Inside the Gameplan: What to watch for in Houston’s bowl game

Major Applewhite at the Alamo Bowl in 2012. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Major Applewhite at the Alamo Bowl in 2012. (Will Gallagher/IT)

While Major Applewhite is officially taking over Houston for their bowl game (the Las Vegas Bowl), both of Herman’s Cougar coordinators be there for this game and Applewhite will be incentivized to make this game count as he seeks to continue the program momentum built up by Tom Herman. If you want to get a final glimpse of what Herman’s Houston team looked like and aren’t one to dig up old games on YouTube, this is a great opportunity.

Their bowl game draw is the San Diego State Aztecs, the 10-3 Mountain West Champions who out-Wyoming’d Wyoming in the title game in a 27-24 victory. I’m going to give you just a brief overview of the Aztecs so that you know what you’re in for in terms of watching the Cougars in this game.

The Aztecs ironically boast college football’s other 2k yard rusher, Donnel Pumphrey, who went for 2018 on 330 carries (6.1 ypc) this season with 16 TDs. Unlike Texas, the Aztecs supplemented Pumphrey with another RB named Rashaad Penny, who had another 995 yards and 11 TDs. Pumphrey goes just 5-9, 180 while Penny is more of the short-yardage man at 5-11, 220.

Head coach Rocky Long is 66 years old and evidently in all of his time in the game he’s never seen nothing better than the good ‘ol I-Formation that serves as the main vehicle and guiding philosophy for the Aztecs’ offense. They’re an original “smashmouth” team without the “spread” dimension. Defensively they roll with a 3-4, zone-blitzing defense, against suggesting that they’ve simply been doing what it takes to allow classic schemes to remain usable.

So this isn’t a direct contrast to the kinds of defenses that Herman’s offense will face in the Big 12 and certainly won’t be much like the offenses that Orlando will coach against while at Texas. Nevertheless, here are some things to watch to learn about how your Longhorns will look under Herman’s direction.

Team physicality

The most stark contrast between Texas and Houston over the last few years has been the physicality of the Cougars’ team. Now Texas was the more dominant team between the tackles on offense this year and what they were able to do running the ball with D’Onta Foreman behind Connor Williams, Jake McMillon, and Caleb Bluiett was stuff that would make Tom Herman salivate.

However, in other phases of the game there’s no question which team was more aggressive and physical. You’re going to see things like WRs enabling big plays by finishing blocks down the field, linebackers attacking the line of scrimmage and beating blocks, safeties pursuing the ball with leverage and landing big sticks in the open field.

Once you start looking for it, it’s rather jarring, much like how Charlie Strong’s Louisville or Florida teams looked on film in contrast to the later Mack Brown teams. The Cougars are a hungry looking football team that does all the little things and plays with a lot of confidence.

The offensive formations and RPOs

Everyone knows that Greg Ward, Jr runs the ball a lot, but you may be surprised to learn how large a role that RPOs (run/pass options) play in the Houston offense. RPOs are the main reason for the increasing proliferation of the spread offense, as they allow offenses to punish defenses for sneaking defenders into the box when it happens rather than having to wait until the next play call.

Most “spread to run” teams these days have a few key runs their offense is built around and then they attach pass options to those runs based on how their opponents tends to defend the run. The goal is to give the QB the option to throw the ball on the defense where they’ve yielded an advantage in order to get help in the box to outnumber the run.

There are simple ones like the bubble screen attached to an inside run:

Or more complicated RPOs with route combinations attached to runs:

You can also account for the defense sending help with a QB run option but even teams that do that regularly still mix in RPOs as a way to protect their QB from carrying a heavy load in the run game and in order to involve the speed they recruited to play on the perimeter.

Formations serve primarily to involve specific players and to attack particular weaknesses in your opponent. If you watch Houston’s formational usage you’re going to see a lot of spread-I (three receivers and a fullback/h-back) but also a lot of different formations intended to either maximize specific skill players or to attack SD St’s defense.

The Gilbert Veer and Shoot had some formational variety but Herman is going to bring a wider scale of different formations to Texas that include features like outside receivers lined up on the hash marks rather than outside the numbers. Many of the concepts are the same but the spacing is less extreme and the variety is much more intense.

How they use RPOs to attack Aztec defenders will be very telling for understanding how this offense could look with Shane Buechele at the helm. If you’re watching at home, the best tell for whether a play is an RPO or not is the behavior of the OL. If they are run-blocking and looking to hit second level targets but the QB is hesitating to hand off or even pulling the ball from the mesh and throwing it, you’re looking at an RPO.

There’s also fun RPOs like this that Texas could mix in if and when they field a QB worth featuring in the run game:

How Houston deals with the blitz

Texas was not very good at all this last year in handling the blitz from opposing teams. Just about the only thing stopping opponents from blitzing every play was D’Onta Foreman’s breakaway speed. If you caught Texas in obvious passing downs they were very vulnerable to the blitz because the young Longhorn OL wasn’t good at picking things up and simply wasn’t good at all on the right side down the stretch.

