Key plays of 2020 in the Big 12: Texas comes up short vs Iowa State

Ian Boyd

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This is going to be an offseason series where we double back to the 2020 season in the Big 12 and talk about some of the big plays that occurred, how they broke down like they did, and their significance either to the 2020 season or the upcoming 2021 campaign.

We're going to begin with some big, obvious plays from the Texas vs Iowa State game.

If you don't recall, EVERYTHING was hanging in the balance for this contest. Texas was 4-2 in Big 12 play and needed to protect home field against the Cyclones and avoid taking another L in order to reach the league title game. A Texas home loss here was basically cementing Iowa State's place in the Big 12 title, which would be their first appearance, and ending the chances of the Longhorns playing in the title game.

On top of those stakes, this was Sam Ehlinger's final season as a Longhorn and a failure to make the Big 12 title game was more or less going to doom the already basically doomed Tom Herman. The Texas head coach was in bad shape in terms of retaining his job, but it was going to be hard to give him a pink slip if he made the Big 12 title game and impossible if he won it.

With all of that in mind, here was a play in the fourth quarter which turned the game in Iowa State's favor.

Texas comes up short on fourth and one


There's some useful context here to start with before we break down the X's and O's. The Longhorns were in the midst of a 12-play (before this one), 68-yard drive which would ultimately devour 6:43 of game clock. As you can see, it's the fourth quarter and the Longhorns have a 20-16 lead.

At the time there were certainly many who questioned why Texas didn't take the points, make it 23-16, and force the Cyclones to come up with a touchdown to win or force overtime. In hindsight, it might have been better, but Tom Herman wanted to hammer the nail into the coffin here. A first down guarantees they eat up more clock before either taking the field goal or potentially scoring a touchdown and making it 27-16 without much time for multiple possessions from the fairly plodding Cyclone offense. And he had just the hammer for the job with quarterback Sam Ehlinger, his failure to convert fourth and one on their trademark "quarterback outside zone" concept the previous snap notwithstanding.

In typical Tom Herman fashion, he was going out by leaning on his senior quarterback's ability to pound in a short-yardage play.

What had happened tho was the Cyclones were ready for the play and certainly no slouches in the trenches either. Here's how it looks on the chalkboard.

Texas zone follow vs ISU.jpg
The arrows help clean up the picture of why this went wrong. The Cyclones played eight in the box with the free safety and nickel both sitting on quarterback run. You might ask, "couldn't Texas have run a counter or something to the other edge?" but they'd have had similar issues with the free safety.

Texas had two options for running into this look. Either they could hope to block it well enough at the point of attack to give Ehlinger room to get the foot or so they needed for a first down, or they could trust him to successfully run over an unblocked safety in the hole.

Now the free safety was 6-0, 197 pound Lawrence White and the nickel is 6-3, 206 pound freshman Mason Chambers who I didn't know existed until about 30 seconds ago. What a moment for him. Anyways, it wasn't insane to think the 6-2, 230 pound Sam Ehlinger might win a collision against either of those two players. But Chambers went low to undercut him and you can see in the GIF Ehlinger hit the ground with the ball just inches short of the marker.

What really did Texas in here was the design of the play against the Iowa State front.

The play call is "zone follow." It looks like a normal tight zone play but the running back is never taking the ball, he's leading to the perimeter after a fake action inside. It looks like zone read but ends up playing out more like no puller power with the tight end kicking out (or washing down in this case) the defensive end and the running back leading behind him. It's a quarterback run all the way.

At the time I made a big stink about Tom Herman running behind Cade Brewer on the most crucial play of the season. Cade Brewer came out of high school as a 6-3, 210 pound full-time flex tight end in the Charlie Brewer-led, State Championship Lake Travis offense. Over the last four years Texas slowly bulked him up into a 6-3, 250 pound lead blocker who still has reliable hands but has lost a lot of the quickness (perhaps also due to a knee injury) which made him a lethal receiver in high school. To me at the time, that felt a nice encapsulation of the Tom Herman era, over emphasizing the inside running game when they should have been making more of the passing game.

