I think the 2016 Red River Shootout will ultimately be remembered as this decade’s version of 2004’s 12-0 result. A game in which the final score was close and there were positive aspects of the team’s play but systemic failures on one side of the ball forever clouded the perception of the game.
There were a lot of positives to be taken from the play of the Texas offense against the Oklahoma defense, even though it wasn’t ultimately a strong enough effort. I think most of us will remember this game for the way in which the Sooners absolutely rolled over the Texas defense and erased any lingering hope that Charlie would provide the kinds of fixes that could salvage the season.
From here on out, Texas has to assume they’ll be in a shootout every week and try to gameplan accordingly. The Texas defense will probably have at least one game on the schedule where they aren’t eviscerated but Charlie can’t count on this unit allowing them to dominate any of the remaining opponents.
Here’s a look back at what happened in the Red River Shootout and what it may portend about Texas’ ability to win future shootouts against Iowa State, West Virginia, etc.
The macro view
The Sooners have three key players on defense that are going to give them a very good chance to minimize the bleeding against every offense left on the schedule and give their own offense a chance to win them the game.
Those defenders are CB Jordan Thomas, SS/N Steven Parker, and OLB Obo Okoronkwo. They leaned heavily on these three players in their gameplan for stopping Sterlin Gilbert’s Veer and Shoot and will undoubtedly continue to do so against the rest of the conference. They have some other good players but these three guys make the engine run and are going to be a big problem for the other teams on their schedule.
Oklahoma showed a few different looks against Texas, occasionally mixing in some quarters coverages with eight defenders dropping to try and deny Buechele any throwing lanes and playing cover zero to stop the 18-wheeler, but they mostly relied on two calls to stop Texas on standard downs.
The first was a man/zone hybrid somewhat similar to what they used to stop Baylor a year ago in Waco and that I prescribed as a solution for the Veer and Shoot a year ago:
They played cover 2 over Texas’ single-side WR while dropping the Sam linebacker into the box to help corral the run and playing man coverage with zero safety help on the twin receivers out wide. This effectively erased Texas’ ability to generate big plays throwing the ball to targets within close range and required that Buechele beat them to the field. It also almost resulted in a pick-six when the Sooners rotated into this coverage late on the Longhorn’s first play:
The challenge for Texas against that coverage was that throwing to the field required throwing the ball against Steven Parker and occasionally Jordan Thomas. It also required protecting Shane Buechele from Obo Okoronkwo, who’s probably the best pass-rusher in the Big 12 this season, long enough to allow those routes to develop. Texas had some trouble blocking Okoronkwo in a variety of settings but the other main call Oklahoma utilized was a straight forward man-1 blitz of the type that Charlie himself loves.
It’s a very simple concept, five defenders rush the passer, five divvy out the skill players and take them in man coverage, and one guy drops back as a deep safety.
These blitzes gave Texas some real trouble and helped Oklahoma get four sacks on the afternoon. The Sooners are a tough team to attack when they pressure because they have those two DBs that can play tight on your best receivers and because Okoronkwo is hard to block if you can’t send help. He moves around and attacks from different angles in their 3-4 concept and you can’t always even be sure that he’ll be coming at all.
Playing winning defense in the Big 12 is all about having athletes that can allow you to take things away on the back end combined with players up front that can wreck protections. The Sooners have both of those features to their defense.
Sterlin Gilbert figured out their plan pretty quickly and went to work attacking the weak spot where the Sooners had deferred stress, the two DBs playing man coverage over the twin receivers. He used a variety of switch routes to create a rub and try to beat their man coverage defenders, some of which worked better than others.
One of the successes came against Jordan Thomas, but it also came when throwing to the boundary:
This may well be a good solution moving forward for Texas when opponents utilize this strategy rather than trying to ask Buechele to beat teams throwing to the wide side of the field. When throwing to someone with Devin Duvernay’s speed to the short side of the field, it was plainly easier for Buechele to throw deep with anticipation and beat the coverage (quarters, in this instance).
