Gameplan: The crux of the 2020 season

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Ultimately, Texas needs to win the Big 12 in 2020. This team’s confidence, judging by the tumultuous offseason and their track record under Tom Herman in the last few seasons, probably needs some early wins against LSU and Oklahoma. The goals of the season though shouldn’t necessarily be impacted by either of those outcomes.

In all likelihood, the season will come down to whether or not Texas plays well enough in the final three games to secure a ticket to Arlington for the Big 12 championship. A 9-3 or 8-4 regular season that precedes a Big 12 championship would not have maximized the possibilities of this roster but it’d still represent a major leap forward for Herman’s Longhorns. The Big 12 has handed out 24 championships since its inception in 1996. Texas, despite being the most powerful and resourceful program in the league for the duration of its existence, has won three of those titles. In a season with a star, senior quarterback at the helm for the first time since 2009 (the last time Texas won the title), the Longhorns have to win the Big 12. Anything else would be a complete failure of a season and an indictable offense for the Tom Herman era.

Texas’ 2020 schedule concludes with Gary Patterson’s TCU Horned Frogs coming to Austin, the Iowa State Cyclones doing likewise, then a road trip to Stillwater to play the Oklahoma State Cowboys. This will probably prove to be the toughest three-game stretch of the entire season and it will come against three of the teams most likely to also be jockeying with Texas for position to secure a place in the conference championship game.

The TCU Horned Frogs

There’s a wide range of opinions on the 2020 TCU Horned Frogs. It was thought after the Frogs’ strong 2017 that you just couldn’t keep Gary Patterson’s squad down for long, but subsequent 7-6 and 5-7 seasons in 2018 and 2019 have told a different story. In the last four seasons, the Frogs are 29-23 overall and 18-18 in the Big 12 despite an 11-3 (7-2) record in 2017 that’s looking less like the standard and more like a blip.

Despite his reputation, Patterson’s teams have struggled mightily of late with high level spread teams bringing either vertical play-action or zone-option tactics against his 4-2-5. Lincoln Riley has basically picked up where Art Briles left off in torching his units and the Frogs have yet to defeat Oklahoma since the Sooner coach first joined the program in 2015. The 2019 Frogs only lost to Oklahoma 28-24 but the closer margin by the Sooners was a result of Jalen Hurts throwing a pick-6 on the TCU 7, then launching another full field drive to the Frog 7 only to fumble. Oklahoma piled up 366 rushing yards and 511 total yards.

The 2019 Frogs edged out Texas 37-27 thanks to four interceptions by Sam Ehlinger and a series of ill-conceived 3rd down blitzes by Todd Orlando that yielded big plays to TCU on their game-winning drive.

The 2020 team is actually in rebuild mode after losing receiver Jalen Reagor (1st round), cornerback Jeff Gladney (1st round), nose tackle Ross Blacklock (2nd round), offensive tackle Lucas Niang (3rd round), and safety Vernon Scott (7th round). The also lost six other major contributors including running backs Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua. After their failure to even achieve bowl eligibility despite fielding all that talent Patterson shook things up in the offseason by bringing back Doug Meacham to call plays and hiring Jerry Kill to serve in an off-field role as the “head coach of the offense” to free up Patterson to focus on defense. Meacham and returning quarterback coach Sonny Cumbie were the initial pairing that sparked TCU’s offensive explosion in 2015 but this time they’ll both answer to Kill.

That’s a lot of turnover and change for a program built on development that already missed bowl practices. On top of all that, there was the pandemic that cut short spring practices. TCU did add its first ever 5-star recruit during the summer when Patterson signed North Shore running back Zach Evans. The Frogs actually already had a pretty promising backfield between Daimarqua Foster, Darwin Barlow and sophomore quarterback Max Duggan, but now there are big expectations for the Evans era.

TCU has been pretty heavily geared around the zone-read for the last few years, presumably due to Patterson’s insistence on having a run game to help protect his defense. Duggan is as dangerous as most anyone they’ve had in that scheme. He has some breakaway speed and ran a 4.58 at a SPARQ event in high school. The big issue in 2019 wasn’t the skill or athleticism of the offense but the line, which collapsed after Lucas Niang went down with injury, and the overall skill and design. The interior of their O-line will return from 2019 and they added tackle T.J. Storment from Colorado State as a grad transfer, who was a good run blocker on film.

The big need from Meacham and Kill isn’t to improve the TCU run game but to introduce more effective pass game constraints to stop opponents from loading the box. Duggan throws a pretty good deep ball but the passing game was clumsily designed and poorly executed a year ago. Explosive slot Taye Barber is back but to make the spread run game concept work TCU will need to get him in space and surround him with other reliable pass targets. This would be a good game for Texas to play aggressive press-quarters and park the safeties within close range of the run game until Duggan and the passing game prove they can force them to backpedal.

