Inside the Gameplan: Red River Shootout

Texas vs OU. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Texas vs OU. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Every college football coaching job has at least one unforgivable sin, a failure that simply can’t be tolerated and will get a coach onto the hot seat in a real hurry. Texas actually has a few, but one of them is unquestionably to repeatedly fail to punish the Oklahoma Sooners for their general insolence.

Coming out flat against TCU after consecutive weeks of blowing close games that should have been won was a very poor reflection on Strong and the state of his program. Doing the same this coming Saturday in the Red River Shootout would leave a permanent stain.

But now the question becomes; how can Texas find a way to take on an Oklahoma team ranked 10th in the AP poll and 2nd in the S&P system? The only upside here is that UT has gone into the last two Red River Shootouts looking like they were about to get blown away and instead physically imposed its will on the game and emerged with a blowout victory of its own (2013) and a narrow defeat in which its own mistakes cost them the victory (2014).

Conventional wisdom would say that Texas is going to get blown away in 2015, but here’s how they might just have a shot.

Stopping Oklahoma

The 2015 Sooners are keyed by their offense, which has been completely overhauled from being a Pistol-I formation team geared around Samaje Perine to now becoming a pass-first Air Raid led by Baker Mayfield.

Mayfield has been disturbingly brilliant thus far in 2015, with 135 passes for 1382 yards at 10.24 yards per attempt, 13 touchdowns, and only three interceptions. No one is going to say anything until they win some more Big 12 games but he’s actually on a Heisman pace right now statistically. Naturally, he has a story about how he wanted to play for Texas but couldn’t even garner their interest in him walking-on there.

His play will remind you of other 6-foot, 200-pound types that used to dominate this league in the latter half of the previous decade like Chase Daniel, Todd Reesing, and Colt McCoy. He’s very mobile in the backfield and has proven to be a genius at evading the pass rush but he runs primarily to buy time. Once he leaves his backfield where the angles and threat of the pass make him a nightmare, opponents can usually catch him and bring him down without too much difficulty.

He has a pretty strong arm and really knows this system and where his options are, which is what makes them so difficult to stop right now. His overall ball security is much improved from his freshman year at Tech where he was a fumble machine.

His options in the passing game are very good and have been underrated due to the fact that none but Sterling Shephard were particularly productive when Trevor Knight was staring people down in 2014. Shephard is the big gun and they move him around the field to find matchups for him and give him chances to beat defenses over the top with his speed. JUCO transfer Dede Westbrook has been good but seems somewhat miscast playing on the outside at 160.

Durron Neal is a frequent target of Mayfield on comeback routes when he’s looking to get the ball out on the move, RB Joe Mixon is a danger, and 6-foot-6 Mark Andrews is someone to keep an eye out for particularly in the red zone.

New OC Lincoln Riley had a dream to unleash Perine in the middle of the field with a new series of gap running schemes run from spread sets that would feature trap plays and counter runs, but OU proved very poor at opening holes that way.

Now they’ve moved 6-foot-8, 330-pound tackle Derek Farniok to guard and are running more zone again, where they seem much more comfortable. Their pass protection is also improving although it’s not been great yet due to playing future star Orlando Brown (6-foot-8, 342-pound redshirt freshman) at left tackle. Perine is still a great back, and Mixon is very dangerous, but this run game shouldn’t terrify anyone.

A game like this, which is as close to a must-win as a contest with a far superior foe can be, demands an aggressive strategy from the Texas coaches. The time has come for them to mimic the strategy that allowed UT to get the upset in 2013 and go dime.

Here’s what it should look like:

Texas 3-2-6 vs OU

Ridgeway needs to play at the nose, Oklahoma’s center Ty Darlington is a potential weak spot at 6-foot-3, 286 and Texas could bring plenty of different pressures from this package to help get Ridgeway some 1-on-1 match-ups with Darlington on passing downs.

I think much of the criticism of how UT’s had Jinkens covering Turpin was overblown, in part because that really only happened once and he should have had safety help after he got beat. That said, there’s no reason to play Jinkens in this game unless OU puts threatening run game personnel on the field and even then it’d be a questionable move.

One of the great things about being Texas is that you have enough big, versatile athletes at DB to allow you to play some dime personnel without getting murdered by the run game or lack of pressure.

I’m guessing Duke Thomas would be the dime back that’d play closer to the action while Bonney took the field as the nickel. Hall is another option at dime if the staff feels that there’s a young safety worth putting on the field but I think Duke is the better bet. Obviously this is a time to watch for DeShon Elliott getting a shot.

From this package, Texas could play a theoretically impenetrable (vs the pass) cover 2, drop a safety down at times, and play a very wide variety of blitzes primarily involving Malik Jefferson and Naashon Hughes without worrying about whether Jinkens can handle cleaning things up behind them.

Oklahoma often aligns Dede Westbrook to the field side where he’s not likely to draw press coverage because the corner doesn’t have safety help and they do this because at 168 pounds, he struggles to get off the line against a good jam. Texas should press Westbrook even if they can’t bring a safety and see what happens.

