Thursdays in the Hubble: Charting space force matchups for the Big 12 in Week 9

Ian Boyd

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Beyond Texas edging out Oklahoma State last weekend, one of the big moments in the Big 12 was how West Virginia handled Kansas State. A theme I’ve been noting on this site has been an examination of typical Big 12 strategy and the emerging defensive counters.

The dominant Big 12 offensive strategy, particularly since Art Briles (and Dana Holgorsen) unleashed hell at the turn of the decade, has been the spread RPO/play-action offense. Teams have become pass-first units that combine two-back “smashmouth” run schemes with pass options on the perimeter via RPOs and then play-action.

They put the emphasis on the vertical passing game and having RPO options to control box counts, then running the ball just became a matter of out-executing 6-on-6 (usually) or 5-on-5.

Iowa State was an early leader in demonstrating how to counter that strategy with their “flyover defense” which is continuing to gain traction, but another component to the emerging strategy is good ol’ fashioned man coverage. Particularly press-man coverage. If you can deny easy throws outside from RPOs or play-action by jamming outside receivers the safeties can still bracket the slot, and these offenses can’t destroy defenses with explosive plays in the passing game on easy throws over the top of downhill linebackers.

So now what? They need to beat you with double moves and route combinations designed to beat man coverage or they need to run the ball efficiently. Oklahoma has been a leading light on demonstrating how to blow up the run game with games and stunts up front, obviously TCU has long been at the forefront of that strategy as well. If you can play man coverage outside the safeties can limit damage from runs and allow the defensive front to play for tackles for loss. If you can take away easy explosive throws outside with press-man coverage and limit damage from runs that break through your stunts then you can start to flip the calculus back in your favor. Perhaps you still give up a fade over the top or the occasional big run, but you’re also going to force more punts.

What’s the offensive solution? One is to attack man coverage with double moves, superior receivers, and pinpoint accuracy from the quarterback. All of those solutions essentially require more talent and better pass protection, which negates the massive advantage these offensive schemes brought in the first place.

The other solution? The LSU method.

You get more good receivers on the field, spread the defense out, and throw quick hitting option routes underneath and then take your shots deep when you get 1-on-1 matchups.


It was inevitable a Big 12 team would employ this approach in 2020, although maybe none of us expected it’d be K-State. But by adding FCS grad transfer Briley Moore at tight end and then freshman Deuce Vaughn at running back, things just sort of fell into place.

You can still try to counter the LSU approach with man coverage outside, but it’s trickier. Playing man coverage outside doesn’t save a linebacker from needing to stop an option route underneath or always save a nickel defender from having to carry a vertical.

The update that makes the LSU approach different from a typical Mike Leach Air Raid is the personnel. If you do this with a tight end and a running back on the field, you can always punish teams who drop everyone into coverage or try to play with sub-packages by running the ball with the tight end blocking for the running back. The Tigers had a lot of power game RPOs they could utilize before flexing everyone out.

Kansas State’s difficulty this season is they lost Skylar Thompson and must attempt this with Will Howard behind center. It also has to be noted they had some drops against West Virginia from their receivers and are still rebuilding their offensive line. Kansas State in 2021 with the O-line back, Vaughn and some tight ends back, the receivers back, and either Skylar Thompson or an older Will Howard is going to be trouble for people.

Reviewing the Week 8 space battles

My expectation was K-State would be able to cover up West Virginia outside with A.J. Parker in the nickel and their emerging cornerbacks and keep this game in a lower scoring realm. That did not happen.

One factor was A.J. Parker did not play and the Mountaineers did some damage to K-State’s overhangs with their slots, RPO game, and throwing to the tight end flexed out. Another was Howard and the outside receivers decisively losing on the perimeter with multiple drops and three interceptions. Each team’s pass-rush drew about level with the other and the Mountaineers landed some bombs in the passing game, again mostly throwing to the slots.

Kansas State’s two other equalizers also did not materialize. While West Virginia made consistent gains in the run game, K-State didn’t get the normal handful of big Vaughn runs to propel scoring drives. Special teams were mostly a draw aside from one strong Malik Knowles return which was negated in the field position balance by K-State’s turnovers.

My sense of Iowa State vs Kansas as a bloodbath that didn’t warrant too much of a look was proven correct in a 55-22 beatdown in which Breece Hall had nearly 200 rushing yards. Ditto Oklahoma against Texas Tech. The Sooners worked Rhamondre Stevenson and Ronnie Perkins back into their attack and threw more leak routes to Marvin Mims.

