If you kept your eye on the battle in the trenches that took place in Austin Saturday night, the game’s outcome probably never seemed to be in serious doubt.
Texas dominated the Iowa State offensive line, particularly with its pass-rush, while the Cyclone DL was not up to the challenge of standing up to D’Onta Foreman and the UT OL.
But what happens downfield in the battles between skill players can often have as big an impact on Big 12 games as what happens in the trenches. For the first half of Texas vs Iowa State, the battle between the skill players was a virtual draw and the penalties and turnover by the Horns were enough to give Iowa State a 3-point lead going into halftime.
In the second half, Texas continued to lock down the Iowa State skill talent while their advantages in the trenches finally took over the game. Charlie Strong’s Texas team finally maximized its talent advantage and went out and beat an inferior opponent, so now the question is whether it can continue to do as the opponents become less inferior. Next week’s opponent in Manhattan looms ominously as the real test for whether Charlie has his defensive house in order.
The Macro View
Iowa State did not apply “the blueprint” but instead defended Texas much like you would if you had a talented roster of veterans. They mixed cover 3 and cover 4 looks to bring extra help to stop the run and didn’t declare whether the boundary, field, or nickel safety would prove to be the extra man until late before the snap.
That’s a good way to handle an RPO team like Texas IF your secondary has some solid veterans at safety and nickel that know what they’re doing and IF you can trust the corners (particularly on the boundary) to hold up down the sideline without safety help. You get to outnumber the running game and you can do so in a way that makes it harder for the offense to target your weak spots with quick passes, particularly if the quarterback is a freshman in his first year in the system.
For the first half of the game, Iowa State’s secondary was up to the challenge and despite its problems up front along the DL, they held D’Onta Foreman to 78 yards on 18 carries, 4.3 yards per carry.
It’s worth pausing to note here that every opponent on the schedule this season has played Texas’ run game with an extra man, often right down in the box at the snap, and none have been able to stop Foreman from picking up positive gains and moving the chains at a four yards per carry clip.
That said, what would Foreman and this OL be doing if this passing game could really take the top off against teams that sneak a safety or nickel down? Something obscene, no doubt.
To return to our story, just before halftime, one of the Iowa State safeties (Jomal Wiltz) went down with injury. Then after halftime, with 13:21 left in the game, their other safety Kamari Cotton-Moya had to leave the game.
With those two defenders missing on the back end, the Cyclones suddenly demonstrated a Longhorn-like inability to communicate who covers who on switch routes. Texas immediately capitalized, throwing deep to Jerrod Heard on a wheel and then again on the next drive to Devin Duvernay, both times resulting in safeties that were trailing the routes in a confused panic.
Jomal Wiltz later returned but the damage was done and the goose was cooked given the Cyclones’ own inability to score on offense. Meanwhile we are all left with the question of how the Texas offense will look if they face a team that can consistently stay on top of switch routes without assignment errors.
On defense, Texas looked a lot like they did in 2015 in terms of scheme. They played mostly single-high with the nickel and boundary safety patrolling the flats and they brought a few different four- and five-man pressures up front utilizing the inside and Fox backers from a few different angles.
They even utilized the 4-2-5 front some, particularly when Charlie realized that most (or perhaps even all) of the DEs and Fox LBs on Texas’ roster could whip either Iowa State offensive tackle by simply executing a base pass rush.
In the secondary Charlie obviously went for soundness over all other concerns with Antwuan Davis, John Bonney, Kevin Vaccaro, Dylan Haines, and Jason Hall all logging major snaps. They continued to play off coverage outside but Kris Boyd is capable of playing the ball from an off alignment due to his athleticism while Bonney is reliable at staying on top of his man and then making the tackle if the throw beats his response time (which it often does).
When Boyd and Bonney are both out there, Texas’ “bend don’t break” approach to defending the sidelines has real life and both are value-adds in terms of overall team pursuit and open field tackling.