However, Brewer wasn't the problem. He took defensive end JaQuan Bailey inside where he wanted to go and pancaked him into the turf. It left Ehlinger without a cutback but did effectively help open the hole behind the tackle's down block and inside of the lead block from the running back.

It was the lead block where things really went wrong. Roschon Johnson is a physical player, himself a converted quarterback who used to have 20 carry games in high school for Port Neches-Groves when the Indians needed a big win, often running this very play. The problem with this play was that relying on a lead block to the perimeter meant relying on blocking Big 12 DPOY Mike Rose.

The Cyclones always parked him on the edge as the Sam linebacker and he'd crash from the outside in. He did so on this play, clearly recognizing the scheme, and met Johnson in the backfield. Rose wasn't able to make the tackle himself but the lane for Ehlinger to run through between Bailey's inside crash and Rose off the edge was very narrow. Chambers ran straight through it and Ehlinger had next to no room to execute one of his classic hesitation moves to get by him. Ehlinger actually tried to jump for it over the bodies of Brewer and Bailey, but Chambers caught him in the air just enough to prevent him from getting the extra inches needed.

So there you have it, Texas' season is on the line and they call quarterback power for Sam Ehlinger but basically did so running into two of the very best defensive players in the conference...and lost the play.

However, from here the game was hardly over. Iowa State took over and had another steady drive which ended with them punting back to Texas with about four minutes remaining. The Longhorns got uncharacteristically aggressive in the passing game and missed a pair of throws directed at the slot receivers, amazingly enough as they were often the better players on the unit.

Iowa State got the ball again, caught Texas with a few motion tricks and a sort of tight end double move, and got the touchdown they needed. The game ended with Sam Ehlinger taking a sack.

Takeaways

I'll always maintain Tom Herman didn't really appreciate Sam Ehlinger's real skill set. His capacity as a power runner was obvious from high school and tantalizing for a "run the quarterback!" offensive coach like Tom Herman. However, he was also phenomenal in the audible game, helping set protections, protecting the ball, and making quick decisions in the spread passing game.

At Westlake he took the Chaps to a high level by allowing them to effectively be an Air Raid passing team with a power run game dimension, the latter of which he personally supplied with his own legs and grit. He wasn't going to hold up in college getting 200+ carries a year like he did for the Westlake state runner-ups in 2015, but he was devastating on draws and short-yardage at Texas.

Tom Herman wanted to control games though, squeezing teams on the margins with ball security and effective situational play in short-yardage and the red zone. He wasn't interested in unleashing a flurry of points via an Air Raid passing attack, the Iowa State game was flowing exactly according to his preferences for winning games. They were going to choke out an exhausted Cyclone team in the fourth quarter and win via submission.

The issue was always the lack of margin. By refusing to blow teams away with elite speed recruited to devastate opponents in space but instead aiming to out-physical opponents in the box, Texas erased their own margin for error against the rest of the Big 12.

Look up at the diagram or the GIF of the play again and you'll notice Texas is getting 1-on-1 matchups for all three receivers...against Iowa State defensive backs. The whole design of the Iowa State defense is to avoid 1-on-1 matchups for their defensive backs because they struggle to recruit a lot of kids up to Ames who can consistently win such exchanges against the caliber of receiver you find in the Big 12. Had Texas emphasized and nailed wide receiver recruiting and development in the Tom Herman era, they'd have considered throwing the ball here on fourth and one and getting a better matchup than running behind a lead block from a converted quarterback against a 250 pound, DPOY Ohioan linebacker.

Or they might have made more on their following two drives when they asked Ehlinger to bail them out with the passing game, once again.

But the Tom Herman vision for Texas football as a ball control, power team was never realized and instead Matt Campbell actually bested them at it twice in a row from Herman and his strength coach Yancy McKnight's old home at Iowa State.
 

sherf1

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Its interesting the things you see on a play like this when you watch it a bunch of times.

The center (68) ending up on his ass 4 yards behind the LOS also seems subotimal for a short yardage run up the middle.
 
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sherf1

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Also dont understand washing down the DE when you want to run in that gap. Looks to me like the trash on the ground there helped ISU stop Sam's momentum.

