Texas took a step back in the Charlie Strong reclamation project against the Wildcats. We anticipated in this space that the combination of Wildcat complexity on offense, Texas youth on offense, KSU quality on defense, and oppressive road atmosphere for Strong’s crew would likely equal a costly lesson for the Longhorns.
On the bright side of things, Texas now has a road game under its belt before heading into Lubbock. This mecca of west Texan culture is a pit into which many Big 12 contenders have fallen, much less middle-rung teams of Texas’ caliber. The fans are “ruckus” to quote Shawn Watson, and the Air Raid offense is always capable of putting up big points.
That said, Texas is a clearly superior football team and has no excuses for failing to dominate this game. This team has played on the road now without the comfort object of loud “Texas! Fight!” cheers and absolutely has to win this game to pursue the dream of bowl eligibility.
What’s more, the Tech team standing in their way is not anything close to the Kansas State team that confronted the Longhorns last weekend.
Meet the Raiders
Texas Tech’s long-term prospects as a program under Kliff Kingsbury are actually pretty solid, if you can believe it of a team that just surrendered 82 points in a football game. Some of the answers to their problems are already on campus but are focused in the underclassman ranks and thus unready to rescue this team from disasters.
Tech’s 2015 recruiting is looking very strong with standout metroplex recruits like WR Carlos Strickland, OL Madison Akamnonu, OL Conner Dyer, and QB Jarrett Stidham. Add in Texas City’s D’Vonta Hinton, undersized but arguably the best pure inside linebacker in the state, and a 4-star Islander defensive tackle in Breiden Fehoko and you have some granite stones to add to the foundation.
But while Kingsbury waits to load these bullets into his gun, the Raiders are pretty weak at several spots.
Davis Webb is a typical Air Raid, Tech QB though perhaps with better arm strength than some. He knows where the ball goes in this offense and he can hit some windows in the passing game. Unfortunately for Tech he’s A) immobile and unable to add any extra dimensions to a lacking run game and B) injured in his ankle and may not play Saturday anyways.
Replacing him is true freshman Patrick Mahomes, one of Justin Wells’ favorite prospects from 2014 and a real playmaker:
The trickiest thing about this game for Texas, assuming they don’t freak out playing on the road again, is in being prepared for which QB they face. Based on the film of the injury and the Tech responses, I’d assume that Webb is absolutely not playing in this game but it’s hard to make that bet as a coach.
If it’s Mahomes, the passing concepts become much simpler to manage since his processor hasn’t finished installing the Air Raid BUT the run game becomes much more varied and dangerous when he’s on the field.
As far as weapons, Tech also has some question marks with some of its better receivers, Bradley Marquez and Jakeem Grant, who are battling nagging injuries. The 3rd leading receiver behind Marquez has nearly 300 fewer receiving yards than he does and there’s a lot of youth on the roster.
Tech’s OL is okay at screening and protecting but should really struggle with the power and athleticism of Texas’ DL. They aren’t a group to get a lot of push and could be very vulnerable to middle pressures.
If the Raiders try to play Webb out there, his injury limits his mobility, and Marquez or Grant are limited than Texas will swallow this offense whole with man coverage. If Hall and Haines can hold up in coverage vs Baylor, then they could certainly help erase this Tech WR corps.
The plan doesn’t really change much if Mahomes is out there except Texas will need to do its homework to make sure they are aware of the possibilities in the run game. Kingsbury has some good POP plays in the arsenal that could hurt Texas bad if they aren’t prepared for them:
Indeed, the primary threat from this Tech offense comes if there are assignment busts or breakdowns because they have some burners on the team. If you don’t make things easy, they can become pedestrian, especially without Webb.
The Tech defense is bad.
Kingsbury tried to fix the DL with a transplant in which he added 350-pound nose tackle Rika Levi to the mix to try and stop opponents from blowing holes through the middle of the front. Turns out that Levi still lacks the conditioning to battle double teams for a full Saturday’s worth of snaps. If Texas mixes in hurry-up, they can run him off the field.
They are able to get “bandit” DE/LB hybrid Pete Robertson in good pass-rushing match-ups and he has eight sacks on the year. If Texas can neutralize him, the Raiders have zero remaining pass rush.
The linebackers are mistake prone and struggle to reach the football, which is no minor issue because the safeties aren’t very good either. Tech has installed a lot of coverages in its playbook in order to try and cover up a dozen major shortcomings and many of them involve the safeties to try and stop the run.
This approach often backfires since boundary safety Austin Stewart regularly misses open field tackles trying to play in the box and the talented young Tech corners, Nigel Bethel and Justis Nelson, are unable to hold up consistently when he abandons them to play the run. Maybe someday in the future they’ll be a great tandem, but not yet.
Check out this tackling by the Raiders on a quick hitch pass by TCU:
They play with very poor leverage in the secondary and don’t have enough athletes or good tacklers to allow as much space as they do and hope to corral fast players in the open field.
