Inside the Gameplan: How Texas Beat ND

Notre Dame at Texas. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Notre Dame at Texas. (Will Gallagher/IT)

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I’m going to start by broaching a topic that most everyone else will probably stray away from, which is that by beating Notre Dame in front of over 10 million viewers Charlie Strong gave Tom Herman a nice big stiff arm. When the Cougar coach took down the Oklahoma Sooners at noon (“yawn, been there, done that,” says Charlie) with an impressive performance it upped the ante for Texas’ performance the following evening. Charlie didn’t need to beat Notre Dame, very few of us expected that, but he needed to give them a game.

Beating the Irish down with 18-wheeler runs in overtime is going to give the Strong era a ton of momentum and good will, which is huge because this team is going to be absolutely loaded with veteran talent in upcoming seasons. The recruiting impact and favorable omens from this win are all rather obvious and delightful but it’s pausing to note that another blowout loss to the Irish following a huge achievement by everyone’s favorite potential replacement would have been devastating.

Anyways, here’s how Charlie took Brian Kelly’s gold:

The macro view

Notre Dame’s goal with their game plan was to make this a simple contest of execution. Their underlying assumption was that Texas’ offense couldn’t out-execute the Irish defense or that their own offense could carry the day if things got hairy.

The problem with the former assumption was that it was false, the latter assumption was probably true but the Irish negated some of their own advantages by rolling Zaire out there on multiple series, none of which amounted to anything. The possessions they spent determining which QB was the right fit could have been the difference in a close game…shades of Texas’ 2005 road trip to Columbus when the Buckeyes rotated Troy Smith and Justin Zwick there.

To my surprise, Notre Dame elected not to blitz very much, instead opting to play mostly quarters in order to deny easy gains. In the first half that looked mostly like this:

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This is a variation on what I predicted Kansas will attempt against Texas but with less movement up front and better athletes across the board. In the second half they pulled strong safety Drue Tranquill out of the game when he struggled playing in all of that space and inserted ultra-athletic true freshman Devin Studstill.

That didn’t really matter though, because the big problem Notre Dame had was that they couldn’t really cover John Burt without help and they couldn’t shut down the run with honest fronts. Both of those points were very much in question before the year and there seemed a decent chance that their massive DL and cornerback Cole Luke would conspire to erase the deep ball to John Burt and muck up the works for the run game. Instead, Texas was able to make steady gains running power, zone, counter, and counter-trey with pass-options attached. D’Onta Foreman had 24 carries and 18 of them either went for at least four yards or converted short-yardage downs.

Notre Dame respected the bubble but conceded hitch routes, which helped Shane Buechele to average 10.8 yards per pass and complete 62% of his attempts in his college debut. He landed some deep shots as well, but honestly Texas didn’t take as many of those as you often see from teams in this system.

The design of the offense allows the quarterback to take frequent deep shots because it’s so easy to stay ahead of the chains. All you’re doing is putting the ball in space over and over again, so it takes some offensive foul ups to avoid making positive gains. If an opponent misses a tackle, or a skill player makes a play, then easy gains can transform into explosive gains. This is why Kansas State has struggled to stop the Baylor offense, they’re waiting around for the Bears to make a mistake and they don’t because it’s too easy.

Notre Dame is probably no better on defense, talent-wise, than 2016 Kansas State and potentially worse so that bodes pretty well for this season.

Shane Buechele. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Shane Buechele. (Will Gallagher/IT)

On the other side of the ball, Notre Dame presented a dozen challenges in their own right that Texas struggled to bottle up. The left side of their line, left tackle Mike McGlinchey (6-foot-8, 310) and Quenton Nelson (6-foot-5, 325), was trouble for the Longhorns. Charles Omenihu made a few big plays late in the game but early on he found himself on his back a few times when trying to tangle with these guys.

The Irish also exploited Texas’ strategy on stopping the zone read, with both running backs landing some big punches early in the game by blasting straight through the cutback lane when the edge player was focused on containing the quarterback. Most of the positive gains made by the Irish were either a result of someone falling forward behind the left side of their line, Texas failures in gap control against option runs, or Kizer lead draws.

As Scipio already noted, Texas isn’t going to be great cleaning up misdirection plays like screens and draws until they get more decisive play from the safety position. Dylan Haines typically knows what’s up but he’s often aligned deep and not explosive around the box. Hall can be explosive, but he doesn’t always see things clearly. We’re going to beat this topic to death all season so let’s just move on.

I’ll just summarize and say that many players, particularly Malik Jefferson and Anthony Wheeler, have shown huge improvement and also major upside for the remainder of the season as they work through game film and adjust. Notre Dame had an NFL QB (most of the time), some NFL talent at receiver (Equanimeous St. Brown is a true stud), and NFL talent on the offensive line. When you combine a good spread scheme with balanced, elite talent, you have something that’s very difficult to stop. I’m very far from panicking about what we saw from the defense.