TCU vs Baylor had a couple of interesting quirks. The first one was TCU landing a fade RPO to Quentin Johnson for a touchdown, the combination of Duggan throwing to him is one to watch in 2021. The other was Charlie Brewer managing to hit a couple of throws to the field that allowed Baylor to erase a lot of TCU’s big margin in the second half. Charlie Brewer’s grip strength is something else to watch but in the back half of this season. If he’s healthy, they can ruin someone’s season late.

The most fascinating space force battle was between Texas and Oklahoma State, this was potentially an area where the Cowboys could have dominated the game and it didn’t happen for them.

Wide receiver was where I expected the difference to come in this game, particularly Tylan Wallace vs cornerback Josh Thompson. Texas predictably relied on man coverage there and Wallace had a big day, 11 catches for 187 yards and two touchdowns. However, that decisive victory didn’t work for OSU for two reasons. One was they got nothing in the run game without Wallace commanding safety help.

Chuba Hubbard and Leddie Brown combined for 33 carries for 105 yards at 3.2 ypc and zero touchdowns. Spencer Sanders chipped in 11 carries for 49 yards at 4.5 ypc and was unable to win the edge in the zone-read consistently, more on that in a moment.

Then, for all the damage OSU did to Texas throwing the ball, they did some damage to themselves as well. Particularly the interception, a fumbled mesh on a play-action/RPO concept where Sanders and Hubbard weren’t on the same page, and a sack-strip of Sanders by Texas outside linebacker/weakside end Joseph Ossai. That was one of three sacks by Ossai and five by Texas. Another of Ossai’s sacks ended the game in overtime.

The space force battle of Joseph Ossai against the Oklahoma State offensive tackles was about as lopsided an outcome as there was in this game. He had 12 tackles, six tackles for loss, and three sacks and OSU left tackle Jake Springfield was lost for the game when pushed out of bounds by Keondre Coburn trying to chase down Ta’Quon Graham when he was aiming to scoop and score after the Ossai sack-strip of Sanders. Ossai also had some plays where he gave Sanders a keep read but then ran him down when he tried to keep the ball and win the edge.

Oklahoma State’s pass-rush landed six sacks on Sam Ehlinger but couldn’t produce any fumbles or interceptions. They also performed predictably well checking Texas’ outside receivers with their cornerbacks, but the Longhorns beat them from the slot juuuuust enough to get some points. And then a kick return made the difference.

Overall it was mostly an infrastructure win by Texas. OSU had the space force edge and it took four turnovers and a special teams score to make up the difference.

Week 9 matchups in space

West Virginia at Texas


Everything starts with West Virginia at Texas, which has the tightest point spread and is most likely to have a major impact on the Big 12 title race. The loser of this game is going to find it extremely hard to make the title game.

Obviously Texas will play West Virginia much like they did against Oklahoma State, by playing man coverage outside and forcing them to work the ball down the field in confined spaces in the box. The difference is it’s easier to do this against West Virginia but they’re also more willing to accept the challenge.


I’m not sure if quarterback Jarrett Doege is even reading the hitch route to the receiver on bottom or just trying to generate hesitation for strong safety Jahron McPherson so he can’t fill behind the lead insert block by their ancillary. At any rate, he didn’t fill behind the insert and it was off to the races for the back.

Texas’ linebackers could be vulnerable to this but WVU will be equally vulnerable to seeing plays blown up by all the big defensive tackles the Longhorns put on the field as well as the safety support. Joseph Ossai against the West Virginia offensive tackles is another battle that could be a problem for the Mountaineers.

On the flip side, Texas matches up reasonably well against the West Virginia edge rushers in theory, but things get hard when teams have to double the Stills bros inside. On the outside the Mountaineers will put Tykee Smith on the slot and crowd slants and out routes against Sam Ehlinger. It’s easy to see this being a very low scoring game and I don’t have a good feel for how it will play out.

Kansas at OU/Tech at TCU

The former is a joke. With no Pooka Williams the Jayhawks are just hoping to learn something good every week without getting Jalon Daniels killed, such as how to avoid getting killed (if you’re Jalon Daniels).

Tech at TCU is more interesting. Tech has a power running game this season with a fantastic interior O-line and a better blocking tight end than last year. They can pick up gains and create matchups outside, particularly for Erik Ezukanma who’s going to be a big problem for the Noah Daniels-less Frog secondary. TCU doesn’t have another big cover corner to match him. They also still don’t have an edge-rusher to attack the Red Raiders for their deficiencies there.

