Anatomy of Stagnation: Second and Short Failures

The Big Picture

Even though play-action passing has become a much bigger part of the Longhorn offense since the coaching staff decided to uset the 11 personnel package much more often, Greg Davis continues to eschew play-action passes on second and short. The reasons for this are relatively unclear, though the most common belief is that Davis much prefers 1st and 10 to 2nd and 2, causing him to run the ball at an extremely high rate in such situations. In some ways, it's a bit paradoxical, as Davis will often eschew the running game entirely for long stretches and comes under criticism for abandoning the running game at times, with some believing that the running game has suffered over the last few years because Davis would rather pass on every down. Call it Jason Garrett syndrome with a dash of reflexive conservatism, in this case similar to a bad twitch.

Situation 1

Context

On the fifth drive of the game, Texas came out running the football after dropping back for passes on 11 of the first 12 plays (including the first play of the game, the chop block call against Chris Hall. Tre' Newton picked up four yards running power on the first play, Colt McCoy picked up 14 yards on a zone read on the second play, and then Newton picked up eight yards on a jet tempo run, most likely an inside zone play.

The Play

2nd and 2 Texas 36

Secondshort1_1_medium

For the second straight play, the Longhorns rush to the line of scrimmage in their jet tempo look with McCoy under center. Notice how Nebraska is playing this look by Texas -- with two deep safeties to take away big plays downfield on a bootleg, with both linebackers extremely close to the line of scrimmage and the nickel back walked up close to the tackle box to put pressure on McCoy in the event of a bootleg (Nebraska would later force a throwaway on a bootleg with such a look). In other words, Nebraska can effectively cover the two plays that Texas runs out of this look -- the zone play and the bootleg pass. Notice also that Ndamukong Suh is playing a two technique just over the inside shoulder of the guard, Michael Huey.

Secondshort1_2_medium

As Nebraska likely expects because EBS is on the left of the formation, the Texas line blocks left for the inside zone play. Since Suh is on the backside of the play and over the inside shoulder of Huey, there's no double team as the center Chris Hall steps playside. Suh uses his hands better than Huey, who seems to lose his balance as he gets into the big defensive tackle's body. Seemingly within a split second, Suh is into the backfield, forcing Newton to make a quick cut. Hall and Tanner get a good combo block on Crick, driving him back off the line of scrimmage, but Tanner can't get off the block quickly enough to stop the penetration of Dejon Gomes, a cornerback who played linebacker on this play and for much of the game. The violence of the cut Newton must make causes him to lose his balance and he slips well behind the line of scrimmage, losing two yards. The final aspect of the play is that McCoy doesn't execute a bootleg fake to freeze defenders in the secondary.

The Verdict

Clearly, Texas went jet tempo once too often in this sequence and Nebraska was ready for both permutations of the play. In addition, since the defensive tackles knew they were likely facing a zone run, Suh aligned to make it difficult for Huey to block him and that alignemnt allowed him a head start in shooting the gap. In addition, Huey used his hands extremely poorly on the play, letting Suh get into his body and then easily into the backfield. The lack of deception on this play allowed the playside "linebacker" Gomes to slice into the backfield before Tanner could get off the combo block.

Basically, the jet tempo might be good for one play to catch a team off guard, but going to it twice in a row, when Nebraska probably only had to spend several minutes scheming for it in practice to shut down the two plays that Texas runs, just won't work against good teams. In other words, to remain effective the jet tempo look must include a new wrinkle every week for which the defense is not prepared or there's very little point to it unless the opponent is Baylor.

The Following Play

As a result, the Longhorns go from 2nd and 2 to 3rd and 4, an obvious passing down for Texas. McCoy actually gets good protection on the play and has a chance to look downfield before checking down to Newton flaring into the flat. The Nebraska linebacker reads the play and hits Newton as the ball arrives for a loss of four yards. The Longhorns magically turn 2nd and 2 into 4th and 8. Impressive.