Film study spotlight: Unleashing the freaks

Texas has two major advantages over the rest of college football, they have Malik Jefferson and Tyrone Swoopes and no one else can say the same. A linebacker with 4.4 speed and a quarterback that’s 6-foot-5, 255 pounds and an absolute bull as a runner are true outliers to the game and Texas leveraged both very well against the Irish.

Let’s start with Malik, who remained in his middle linebacker position in this game and wreaked havoc, some of which wasn’t captured by the box score. The brilliance of playing Malik in the middle linebacker spot is best understood when you first realize that the most common formations Texas will face require that the middle linebacker align to the wide side of the field and frequently try to leverage him out of the box with a third receiver.

Teams play single-high safety coverages like cover 1 and cover 3 so that they can keep their middle linebacker in the box and cover up the receivers with defensive backs. Against a trips formation this means that the defense becomes entirely predictable, because the safety aligned to the third receiver has to be the one that drops down:

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Even if Texas lines up in a two-deep shell no one is going to be fooled here, that strong safety is going to drop down over that third slot receiver. But Texas has a Kam Chancellor/Von Miller hybrid playing middle linebacker now, so they were able to do this:

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Malik would line up like a typical Big 12 coverage backer and play as an overhang between the offensive tackle and the third slot receiver but there was absolutely no telling what he might do after the snap. Malik has the quickness to drop back and cover that third slot receiver like a down safety would, but he could also blitz the edge like a 3-4 outside linebacker, or drop into the middle like an inside linebacker.

With Malik out there it was no longer obvious which safety would drop down, although Texas most frequently enjoyed the privilege of dropping the boundary safety and erasing the advantages that normally come to spread teams throwing on an isolated backside receiver.

This makes RPO reads very difficult for the offense, because it’s hard to get a good read on where Malik or the safeties will be or to attack them in space. It’s also hard for opponents to gameplan for this, simply because there’s never been a player used quite like this in the league before.

Malik and Charles line up against ND. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Malik and Charles line up against ND. (Will Gallagher/IT)

We’ll talk more about this over the course of the year because this deployment of Malik is going to make a huge difference in combating spread offenses. You’re probably going to hear people talk about how glad they are that he’s not playing middle linebacker anymore, which is technically false. He’s just redefining what the middle linebacker can or should be able to do in the modern era.

Texas was also very creative about how they used Swoopes in the 18-wheeler, which looked different than it did a year ago. This is now a package that is still very run-focused but can do some work between the 20’s and potentially expand enough to comprise the majority of a gameplan if Buechele were to be unavailable.

The personnel for this set is now two tight ends, a running back, and two receivers. Consequently, Andrew Beck now has a major role in the offense and it looks like there could be an opportunity for a defensive player struggling to crack the depth chart if they want to move over to offense in 2017.

Besides the deep bomb that they attempted, this set has three primary types of plays and all of them provide the offense with a “plus one” advantage at the point of attack. They have option plays where Swoopes reads an unblocked player to hand off or keep the ball, they have single-wing style plays where it’s QB run all the way, and they have RPOs where he’s either handing off or throwing a bubble screen.

The latter went surprisingly well when Notre Dame chose to play “three over two” against the bubble screen to Armanti Foreman and were consequently gashed by D’Onta Foreman.

That’s Notre Dame trying to stop a fourth and two counter run to D’Onta Foreman with six in the box and additional help coming from a boundary corner (hahaha) or a late dive from the nickel (hahahahaha). Of course later Notre Dame got their safeties involved in a similar scenario and Foreman just ran through them as well, it’s a tough set to handle.

Here’s more of a “single wing” type run from this set, which is the best kind of play that can be run from this package:

That’s a direct-snap, QB Power run. There’s no option read, although technically Texas is running a bubble screen with the twin receivers that should at least hold a safety and a corner. Everyone on the defense is accounted for with a blocker except the safety, who’s WAY too deep here to have any hope of stopping Swoopes before he picks up the needed yard or more.

As it happens, Vahe didn’t reach his assignment (the backside linebacker) so that player was able to meet Swoopes in the hole…but it hardly mattered. What Texas has here is a play that when blocked properly can send defensive backs to the hospital and when blocked poorly is still usually good for a yard or two.

At the risk of hyperbole, I’m going to have to say this might be the best short-yardage package in the history of the Big 12 with the potential to expand into a devastating weapon for other scenarios as well. If Texas needs to create some space after getting the ball deep in their own territory they can run a few 18-wheeler plays and find room to breathe without worrying about getting blitzed.

If Strong wants to run out clock in a “four minute offense” situation to seal a close game, he send in the 18-wheeler and watch Swoopes violently choke the life out of an opponent. Imagine being an opposing team and saying, “okay, if we can get a stop here and get the ball back we can win this game!” And then realizing that your tiring defense is going to have to tackle Tyrone Swoopes three or four times to make that happen. Swoopes could become the Mariano Rivera of Texas football.

Both of these features to the Texas squad are elite components that will give opponents fits all season long. Just wait until Texas starts to involve Heard in the 18-wheeler and the defense becomes more comfortable with these new tactics, it’s all going to make for some fun Saturdays and enjoyable Gameplans.