Inside the Gameplan: K-State Effect

Malik Jefferson. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Malik Jefferson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

In their last 10 games against Kansas State, the Texas Longhorns are 3-7 with two of those wins coming in 2002 and 2003 and the last one coming in the bizarro 2013 campaign when Case McCoy somehow positioned the team to be mathematically eligible for the Big 12 crown heading into the season finale against Baylor.

Some of those Wildcat victories came as a result of good fortune for K-State, such as Colt McCoy getting knocked out of the game on the first drive in 2006, or David Ash missing the 2012 game and getting replaced by Case McCoy. But most of them were simply an instance of Bill Snyder carefully and capably exploiting Texas teams that weren’t up for the rigorous self-examination that is taking on a Kansas State team.

When you play Kansas State they’re going to tell you who you really are. They told many of Mack’s teams that they were talent-driven posers who didn’t really understand the game. Last year they told Charlie Strong that they were still something close to that in addition to being helpless on offense.

Kansas State is the ultimate test in whether or not a team knows how to grind out wins with consistency or whether they are getting by on talent or luck, they game plan their opponents very carefully and thoroughly and will pound your every weakness while waiting to pounce on the mistakes you’ll inevitably make.

Fortunately and unlike many past seasons when Texas limped into this contest, they’re coming up on the schedule at the perfect time for this Longhorn team. The Wildcats are beat up physically (missing several defensive starters and their fall camp starting QB) and emotionally (lost a heart-breaker to TCU at home and then got destroyed by those front-running Sooners).

You better believe that the Wildcats, ever the older and more mature team, will circle the wagons and come into Austin with focus and a great game plan. However, they have some team deficiencies that Texas should be able to exploit.

Attacking the K-State defense

The Wildcats are the ultimate “bend don’t break” defense with a conservative 4-2-5 scheme that is designed to force opponents to beat off-man coverage outside the hash marks (much like Texas but with lesser athletes and much less going on in the middle) and move the ball down the field on stout, gap-control fronts.

When they have safeties that can close and tackle, or corners that can break on routes and pick them off, they become pretty nasty. That looked like it might be the case this year with both corners and star safety Dante Barnett returning but all three have sustained injuries and are each questionable or out for this game. Some of their backups that look like they’ll be very strong in the future, like safety Kaleb Prewett or corner Duke Shelley, are also questionable for this game. Yikes.

Somehow the Wildcats always have one of the stoutest run-defenses in the league despite the limitations of their recruiting pool, and this is quietly one of the better front 6’s in the entire league. The linebackers are Elijah Lee, a part-time pass-rusher who plays in space but is also questionable for Saturday, and true inside linebacker Will Davis who was a star at Southlake Carroll and is very good at knowing where to be and sticking his nose in the scrum.

In the trenches they have a nice tackle tandem with converted wrestling champ Will Geary manning the nose-tackle spot and 3-year starter Travis Britz as the 3-tech. These two can get pressure if coverage forces the QB to hold the ball and are difficult to move up front. The ends are also pretty solid both against the run and the pass and would likely have more sacks if opposing QBs didn’t have so many opportunities to get the ball out quick against the Wildcats’ soft zone coverages.

The extent of the injuries the Wildcats have sustained this year makes it hard not to be very optimistic about Texas’ chances of smashing them on Saturday. The Wildcats’ defensive scheme is designed to absorb punches and wait for mistakes, but young and inexperienced players struggle to get their gloves up and take a pounding without getting knocked out.

K-State was already taking knockout punches before the most recent injuries, so they might not be able to survive more than a few rounds with a red-hot Jerrod Heard in front of a home crowd.

Jerrod Heard. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Jerrod Heard. (Will Gallagher/IT)

However let me advise caution for the following reason; the Wildcats know how to defend a QB run-game and their coverages are designed to force you to beat them with execution and not home-run balls. What’s more, Texas isn’t going to want to take them on by having Heard run the ball 20x unless they absolutely have to do so.

That means that the likely focus of the Texas offense, running the ball with D’Onta Foreman and throwing deep to John Burt, are still areas where KSU has shown competence on defense. Texas could probably blow them away with a game plan similar to what we saw in the Red River Shootout, but if the Longhorns are looking to expand the offense with some new wrinkles and less QB run-game, that could make this more difficult.

This is a game where you’d hope to see that Texas has some skill players that can produce explosive plays besides Heard. If Daje Johnson is healthy – and he should – he could be very useful in this game towards that end.

Here’s a RB counter/run-pass option play that Texas showed against OU and could be more of a focus as Texas looks to find ways to leverage Burt’s vertical explosiveness and the OL’s aptitude for running gap schemes to open holes for the run game without risking Heard:

RB counter-hitch

The key here is just the free safety. Does he play deep over the top to help the corner? Then run the dang ball on a six-man front with Williams, Bluiett, and Vahe leading the way. Does he drop closer to the action to control the run game? Throw outside to John Burt, Lorenzo Joe, or Armanti Foreman working in isolation against their cornerback.

