Inside the Gameplan: Battle on the Brazos

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Somehow there’s still an outside shot of Texas making the Big 12 championship game. They don’t really deserve it, having blown the Iowa State and TCU games with ridiculous mistakes while also nearly blowing both of the Kansas games. The running theme to the season has been, “did Texas manage the game so that Sam Ehlinger was in position to win or so that the defense was in position to lose?”

In both victories, Texas ended the game with winning drives by Ehlinger that set up field goals with time expiring. In both defeats, Texas made mistakes that allowed opponents to hold the ball at the end and convert third downs against inevitable blitzes. It’s a good bet that winning in Waco will require that Texas has the ball last on offense, with Ehlinger driving to win the game.

Should Texas manage to do that and deal a defeat to the Bears, they’ll be in third place in the Big 12 but with a chance to be in second should Baylor collapse and lose their season finale on the road in Lawrence. That’s not particularly probable but it’s not insane either, teams regularly struggle with the Jayhawks in cold weather road games to end the year. If that happened they’d be tied for second place with Baylor while holding the tiebreaker.

The more likely benefit of winning this game would be putting a positive note on the end of the season, and keeping the Bears somewhat in check and mentally burdened by the knowledge that their breakthrough season didn’t include wins over either of the big dogs in the Big 12. I suppose a win would also improve the ol’ resume for bowl season, perhaps helping Texas avoid playing in the optics bowl against Shane Buechele and SMU.

Scouting the Bears

There was a time earlier in the season where Baylor looked like they might be the best team in the Big 12. Then LT Connor Galvin went down for four games and QB Charlie Brewer accumulated 16 sacks over those contests and the need to scramble saw him also carry the ball 45 times. That workload took its toll on the 206 pounder, particularly the West Virginia game where he was sacked seven times. You can see that reflected in his numbers over the last two games. Against the Horned Frogs Brewer averaged 4.8 ypa and then he hit 6.7 against the Sooners last weekend.

The Bears had a better gameplan for the Oklahoma defense and to the suspicious observer it was apparent that they designed it to help their dinged up QB. Brewer did his best work against the Sooners on two main play designs, QB draws and boundary twin passing sets akin to what Texas has leaned on the last few years. Charlie also perfectly led Denzel Mims on a RPO fade for a score from just outside the red zone, again throwing to the boundary. Brewer was sharp against Oklahoma throwing flag routes and outs to the boundary, until late in the game when the Sooners realized that’s where he was going to be living and Nik Bonnito dropped under an out for the game-winning interception.

Anything beyond 30-40 yards is pretty iffy for Brewer right now, particularly if he can’t step into the throw, which points to a rather obvious and familiar strategy for the Todd Orlando Longhorn defense. Other health issues for the Bears include Denzel Mims’ frequent self-pulls from the Oklahoma game for some nagging issue. Baylor has a lot of speed at WR even if Mims isn’t a full go, particularly up and coming stars Tyquan Thornton and Josh Fleeks, but Mims is their best target. One of their nastiest plays is this formation and route combination that’s designed to stretch out coverages with speed while trying to keep targets within range of Brewer’s arm:

They’re trying to open up the middle of the field for the post route by the Y receiver. The dig by H is intended to pull in a safety and open that lane up. If opponents play with a deep safety in the middle, that drag route by the Z receiver can often get open, particularly if it’s a blitz.

The Baylor run game is similar to the Texas run game. Last year they adopted more of a tight zone approach while embracing the modern RPO game. They also have a few other concepts and can get into 12 personnel and run QB power at the edge if you can’t line up properly and handle their big, physical TEs. The Bears don’t have a great run game right now and do most of their damage with Brewer on draws, scrambles, and short-yardage power running a la the 2017 Longhorns with Sam Ehlinger. If Brewer isn’t connecting with their dangerous receivers down the field, it’s an offense that struggles to find ways to move the ball in confined spaces because they can’t overpower teams at the line.