Oak and Jones did really well clearing out their guys or this would have been a TFL given the stalemates and losses from the other blockers playside (Brewer, RB, center).
 

Ian Boyd

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Its interesting the things you see on a play like this when you watch it a bunch of times.

The center (68) ending up on his ass 4 yards behind the LOS also seems subotimal for a short yardage run up the middle.
Suboptimal, but that's for a cutback anyways. The play is aiming off tackle.
Also dont understand washing down the DE when you want to run in that gap. Looks to me like the trash on the ground there helped ISU stop Sam's momentum.

Oak and Jones did really well clearing out their guys or this would have been a TFL given the stalemates and losses from the other blockers playside (Brewer, RB, center).
When the DE dives inside like that you can't kick him out, even if you're Moose Johnston, you have to make him pay for the decision instead.

The problem is Mike Rose forcing the ball inside to the scrum and then the Cyclones having an extra man in the box.
 

sherf1

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Suboptimal, but that's for a cutback anyways. The play is aiming off tackle.

When the DE dives inside like that you can't kick him out, even if you're Moose Johnston, you have to make him pay for the decision instead.

The problem is Mike Rose forcing the ball inside to the scrum and then the Cyclones having an extra man in the box.
so basically we ran a fairly slow developing outside zone play into the defensive leverage AND talent....the Herman era in a nutshell.
 
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Ian Boyd

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so basically we ran a fairly slow developing outside zone play into the defensive leverage AND talent....the Herman era in a nutshell.
Not outside zone. This is technically inside zone but it ends up playing out like power. It's a great play if the defense doesn't have the best OLB in the conference outside waiting to squash your lead block to the edge and one of the best DEs in the conference looking to submarine things in the C-gap.
 

sherf1

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Not outside zone. This is technically inside zone but it ends up playing out like power. It's a great play if the defense doesn't have the best OLB in the conference outside waiting to squash your lead block to the edge and one of the best DEs in the conference looking to submarine things in the C-gap.
Choosing to line that up to run AT Bailey and Rose and AWAY from Cosmi and Junior also seems strange for a play that big. It's always small margins in short yardage, and no attempt made to tilt that advantage our way.
 
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Ian Boyd

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Choosing to line that up to run AT Bailey and Rose and AWAY from Cosmi and Junior also seems strange for a play that big. It's always small margins in short yardage, and no attempt made to tilt that advantage our way.
Certainly a stubborn play call. "This is who we are, it's either enough or it's not."
 

stilesbbq

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The last drive here starting at 2:06 is also incredibly frustrating. How many drives begin with a Bijan 4 yard run and end in 3 and out?

I wonder on second down if Sam has the option in that play to pass it to Washington for the screen. To my amateur eye it looks like an easy first if he can get the ball out there
 

Ian Boyd

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The last drive here starting at 2:06 is also incredibly frustrating. How many drives begin with a Bijan 4 yard run and end in 3 and out?

I wonder on second down if Sam has the option in that play to pass it to Washington for the screen. To my amateur eye it looks like an easy first if he can get the ball out there
That’s the one where they took a shot to Smith and miss, yeah? And then Moore drops an isolated crosser for the 2nd or 3rd time of the year?
 

stilesbbq

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That’s the one where they took a shot to Smith and miss, yeah? And then Moore drops an isolated crosser for the 2nd or 3rd time of the year?
Ya they take a shot to Smith. Sam leads him toward the sideline and Jake cant get there. Wasnt a big window or really one at all to begin with. On that play it looks like a fake bubble screen and the X has no one within ten yards of him. Weird play call for the situation

The Moore drop was ugly. I hope he has been able to put on at least a little weight this offseason
 
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jtharris03

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Ya they take a shot to Smith. Sam leads him toward the sideline and Jake cant get there. Wasnt a big window or really one at all to begin with. On that play it looks like a fake bubble screen and the X has no one within ten yards of him. Weird play call for the situation

The Moore drop was ugly. I hope he has been able to put on at least a little weight this offseason
The outside corner stayed off 10 yards and the remaining DBs went after Jake. Such a frustrating game, no reason to lose it.

Silver lining is we have a better coaching staff now