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Chalk Talk: Longhorn D vs Iowa State

NCAA Football: Texas at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

We needs must discuss the Longhorn O, what’s going wrong and how to duct-tape-and-baling-wire the damned thing before K-State. But why double down on a case of the Mondays with such a distasteful task? Let’s start off celebrating the most complete defensive performance of the young Todd Orlando era and examining how it portends more goodness to come.

Run Defense

A few plays show how an active Longhorn defensive front and a reborn linebacking unit are putting paid to opposing ground games.

In the first play, ISU is running their bread-and-butter Inside Zone with some Slice/Lead action from the H-back. The DL + Hughes are all getting into a gap aggressively (there’s people getting paid for their opinion in this market saying this DL is two-gapping, don’t buy it) with Malik initially responsible for the backside A gap and Wheeler taking the playside C gap with Poona and Nelson working inside. With that inside action, the H-back arcs around the formation to try and clear room outside.

The DL’s collective fierce fire prevents any of the ISU OL from coming off their initial double-teams and climbing, allowing Malik to read the back’s flow and scrape while staying inside-out to the runner. Wheeler sees the down block on Nelson, works to his gap and then takes on the H-back. He does so aggressively, and works to keep his outside shoulder free which forces the back to bounce back inside and into Malik’s lovin’ arms. With Malik free to flow aggressively and DeShon Elliott able to come down from his Quarters look to clean up cutbacks without a real #2 passing threat to his side, it was the perfect way to play this.

The next few plays showed Iowa State trying some Counter/Pin n’ Pull action - something they hadn’t put on tape much prior to this game.

Texas was still ready.

In the first one, Iowa State loops a WR around to hold Hughes, down blocks the rest of the DL and then loops the center and right guard - with Chris Nelson looping out wide, they’re both forced to pull up into the hole to try and lead Montgomery.

Poona had other ideas.

Embodying the Orlando archetype of an active, penetrating nose to a tee, Poona works across the playside guard’s face as soon as he feels the center leave him. He does so with ease, getting across and blowing up the pull. With Wheeler following flow and engaging the C while Roach and Hughes pursue down the line, Montgomery’s got more Stormtroopers on him than Princess Leia’s Blockade Runner.

The second play is more of the same, with the added hilarity of Poona blowing up BOTH pullers after humiliating the down-blocking guard and making the tackle in the bargain. That’s some high-quality Poonatration, folks.

In the third example the concept looks a bit different. Since the Texas DL is slanting, the tackle is able to log Hughes and the pulling C/G both get the edge, Counter Trey-style. This is pretty much the ideal scenario for the O - the DL has helped out the down blocks with their slant, and you’ve got two 300-pounders turning uphill against a pair of anti-spread linebackers.

Still didn’t help.

Malik and all two hundred and * cough cough cough * pounds of Gary Johnson get downhill with menace, rocking both OL on their asses and completely closing down the run. PJ Locke works through the scenario I’d feared in the pre-game - potentially getting trapped inside by a big WR aligned tight to the formation - and is on-hand for the cleanup.

This was a textbook destruction of your garden-variety Spread ground game. The “Orlando can’t defend option/misdirection run games” narrative that took hold after Houston v Navy last year and gained traction when Texas turned turtle against the Terps will get its biggest test of the season next week against Ertz and the Purple Wizard, but right now this run D is firing on all cylinders.

Blitzes and Coverage

This game also represented a master class in mix-and-match coverage schemes paired with creative three, four and five-man pressures that kept Jacob Park off balance all game long.

The first few plays show off some classic Fire Zone pressures with five rushers backed by a three-deep, three-under zone coverage.

The first one sent Elliott off the edge as a blitzer, combined with a slant away from the back’s alignment in the classic Orlando solve against zone run schemes. Taking advantage of Malik as a space player, the field-side switch route gets taken away and Park has no time to get to #2 because the Kraken already has him, like a tiny harpoon-wielding Kirk Douglas with worse hair.

The second one shows a very similar approach against a similar offensive concept - this time it’s Malik blitzing up the middle and PJ Locke shutting down the short field-side read. The pressure doesn’t get home as fast this time, but the deep coverage is over the boundary route and Park has to ditch the ball.

The next one gets creative with both Locke and Hughes blitzing from the field side with Elliott dropping underneath from a two-high shell. This one shows the value of good linebacker drops, as Anthony Wheeler gets deep enough to cloud the throwing window on the skinny post and once Park pulls the ball down he’s already been Poonatrated. This is another example of Orlando’s philosophy that blitzes aren’t necessarily there to baffle the offense and create a completely free runner, but to prevent help and create one on one opportunities for athletic DL to turn into pressures and sacks.

Malik does Wheeler one better in the next clip, getting a full thirteen yards downfield under a deep crossing route - when Park tries to get the ball over Malik, it’s airmailed and the Kraken’s tentacles claim another victim.

Even the B-Backer got into the dropping act. Naashon Hughes is a frustrating dude in the pass rush, but he’s starting because he squeezes run lanes and gives Orlando plenty of coverage options that guys like Shark and Breckyn Hager don’t (yet) provide. He gets decent depth and shows good awareness dropping off the line in yet another Fire Zone, getting his hand on the ball to disrupt a comeback route against deep-third coverage (AKA basically the only thing Park could hit all night).

Hughes also worked the middle of the field when Orlando broke out another coverage concept. On 3rd and 7 against 10 personnel, he played man coverage with four rushers and Anthony Wheeler getting a “hug-up” assignment to blitz if his man (the running back) stayed in the backfield to block. The wideouts were manned up with a free safety helping out in center field, and Hughes dropping into the middle to serve as the “Rat in the Hole” and help out against crossing routes. That’s exactly what he got, as the #2 guy out of Trips broke inside against Locke’s outside leverage only to find Hughes right in the throwing lane. Watching guys play with outside leverage because they know they have inside help just warms the cockles of my heart.

We ran a similar look on 3rd and 9 against a five-wide look, but this time we only sent three with Malik dropping off as a pure spy against Park. He took off when his underneath routes were smothered, and Malik treated him with predictable disdain.

Continuing to confound Park, at the end of the third quarter we went with the ultimate anti-pass look - Cover Five with two deep safeties and man coverage underneath - rushing three and using the extra guy (Hughes in this instance) to drop underneath Alan Lazard to create an effective coverage bracket that insured Park’s favorite chain-mover couldn’t bail him out. Omenihu got around the right edge and forced Park off his spot, and his step-up throw resulted in yet another airmail.

Finally, the Longhorn D ended Iowa State’s last scary offensive threat - at midfield with the score 17-7 - with a bit of on-the-job learning. In the second quarter, Iowa State beat a man free/rat cover look by motioning a wide receiver and having him squirrel loose from a lax Holton Hill into the field flat to pick up the first down. They tried the same trick in the 4th, but Hill was having none of it. He stuck to his man like glue, and Park had a hilarious attempt to duck outside of a blitzing Malik before hitting the deck.

That’s a lot of words, but the short version is this - the Longhorn defense is now playing like the unit we expected to see on the strength of glowing August practice reports and Todd Orlando’s spread-stuffing resume. Disruptive DL, athletic linebackers, playmaking safeties and ever-improving corner coverage makes this unit hell to deal with.

Speaking of hell, tomorrow I’ll break down the Horns’ breakdowns in the ground game.

God help me.