On the other side of the ball, Tech is bad and TCU is pretty plodding and error prone. The Frogs have their moments in the run game or landing shots in the passing game, but Tech will have those as well. If Gary Patterson tries to win this game by running the ball and winning on defense, like he does most weeks, there won’t be a sizable edge to put TCU over the top. A loss to Texas Tech would make the Red Raiders 3-4 and the Horned Frogs 2-4. At some point we start talking about who all is still coaching in Fort Worth next season.

Oklahoma State at Kansas State

The Cowboys will be looking to bounce back from the Texas loss and Kansas State will need to make some adjustments of their own after the thrashing against West Virginia so they can stay in the hunt.

Kansas State has some solid defensive backs but they’ll mix in some cover 2 over Tylan Wallace, as they did a year ago, and some blitzes on Sanders. They’ll also look to feast outside with Wyatt Hubert and Khalid Duke against what figures to be Teven Jenkins and Josh Sills at tackle with Jake Springfield out. If OSU is able to check them outside, look inside on third downs for K-State eating them up with Bronson Massie and Drew Wiley isolated 1-on-1 against overmatched interior offensive linemen.

OSU is hard to shut down because they have so many special athletes that make plays, but they’re in tough shape to make consistent headway this weekend.

On the other side, Kansas State needs to have a plan to either get Vaughn open this week or else to complete passes on the perimeter if OSU overplays him. If they can’t generate some big hits outside throwing to Malik Knowles and Chabastin Taylor then OSU’s sheer athleticism is going to put them away. With OSU’s quality at cornerback this season, it doesn’t look good for the Wildcats. Offensive tackle is another concern and the Wildcats regularly sub into third down packages, which opens the door for OSU’s Trace Ford/Calvin Bundage counter package.

Baylor at Iowa State

The Cyclones have a chance to get a little better this week throwing to Charlie Kolar and Xavier Hutchinson. Their run game has really carried them this season and Baylor has been vulnerable to a good rushing attack this year because of their turnover along the defensive line after losing last year’s crew.

The Bears aren’t bad in the secondary but they aren’t necessarily going to lock down Hutchinson either. A few big plays in the passing game is enough for Iowa State this season because Hall has been their workhorse rather than throwing crossers to Kolar and Deshaunte Jones. At tackle Iowa State has been consistently solid and Baylor’s best pass-rush is from creeper blitzes featuring inside-backer Terrel Bernard.

On the other side we have a kinda hilarious matchup. Iowa State wants to force opponents to throw the ball underneath and sustain drives without big passes over the top and Baylor wants to throw the ball underneath and sustain drives without big passes over the top. Unless Charlie Brewer is healthier and can push it down the field, this should be sorta interesting.

But Iowa State figures to come out ahead by closing and tackling and racking up sacks on third downs. Down the line Baylor has some choices to make. Jorge Munoz clearly brought LSU’s 4-5/wide passing game to Waco and it’s different from what Larry Fedora has run in the past. They could be very effective in future seasons with this system should they find the right quarterback to execute it. This is another reason I’m curious to track Brewer this year for health, I’d like to see what early 2019 Brewer could do in this offense.
 

stilesbbq

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Texas/WVU looks like an elimination game for the Big12 CCG hunt. TCU/Tech might be an elimination game for both coaches
 

clayinva

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It's impressive as always how KU manages to do nothing right or well. Jalon Daniels seems like he's got the potential to be their best QB since they had an undersized but tough QB from Austin a decade and a bit ago. They actually have a decent group of receivers as well. But just a complete sh*t show otherwise.

I assume Iowa State handles Baylor fairly easily provided Purdy doesn't get too inside of his head again. I also assume UT handles WVU with some sort of 4th quarter Ehlinger heroics if nothing else. Ultimately UT has better big play potential which *should* help give them the edge.

Unfortunately I think K-State just won't match up so well against Oklahoma State and the game could get out of hand quickly if they can confuse or frustrate Howard into a few bad plays.
 

kevinbelt

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It's impressive as always how KU manages to do nothing right or well.
It is actually pretty impressive. The school/AD obviously has resources, and even though they've got some natural recruiting limitations in football, K-State has shown that you can at least be middle-of-the-pack competitive with JUCOs and some overlooked athletes. KU doesn't get this bad by accident.

Everybody has their daydreams; mine is that I take over a struggling Power 5 program that everyone thinks is destined for permanent mediocrity and lead them to a conference championship. I'm a Big Ten guy, and my brother lives in Indiana, so I usually do this with IU. But I could probably plug Kansas in as well. Step 1: Hire Ian as offensive coordinator. :)
 
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