Five Quick Thoughts: Texas out K-State’s the Wildcats

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Texas got back on 2018 form in this one, finishing off the Wildcats at home with a last minute field goal by Cameron Dicker. Texas carefully set up the field goal to take place with time expiring by having Sam Ehlinger take some goal line slides to force timeouts from Kansas State and turn the final drive into a 13 play, 67-yard affair that drained all of the remaining 6:45 off the clock before setting up an easy Dicker game-winner with time expiring.

Things got iffy, particularly when a game-winning TD on the aforementioned final drive that came on a Sam Ehlinger QB power run was called off because Texas only had six players on the line of scrimmage rather than the required seven. Texas took the opportunity to just burn more clock rather than trying to score from eight yards out and put the game on Dicker’s right foot from 26 yards out.

Overall things went more or less as Tom Herman must have wished. A typical collection of disastrous Todd Orlando blitzes on third downs led to TD drives on each of Kansas State’s first two possessions and had the Longhorns down 14-0 after a quarter. From there, Texas’ advantages came to bear. They out-rushed the Wildcats 214 to 51, more or less matched the expected K-State special teams playmaking, and controlled the game at the line of scrimmage in a lower-scoring slog in which Texas got only 11 possessions and allowed K-State only 10 while winning the TOP battle 31:19 to 28:41.

Quick thought No. 1: That was almost a disaster

As good as Kansas State’s offensive line has been, Texas wasn’t a good matchup for them and the injuries to the Wildcat RBs loomed in this contest. James Gilbert was out and speedy Jordon Brown played sparingly while the Wildcats relied instead on Harry Trotter and Tyler Burns, the third and fourth RBs on the depth chart. The entire game was largely a series of sequences in which the Longhorns stuffed the Wildcat power run game on standard downs and then it became a question of whether Orlando’s zone blitzes would be picked apart by Skylar Thompson or not.

Early in the game, they were picked apart. Thompson was routinely finding Dalton Schoen and was 13-for-16 at one point in the game. The Wildcats finished 5-11 on third down and were on pace for a much better finish before the Longhorns tightened down on some of their schemes.

But Texas started to leverage their advantages down the stretch. Caden Sterns was crucial for helping the back end avoid busts and throws over the top and some of Texas’ pressures got a little smarter and more effective. Texas mixed in some four-man fronts that allowed Malcolm Roach to rush the edge and yielded some stops on third down. They leaned a little more (although not consistently) down the stretch on some zone blitzes that

A) didn’t bring DBs
B) often involved cover 2 calls over K-State’s preferred sides.

B.J. Foster made a sensational play (a few, really) by getting his hand up to bat away a big pass on third and long on one of those cover 2 blitzes. He also had a sack and nearly killed one of K-State’s RBs with a huge hit.

This was a good matchup for Orlando, a team that lacked great athletes at WR (the better athletes in the K-State WR corps are all too young) and tries to win with bigger formations and power run sets. Texas’ run blitzes, superior DL personnel, and the physical run D of players like B.J. Foster, Joseph Ossai, Juwan Mitchell, and Brandon Jones was too much. Still, for all that it looked for a moment as though Texas was going to waste all of those advantages with bad situational defense.

Quick thought No. 2: Texas pulled even on special teams and game management

Texas’ decision to intentionally avoid scoring in order to waste away every one of Kansas State’s timeouts late in the game was fairly rare for the college game but played well and secured the game. Lining up properly and scoring a TD on that 3rd and goal QB power run would also have done the trick but with a tie game and a phenomenal kicker, Herman did well in that situation to guarantee that the only team that could win in regulation was Texas.

There was a moment in which Texas nearly gave the entire game away with poor management. First an interception by Ehlinger when he tried to force a late throw on a Duvernay seam route near the end zone. That drive was almost certainly ending in points before he tossed that ball on a 2nd and 8.

Later, Texas was in control with a 24-14 lead when remarkably shoddy kickoff coverage yielded a 98 yard return by Kansas State that closed the gap to 24-21 and put the Wildcats in position to tie the game. That tie was managed thanks in large part to a silly targeting penalty committed by Jalen Green, which by the way will see him sit out the first half of Texas’ upcoming road game against Iowa State.

In between those costly errors was a 53-yard punt return by Brandon Jones that set up a Texas touchdown. That and Dicker’s steady kicking, 55-yard misfire notwithstanding, allowed the Longhorns to hold onto this game. This team isn’t smart and disciplined enough to win with Snyder-ball but they are explosive enough to try and get by due to periodic displays of game-changing athleticism.

