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Back in 2017, Mike Yurcich was one of the early victims of the inverted Tampa 2’s initial pass through the league. Iowa State threw the scheme at Texas, who struggled mightily with it, then used it while upsetting Baker Mayfield and the playoff-bound Oklahoma Sooners. Not long afterward, Texas incorporated the scheme into their own defense and ended up relying on it to take the Mason Rudolph Oklahoma State Cowboys to overtime in Austin.
While the ‘Pokes won 13-10, this was primarily due to Sam Ehlinger throwing a late interception when Texas was in good position to steal the game. Mike Gundy was furious with the effort of his OC after the game and in awe of the effectiveness of Texas matching that defense with the leg of Michael Dickson. “The punter” pinned OSU inside the 20 on six drives with three of those starting inside the 10. The Pokes ran the ball 44 times with their RBs for a total of 160 yards at 3.6 ypc while Rudolph threw for 282 yards at 7.4 ypa. Decent numbers but none of it was doing real damage against Texas’ bend don’t break approach and absurd punting.
When Gundy returned to Austin in 2019 we saw something similar as Texas brought back the inverted Tampa 2 and bracketed Tylan Wallace while holding Chuba Hubbard to 121 yards at 3.3 ypc. Another bad trip to Austin for the Cowboy offense, although this time Yurcich was up in Columbus coaching THE OSU. While there, the Buckeyes’ season came to an end when Clemson used the inverted Tampa 2 structure to shut down their run game in a big comeback victory.
In between those games, Yurcich had three other battles with the scheme and they looked very different from these more high profile battles. In those games, Yurcich revealed a real knack for attacking the scheme, which had to have been attractive to Tom Herman who watched the 2019 Longhorn season fall apart when they were shut down in back to back weeks by Baylor and Iowa State utilizing the defense.
Here are some of the principles that Yurcich has applied in getting after inverted Tampa 2 teams.
Attacking the bubbles in the run game
One of the underrated challenges of attacking the inverted Tampa 2 scheme is running the ball effectively. On the surface it looks like a scheme that should be easy to punish by just pounding the ball on the ground, in reality it’s a recalibrated approach to “defense in depth” that invites offensive advance only to swarm the football.
Texas repeatedly attempted to beat this approach from Iowa State last year with TE formations designed to allow them to try and run over smaller defenders to no avail.
They couldn’t move the stout Cyclone front off the ball very well, but worse, the Cyclones would always have a safety in any formation that was about eight yards off the ball and triggering downhill to stop the run without a blocker accounting for him. In this case, their cornerback did a good job of setting the edge and the free safety Lawrence White made 10 tackles, most of them limiting Texas’ tight zone and gap runs to three yards or so. The bubble screen to Devin Duvernay that would normally be a release valve to stop opponents from loading the box was accounted for by the Cyclones using big Mike Rose as a space-backer who could chase it down. The blocking angle for the receivers trying to stop him (S) was impossible.
A similar dimension of this defensive formation allowed Clemson to stuff the Ohio State run game after a rocky start in their normal 4-2-5 quarters scheme. The Buckeyes struggled to account for ILB James Skalski stunting and moving around and when they did pick those up one of Clemson’s big safeties was coming free to make the tackle before any real gains were made.
So how did Yurcich approach this problem? In 2018 the approach was similar to what Herman attempted in 2019, the Cowboys got a big TE on the end of the line to expand the front and create extra bubbles across the front that ISU would need to fill with DBs rather than their thick DL. It didn’t work terribly well and Justice Hill turned 24 carries into 66 yards at 2.8 ypc. Much like Texas, Oklahoma State’s TE wasn’t really offering much as a blocker and it was often all he could do to make good contact on their cornerbacks. When they expanded the front to run power and iso schemes by pulling OL to the point of attack they still struggled to best the Cyclone nose tackle and ILBs for real gains before the safeties came and cleaned it up.
The Pokes did do some damage by extending the front even further by adding QB run dimensions with Taylor Cornelius but for the most part, getting more size on the field didn’t really help because the “defense in depth” approach of the inverted Tampa 2 is such that the guys you worry about aren’t the people up front you can bully but the fast defenders coming downhill that are hard to pick up and block in space.
In 2017 Oklahoma State had a much better formula because that year they had a good fullback. They used some motion, some pistol alignments, the quality of their fullback, and Justice Hill’s terrific lateral quickness to use Iowa State’s front rules against them.
Iowa State’s normal practice with this defense was different than how Texas did things with their time front. The Cyclones use their DEs to set the edge unless the RB isn’t aligned to run at the edge or you don’t have a TE, only then would they slide them inside to a 4i-technique. So OSU would mix in different lead runs, sometimes running zone to the same side as Hill and making him come back for the ball briefly before trying to win the edge against a 4i DE.
From this set they could hit the open edge in the front to help guarantee at least some positive gain and then they’d account for the DB coming downhill by picking off one defender with the slot and then using a quicker moving FB that could actually find and connect with fast moving targets in space. This approach allowed Justice Hill to make more steady gains and also to get loose into space more often. He had 25 carries in that game for 134 yards at 5.4 ypc with three touchdowns.
