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The UTEP game was pretty darn encouraging for Texas, all things considered. The biggest concerns from watching live were the play of Chris Warren (better than it looked on review) and the breakdown on a few UTEP run plays (also not as bad on review). When the play of back-up OL or the back-up middle linebacker are the talking points for “glass half-empty” folk after a game that’s a good indicator.
As it turned out, Texas was able to cover the spread the week after a huge win that saw them shoot up in the polls while playing without multiple starters. Covering the spread at all, but especially with injuries, is another very good indicator. The key to Texas capitalizing on a weak Big 12 will be in winning games like this when injuries force the team to find different ways to win. Just substitute “covering the spread” for winning and this game reveals some nice resiliency.
This game also had some interesting lessons in the game film and you know we’ll always dive into that.
The Macro View
UTEP has embraced an “8-3” defensive approach (three DL and then a shifting of linebackers and defensive backs behind them) where they play opponents outside in and shift their defensive backfield around to address situations and specific opponents. They did what they could to disguise their looks against Texas and try to prevent Buechele from figuring out where Texas’ major advantages were from snap to snap. The Miners were largely unsuccessful in that venture with Buechele roasting them for 244 yards at nine yards per pass and four touchdowns.
It’s hard to keep a quarterback from clearly seeing where the advantages are with the wide splits in this system and Buechele wasn’t fooled.
We haven’t yet seen an opponent try the “all or nothing” approach where they vacillate between dropping eight into coverage or sending zero blitzes to overwhelm the protections like West Virginia eventually will. I’m guessing future opponents are going to throw some Texas-specific packages out there in coming weeks as teams work out where they can afford to leave defenders isolated and where they cannot. More on that later.
Texas’ defense decided to punish UTEP’s lack of a passing game with a 3-4 package that I’ve decided to call “Hager is coming…”
My favorite plays from this package occurred when UTEP would attack Texas’ refusal to play nickel by flexing out a TE in a spread, trips set. Vance wanted UTEP’s quarterback and offensive line to be wondering “is Malik coming off that edge or is Hager?” At other times, UTEP was asking “is Hughes coming off the edge, Hager, or both?”
The answer was almost always “Hager is coming…”
The reason for this is obvious enough, Hager thrives when playing downhill on seek and destroy missions. You’d think lots of players would thrive with that assignment but Hager has a unique knack for violence and embracing collisions that makes him special in this role.
There was one occasion when Texas’ broke tendency and Hager didn’t come:
The “Hager is coming…” package had devastating effects on UTEP’s running game, even though that wasn’t obvious because of a few big runs that inflated the Miners’ stats. Those runs were the result of a play where Hager ignored the QB on a zone read and dove inside to try and kill the running back despite having containment responsibility and then the play where Cole got caught outside of his gap.
When Texas cleanly executed their scheme, their run defense was vastly superior to the Miners’ attack. That may not seem important but there have been many times when Texas was still trying to get the run defense, pass defense, rushing attack, or passing attack on track in week two. The fact that the young defensive front already looks this good is a very encouraging sign. Next week we’ll see how the pass defense is coming along.
Film study spotlight: Useful tricks for the future
My assumption watching live was that the “Hager is coming…” package was a UTEP-specific novelty that would likely be shelved for much of the rest of the season. On review, I’m less sure. This might actually be a package that can serve Texas against multiple opponents and in multiple situations throughout the year.
Here was the main call that Vance sent in for the “Hager is coming…” package:
Hager would align to the field with Charles Omenihu or Bryce Cottrell while Naashon Hughes would stay on the boundary with Poona Ford or whomever was playing tackle at the moment. Hughes is more well-rounded at this point than Hager and also a bit less effective on the edge. So they’d drop Hughes into either a Sam or Will linebacker role and then rotate the safeties to cover the receivers so that Hager could blitz the edge.
Against spread trips formations, that meant that Malik was usually dropping and serving in the Kam Chancellor-type role that Texas regularly utilizes him in these days. This is the real key; Malik’s ability to cover in space or have run duties that require him to operate in space combined with Texas featuring a safety that can play over another slot receiver could theoretically allow them to use the “Hager is coming…” package against spread formations.
Here’s a glimpse into that world:
Hager comes screaming off the edge and it looks like slide protection from UTEP but ends up being a RB slip screen similar to one that Notre Dame used to great effect a week ago. Omenihu sniffs it out and forces Jones wide where the Predator hunts him down in space.
Vance will have to drop Hager into coverage now and then for this package to avoid becoming really predictable and easy to attack but that’s definitely feasible. Short of that, having Hager and another Fox on the field makes for a nice package with a lot of options for stuffing teams that like to use bigger formations to run the ball. It also makes things simpler in terms of getting Malcolm Roach, Erick Fowler, and Shark McCulloch on the field in upcoming weeks. The freshmen could surely handle the complexity of Hager’s assignments against UTEP.
On offense, Gilbert ended up pulling from his bag of route combinations quite a bit. I think he might have done so even if the run game personnel had been at full strength but it was still interesting to see how he might feature Buechele and all of these young receivers in the future.
Buechele worked a few different combinations against the Miners, most of which should work pretty well against man coverage, which is going to be very relevant in future contests.
Gilbert called for some curl-flat and dig-wheel combinations that Buechele used pretty well, particularly to the field where the concepts had lots of room. On the goal line they also worked in this nice combination that led to a Warrick touchdown:
It’s designed to look like a slant/flat combination but instead the flat routes turn to wheel routes and Buechele just chooses which side to read and then takes the shot. The slant serves as a “rub” for the safety who’s trying to get over and cover the wheel. You think this might get called again in a few weeks when the Sooners drop a safety over the slot and try to play man coverage in order to load the box?
Gilbert needs Buechele to be practicing at throwing combinations like this designed to beat man coverage and he needs guys like Jerrod Heard and Jacorey Warrick to be ready to execute them because eventually Texas is going to be facing Big 12 opponents that are learning from each other and game-planning specifically for Texas.
Right now I’d say a variation on what Notre Dame attempted against Texas is still the best way to handle them. Some team out there with a couple of good coverage DBs is going to man up the field receivers, bracket the boundary, get a plus one defender in the box, and then make Texas beat them by either running on numbers or throwing wide to the field:
That’s essentially how Oklahoma beat Baylor last year and there are a few teams out there with the personnel to try and pull this off. You can erase John Burt when he’s in the boundary with this response and make Buechele beat you throwing man-beater combinations outside. That test is probably coming in either three or four weeks so it’s a good sign that Texas is working on solutions now and that they seem to be coming along.
The speed with which this team’s identity is forming is pretty shocking and has to have the rest of the league alarmed. With the power run game combined with tons of spacing and great athletes on the outside it’s kind of like grandma’s pie, she just puts it together and it tastes good.