The OL should be better next year, but Foreman won’t be around and there will likely be greater emphasis on the passing game so Texas is going to need to beat the blitz more often and more effectively in 2017 than in 2016.

San Diego State likes to blitz, it’s a huge component of their defense. In particular, they like to bring Fire Zones where they take VERY deep drops and dare you to beat them making hot reads and quick throws to the flats. Here’s an example:

Pretty bland stuff in this case. The nickel, middle linebacker, and free safety play the three underneath zones while the strong safety and corners drop into deep 1/3s. Five men rush with a stunt up front, if you struggle to handle good players on the move like this then this kind of blitz can wreck your day. Sometimes they get more complicated then that but the more interesting thing for Texas fans is how does Houston respond?

Major Applewhite won’t be the play-caller at Texas but it’ll still be instructive to see how a Herman system is designed to punish pressure. I’m guessing you’ll see some quick game route combos throw in to punish the blitz by getting the ball out quickly to someone on the perimeter who can make use of all that space these blitzes yield.

How does Orlando use his linebackers?

I already know the answer to this question but I think this game could be really useful if you’re curious about where different Texas players fit positionally in the Orlando 3-4 scheme. A perfect testing ground is Tyus Bowser, the “rush” outside linebacker who usually aligns to the boundary (short side of the field when the ball is on the hash marks).

Bowser plays what is nominally the “featured” pass-rusher position in the Cougar defense. However, he finished second in sacks this year behind weak inside-backer Steven Taylor this year (8.5 to 7.5) and was tied for second in sacks last year (he had six along with safety Trevon Stewart and middle linebacker Elandon Roberts while Taylor had 10).

You’ll find that this pass-rushing position actually spends a great deal of time dropping into coverage, perhaps even as much as half of the snaps. In the Todd Orlando defense, everyone is a pass-rusher and no one is a specialist.

If you’ve been dreaming of a day where Texas had a pair of dominant DEs on the field that they’d send after the QB on every snap in a predictable yet overpowering fashion, you’re going to have to wait for the post-Orlando era because that’s not what this defense is about. It’s much more akin to the Polamalu-era Steelers where even superstar OLBs like Lamar Woodley or James Harrison would actually spend a lot of time playing coverage.

If that disturbs you, try medicating your disappointment by taking a shot every time a Cougar blitzer comes free because the Aztecs failed to properly identify the pressure. You’ll be talking yourself into the new system in no time and possibly while dancing on your roof.

This system consequently requires that all of the linebackers know what they’re doing in coverage and fitting the run from a few different positions in the defensive backfield so that the blitz disguises actually work. If the linebackers have a very narrow skill set then it becomes much easier for the offense to figure out what they’re doing and where they’re going to be after the snap, negating the purpose of this defense.

Smart, versatile players that understand the team concept are going to be the ones that thrive in the Orlando era, particularly at linebacker.

How Orlando packages his defense

Orlando builds packages in a fashion similar to Glenn Spencer at Oklahoma State or what Charlie and Vance were trying to do early in the year when Texas was faltering and blowing assignments every week. He’ll mix things up based on the opponent so that his guys are in position to be as aggressive as possible.

The goal of Orlando’s packages is to ensure that against a given offensive formation he has guys on the field that can allow him to disguise and bring his different blitzes without ending up in scenarios such as an inside linebacker trying to cover a slot receiver outside the hash marks.

Against Louisville that looked like a 3-2-6 package for much of the game with DBs Brandon Wilson (5-11, 200) and Garrett Davis (6-1, 200) at the outside linebacker positions. That set up allowed the Cougars to overload either edge with blitzers while still having enough coverage-savvy guys on the field to play match-up zone without getting shredded by awful matchups.

The goal of this defense is to attack but everything is structured in such a way to ensure that they can still play sound coverage behind it and avoid giving up the big play. The Cougars finished 22nd in defensive S&P this year and were 4th against the run, 29th against the pass, and 20th in IsoPPP which measures how good you are at avoiding explosive plays. While they were good about ganging up on opponent’s strengths, they were also good at what Dave Aranda calls “smart aggression” in which they didn’t leave themselves with glaring holes in the defense.

Against the Aztecs’ pro-style sets they’ll probably play a normal 3-4 defense, involve the safeties near the action to stifle the run, and try to string out runs to the perimeter where their team speed should win the day against a downhill-based San Diego State offense. Orlando’s goal will be to get personnel on the field that will allow him to attack what the Aztecs do best, which is pound the football behind a fullback, while staying sound in coverage.

There isn’t total overlap between the Cougars’ coaching staff or personnel in this game and what Texas will feature in 2017, but since the Longhorns are missing out on bowl season for the second consecutive year you might as well adopt Houston this coming weekend and check out how they play ball. If you haven’t seen them yet this year, I think you’ll like what you see.

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