Patterson’s defense is what tends to concern Texas fans. They shut out the Longhorns in 2017, in 2018 they worked out how to shut down the tight zone run game but Sam Ehlinger threw for 255 yards and Shawn Robinson turned the ball over to Texas multiple times. In 2019 Texas had a plan to toast TCU’s favorite quarters/cover 1 hybrid coverage that has been a favorite way for Patterson to balance outnumbering the run game with staying sound over the top.

Weak safety Ar’Darious Washington is a phenomenal coverage safety but his drops in this scheme weren’t deep or wide enough to allow him to make a play on the opposite hash when the Texas slots would double move by Trevon Moehrig like this.

Texas built a 17-10 lead and then Patterson adjusted, moving to straight man coverage and shading safety help to Devin Duvernay. From there things came apart with Ehlinger throwing two interceptions (from that point) and Orlando’s otherwise solidly positioned defense re-enacting the charge of the light brigade in the game’s crucial moments.

There are now two proven ways to get after TCU’s defense barring a major offseason adjustment by Patterson. One way is with regular vertical shots against his secondary. Patterson’s 4-2-5 was designed to allow him to use speed and detached units to swarm the run game. He prefers to leave one or both cornerbacks on islands down the sideline. Gladney is gone now though and while highly touted this offseason, field safety Trevon Moehrig doesn’t hold up well to being isolated down the field in the passing game. The new young cornerbacks for TCU should be tested regularly and Moehrig as well if the Frogs leave him exposed in space against someone like Jake Smith.

The other way is with spread-option run schemes. Both Oklahoma schools ran wild on the Frogs in 2019 because TCU would try to contain quarterback keepers with their defensive ends, leaving their sub-220 pound linebackers to hold up in the interior gaps. The offensive tackles and tight ends, freed from blocking the defensive ends, would bear down on them and blow open big holes.

If the Frogs try to adjust with their own take on the 3-down, flyover style of defense that they’ve flirted with a couple of times in recent seasons, they’ll be smaller and vulnerable to Texas’ normal downhill zone schemes (assuming improved tight end play). There’s a chance that despite a shortened offseason that Patterson and his reworked staff will be able to organize a very young team into an athletic and explosive unit on both sides of the ball but it’s more likely that they’ll continue to be mired in mediocrity for at least another season.

Iowa State

The Cyclones are a different sort of team than the rest of the Big 12. Matt Campbell is ahead of the curve among Midwestern-based coaches in working out how to translate Midwestern football rosters into winning strategies in the spread era. The key is that they’ve worked out how to make the most of having big linebackers and tight ends.

Campbell’s 2019 offense found something in the run game down the stretch with freshman running back Breece Hall, but quarterback Brock “pump fake” Purdy ultimately lead the league with 475 passing attempts (454 for Ehlinger). What’s more, the Cyclones chucked the ball around regularly from 11, 12, and even 13 personnel packages. Charlie Kolar is the key to their big personnel, spread passing attack. He’s a 6-6, 250 pound redshirt junior tight end from Oklahoma that caught 51 balls for 697 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago. The Cyclones will also put another 6-6, 250 pound tight end named Chase Allen on the field regularly and move either of them all over the field. They’ll also mix in 6-7, 280 pound bludgeon Dylan Soehner, who has a pair of working hands and above average quickness. Honestly, I think he should have long ago been put to work solving their problems at offensive tackle but he’s useful as a tight end as well.

Their 2019 team was exceptional at running shallow cross plays and throwing to whichever of Kolar or slot receiver Deshaunte Jones would break free and open over the middle. In 2020 that scheme will feature the even more explosive Tarique Milton in the slot in place of the departing Jones while asking JUCO transfer Xavier Hutchinson to run adjustable routes outside against man coverage when teams focus their safeties on eliminating the crossers.

The interesting quirk to their version of the 3-down “flyover” defense that everyone has stolen is that they’re playing it as a true 3-3-5 with a real linebacker in the nickel position. That player for them is 6-3, 240 pound Ohioan Mike Rose. Because he has a strong safety and the middle safety behind him in either direction, the Cyclones can ask Rose to devote his attention to patrolling the flats and eliminating perimeter screens and quick passes.

It’s a useful trick because so many teams, including and particularly Herman’s Texas, love to create two-man RPO games involving an inside run or a quick toss to an explosive slot. But with the 240 pound mobile linebacker out wide, it’s hard to block and make any headway on the screens, while the Cyclones would use one or both of the middle and boundary safeties to outnumber the run game.

