accurate enough, and his receivers explosive enough, to put points on the board against that style of defense. But then, do you bring pressure and disguise and risk getting shredded when they find the weak points?
Finding the right blend is nearly impossible, but entirely necessary to make the necessary plays to kill drives and prevent touchdowns. The LSU Tigers took this task on last year and aligned themselves like this:
There are several things to note here:
DL: They're in an under front: which places the 3-tech defensive tackle and the "buck" end on the same side of the formation to help prevent the guard and tackle being able to combo-block the end in pass-protection.
LB: They're in nickel personnel with Mathieu lined up outside and over the slot receiver to the field. He's 5 yards off the line and he would often take some deep drops and rely on his instincts and speed to impact plays, basically like a 3rd safety. The weakside linebacker is out of the box to keep the boundary receivers from having too much room to play with.
Corners: The boundary corner is Morris Claiborne. The guy Dallas traded up to draft and who has helped their defense rise up the league rankings immediately. This was a good group. Stedman Bailey still had a big day.
Safeties: They're lined up 10 and 12 yards off the ball. LSU's fantastic speed in the secondary last year allowed them to use deep alignments like this because their defensive backs were athletic enough to impact plays from a deep alignment. Here they have their boundary safety lined up WAY outside the hash marks.
Everything in this defensive alignment represents respect for passing game, and generally disregard for trying to honestly match the run, much less outnumber it.
Now: WV motions the boundary slot receiver:
Mathieu adjusts outside of the new #2 receiver, the middle linebacker leaves the box to help cover the #3 and the weakside linebacker re-enters the box. LSU is playing Zone, and they'd mix Cover-3 and Cover-2 throughout the night.
Claiborne comes up closer on Bailey and comes on a Fire Zone blitz, Geno immediately hit Bailey for a 20 yard gain.
The goal of the play was to isolate Bailey, but the motion had to be respected and it forced LSU to reveal they were in zone-coverage by the way they adjusted to the trips formation. Then, Smith almost immediately recognized they were in a Fire Zone and knew where to put the ball. This was early in the season last year and their mastery of the system has only increased.
Over the course of the game, LSU gave up 463 passing yards and Geno went 38-65 with 2 picks and 2 touchdowns. That resulted in 7.1 yards per pass attempt and 21 points on the scoreboard. West Virginia only ran the ball 22 times for 3.2 yards per carry. Smith was never sacked.
A large part of the reason for LSU's overall success came on plays like this one:
It's 3rd and 19, so that means it's time to blitz on defense. The 3 DL package with the 4 LB's roaming around the line of scrimmage is an obvious sign that some kind of zone-blitz is forthcoming, as is the fact that LSU has 2 very deep safeties and no one aligned over all the slot receivers to the trips side.
Tyrann Mathieu comes down to the line of scrimmage here before the snap outside the field-side defensive end and the field safety drops down somewhat suggesting a likely field Fire Zone.
It is indeed a field pressure blitz and Smith is already aware and firing the ball out to the trips side where the safety has a lot of ground to cover before he can attempt to make a tackle on the receiver in the open field. This is potentially a very dangerous play for LSU and relatively safe for West Virginia.
Everything is going pretty well for WV, even if it is a long shot that they'll net enough yardage on this play with 42 seconds left in the half to generate a score. The linebackers are not close and their pursuit is not likely to reach the receiver anytime soon, nor is the field safety who's doubtlessly flying down field off screen. The only problem is no. 7, who has reached out a paw and tipped the pass...
To himself...setting up another LSU score and creating an insurmountable margin for WV to overcome.
LSU brought a lot of disguise, and moved their secondary around while executing an overall gameplan of keeping the ball in front of their athletes with deeply aligned Cover-2 and Cover-3 defenses and Fire Zones.
They also ran the ball for 200 yards and held a time of possession advantage of about 33 minutes to 26, but ultimately they won this game because the Honey Badger tipped a ball to himself and also forced a fumble that he then recovered.
Despite having NFL safeties, an NFL defensive line, the Honey Badger, and linebackers you wouldn't describe as slow they still struggled to shut down this attack and settled for preventing scores, playing team gameplan designed to keep WV off the field and away from the end zone, and relying on playmakers making things happen.
For Diaz and the Texas defense the point is this: Even with excellent athletes and great disguise, West Virginia will still diagnose your schemes and beat you from time to time. You cannot afford to give up points that come when you just beat yourself, which they will also encourage.
In this article, you get a great sense of how Holgorsen uses motion and formations to create pressure on a defense's schemes and he does it with vertical threats. West Virginia is extremely dangerous with the "throw it short to people who can score" philosophy of the Leach Air Raid (using Tavon Austin) but they also are always looking to challenge an offense vertically and they are executing those plays with the same kind of consistency as they do with shorter route concepts.
So what are we to do?
1). Flood the field with defensive backs:
Turner and Hooch should be the starting safeties for this game, and not because of Adrian Philllips' shoddy tackling but because we should be playing him and Kenny Vaccaro as outside linebackers.