With a good DL and some hard-nosed football players at linebacker and safety they could be much, much better. Some of those types are on campus and a few more are on the way, Tech’s DC hire in the offseason will be a crucial factor in Kingsbury’s program building.
How Texas exploits a bad team
Stopping the Raiders may not be easy, per say, but if Webb is out it may not be terribly complicated.
If Webb plays, you can probably expect to see a lot of 3-3-5 and a lot of cover 2. Unlike most of the other schools in the Big 12 who rely heavily on quarters to balance a need to load up the box with keeping deep defenders on top of potential vertical routes, Texas relies more on cover 3 or cover 1 for those purposes.
In passing situations, Texas will play cover 2 with pattern matching underneath, or drop eight defenders and sit on an opponents favorite 3rd-and-long routes, or blitz. It’s a devastating combination that’s difficult for the offense to handle unless they nail Texas with a good anti-blitz call at the right time.
The Texas DBs are still learning to adequately disguise these looks also, down the stretch against Iowa State, I could tell from my living room if Texas was blitzing or just playing cover 2 and I’m guessing Mangino and Richardson could as well based on how the Cyclones zeroed in on Texas with precise calls.
If Tech turns to Mahomes, you can expect a much heavier dose of fire zones and otherwise lots of cover 3. Texas has been burned some by a few teams that used switch routes or slipped their running backs quick into the flats to burn the man-coverage orientation of Texas’ fire zones but I don’t think Mahomes is ready to handle a diverse anti-blitz package or necessarily see through Texas’ disguises.
Instead, expect Mahomes to rely on his speed to make things happen when plays break down. In that event, Texas may play more of the defense they showed against KSU in which seven players drop into coverage, three rush the passer, and one player spies the QB and pressure his throws:
I’d expect Mahomes to handle this much less effectively than did Waters.
The game plan on offense is simple enough, just do what you do because they can’t stop it. Texas’ POP plays and passing game are going to put a considerable amount of stress on the Tech DBs as they attempt to also handle the running game. Everything should open up if Swoopes is executing.
If Daje is healthy, it should be easy enough for Watson to get him into space against the Raiders and then watch as their hapless safeties try to chase him down. I’d assume that Watson utilized a good healthy chunk of the playbook in this game for the opportunity to develop Swoopes in Texas’ main passing concepts against a poor defense.
The “levels” concept we’ve discussed here is a big part of how Watson likes to attack the quarters coverages that Texas sees every week and it still needs a lot of work. Against Baylor, Swoopes threw the dig route inaccurately and against the Wildcats?
Kansas State’s strong safety Dante Barnett nearly picked this pass off multiple times. Swoopes reads the inside linebacker and sees him look to cut off the in route underneath giving him the read to throw the dig route down the seam to Swaim.
The problem is that Barnett was sitting on that route and Swaim isn’t quick enough to get between the Wildcat safety and the ball.
This week would be a good time for Texas to continue to work on that quarters-busting play and also add the complementary “bash” concept:
If the safeties are going to try and play that inside receiver without help and undercut the throws they know are coming, you’d better mix things up. This is an easier concept to run with a receiver out there who can use a head fake or win back outside against the safety, which is probably not within Swaim’s wheelhouse.
Solutions include using a 4-receiver set in that instance with someone like Harris in that role, using McFarland or a quicker TE, or sticking with levels and teaching Swoopes to throw an even more accurate ball.
Tech is not going to be able to cover this play as well as Barnett did so there’s a chance here for Swoopes to gain confidence on this concept.
There’s also the ever-popular diamond formation, if Texas simply wants to smash Tech in the mouth and/or throw it over their heads. Now would be a great time for Texas to get Daje involved in this set:
In this instance you take a fullback out of the game and replace him with Daje, who flares out to the flat before the snap. If the nickel chases him, you run the zone read play with a lead blocker for Swoopes on the edge. If the safety chases him, you throw the quick pass and make the safety tackle him in space.
All of Tech’s terrible qualities come to a head in stopping a play like this. They need good open field tackling and they need to be able stand up to a lead running game without the advantage of getting extra defenders to the point of attack.
You just can’t defend it unless you have good players at particular spots like strong safety or defensive tackle. Tech doesn’t have those players.
There are endless ways to attack this Tech team with the Longhorns’ offense and the Raiders’ own attack is very limited now due to injuries. If the Raiders come out flat and unenthusiastic, it should be relatively easy for Texas to put them away and avoid dealing with the crowd.
Even if Texas again struggles to get going in a road environment, there should be enough room for the offense to figure things out unless the defense misses tackles or blows assignments and allows Tech to score some quick and easy points.
No excuses this week, Texas. The Longhorns need to do what they haven’t done yet and put together a strong overall effort on the road to finally earn a statement win.