The Baylor defense doesn’t have the same sort of limitations. Matt Rhule was an innovator with dime defenses back at Temple and deployed a 4-2-5 nickel and 3-2-6 dime against Tom Herman in the 2015 AAC Championship game.

The 3-2-6 is now their full time base defense and they’ve added a lot of Iowa State’s inverted Tampa 2 dimensions while continuing to mix in cover 1 and some zone blitzes. They’ve been more of a cover 1 team of late, but that might be a consequence of playing dangerous running QBs like Max Duggan and Jalen Hurts. The single high coverages are Rhule’s comfort zone and Cover 1 is a good coverage against Texas when Collin Johnson isn’t out there Mossing cornerbacks in 1-on-1s so we may continue to see it and the fire zone blitzes that accompany that scheme.

Here’s a typical way the Bears line up before the snap:

The free safety Chris Miller is a big hitter with some targeting ejections on his record. They tend to use him as the middle safety in the inverted Tampa 2 schemes that helps clean up against the run. Strong safety Grayland Arnold is a converted cornerback that is basically a nickel corner on slot receivers, he has four picks this year in that role. “Robber” safety Henry Black mans the boundary and like everyone else on this defense he will run and hit you. None of them are particularly big, all going about 5-foot-11/190 pounds or so.

The linebackers are pretty solid. The sam is former Kris Boyd Gilmer teammate Blake Lynch and he’s a pretty versatile athlete. Middle linebacker Terrel Bernard was inserted when Clay Johnston got hurt and he’s been exceptional. Both he and Jordan Williams go about 6-foot-0/220 pounds and they have the lateral quickness and short, stocky builds that tend to profile the league’s best linebackers.

The defensive line is the real key to this defense. DE James Lynch is the best defensive player in the conference and possibly one of the best players in this league. He’s a hulking 6-foot-3/290 pounds or so and can clog an interior gap with his strength and active hands or line up like a true DE and bully his way past a tackle to the QB. Nose tackle Bravvion Roy is also excellent, he’s 6-foot-1/330 pounds and is very similar in style and ability to Texas’ Keondre Coburn. The Bears can line up in a 3-down, drop eight, and still get pretty good pressure on QBs.

How to win in Waco

One of the more bizarre dimensions to the Iowa State debacle was that one side of the ball played with a very clear identity and the other did not, and the side with a clear identity was the defense. The Longhorns have established what their base defense is this season and where they’re at their best, it’s with the single-high fire zone blitz. Now that the secondary is healthy and Texas’ young cornerbacks have experienced the baptism by fire that you get in this league, they can get by playing single-high man and alternating between bringing four and dropping two linebackers between the hash marks or bringing five and dropping a sole backer.

Everyone had a clear role against the Cyclones. For the third year in a row Orlando has hit his stride late in the season after misfiring for much of the schedule with different players not optimized into their best fit roles. Anthony Cook, Jalen Green, and D’Shawn Jamison are all three playing pretty good ball now at corner. Against the Cyclones, Texas tended to play Caden Sterns and Chris Brown as the seam defenders matching inside receivers, with Brandon Jones typically playing in zone over the top.

Juwan Mitchell, Joseph Ossai, BJ Foster, DeMarvion Overshown, and Jeffrey McCulloch are all basically linebackers in this scheme. On a given snap they’re almost always either blitzing or playing the hook zone or middle hole drops in the box. Texas plays three of them at a time, typically Mitchell, Ossai, and then one of the other three pending opposing personnel and who’s feeling the most fit. None of them are particularly great either in coverage or playing the run when it’s their turn to drop rather than blitz, but all of them run well and play hard and the stabilized secondary behind them offers Texas a little more margin for error.

Defending the Bears for this group is imminently manageable, especially given Brewer’s struggles to hit targets down the field or do much of anything if he can’t step into throws and then Baylor’s constantly shuffling lineup of OL.

Texas’ normal assortment of blitzes should do the trick with the deep safety prioritizing midpointing the slot and the deep safety and ignoring the outside receiver beyond the hash mark.