The only way to deal with a pass-first spread team is match their athletes with athletes. For years, defensive coordinators tried to "get physical" with these teams, tell their linebackers to knock people over and fire endless blitzes to knock down the quarterback and disrupt his rhythm. In the consequent matchups in space, instead of the linebackers drilling people and sending a message they usually ended up diving at ankles or getting trucked trying to tackle running backs with bad angles. The Quarterbacks rarely got out of rhythm punishing man blitzes with quick throws and devastating screens.
Since we can't trust any of our linebackers enough to handle playing the weakside position (unless Hicks is healthy) and handle the coverage responsibilities that WV will make that player have we'll need to fill that role with a defensive back instead.
Our dime/prowler package will be good for 3rd down but on 1st and 2nd I'd leave 4 DL on the field as they've demonstrated more value and skill than any of the linebackers. I'd play Steve Edmond as the sole linebacker even though he's a bit slow and leave him with the task of roaming in the middle of the field.
No aggressive stunting save for Fire Zone blitzes, allow him to play the A gaps naturally and then fill in the middle of the field in coverage with his tremendous wing span and long arms. If West Virginia finds him over and over on crossing routes then Diaz will have to get them off the scent with some interior pressure and dropping a safety in the the Hot 3 zone. If this is the only weakness for the defense I think they'll be okay.
2). 2-deep coverages
The only safety we have that is rangy and heady enough to play Centerfield without getting annihilated against a team like this is Vaccaro. But we need him in man-coverage underneath against Austin, as a blitzer on the edge, and as a physical tackler who is close to the action. Our MOFC stuff offers a lot of disguise and I don't think we should abandon it entirely but this is a 2-deep game and we should allow our young safeties to play deep.
If/when we play MOFC coverages they should be calls like Fire Zones or cloud coverage where we have multiple defensive backs playing deep and trying to keep receivers in front of them NOT aggressive Cover-1 plays with press coverage on the outside and one man in charge of helping everyone else. When we press, we should be in Cover-5.
West Virginia can do a lot of damage to the deep middle so it's necessary to play Vaccaro and Phillips inside to challenge inside routes and protect the seams without having to bring a safety down. If we play dime we can still challenge their short routes without compromising our deep support.
3). Limit drives to field goals
The one great disadvantage WV has in their offense is the lack of a power-running game at the goal line. They can go up and down the field with short passes all they want but when the passing windows tighten up in the Red Zone they don't have a great series of options (or the option for that matter) to break a defense.
They have the diamond formation and a big back named Shawn Alston but this is an area where Texas has the advantage and must continue to play well.
4). Blend simplicity with disguise and pressure
If you show Geno Smith and Dana Holgorsen the same defensive look every play, they will find the weaknesses and the players who are in tough spots and pick them apart like KSU did to Wort on 3rd down.
On the other hand, if you overload your defenders with assignments and adjustments you'll see exactly what we've seen from Texas this year. Confusion, big plays, and systemic failure. Josh Turner and Mykelle Thompson are going to have to play a lot of snaps at safety in this game and if we're putting a lot into the gameplan we risk back-breaking mistakes on the back end.
So Texas needs to have one major base coverage to use with all the players well versed in how it will work against the major concepts in the WV playbook. I suggest 2-Read.
Then they need a couple of change-ups so that they can bring some disguise and shift the strengths and weaknesses of the defense around. Cover-3 cloud has been a good look for us, particularly against Trips. We can also mix 2-Read with Cover-5, straight up press-man defense with 2 safeties deep.
Then of course, we should have a barrage of Fire Zones specifically designed for the WV protection schemes and to take away their major concepts. A Fire Zone to kill a stick route on 3rd and 6, a Fire Zone to blow up their Tavon Austin sweep plays, etc.
This is basically the kind of defense we were last year before Diaz began to channel Isaac Asimov and trying to mastermind an entire game with a future-building algorithm.
5). Rely on the playmakers
We have play-makers on this defense. WV is not going to find it easy to execute all their plays with Jackson Jeffcoat, Alex Okafor, and the wave of defensive tackles coming after them every play in even just a base rush. Getting guys consistently open against Quandre Diggs, Kenny Vaccaro, Carrington Byndom, and Adrian Phillips will not be as simple as it was against the Baylor crew.
Meanwhile, their defense is totally out-matched against this Texas offense. They have hurt running games by firing their 224 pound "Buck" end and their 221 pound nickel into the backfield but their pass defense is yielding 9 yards per pass.
They cannot afford to outnumber the run and leave their corners isolated, so they will have to play the run more honestly and hope to inflict enough negative plays with Fire Zones to come away with the win.
Texas holds advantages in this game if the defense can avoid negating them with terrible play that makes the WV offense vs. Texas defense the deciding factor in a Mountaineer victory.
So keep it as simple as possible and force West Virginia's Offense to make it happen and navigate the field without Jeffcoat, Okafor, Vaccaro, Diggs, or Byndom sinking the vessel with a timely interception or sack/strip.
If Texas can win this game and protect home field, a Big 12 title is a possible season outcome. If not, then Diaz's ambition will likely have cost the 'horns what could have been a 2008-esque season of unexpected excellence.