The other deep toss for a score came when Buechele caught Thomas on the boundary in man coverage again thanks to one of those man-1 blitzes the Sooners were relying on. He put the ball in a good spot and Dorian Leonard made a sensational catch. Texas should continue to find ways to work the boundary and punish opponents whenever they fail to play a deep ½ safety over the top to that side of the field. They’ll have to continue practicing the timing on deep shots to the wide side of the field though or opponents will continue to mimic the Sooners’ success.
As for the Texas defense, it’s hard to talk about everything that went wrong but here I think is a nice microcosm of what the staff has been trying to do and why it’s failing:
This is one of several different looks that Texas used from the 3-3-5. They would drop Jason Hall down in the boundary to either play as a will linebacker or to blitz the edge. On this play they bring Hall on the blitz, rotate Haines to the boundary, drop nickel P.J. Locke deep to the field, and fire Malik out into the field flat to replace Locke.
The result is a 4-2-5 Over front backed by traditional cover 2. On paper it’s a clever call, you have Hall attacking the edge with Poona Ford, Malik in space as a Sam linebacker, and the secondary playing press coverage with safety help.
The problem is that this is just one more exotic call Texas brought into this game when their players are clearly struggling to execute the fundamentals of any of their defenses.
Charlie’s 3-3-5 has largely proven at this point to be too dependent on variety and tying all 11 players together in a coordinated effort. There are too many packages, too many players rotating in and out, too many different roles that everyone has to learn, and consequently too many young athletes on the field that don’t seem to understand what they’re supposed to be doing.
If this team was comprised of multi-year veterans like in 2014 would that fix the defense? Perhaps, but I’d say there are serious questions about whether this defensive staff is capable of teaching this kind of defense alongside an up-tempo spread that dictates the practice format. Perhaps if this staff had a better process for teaching the base defenses and then expanding into the exotic, shifting sets it would work as well as it did in 2014. It’s hard to know exactly where things are going wrong but it’s plain that they went south early in the install.
The most important thing for a defense in the Big 12 is being able to play fast and confident and thus have a chance to execute against this league’s offenses, which are always playing fast and confident. Texas isn’t doing that right now and Charlie has yet to deploy a gameplan that reflects any admission on his part that his players need something simple that allows them to just go play football.
One thing I think you can expect to see from Texas will be more boundary twins sets with someone explosive like Army Foreman working in isolation to the field in wide open spaces and running some hitch routes and slants:
Justin Fuente, longtime spread guru and current head coach at Virginia Tech has long used boundary twins sets to create quick easy reads for his QB and to get some of his speedy receivers isolated in space to the field. If Buechele hits a quick slant to someone like Foreman or John Burt to the field facing man coverage without deep help that could be six easy points.
Shane Buechele is plainly more comfortable working to the short side rather than nailing the tight windows to the wide side, which require both anticipation and velocity. Rather than just waiting around for Buechele to develop that skill in order to punish these zone/man hybrid coverages, I think we can expect to see Gilbert play a slot to the boundary pretty regularly from here on out.
As far as the defense, Charlie really didn’t make things easy for himself. When Greg Robinson took over the Texas defense back in 2013 after just two games he started by trying to beat the Ole Miss Rebels in Texas’ base quarters defense only to find that the players didn’t really know how to execute it. From there on out, it seems that he deferred to Duane Akina, ran man coverage nearly every down, and focused on training his charges in fundamentals. We didn’t see much that was new, complex, or creative with that defense until the Alamo Bowl when he unleashed Jackson Jeffcoat on the Oregon Ducks in a “spinner” role where he stood up like a middle linebacker and blitzed gaps.
Charlie already wasted one bye week on the exotic schemes he trotted out again in the Red River Shootout, now he’s gotta get this group together in order to defend home field and their very season against the Iowa State Cyclones. At this point you’d hope Texas and its fans will have learned not to take this team for granted. If Charlie can’t get his kids playing fast and confident on defense there are no automatic wins left on the schedule.