The Longhorns travel to Lubbock in the second game of Charlie Strong’s personal five-game, single-elimination tournament. Let’s see how both sides of the ball for Texas can help him survive and advance.
Let’s keep this one pretty simple - the Longhorn offense should absolutely maul the Red Raiders up and down the field. This is one of the three or four worst defenses in all of college football, and they are capable of doing precisely nothing well. They climbed out of the 100’s in a couple of individual Defensive S&P measures thanks to a game against TCU where it appeared that Kenny “Trill” Hill was once again up to his gills in Strawberry Hill, but it’s highly unlikely that last Saturday was a harbinger of competence to come.
D’Onta Foreman should unleash hell on the Red Raiders and threaten Chris Warren’s 2015 rushing totals. It would be nice to get Patrick Vahe worked in at right guard, since the only real chance Tech has of slowing the run game is slamming bodies inside like the Soviets at Stalingrad (or the Cyclones at DKR) and hope that we’ll be too stubborn to outflank them. Clumsy Kent Perkins pulls into a piled up B gap = bad, nimble Vahe pulls around the edge to set Foreman free for 40-yard scampers = good. Thirty carries and plenty of dished-out pain should be on the menu for Foreman in this one.
Since we’ll need about fifty carries to carry the day, though, Texas will need to trust Kyle Porter with some more totes while giving him simple “we slide, you’ve got the edge blitzer” pass blocking assignments to keep him on the field. If Swoopes is going to log significant time at running back again, he needs to be running laterally where his patented “gimme three steps” running style can get up to speed while keeping the prospect of a “halfback” pass on the table. Or just call Bryan Harsin and ask him what he’d do to deliver some funk here.
Buechele needs to do what he do with the deep sideline ball, test Tech’s willingness to tackle in the screen game (and finally set his feet and throw the ball with zip outside as he’s capable of doing in the slant/skinny post game,) work said slant game with five or six slant-under-go calls and be willing to take a lick in exchange for a home run ball.
Seriously, this needs to be (and should be) a fifty-point outing from the Longhorn O - don’t shoot yourself in the foot with penalties or outright blown pass blocking assignments and hanging half a hundred should be on the agenda.
Whether half a hundred is enough is up to the other side of the ball.
Rather than drawing up another hypothetical defense for the Longhorns to employ this week, I instead decided to take a look at how the moonshine-lovin’ Mountaineers of West Virginia absolutely tormented Tech in Lubbock back in the middle of October. It was fascinating to watch how
a pack of jug-hooting inbreds an experienced, well-coached defense under Tony Gibson could play as a unit to put the clamps on the high-flying KingsbAir Raid. There are plenty of lessons in there for Texas if we’ve got the wit to learn them and the ability to deploy them.
Let’s start on the ground. While Kliff Kingsbury tends to get a warm, heroin-like rush any time he utterly abandons the run and calls nineteen straight passes, Tech has occasionally stuck with the ground game in tough circumstances this season and they’re capable of doing some damage on the ground against light or poorly-coached (uh oh) boxes. Their backs, like any D1 runner who can fog a mirror, can make some hay in the open field, but their run blocking is spare to fair and they primarily rely on attacking the unblocked guy in the Read Option game thanks to Mahomes’ upper-tier athletic ability.
The Mountaineers put paid to that shit pretty early on in the matchup, and their down DL did a fantastic job of understanding how to play the Read Option when you realize you’re the one being read:
So simple. So astoundingly difficult for our guys to do, but so, so simple. Both Omenihu and Puma Forward are athletic enough to do this and, if not chase Mahomes down single-handedly, at least string him out far enough for another defender to close and clean up. If we can show plays like this to Hager when he’s aligning on the edge and stress to him that disciplined play could actually give him a BETTER chance of chasing down Mahomes and driving him into the turf then perhaps the light will go on.