The inverted Tampa 2 is designed in such a way that you can pick up steady gains on the ground to at least avoid bad passing downs if you can create bubbles up front and then hit them with good lead blockers. Lanky TEs that struggle to connect with smaller DBs in space aren’t valuable, extending the line can help create more bubbles to choose from but the run game still needs an answer for the unblocked defenders.
Against Texas, Yurcich and the Pokes crushed the Longhorn IT2 scheme with stretch-option schemes that attacked the open edges because Texas didn’t have the DE opposite the RB set the edge. Time and time again Texas’ 4i DEs were double teamed and hooked by G/T combo blocks while Justice Hill and Chuba Hubbard turned 31 carries into 172 yards at 5.5 ypc. On the backside they also struggled with their option containment assignments and Taylor Cornelius had a few big zone-read keepers for a pair of touchdowns and the game-winning third down conversion. For the most part though this was more incompetence on the part of Texas than a major flaw in the inverted Tampa 2 defense.
Overloading the deep field
In both of those contests against Iowa State and then against the Longhorns, OSU tried to make a point of running the ball in order to pick up steady gains, but they broke 40 points twice against the Cyclones and upset Texas 38-35 because of the passing game.
Taylor Cornelius went 23-34 for 321 yards at 9.4 ypa with three TDs and zero INT against Texas in 2018. Against Iowa State that year he was 19-33 for 289 yards at 8.8 ypa with four TDs to one INT. Mason Rudolph torched the Cyclones in 2017 going for 25-31 with 376 yards at 12.1 ypa with three TDs and zero INT.
Yurcich and Gundy didn’t give up on chucking the ball deep just because their opponents were layering coverages with three deep safeties playing over the top. Instead they found ways to still overload deep zones or create leverage advantages for their receivers. One method that they used to great effect against Texas was with the “dagger” concept.
The slot runs a go route straight up the seam to carry the safeties deep and then the outside receiver runs a dig underneath in the ensuing space. Texas could have matched these routes effectively with a more precise scheme that had more rules but their basic zone approach lead to confusion and exploitation here and a Tylan Wallace TD to open the game.
Against the Cyclones they hit that same concept and also managed to find their big receivers down the field by overloading the deep zones and asking Rudolph to throw the ball outside.
By sending two slots up the seams Iowa State was able to hold the attention of those safeties while the TE edge on the boundary held the free safety. With all three safeties tied up, they could finally get back to their preferred practice of isolating the outside cornerback 1-on-1 vs their receiver (Marcell Ateman in this instance). They never allowed the Cyclones to deny them space down the field but just threw different combinations and play-action shots at them in hopes of still finding 1-on-1 matchups so they could still land big shots.
Attacking the inverted Tampa 2 with Texas’ 2020 offense
On the surface, the inverted Tampa 2 would appear to be less of an issue for Texas to handle in 2020. Matt Rhule and Phil Snow have moved on from Baylor and while we don’t know what defense Dave Aranda will run, he has pretty strong ideas on scheme that aren’t the IT2. Iowa State will be back at it with most of their 2019 starters, but you should also expect to see more teams utilize this approach in the coming years because it works.
Oklahoma State has already constructed a hybrid blend of that system and the 4-2-5 that Jim Knowles learned from Gary Patterson before coming to Stillwater. West Virginia, Texas Tech, and even TCU are liable to move further down that path as well after tinkering with it in 2019.
The main strength of it that teams want to copy is having the ability to get deep defenders over dangerous vertical threats while still having a safety positioned at eight yards or so who can trigger down and stop runs either without being accounted for by the blocking scheme or at an angle that makes him hard to keep off the ball. Whether they adopt the actual coverage scheme from ISU or not, having that three safety set-up behind a three-down front is going to be very common for the foreseeable future.
So what can Texas do about it with their 2020 personnel? If they’re going to play with 11 personnel then they need to put a big priority on blocking from the Y-back position. Having a good receiving TE isn’t terribly valuable against this defensive scheme if you intend to run the ball 30+ times a game. The method of getting a big TE on the line to extend the front and allow the offense to pull OL around only works if that TE is really driving DBs off the ball and the OL can connect on fast moving targets.
Texas did well against this scheme in 2018 when they had Beck on the field to help them win the point of attack and they’d over stress the D by using Sam Ehlinger on option runs and QB run RPOs.
Beyond that, they need to be ready and willing to send as many receivers deep as necessary to overpower the safeties. These teams want you to try and work your way down the field methodically and you play into their hands if that’s your approach. The 2020 Texas Longhorns figure to start deep threat burners Brennan Eagles and Jake Smith at receiver with a senior QB and future NFL draft pick at LT in Sam Cosmi. They can’t allow inverted Tampa 2 teams to dictate whether or not they can find those guys in 1-on-1 matchups running down the field. If Yurcich can match the success he had at Oklahoma State that gives Texas’ their best chance at overcoming these evolving defenses and winning the league.