For this game they could play Holton Hill on the right and Kris Boyd on the left where he would more frequently be involved against the run with a safety helping over the top. Texas will probably want to play lots of cover 2 again and sell out to stop Mayfield in the passing game while betting that LB stunts and run blitzes can keep Perine and the run game from doing enough damage to force them into the 4-2 or 3-3 defense.

Lincoln Riley is pretty clever with the Sooner passing game and has proven adept at getting his WRs in space against inferior coverage defenders. Here’s the type of concept he’s been running so far this year:

OU sluggo vs TX

At first it looks like a y-stick/slant-flat combo similar to what everyone runs but instead Riley will mix it up with a deep out from one of the slots and a sluggo (fake slant and go) route on the backside. However, if you blitz Malik off the edge, drop Hughes over the RB and Duke over the slot, then play the safeties over the top, you have a pretty tough shell for OU’s passing schemes to crack.

Texas is currently ranked 58th in S&P passing defense not having attempted to play dime. The best way to survive this game is to get as many athletes on the field as possible and reduce the efficiency for all of OU’s potential coverage matchups. Perhaps that results in Perine going off, but at least you can keep the score down that way and give Jerrod Heard and the offense a chance.

12-0 would be better for this program right now than 65-13.

Scoring on Oklahoma

First let’s talk about what TCU did to stuff the Texas offense, besides forego a pass-rush and keep spies in the middle to corral Heard’s scrambling.

They played to stop the run, deploying the strong and weak safeties as aggressive overhang defenders as I’ve been saying that opponents would do against Heard for the better part of the last few months. But they’d also blitz whichever DB was lined up to the opposite side of the Texas RB.

So, if the RB was lined up to field side, they’d often bring the boundary corner on a blitz off the edge. If the RB was lined up to the boundary, they’d bring the strong safety of the field edge. The Longhorns couldn’t protect it well and needed Heard to account for this strategy and make them pay but he struggled to do so.

Oklahoma has some field and boundary pressures of its own that they like to bring, but are much nastier than what TCU did.

Perhaps the most fearsome is their strong safety blitz off the field edge:

OU double edge blitz (2)

With the attention that the defense has to pay to Striker coming off the edge, the strong safety often comes totally free. They can also bring this blitz from the boundary with their other outside linebacker plus the boundary corner.

Texas needs a good answer for these blitzes or the game is already over.

The easiest way to punish blitzes and to give Heard some easy ways to produce points with quick reads and throws was with Daje Johnson, but Derrick Kindred has erased him, which means that Texas needs to turn to Army Foreman unless Marcus Johnson is ready to finally have his break through performance.

Oklahoma can be beat over the top but it’s a difficult task and it’s made even more difficult by the combination of the Sooners’ ability to get great pressure with their defense and Texas’ inability to pass protect.

Texas needs to find opportunities to take shots at OU’s corners with Burt, young Jordan Thomas has shown ability and Zach Sanchez is a wily veteran but neither are immune to getting beat by an athlete of Burt’s quality. They’ll have to set this up by establishing the run. This is a game where you don’t hesitate to run Heard 20x or more and you don’t try to do it all on scrambles but also with designed runs.

Caleb Bluiett. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Caleb Bluiett. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Oklahoma has shown some vulnerability to the option in its new 3-4 defense over the last two years and Striker sometimes plays the edge over aggressively and loses contain. Texas’ double TE set with Beck (or McNeal) flexed wide and Bluiett on the line or in the backfield could be useful in this game, particularly with Daje unavailable. This would be a great game to involve McNeal as OU is built to handle the slot with a combination of cover safety Steven Parker or with Striker, they aren’t designed to handle a 240-pound flex TE in that space.

If Texas’ plan is to rely on the “throw it deep or have Heard scramble” plan, then this game isn’t going to turn out favorably unless that’s off play-action set up by an effective ground game. That style can work against weaker defenses such as Cal’s or the ones coming on the schedule but not against the Sooners and not when they’re keyed up to dominate Texas.

Prognosis grim

It usually is, going into this game. I believe 2012 was the last time I felt remotely confident going into the game and that confidence proved to have been badly misplaced.

Winning this game happens when you have veterans who understand what the atmosphere and intensity is going to be like, have prepared for it, and who are ready to lead their team through it. On that note, Oklahoma is led this year by Mayfield (a redshirt sophomore who started as a freshman), Shephard (four-year starter), Eric Striker (three-year starter and a senior), and Sanchez (redshirt junior and three-year starter).

Texas has a few upperclassmen that are trying to lead the team and some freshmen that are the real x factors but have not played against a Bob Stoops-led Oklahoma team in the Cotton Bowl before.

Strong desperately needs to win this game, and the Sooners have gotten physically whipped in the trenches each of the last two years in this game, but it seems most likely that the pendulum will swing back hard and give the Longhorns yet another smack across the brow.

History major, football theorist.