Jones or Sterns, whomever is playing deep, should be just inside the boundary hash every snap and focusing on deep routes that break in from the far hash and anything deep down the boundary sideline. They shouldn’t worry about anything vertical up the wide hash or outside of it until the OL and Brewer demonstrate that they can hit it. In this concept he’d been staying deep over the post route while trusting the strong safety to prevent the dig from breaking open inside.

The offense flashed signs of an identity against the Cyclones, mostly as a consequence of sheer desperation in the second half but also partly because their late TD before the half reminded the staff that they have an elite talent at the QB position.

The 2018 Longhorns did their best work in 11 personnel both because this staff has good ideas on how to use 11 personnel and also because TE/FB Andrew Beck was pretty dang solid in the box. The 2019 Longhorns haven’t had power and tight zone working as effectively and thus have been missing the starting point for their standard down offense. In 2018 Ehlinger could always check a given play into a standard tight zone run and at least pick up a solid gain of 3-5 yards, or he could check into tight zone play-action if he saw an opportunity to hit something over the top. The added RPOs in 2019 have made their two-back run game a little more explosive but the floor is lower without the assurance of consistent gains from the base run. Texas’ two main RBs ran the ball 26 times for 150 yards against Iowa State a year ago, this time they got 14 carries for 27 yards.

However, these Longhorns are pretty hard to handle in the spread passing game, particularly when in 10 personnel. Malcolm Epps isn’t an amazing receiver by any stretch of the imagination, not yet at least, but he’s solid enough and has a big enough route tree to hold some defensive attention while moving around. Brennan Eagles and Devin Duvernay are the real deal and they become difficult to handle when the other two wideouts and the RB are all targets that have to be accounted for. A big part of Texas’ comeback against Iowa State was this concept:

Normally teams would run this from a four receiver or even three receiver set, the idea is that the Y receiver’s hunt route up the seam holds defenders and frees up the curl-flat combination outside. Texas has hit the curl route on this multiple times, including the long completion that setup the final TD against TCU before Max Duggan’s magical game-winning drive. Devin Duvernay’s route is a sort of option route that normally would go to the RB on this concept, instructed to find space in the boundary after releasing from protection. Against the Cyclones Texas used it as an inverted Tampa 2 beater from the empty formation, setting up Duvernay to hunt for space matched up on a linebacker.

Texas also burned the Cyclones for their zone blitzes and man coverages with mesh, which they seem to have mastered over the course of this season and are running in a few ways from multiple formations.

If that looks like a great big mess it’s because it is.

Texas sends the TE (Epps) deep on a clear out and the RB out on a flat route which pulls the defenders attached to them out of the box while bringing Brennan Eagles and Devin Duvernay on shallow crosses into the box, which brings with them the DBs and OLBs matched up on them outside. Amidst all the clutter and natural screens that occur, guys tend to break open and free. Texas hit Keaontay Ingram on this at least once and Duvernay multiple times against Iowa State, and Ehlinger hit them on the move allowing them to put their speed and 200+ pound bodies to work running through tacklers.

Against the Bears, Herman should send Ehlinger to the line of scrimmage every play with a single formation and a menu of two passing plays, such as these, and maybe one run and let him choose which to call at the line of scrimmage based on whether they’re getting man coverage or the drop eight zone.

When Texas can create chaos on offense with tempo and spread sets, they absolutely thrive. Ehlinger makes good decisions and accurate throws and he can also always scramble either for time or yardage. What’s more, handling this Texas offense when it involves lining up, rushing the passer, and then repeatedly tracking and tackling the 220-pound RBs, 210-pound Duvernay, and 225-pound Eagles and Ehlinger is exhausting. This Texas offense may not look particularly physical when they’re trying to run tight zone with iffy TE play in obvious situations but they can definitely look physical if they’re spreading the ball around and forcing DBs to chase and tackle this cast of skill players.

If Texas leans into this identity on the offensive side of the ball against Baylor it may be too little too late for the 2019 season but it could still bring about a nice win in Waco and perhaps some clarity on what this program should be aiming for in 2020.

History major, football theorist.