The linebacker play, as Coach V already noted, is still not terribly great and is pretty vulnerable to both lead plays or plays in which Texas brings an extra man on the blitz and the backer who isn’t blitzing has to read flow and quickly plug holes.
So Texas has traded a major vulnerability to the deep ball for a susceptibility to disciplined teams with solid protection that can execute a passing game against fairly sound coverage. That’s a good trade but they are still very vulnerable to a running game that can move gaps around and execute lead runs.
Film study spotlight
Split zone is one of the most popular plays in college football these days and for good reason, when an offense has a good blocker at H-back the play can overstress a defense that doesn’t have a good box safety ready to overlap and help account for all the gaps.
Here’s an example of Iowa State running split zone against Texas:
Split zone is a normal inside zone play but with the H-back cutting across the flow of the blocking and kicking out the DE, who’s left unblocked like on zone read. Texas is playing it from a sort of 3-4 look but with PJ Locke as the field outside linebacker rather than a traditional Sam. With Locke in the box, Texas has enough defenders to account for the extra gap created by the H-back.
However, UT’s stunt is imprecise and doesn’t provide the inside linebackers (Wheeler and Malik) with a clear picture. They start to rock back to the H-back side to fill against the cutback lane, but Locke is already in position to handle that assignment. Then they follow the RB to the playside, which is closed off thanks to Poona Ford working back into the B-gap after initially working outside of the overmatched left tackle.
Anthony Wheeler is successful in running to the ball, but you have to notice the fact that the Iowa State center gets a free run at him and just whiffs. The play is successful because the stunting action by the three down linemen and the Fox-backer disrupts the Cyclones’ blocking scheme, generates penetration, and keeps Wheeler and Malik free to find the ball without obstruction.
What happens against a team that can execute schemes like this in the face of Texas’ stunts without giving up the line of scrimmage or whiffing on blocks? Probably something like Samaje Perine’s 35-carry, 214-yards and two TDs day in the Red River Shootout.
Kansas State, Baylor, and West Virginia all have running games that can execute against Texas’ fronts, Kansas probably cannot, while TCU and Tech are more iffy in this regard but present other challenges. This season is set up for a wild ride down the stretch.
On offense, Texas did something that wasn’t surprising to anyone that reads this column and made great use of double and even triple receiver sets in the boundary against the Cyclones. They worked a slant-flat combo multiple times for solid gains:
Later that set up became the wheel route that sprung Duvernay for a touchdown:
Does that play look familiar? It should, because I diagrammed it last week after the Red River Shootout as a way that Texas should and would use to attack teams on the boundary in future contests. Indeed, the only difference in the diagram is that I had the H-back aligned to the field rather than the boundary, and Iowa State played their deep safety in the middle of the field rather than in cover 2 over the boundary.
Major credit to Shane Buechele who looked off the deep safety by eyeing his single-side WR (Army Foreman, like I predicted, just running a hitch route) and eliminated the chance that he would be able to help on the wheel to Devin Duvernay.
The emergence of Duvernay cannot be overstated for its value on this particular concept. It’s hard for a nickel or safety to play under or over the top of the inside route by that “Z” receiver and keep up with Duvernay on a free release down the sideline.
Future opponents should really train their deep safety to shade to that side and force Buechele to throw to the field. You have to think K-State will have that down given how little they have to prepare for overall against this Texas offense.
That’s two scores in two weeks for Duvernay on this play alone. When you have this kind of speed regularly running vertical routes, especially on switches, it puts a lot of stress on the defense with virtually no margin for error. This is probably one of the number one threats that opposing defenses are going to be game-planning for against Texas.
Between the Longhorn’s ability to run the ball for four yards a pop with Foreman, even against loaded fronts, and to attack the boundary with home run plays, this is a very difficult offense to hold down for four quarters. Next week they’ll face perhaps the most disciplined opponent yet, so it’ll be interesting to see if even then they still manage to score points with these simple features.
Long term, Texas has a bright future with these freshman offensive players.