Gameplan: Preparing for the final stretch

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There’s some potential for trouble in the postponement of Texas’ road trip to Lawrence to play the Jayhawks. Three different troubling scenarios now loom for the Longhorns. Scenario one sees Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State in Bedlam on Saturday night and then each win out, Texas beats Iowa State and Kansas State, and then all they have to do in order to enter a three-way tie atop the standings is go on the road the week before the Big 12 Championship Game and beat the Jayhawks.

In a three-way tie with the Oklahoma schools, the Cowboys would be the losers due to having lost to both Texas and Oklahoma.

Kansas is the easiest possible game to have to win, but it’s going to be awfully easy to look ahead to the title game and sleep walk through a road game played in front of no one. Texas just lost the potential advantage of having a bye week ahead of the game.

Scenario two involves Texas incurring some sort of injury playing the Kansas game which then degrades their capacity for winning in the follow up title game. Relatively minor issues like an ankle sprain would no longer have an extra week to heal.

Finally there’s this scenario, what if Kansas is again unable to play for the rescheduled game? If Oklahoma is 7-2 in the Big 12, Oklahoma State is 7-2, and Texas is 6-2, what now? If they count the Kansas game as a forfeit by the Jayhawks, Texas is fine and we all enjoy a lifetime of “BURNT ORANGE MEDIA CONSPIRACY” takes.

A review of the conference standings

With the Kansas game postponed, it’s worth watching Bedlam and Farmageddon this week if you’re a Longhorn fan. Bedlam is the rivalry game between Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, who are currently second and fourth in the league standings. “Farmageddon” is the name of the Iowa State-Kansas State rivalry game, and those two teams are currently first and third in the Big 12. The outcome of Farmageddon matters less to Texas because they will play those two teams over the following weeks and control their destiny vis-a-vis those programs. Bedlam is the essential one.

Here are the standings and remaining contests:

Oklahoma State is in a position of relative strength provided they can win Bedlam. They have a lot of games left but they’re all against weaker teams, many of which are about ready to be done. As it happens, watch for COVID to be a bigger issue with the teams ready to be done with this season, which can only help Texas if the league determines those will be counted as forfeits in order to make the Championship Game happen. Oklahoma State can potentially afford to drop one game but it’d be better for them if it isn’t against the Sooners or they lose control of their destiny.

Oklahoma is probably the favorite to make the Big 12 Championship, winning out will put them in control of their destiny and the inclusions of defensive end Ronnie Perkins and running back Rhamondre Stevenson for the stretch run are massive talent infusions at the perfect time. They do have to navigate a difficult Bedlam game and a road trip against a very strong West Virginia team. Then there’s the biggest specter haunting their season, the health of Spencer Rattler.

Rattler was looking dinged up in the Kansas game and Lincoln Riley’s strange insistence on using him as a runner in the red zone this season has taken a toll. They could, and should, let the 6-foot-0, 247-pound Stevenson carry the load from here to spare Rattler but it’s something to watch. Freshman wear down over the course of a season and Rattler is already built like Shane Buechele.

Kansas State is running on fumes. Chris Klieman is earning his contract extension every week between the need to shuffle his lineup amidst frequent COVID reductions and K-State’s efforts to manufacture offense every week with freshman running back Deuce Vaughn and freshman quarterback Will Howard. Their rival Iowa State is theoretically in position to finish strong and make the Big 12 title game, perhaps catapulting head coach Matt Campbell to the Michigan job. Their big obstacle is the road trip to Austin.

Texas’ new bye week priorities

The most important thing Texas can accomplish over these bye weeks is to patch up the run game. They need to boost their run game success rate significantly as it’s currently a dismal 42.1%, which ranks 70th nationally. Success rate measures how often a play picks up 50% of the necessary yardage to move the chains on first down, 70% on second down, and 100% on third and fourth down.

On 1st and 10 you want to be picking up five yards, on 2nd and 5 you’re aiming to get three, and 3rd and 2 you want at least two, etc. Texas is hitting that metric on just 42.1% of their running plays and a main culprit is TFLs on 1st and 10 outside zone plays.

Their struggle here has multiple second order effects on the offense, primarily the creation of more passing downs in which Christian Jones and Denzel Okafor can be targeted, more hits can be landed on Sam Ehlinger, and obviously more punts and fewer points ensue. Texas’ steady but unremarkable inside zone game of 2018 and 2019 was actually crucial to keeping them in position to attack teams with the passing game, running play-action/RPOs or else maintaining manageable down and distance.

Texas’ run game success rate in 2019 was 48.1% (20th nationally), which was unexciting for fans but paid dividends for creating more manageable passing downs and also allowing Texas to be more explosive on standard downs via RPOs or play-action.

On 3rd and 8 or less, Sam Ehlinger could operate the 5-wide offense and get the ball out quickly or scramble, hence the fantastic third down conversion percentages in 2019 (48.9%, fourth in the country). The 5-wide hasn’t been a consistent option for Texas this season because the run game is more boom and bust.