Quick thought No. 3: The Texas offense had some wrinkles

Sam Ehlinger was 22-of-29 for 263 yards at 9.1 ypa with a TD and an INT. Keaontay Ingram turned 16 carries into 139 yards and a pair of TDs, one of them naturally coming on the “touchdown play.” Collin Johnson had seven catches for 110 yards and a score, Devin Duvernay had nine catches for 110 yards.

Overall Texas was working the RPO game in this contest much more extensively than they have in the past. The Wildcats played a lot of two-deep coverages and without a safety down to help up front, they were unable to cover up Texas’ mix of downhill zone runs and slants to Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay. Ehlinger hit both regularly, including on the game-winning drive, and chewed up Kansas State’s two-deep coverages in crucial moments while opening up lanes for Ingram and the run game.

Texas had a few tweaks in there to help everything. One was playing Reese Leitao either as an inline TE or deeper in the backfield like a fullback, so as to allow him to get out into routes or to build some momentum to execute some of the blocks.

By the way, if you review the film you’ll find that Texas replaced Junior Angilau by sliding Derek Kerstetter into the guard position and playing Denzel Okafor at right tackle. Okafor routinely hooked Kansas State DEs on the edge and allowed a couple of runs that bounced, he’s a great run blocker which paid off in a big way.

The other tweak was subbing out the TEs when they wanted to get into the spread sets and using Malcolm Epps as a de-facto flex TE. Epps isn’t a great receiver yet but he’s more dangerous than Cade Brewer or Reese Leitao, which helped challenge Kansas State’s matchups and create some openings for Texas’ main receivers. Future opponents will catch on but Texas has a lot of run game concepts they can mix in, particularly if Ehlinger continues to be up for getting 10+ carries a week as he did today, that can allow them to punish teams that try to sub into pass-stopping defenses when Epps comes into the game.

Quick thought No. 4: There were some positive moments to build on for the defense

The pass defense still wasn’t very strong, and Kansas State took them apart at times despite lacking the sorts of receivers that Texas will have to defend in future contests. There were some positives though.

This defense hits another level when Brandon Jones is joined at safety by Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster. The Longhorns were able to mix in some inverted Tampa 2 with this personnel on the field and stuff the run from a conservative look and they were able to get away with SOME of Orlando’s blitzes with Sterns picking up seam routes.

Juwan Mitchell and Joe Ossai are a disruptive pair of linebackers, particularly when they are allowed to focus primarily on attacking. Texas can’t do that all the time, Mitchell has to drop back now and again and play smart zone pass defense, but he’s certainly a weapon in the blitz package and particularly on run blitzes.

The DL is dominant, believe it or not. They’ve done an exceptional job all year of owning the interior gaps and forcing opponents to beat Texas either on the perimeter or in the passing game. Since teams have done both of those things it’s appeared that the Longhorns have lacked the DL they need to win at a high level. Malcolm Roach got to rush the edge some from a 5-technique today and showed well and Coburn and the others continue to own the A and B gaps regardless of the opponent.

There are pieces here that could allow Texas to play good enough defense to still pull off a Big 12 championship. Whether they can be assembled into a strong enough unit is unclear, if you don’t have major doubts you’re crazy, but it’s within the realm of possibility.

Quick thought No. 5: Texas needs help down the stretch but the path is visible

Baylor nearly lost on the road to TCU today but yet again wriggled away with a win. Their QB Charlie Brewer looked really off today and I’ve questioned all year whether his playing style (imagine Ehlinger minus 25 pounds) was going to allow him to hold up over the course of a round robin slate and lead the Bears through a tough November stretch. They finish with Oklahoma, Texas, and then a road trip at Kansas. Assuming that Texas wins out, the Longhorns need the Bears to drop one other game. Or…

Oklahoma has a tough home game today against Iowa State, then a road trip against Baylor, TCU at home, and then Oklahoma State on the road. The Longhorns would need them to lose twice if Baylor were to avoid losing any other game besides their head to head with Texas, but things could be worse in terms of standing for the playoffs.

Beyond winning out, Texas needs one of Baylor or Oklahoma each pick up a pair of losses. Texas can hand Baylor one and Oklahoma could hand them the other, which would do the trick. Or if Baylor beats Oklahoma and Texas needs the Sooners to pick up another loss it’s not outside of the realm of possibility.

A loss against Kansas State would have essentially ended the season for Texas and made it a wash. Instead, there’s still excitement and intrigue for the month ahead.

History major, football theorist.