Football

Gameplan: Competing lame ducks in Austin

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Vegas’ opening line for the upcoming Baylor game was Texas -10.5. It has since moved to Texas -8.5, perhaps due to a complete collapse of faith in betting Longhorn fans that their head coach has any real control over the direction of the program. When the athletic director is meeting with the players and giving them clear expectations for what’s expected of them after games and it contrasts with public statements made by the head coach days prior, that’s a sign the head coach is essentially a lame duck.

In the press conference after the Oklahoma game?

“I’ve encouraged our staff and team to join me in participating in after games if they are comfortable doing that.”

And then Chris Del Conte in a public statement afterwards before meeting directly with the team:

“With that said, I do want to clarify that I have had many conversations with our head coaches outlining my expectations that our teams show appreciation for our University, fans, and supporters by standing together as a unified group for “The Eyes,” while we work through this issue.”

Herman has said there’s “complete alignment” across the athletics department on how “The Eyes of Texas” should be handled but it couldn’t be more clear there isn’t. Herman doesn’t want to force his players to stand for The Eyes and risk losing support for key players and Del Conte doesn’t seem particularly worried at this point whether Herman has the support of his players or not.

It might be a fool’s errand to try and work out how this will impact the Baylor game, especially when there is counter-balancing drama on the other side. There’s no sign of any lack of alignment within the Baylor program, just a large number of players and staffers that were infected with COVID during their bye week. The team went 11 days without practicing after their West Virginia loss before re-starting this week to prepare for the road trip to Austin. What sort of effect will those losses have on this game?

The best we can do is look at the matchups and then gauge how things might go.

Dave Aranda’s Bears

Baylor is still a program on the rise. I know that’s not a popular sentiment around the Forty Acres but I’ve got an even less popular one to drop. Baylor has had the better football coach for over a decade now. Obviously there’s been some other dimensions to the program that people can and have criticized but in terms of pure product on the field, the Bears have been the sharper team.

The series was at 5-5 over the last decade with Texas slipping in three straight victories in the 2016-2018 stretch of Jim Grobe and Matt Rhule’s rebuild. The Bears only had one losing season for the entire decade, the 2017 “year zero” for Matt Rhule in which they went 1-11.

Of course Rhule left for a huge payday and opportunity with the Carolina Panthers, but the Bears simply doubled down on the investment into the program. They lured Dave Aranda away from LSU, hired Larry Fedora to coordinate the offense with help from brilliant LSU offensive staffer Jorge Munoz, and snatched up Texas A&M’s “Associate Athletic Director for Football Personnel” Austin Thomas to manage their recruiting department.

Thus far the Bears have been surprisingly strong on defense, utilizing a typical hybrid nickel defense. The strength of the unit is the linebacker corps, particularly the sole returning star from last year’s defeense in Terrell Bernard, but Iowa transfer linebacker Dillon Doyle and senior nickel Jalen Pitre have also been effective. The Bears’ 3-3 front includes big T.J. Franklin (6-4, 294) as the field end and then a couple of other big, stout linemen that won’t be easy to move around in Texas’ zone running game.

Interestingly enough, even with a shortened offseason and late transfer addition of big inside-backer Doyle, Dave Aranda still managed to set up his defense to avoid playing the slower backer in space against trips:

If you watch Baylor film from this season you’ll basically see a smarter, more fundamentally strong version of what Todd Orlando was trying to do in Austin. The Bear defense is designed to bring pressure in groups of four and five and to do so from disguised alignments, ideally encouraging a protection with their pre-snap look that is then particularly vulnerable to the post-snap blitz. The underlying “base” defense is less a specific front and coverage and more the ability to alternate between bringing four-man pressures involving the nickel or rover after feigning one to set up the other.

For instance…

West Virginia motioned their running back over to run a swing route to the field where there were already four receivers in anticipation of an inside linebacker blitz. After the snap Jarrett Doege finds the Bears dropping both linebackers and the field end/backer and he doesn’t find the fourth rusher, the boundary corner. Sack, strip, fumble, recovered by Baylor.

Many assumed Baylor would collapse on defense this season because they had to replace nine starters from a near-Big 12 championship unit including the DLOY and two other fantastic D-linemen. It turns out that Matt Rhule left behind a lot of well-developed talent who had received enough high level instruction to be able to absorb Aranda’s schemes fairly easily. Then they added Bradley-King (1.5 sacks in two games) and Doyle (11 tackles, one forced fumble) to Terrell Bernard and athletic nickel Jalen Pitre and all of a sudden the Bears have a lot of solid weapons well suited to executing Aranda’s attacking schemes. Bernard has been an absolute menace with 21 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks as the “rover” that Texas could never quite develop from Malik Jefferson, Gary Johnson, or anyone else on the roster (Joseph Ossai, Jeff McCulloch, etc).

The weak spot for Baylor isn’t the defense, it’s the offense. The infrastructure of a rebuilt, transfer-infused, and Joe Wickline-coached offensive line and senior Charlie Brewer has been the limiting factor for this team.

On the former, the Bears have yet to field their full, healthy lineup across the line. They’ve started a few different groups in the first two games and the listed depth chart isn’t even what we saw on the field against West Virginia two weeks ago. God only knows who Wickline will send out in which positions against Texas and whether or not they’ll be ready to play cohesively.

Then at quarterback, the Charlie Brewer tragedy continues. The player I watched against West Virginia two weeks ago had already deteriorated into Case McCoy after just one game. He’s scramble happy but no longer particularly quick. Even worse, his arm strength seems so limited at this point he looks like the “derp on ice” Case McCoy that wasn’t following through on throws in freezing temperatures with the Big 12 championship on the line in Waco back in 2013.

The sheer design of this play is kind of sad, the execution is worse.