Texas’ goal for 2020 was (presumably) to add more explosiveness to the run game and the passing game, but they should have been focusing on maximizing Ehlinger in the spread passing game, not throwing away precious pandemic practice time installing a new running scheme.

There’s still time to get this partly right and give the senior a chance to carry them to a championship. If Mike Yurcich and the staff try to use the extra bye week to get their outside zone game going they’ll still probably have some of the same boom/bust results that characterized the rest of the season.

The better answer is to re-emphasize the inside zone plays and expand on the counter run game, which made a resurgence last week against West Virginia. In particular GT counter, which is an easy scheme to draw up in a way that doesn’t require anything from the tight end as a blocker, a useful feature given the recent injuries to Jared Wiley and Cade Brewer.

The normal Y-counter scheme Texas utilized a week ago isn’t too hard on the tight ends either, check out this run against West Virginia:

Denzel Okafor pulls, finds the edge player trying to step down to spill the run and traps him there. Malcolm Epps follows around him and just leads and cleans up what he finds. This is consistently how Texas has run these power/gap schemes under Herb Hand. The kick out player will quickly adjust and “wrap” if he goes to kick out and finds the edge player stepping inside to avoid getting kicked outside. The second puller will first prioritize no one is beating a block and threatening to penetrate into the backfield, then he’ll lead block into whatever path he sees the first puller creating and take out the first guy he finds.

It’s a manageable task for a less powerful or less experienced blocker. First don’t let them wreck the play, secondly go hit someone. Not like power, which requires the tight end to do the “kick out or wrap?” calculus, or Texas’ inside zone play which asks him to zone block and control a defensive end.

GT counter can be even easier, much easier.

What’s the tight end doing on this play? Blocking a defensive back out at the far numbers.

Meanwhile the mechanism of the gap scheme is the same as Y-counter. The guard (Junior Angilau this time) pulls and he’s anticipating the need to throw a pin block that contains the edge player inside so the second puller (tackle Sam Cosmi) can lead to the perimeter. Angilau doesn’t make great contact and so when Cosmi arrives and sees a potential mess developing, he gives that same defender an extra shove. It’s a conservative approach oriented around ensuring a gain and control in the box.

The weakside linebacker is consequently unblocked but there’s no edge for the defense so it’s a footrace between him and the running back, and Roschon Johnson can lean downhill and use his stiff arm. Obviously Bijan Robinson is more effective still at bouncing runs when there’s push on the edge because of his lateral agility. Unlike Texas’ inside and outside zone schemes, these are designed to create the opportunity to bounce outside off tackle by dealing with the edge defender.

While Herb Hand is justifiably taking a lot of fire these days, his philosophical approach to run blocking is right in my estimation. The goal should be to prioritize making a positive gain and controlling the point of attack, let the running back determine the upside beyond there with his ability to read, manipulate, and avoid unblocked defenders at the second and third level. With Bijan Robinson now positioned to carry a bigger load this is increasingly true.

On defense the priority for this extra bye week is to improve at linebacker on basic run-stopping and quick passing game fundamentals. They’ve improved their position here for the future by adding Terrence Cooks to a linebacker class finally resembling what a Big 12 linebacker corps should be, now they also need to improve on campus.

Not just Juwan Mitchell and DeMarvion Overshown either, but ideally David Gbenda and whoever else is next in line besides Cort Jaquess. Should Texas lose Overshown to injury in the coming weeks they’d be in really bad shape to stop Breece Hall, Deuce Vaughn/Will Howard, and potentially the Oklahoma or Oklahoma State run games in the Big 12 title.

Additionally, they could use some more reps for Gbenda in the passing game. Overshown is actually a big plus in pass defense, the position and angles aren’t new for him in the passing game due to two years of experience as a “joker” for Todd Orlando. But for Gbenda defending the quick passing game is novel, there wasn’t much in high school to prepare him for it, and Texas’ remaining opponents are going to be hunting the linebackers in these crucial games.

Iowa State and Kansas State will aim to confuse them with motion, moving tight end blocks, and option schemes in the run game while mixing in quick passing over the middle. Iowa State will throw endless crossing patterns and make the linebackers communicate and trade receivers while K-State will look to isolate tight end Briley Moore or running back Deuce Vaughn and mix in play-action.

Texas’ linebacker corps, starters and back-ups, need as many reps as they can get in order to guarantee the physically overmatched opponents remaining on the schedule can’t scheme their way to controlling the box against the Longhorn defense.

This bye week carries a couple of curveballs for future weeks. There are some ominous notes for the future, not only in terms of Big 12 Championship scheduling but the completion of the season itself, and Texas needs to get a lot out of these extra days in order to position themselves to make the most of whatever happens in these final weeks. The teams playing for the Big 12 title on December 19th will be the two with the most disciplined units.

History major, football theorist.