The key to playing with three down DL against the run is ensuring that your guys with their hands on the ground don’t have to do more than they’re capable of doing. The Mountaineers have some solid guys, particularly on the ends, but they aren’t asked to simultaneously hold up the B gap and also tend to the C. Tony Gibson likes to change things up to handle the potential of outside runs, which he did here with a boundary corner blitz that allowed the DT to play hard inside and take advantage of Tech’s typically terrible combo blocking:
Disciplined play against the Read Option and physical work from the down DL are plenty sufficient to keep Tech’s single-back run looks from doing too much damage. This game will be won or lost in the air, and the Mountaineers won that matchup fairly handily despite a few early mishaps by continually mixing in effective five- and six-man pressures while either disrupting the Raiders’ routes with tight man coverage or confusing Mahomes with some amorphous looks from the secondary.
In the second quarter, Gibson got a five-man pressure home thanks to a stunting blitz from both LBs (which nevertheless maintained gap integrity alongside a slanting DL), press man on the outside and catch man from the nickel and strong safety:
This play was also noteworthy for a couple of other things. First, while Mahomes is a terrific QB, the over-the-top hosannahs sung to him in some circles ignore the fact that he’ll throw off his back foot into coverage like most other mammals who plays QB when he’s got pressure in his face. Secondly, this was one of many plays where WVU effectively beat Tech with ten guys, as the free safety was playing deep enough to give Dylan Haines the bends and didn’t factor into the outcome in any way.
The next play was a similar concept out of a slightly different alignment, but this time Gibson figured that he might as well get some use out of his other safety and walked him down to turn this into a six-man Zero blitz that forced the ball out fast and gave WVU’s nickel corner a dream shot on a hapless slot:
The good ol’ delay blitz (bafflingly) hasn’t been seen ‘round Austin parts since it bagged DeShone Kizer against Notre Dame, but it’s alive and well in the hoots and hollers of West Virginia. Here it bags Mahomes as the secondary plays off man coverage with the free safety dropping deep and the other linebackers banjoing the running back while the other is freed up for spy/soft blitz duty:
Press man should certainly be a significant part of the game plan, but when you’re getting effective pressure there is more than one way to skin the
roadkill lost tourist family pet after getting laid off at the coal mine cat in coverage.
Also of note was the nifty way that the Mountaineers attacked Tech’s twin stack looks. With the free safety in deep center field, West Virginia played its corners up tight with the strong safety and nickel aligned 7-10 yards behind them. The corners looked to have a “first out” assignment which let them aggressively attack screen action and prevent easy throws to the flat, while the deeper defenders took the first in or vertical knowing that a shallow in route would be running right into the linebackers:
There’s another back foot job from Mahomes, abetted by the fact that West Virginia’s interior blitzes had tormented Tech’s OL so much that their RT had eyes on a bluff blitz and essentially turned the defensive end loose on his QB.
So how much of this approach could Texas pull off?
The Longhorns certainly have the DL talent, and they put it to a significantly better OL last week to the tune of a half-dozen sacks. Strong has been pretty successful with five-man pressures, though they haven’t shown the degree of creativity that Gibson employs and hurt for the lack of a Peter Jinkens-caliber interior blitzer among the ILB crew. The Longhorn LBs have better wheels than West Virginia’s bunch, and we’ve also got a couple of unique WDE/Fox weapons in Roach and Hager that the Mountaineers can’t match. Texas can match the pressure that West Virginia applied, but it’s unlikely that Strong will mix in as many of the hell-for-leather six man pressures that kept Mahomes on his heels and made the Raider OL gunshy.
The rub, of course, will be whether Texas could even approach this degree of cohesion and capability in the secondary. Kris Boyd and PJ Locke are up for the challenge, and Dylan Haines can capably fill the “so deep you never see him on the broadcast footage” role in center field. Texas’ Achilles heel in this one may be the feet of John Bonney /Jason Hall and the heads of Holton Hill/Davante Davis/DeShon Elliott/Brandon Jones. If any of those four were mentally ready to sub in for the first two on a consistent basis, Texas would have the athletes on the field to hang with Tech’s receivers in man coverage when required and mix and match coverages to their heart’s content. But if you’re worried about Hall and Bonney getting worked, your options start to fall off in a hurry.
Texas isn’t likely to play four quarters of strangle-ball the way West Virginia managed, but if they keep things in front of them and force a few sacks and field goals along the way they’re capable of coming out with the victory.
Go make it happen, boys.