Baylor is overloading the boundary for a deep shot because Charlie Brewer can’t throw it “deep” unless he’s throwing to the short side of the field. They run a power-read play-action play into the boundary and then send the tight end on a wheel route where ideally he won’t be picked up by the deep defender. The cornerback effortlessly drops deep, keeps his eyes on Brewer, and is able to come off the post and intercept the lame duck pass.

You lose a lot of spacing when you’re trying to run overloads into the boundary and you have to make up for it by being able to rifle the football into tight windows. Otherwise you risk scenarios like this, in which one defender is covering multiple receivers at the same time.

The power of the gameplan

The power of the gameplan has been evident in Austin for the last four years. Tom Herman’s gameplanning has consistently managed to generate the opposite result of good strategy, which is to configure matchups so that your own strengths dominate a contest and your weaknesses don’t come into play. Instead, Texas has routinely allowed opponents to achieve that goal and bridge any talent gaps that might have otherwise assured Longhorn victory.

Tom Herman has demonstrated that he is more than capable of producing a gameplan for this contest that will make Baylor stronger than they have to be before you consider his essentially lame duck status as the head coach. Then on the other side of the equation you have the lame ducks Charlie Brewer is offering up. Chris Ash hasn’t shown a particular knack for gameplanning to personnel in Big 12 play yet but I don’t think it will be lost on him that the Baylor quarterback can only hit targets at point blank range and appeared slower than normal in just the second game of the season.

If Baylor wants to come into this game and throw a big right hook that changes the trajectory of the contest, they should start Gerry Bohanon at quarterback rather than Charlie Brewer. The 5-wide, spread passing sets that Munoz brought from LSU are useless to this team because smart defenses know to sit on all the underneath option routes and dare the Bears to beat them deep. The potentially explosive running game with home-run threat Trestan Ebner can’t function either with bodies packed around the box. Baylor desperately needs to be able to stretch the field and if they do this offense will look night and day different than it has through two weeks.

For Texas, the path to victory is pretty straightforward. If you face Brewer, play the spur and strong safeties near the box, leave the corners and free safety in what amounts to man coverage, and mix in some 5-man pressures to attack this still shaky offensive line.

Attacking the Baylor defense is more complicated. At least, Herman will make it more complicated.

The Bears aren’t an easy team to run on. If the thinking coming off the Red River Shootout was, “you know, if we just have a couple of good weeks of practice we’re actually pretty close to being a good two-back play-action/RPO spread team” then Baylor will provide yet another wake up call. I don’t know how many times we’ve watched Texas fail to execute that identity and then fail to adapt afterward so it seems silly to expect something different.

Baylor has pretty good cornerback play this year, arguably better than Oklahoma, and includes their other returning defensive starter Raleigh Texada and redshirt sophomore Mark Milton. They’ve also been heating up quarterbacks pretty well with Aranda’s sim pressures.

Here’s a helpful hint for the Texas coaching staff.

What you consider to be your desperation two-minute offense, your third-and-long offense, and your “special play” offense should be your base offense for the rest of the season.

Texas needs to be in four/five-wide for most of this game. This has been true for most of Herman’s tenure but it’s essential so I have to repeat it again. Baylor’s capacity for disguising which of their linebackers and safeties can come on a blitz is grievously reduced when you’ve sent their coverage assignments (slot, tight end, and running back) out to the hash marks.

If receivers versus cornerbacks isn’t a favorable matchup (it isn’t) then flex the tight end and running backs out wide. Keep spreading until you find the weak spots. Malcolm Epps and Jared Wiley are essentially your X receivers at this point and should be deployed as such. Let them play on the line against cornerbacks so that players like Jordan Whittingon, Jake Smith, and Josh Moore don’t have to.

They should be bringing as many designs as possible like the following:

What makes this one deadly is the post route by a receiver (the X here, could be anyone though). You can’t jam that guy and throw him off the route because he’s off the ball and has a two-way go from the slot. Instead he has to be bracketed and it has to be done without involving a corner since they’re wasted on the perimeter.

The upshot of a play like this is you get your three fastest wide receivers matched up on safeties and linebackers in the middle of the field. The defense will need to use two players against the post and be mindful of the scramble, so you end up with an opening somewhere, probably a linebacker isolated against the shallow cross or the dig while trying to keep an eye on Ehlinger, which is an impossible matchup. These are the games and schemes Texas needs in order to win out in 2020.

As a reminder, Texas finished 4th in the country in third down conversion percentage on offense in 2019 with a mark of 48.9%. How did they achieve that? By using 5-man protections with Cosmi and Kerstetter at tackle and Devin Duvernay running crossing routes in the middle of the field for dual-threat Sam Ehlinger.

Of course the coaches moved Kerstetter inside without a ready replacement (yikes) and have to replace Duvernay, but the picture here isn’t too bleak. Texas has a number of receivers that are dangerous inside and they can threaten to take the top off the defense with one slot receiver by using a Moore, Smith, Eagles, or maybe even Schooler on a vertical while whichever of the four receivers I just listed who isn’t going deep can hunt space or abuse a matchup underneath.

If Tom Herman wants to beat Baylor and the other teams on the schedule, he’ll have used his bye week to expand the spread passing components to the offense. Because all of their tight ends are already versed in both route running and blocking they don’t have to shelve the run game or the existing offense, just up the emphasis on the spread passing dimension. Texas’ spread passing at tempo is the only reason Texas was 8-5 last year and the only reason they were able to eek out a victory against Texas Tech or force overtime against the Sooners in 2020.

Without that dimension, this team would be 1-3 and facing the chances of going 5-5 or worse. If they used the bye week to make spread passing the engine of the offense they have an outside shot at being 7-3 or so and perhaps competing in the Big 12 Championship Game.

History major, football theorist.