Iowa State is a good dark horse team to win the entire conference. Their offensive skill talent is improving with Hutchinson and rising sophomore Sean Shaw (6-6, 212 pounds) emerging outside while the inside is loaded with water bug Milton and a collection of big tight ends. Breece Hall ran for 897 yards in eight starts as a freshman and made their run game and passing game better. Then there’s pump fake Purdy, who’s as good a quarterback as you’ll find in the Big 12. On defense they return seven starters and get some of their better players like defensive end Jaquan Bailey and middle safety Greg Eisworth back healthy after injury-hampered 2019 campaigns.

The only real question is the offensive line. They were only decent here in 2019 and graduated four starters. Campbell’s recruiting and development here will be put to the test with multiple redshirted new starters from his own recruiting classes getting plugged in across the line. If Texas’ defensive line can give them fits in the run game and rushing the passer they could edge out the Cyclones.

At Oklahoma State

This is the most talented Oklahoma State team I’ve seen under Mike Gundy since the 2011 team that won the Big 12 championship. That squad had the strong-armed, elder statesman Brandon Weeden throwing to Justin Blackmon or handing off to Joseph Randle behind a strong line developed by Joe Wickline. The defense was quite good thanks to pass-rusher Jamie Blatnick (eight sacks), tackle Nigel Nicholas, and future first round cornerback Justin Gilbert (five interceptions, 10 pass break-ups). They haven’t had anything quite like it on both sides of the ball, until now.

The 2020 Cowboys somehow managed to convince Chuba Hubbard and Tylan Wallace, both of whom are probably the best at their position in the conference, to come back for their senior seasons. Spencer Sanders is perhaps the most physically gifted quarterback in the league and will now enter year two as a starter. The line defending him returns both starting tackles and adds former All-B12 guard Josh Sills as a grad transfer from West Virginia. Overall, it’s a loaded offense.

The defense though is the distinguishing factor for this team. We’ve seen OSU field lots of great offenses over the last decade but few great defenses. Linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez and Amen Ogbongbemiga each had 100 tackles last year and are models for what modern Big 12 linebackers should look like. Rodriguez is an ultra-quick converted safety who makes the Cowboys difficult to attack in the passing game. Ogbongbemiga is an above average athlete as well but he translates that into creating negative plays with the blitz and had 15.5 tackles for loss and five sacks.

Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles decided to borrow from Iowa State’s defense and will play three deep safeties before the snap that then move around into different alignments. He also moves his “leo” weakside end/linebacker hybrid to different positions before the snap, kinda like Will Muschamp did with Sergio Kindle back in 2009. He usually blitzes to create a 4-down front but he’ll do it off the edge or inside. By the end of the year they’d settled on 6-3, 230 pound freshman Trace Ford for this role and he’s a more explosive athlete than Oklahoma State has tended to have in recent seasons.

Ehlinger worked it all out in 2019 and took them apart with a few key throws and drives, but the Cowboys will have a stouter and more disruptive defensive line in 2020 and return most everyone from the defensive backfield. The main challenge will be for Ehlinger and the offensive line to pick up and block Ford and Ogbongbemiga and avoid Rodriguez darting to pick off hot routes.

The biggest threat from Oklahoma State is managing all of their threats on offense. Any given play could feature strong-armed Sanders flipping a deep out to Tylan Wallace against an isolated cornerback or running a zone-option scheme with Chuba Hubbard. Any of those options are potential home-runs for the ‘Pokes, you can’t afford to leave any of them with space in which to work. Texas’ solution in 2019 was the following set-up:

Most of the secondary would close pretty hard on OSU’s zone running game, including the cornerback on Sanders if he saw the Cowboys running option rather than throwing. Caden Sterns lined up directly over Wallace (until he left the game with injury) and ensured that he couldn’t get behind the defense working off play-action.

A solution in 2020 could be more difficult because of the inevitably increasing skill of Spencer Sanders combined with the inevitably increasing capacity of the Oklahoma State offense to make the most of Wallace and Hubbard. In this game as much as most any other, the right approach for Texas will be to bracket everything deep with the safeties and match routes underneath with the linebackers, forcing the Cowboys to make consistent gains in the run game and finish drives with touchdowns in the red zone. As sturdy as the Cowboys look overall, they still aren’t immune up front to getting whipped from time to time by D-linemen of the caliber of Keondre Coburn or Joseph Ossai. You can’t stop a unit this talented, only contain them to field goals or hope to kill drives with turnovers.

Getting through this final stretch in position to play for a Big 12 championship, perhaps in a rematch against one of these teams, could hinge on Longhorn D-line play. That’s where Texas has real advantages against their opponents and in colder weather games played in November and December that’s where those guys can thrive. Texas needs to be in great form throwing the ball by this point, picking up strength in the trenches on both sides, and forcing teams to contend with the Longhorns’ superior size and athleticism in the box. If things instead hinge on winning with skill on the perimeter, Texas is in better shape than in previous seasons but Iowa State and Oklahoma State won’t be overawed or overmatched.

History major, football theorist.