On the other side of the formation, Texas can run a simple bubble screen in case K-State tries to get cute and bring an edge blitz.

If the Texas staff wants to experiment with the empty formation and have Heard practice making quick reads and throws to receivers on the run, this would be a good game to test drive some new concepts in that package.

Stuffing the Wildcat offense

Kansas State has a fundamental problem on offense and one that is currently driving their fan base crazy, although many of them have redirected the underlying frustration towards irrelevant factors.

That problem is that they lack the QB to make their system work. Heading into the season Jesse Ertz was almost certainly going to be the man and Bill Snyder was building what I called the “kitchen sink offense” around his diverse talents and competencies.

Then Ertz went down in the first game of the season, freshman QB Alex Delton was injured, JUCO transfer Jonathan Banks hadn’t learned the playbook yet (and has been sick), and KSU was left with former walk-on Joe Hubener to run the show.

Malik Jefferson. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Malik Jefferson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

The KSU offense consists of a veteran OL that is good at many things but isn’t great at anything (although the left side is strong), a deep WR corps that knows how to get open but lacks a single terrifying threat, and a stable of strong RBs that are good in the system but lack breakaway speed or power. To be a good offense, they have to be able to execute multiple parts of their offense at a high level because their talent level doesn’t afford them any major advantages to build around.

But Hubener is not able to execute multiple parts of their offense at a high level because he’s frankly quite limited as a passer, mostly due to lack of accuracy. He’s solid as a runner, but he’s more of the “tough and savvy” type then a guy that can generate explosive plays like Heard.

Imagine the Collin Klein offense with a smaller QB and no play-action threat and you’re just about there.

Texas could approach this offense in a variety of ways. One option would be to line up in conservative schemes and expect to shut down the Wildcats by virtue of superior talent, but I hope to see Texas try a different track.

The future of this team is clearly centered on the 3-3-5 with Malik Jefferson and Naashon Hughes playing dual-hybrid positions in a look I’m going to call “the fox and the hound” with a classic inside linebacker lined up between them. The way the “fox and the hound” package is best deployed is with lots of five-man blitzes that drop a safety into the box, matches up opposing WRs with match-up man coverage, and gets 1-on-1 match-ups for the DL.

The Wildcats’ like to protect their OL with double teams at the point of attack and they prioritize controlling DL and preventing penetration over and above reaching linebackers at the second level to help generate more explosive plays in the running game.

If Texas attacks them +1 run blitzes on early downs, they can dictate terms and force the Wildcats to narrow their run schemes or risk giving up negative plays from Hassan Ridgeway or Poona Ford blowing through a former walk-on OL. The best response to this attack would be to throw the ball, but we’ve covered why the Wildcats aren’t efficient doing so.

Texas mixed in a lot of +1 blitzes last year and was able to limit the K-State offense and repeatedly get them in 3rd down…where they would subsequently take down the Longhorns with good pass concepts and Waters’ scrambling. The difference this year is that the Wildcats are much less effective converting third downs without Jake Waters, Tyler Lockett, and Curry Sexton.

Here’s the sort of QB running plays that K-State will try to rely on to move the chains and turn this into a low-scoring slugfest:

K-State QB power vs Over3FS

Whenever they get JUCO Jonathan Banks or freshman Alex Delton into this offense running schemes like that, they’re going to be terrifying. In the meantime they can still be pretty efficient if you fail to get them behind the chains.

An interesting test for this game would be whether DeShon Elliott is ready to go as a box safety in a simple, man-blitz heavy game plan. The Wildcat ball-carriers are non-explosive enough that it’d be a good game for him to get his feet wet and Texas could pair him with whichever of Dylan Haines or Jason Hall they trust more to reliably clean up anything that gets past the second line of defense.

What is Strong’s risk-tolerance like?

On paper, Texas has Kansas State beat if this game is a matter of which offense scores more points with both QBs carrying the ball 15-20 times. However, you wonder if the Horns wants to play the game that way.

On the other hand, Strong already knows from experience that Snyder’s Wildcats are going to play above their level and have a very detailed game plan to help make up the differences.

So the question becomes: is Strong willing to game plan without relying on Heard’s legs? Willing to instead mix in more spread passing concepts and trust D’Onta Foreman to lead the way on the ground? Does he continue the aggressive “fox and the hound” defensive identity and playing more young DBs? Is Strong willing to mix in all of these elements and continue to grow his team for the future or does he do what it takes to ensure beating the Wildcats?

Given what we’ve seen from Strong so far, I’m betting he takes some chances without regret and trusts that his young team is going to play their best if they play aggressive.

History major, football theorist.