Gameplan: Understanding Herman’s failure in the Cotton Bowl

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There are a lot of questions and conversations about what is ahead for the Texas Longhorns. The season is in a very bad place after losses to TCU and Oklahoma, a near loss against cellar-dwelling Texas Tech, and looming road trips to Stillwater and Manhattan to play the teams at the top of the standings. Obviously if not for Sam Ehlinger’s heroics when allowed to play with spread spacing and tempo, Texas would have lost to Tech by some margin and been blown out by Oklahoma.

This team is playing pretty weak football.

Obviously, most people have accepted it and would like to simply move on. “What’s next? Will Tom Herman be fired? When will that happen? Who can we money-whip to come in and replace him? I thought we were going to be Goliath! What do you mean Goliath lost?”

It’s valuable to understand exactly what is going wrong to get a good sense of what can and should come next. So let’s revisit a few major themes in the Red River Shootout.

I thought I had a pretty good idea going into the Red River Shootout of who the 2020 Longhorns were as a team. The truth was more grim than I anticipated but the greater shock had to be for Tom Herman.

The Texas gameplan for winning the 2020 Red River Shootout paints a very different picture of what this team was in the eyes of Herman than how I saw things with a somewhat optimistic perspective. Some specifics:

Texas had just picked up a first down and hurried into this 1×3 formation to run the “touchdown play 2.0.” The play includes an often poorly blocked ‘now screen’ to the bottom where the three receivers are, standard zone-read in the box, and an adjustable route for the solo receiver field which can be a hitch against off coverage or in this case a fade against press-man. Oklahoma had obviously seen the touchdown play 2.0 on film and understood it would hit them at tempo, so they’d have to be well rehearsed beforehand on what defense to call and execute. Here’s how it looks on the chalkboard:

Let’s start with a crucial detail I didn’t quite capture in my GIF. The joker linebacker bailed outside to the ‘now screen’ late and the field corner initially showed press-man coverage on the X receiver outside. Texas picked up the joker’s movement, or at least their decision-maker Sam Ehlinger did, but the “press-man” cornerback waited until Ehlinger’s eyes looked away from the isolated X receiver to drop back into off coverage. Tarik Black was pretty much all on his lonesome out there because the nickel (Brendan Radley-Hiles) was tight and shallow to the line of scrimmage. The hitch was there for as big of a gain as Texas could manage with a timely throw and Tarik Black’s ability to break a tackle. Instead Texas chose one of the options Oklahoma wanted them to choose, the zone-read play.

Many will (and have) asked why Ehlinger didn’t pull the ball and keep it, but the will linebacker is in very good position to minimize any gain there and the joker and safeties are going to close on that confined space in an awful hurry. The “right” read is the give (if not the hitch, which is the actual right answer). Texas has five blockers for three defensive linemen, two linebackers (the will is a C-gap player), and then notoriously poor run defender Brendan Radley-Hiles. It’s really five-on-five, there’s no need to take any real account of Radley-Hiles here.

The problem is the nose-tackle stunt Texas failed to pick up and block. The 3-technique came over the top and Christian Jones couldn’t find him because he was trying to climb up to a linebacker, so he stuffs the play.

As I wrote in the preseason, inside zone-read isn’t a good play from a four-wide formation. Teams know how to set their front and run stunts to thwart the blocking or to force the quarterback to give the ball into an inside play with no cutback lane because the unblocked edge player can step inside to close it. The “touchdown play 2.0” is good insofar as it allows you to isolate the X receiver in a good 1-on-1 matchup and to catch the defense unprepared with tempo. The other options should really be window dressing, particularly given how poorly Texas has been blocking the screen option.

Texas failed both in isolating the X receiver or in catching OU unprepared with tempo. The Mike Stoops era is over. Consequently, an opportunity to turn a promising drive into a rout of the defense instead became second-and-10. On the next play they got Josh Moore in a dig-post combination against Woodi Washington and Ehlinger threw a bad ball incomplete.

On the occasions where their gameplan worked and they found 1-on-1 matchups between their outside receivers and the Sooner cornerbacks, they came up empty. Next came third-and-10, where the jack flew by Christian Jones for a sack. If DeMarvion Overshown hadn’t picked off a pass on the ensuing Oklahoma drive this game almost had an early ending with how this drive fizzled.

My point with all of this is to demonstrate the degree to which Texas’ gameplan played into the strengths of Oklahoma under Alex Grinch in a rivalry game.

The holes in Texas’ gameplan should not have been surprising to the staff.

The structure of the Alex Grinch defense is to use movement and stunts to tie up the run game and pressure the quarterback, play 1-on-1 on the perimeter, and position the safeties to be able keep things under control in the middle of the field. The linebackers are a part of an occasionally amorphous front, often playing as aggressors and almost always playing downhill. The scheme is similar to Chris Ash’s own approach but with an emphasis on stunts and movement up front rather than massive, powerful D-linemen.

Grinch wants you to try and blend the run game with play-action passing. Against the run they’ll use run stunts, speedy personnel, and numbers to choke out your run game and inflict negative plays. Against the pass they’ll disguise, grab, and hold on the back end to limit the efficiency of 1-on-1 shots while using movement and athletes up front to break down your protections. They’re designed to defend the spread run game and play-action. Unless those are your calling cards as an offense (they aren’t) you play into their hands by attacking them in such a fashion.

In a big game like this, they’ll have all your tempo plays and overall formations scouted and well-drilled in the minds of their players. You are going to face very diminishing returns if you simply try to out-execute Oklahoma with your base schemes in the Red River Shootout. This has always been true. They’ve been scouting and preparing for this game like their lives depended on it. Every year.

Your greatest rival and enemy can be trusted above most to tell you who you really are.

As it happens, three of the Sooners’ last four games revealed a different approach you can take to attacking their defense. This alternative strategy involves actually attacking their defense, spreading them out beyond what their personnel are designed to match up against and making their linebackers cover in space. Neither Kenneth Murray nor their new cast at linebacker shine when asked to find and match skill players with great change of direction and speed out in space while managing the quarterback scramble.

As it happens, Texas has a lot of players who thrive on quick routes changing direction against linebackers. It’s one of the places on offense where Texas is truly strong. If anything they have too many quick-moving athletes best utilized in the slot. It’s a five-slot offense with a number of “outside receivers,” traditional slots, and tight ends that aren’t particularly good at anything except working from the slot.

Tom Herman looked at his team which struggles to establish the run without tempo, struggles to win outside 1-on-1, has iffy and inexperienced pass protectors, and then an ultra experienced, mobile quarterback surrounded by excellent inside receivers and thought the way to win a must-win game was to maximize the former traits and minimize the strong suits.

The essence of strategy is to play to your strengths while trying to force your opponent to come to grips with their weaknesses. Tom Herman completely played himself in this game. He was a friend to Oklahoma with this gameplan. The sort of friend that pats you on the back and says “you’re okay” when the truth is you need a kick in the pants. Fortunately for the Sooners, they have some more dependable enemies to help reveal how to shore up their team.

The truth should now be clear for Texas. This isn’t a team that can blend the run game and play-action passing outside to beat opponents. That’s never been this team’s strong suit with Sam Ehlinger behind the helm or any of these offensive lines. Ehlinger’s greatest strength has always been making quick decisions from spread passing concepts, improvising when things break down, protecting the football, and adding a power run dimension in key situations. The 2018 team depended on throwing option routes to Lil’Jordan Humphrey matched on linebackers and winning 1-on-1 with Collin Johnson. In 2019 they had Devin Duvernay versus linebackers and occasionally a run game when Ehlinger could bolster it with pass options to the senior slot.

As I’ve noted for years now, Ehlinger’s most deadly deployment would be in the Air Raid which “builds the entire plane” out of what he and this roster do best. Throwing quick routes on compromised defenses from spread formations.

Just look how easy this pick-up was for Texas:

This should have been the entire gameplan.

It’s too late now. Even if Texas moves in this direction for the rest of the season they’ve wasted a lot of time, a lot of practices and meetings, fan/alumni good will, and team morale on doing things the Tom Herman way. Chances they move fully in this direction are low anyways. Ehlinger and his receivers doing their best work in spread passing concepts has been an abundantly clear truth for the entire duration of Herman’s career and he hasn’t adapted.

There was once another team that preferred a power-spread approach up at another large land-grant school, pretty far northeast from Austin. We’ll call them the tree nuts. The tree nuts were coached by someone you may have heard of but his name is often in the news and to name him explicitly would be distracting, so we’ll just call him Metro Weber.

Anyways, Weber and the tree nuts had this annual problem in which their rival from the next state over was using a lot of man coverage and run stunts to wreck their run game and reduce the efficiency of their play-action attack. The tree nuts had a four-year starter at quarterback who could pick up tough yards in the run game and make smart decisions but his struggles beating man coverage down the field with a poorly coached wide receiver corps were even greater than Texas’ issues.

So Weber hired a new offensive coach who introduced crossing patterns –mesh in particular but also a dozen variations off mesh — all of which turned their rivals’ run-blitzing linebackers into liabilities in space as they tried to pick up and match fast-moving slot receivers running free off rubs and pivot routes. Weber and the tree nuts beat their rival 31-20 with this new approach in year one and then 62-39 in the next season. Metro Weber had to leave his post for complicated reasons shortly after but the new offensive coach took over and kept pouring it on 56-37 the next season.

The Longhorns should learn from this Metro Weber figure and use more spread sets and tempo from here on out. Oklahoma is building their defense to stop RPO spread/play-action schemes and they’re only going to get better at it, likely faster than Herman could improve the Texas power-spread approach. The Longhorns need to adapt quickly to make the most of this season and to have any chance if by some miracle (i.e. Ehlinger heroics) they managed to face the Sooners again in the Big 12 title game.

This season was always going to come down to the play of the offense and whether or not Mike Yurcich could help Texas make the most of having a senior Sam Ehlinger at quarterback. Tom Herman had a chance to drastically evolve the approach by hiring Graham Harrell in the offseason and instead decided to upgrade the existing RPO spread/play-action approach.

To make this approach work, particularly if you tracked how Yurcich’s offenses ran in the past, the key was going to be getting great play at outside receiver. This strategy has not played to the strengths of the Texas roster. The attempt to bolster the two-back spread run game, which wasn’t really broken, with outside zone schemes has done virtually nothing to help this team save for making their run game a little more explosive IF they catch opponents tired and struggling to line up against tempo.

The offensive line’s existing problems picking up stunts has not been shored up by another year of Herb Hand’s coaching, nor moving senior tackles Derek Kerstetter and Denzel Okafor inside to center and right guard. If anything, moving Kerstetter has reduced the effectiveness of Texas’ pass protection. The main reason the team even went 5-4 in conference play last season was their ability to pick up third downs from five-wide sets with five-man pass protection.

The Red River Shootout made clear Tom Herman’s ability to self scout his own team and strategize with his hires and oversight is severely lacking. He was hired as an offensive coach and mind who made clear to Texas fans if the offense struggled, he was the one to blame. It’s year four now and the mistakes and failures are piling up. Texas needs offensive direction from a coach with clearer vision. Herman has already wasted the Sam Ehlinger era, which is a monumental failure given that it’s lasted four years. He should not be allowed to waste any others.

Cover photo by Josh Gateley, provided by OU Athletics

History major, football theorist.