Situation 2

Context

Following Aaron Williams' interception in the end zone, the Longhorns move the chains by converting a third down on a crossing route to Jordan Shipley, one of the few times this season that Texas has been able to pick up first down yardage with a route that was extremely successful last season. Dan Buckner stays in the game at flex tight end and McCoy hits him on a pivot route inside for an eight-yard gain on first down.

The Play

2nd and 2 Texas 41

Secondshort2_1_medium

The Longhorns go with their 11 personnel package, bringing EBS into the game. Could it possibly signal a running play? Stay tuned. Notice that Nebraska stays with two deep safeties on the play, confident that they can win the six-on-six battle in the box.

Secondshort2_2a_medium

Davis calls for the zone read. The read man stays at home, telling McCoy to give the ball. The Texas offensive line manages to control the Nebraska defensive tackles on the play, but neither David Snow nor Charlie Tanner get off their combo blocks in time to stop the linebackers slicing through the gaps. It's a race to the ballcarrier and Dejon Gomes wins, stopping Newton for no gain.

The Verdict

The substitution pattern here clearly signals a run and the Texas tendencies support it. A play-action pass would seem like a good play call, but there are two safeties deep on the play -- clearly the Huskers feel like they can stop the Texas running game with a minimum of help from the secondary. Rather than a problem with the playcalling in this specific intance, because the zone read is a good call, as it options off a defender and allows three combo blocks on the line of scrimmage, the problem is one of execution.

The failure of this play falls on the offensive line, as neither Tanner, Snow, nor Adam Ulatoski are able to get off their blocks to even contact either linebacker. David Snow had a terrible game and this play is just one example -- his failure here is no surprise. Charlie Tanner had the most difficult combo block, as he was essentially one-on-one with Jared Crick for several steps before being able to hand him off to Hall, by which point it was too late. Ulatoski is perhaps a bigger culprit than Tanner, as he could have gotten off his block with EBS much more quickly to attempt to at least slow down Gomes.

As it has been often this season, the major problem here is execution by the offensive line. They have nearly every advantage that a line could hope for in this situation -- the play options off a defender from an even match up in the box in the first place, allowing the line three combo blocks. The inability to run against a six-man box with a defender optioned off with six linemen is just pathetic. It doesn't get any easier than that in football.

The Following Play

Texas substitutes for EBS, bringing Dan Buckner back in the game and splitting out Tre' Newton. Nebraska doesn't have the personnel package they want on the field and run off a player late. Instead of hiking the ball and running the play against a defense that is confused and isn't set, McCoy allows the Huskers to call a timeout, essentially bailing them out.

Following the stop in play, the Longhorns opt for the 11 personnel package, them motion James Kirkendoll into a stack with Jordan Shipley. It's a max protection roll out with essentially two players out in the route (Malcolm Williams on the other side of the field gets an inside release and heads straight downfield) and Nebraska takes them away with four defenders, leading to a coverage sack and the injury to McCoy's left wrist. Suh and others knock McCoy into the Nebraska sideline while the Texas offensive linemen walk dejectedly across the field to the Texas sideline like a group of whipped puppies. Not a single one goes to help their quarterback.

Situation 3

Context

The Longhorn defense held Nebraska to a field goal following the long punt return by Niles Paul, but the poor call on Marquise Goodwin's slip near the end zone pinned Texas against their own goalline. Though the coaching staff finally decided to eschew a long-developing I-formation run on the first play, choosing to sneak instead, Davis reprised his bad habit by calling such a play on second down and Suh nearly caused a safety. Fortunately, McCoy completed a third-down pass to Shipley and later completed two more passes for Malcolm Williams for big first downs, the second coming on 3rd and 16. On the next play, a quarterback draw picked up eight yards.

The Play

2nd and 2 Nebraska 42

Secondshort3_1_medium

The Longhorns stay in their 11 personnel package from the previous play with Dan Buckner in the flex tight end position. Nebraska plays the single linebacker to the strong side of the formation, while walking a safety up towards the line of scrimmage, indicating a blitz.

Secondshort3_2_medium

It's the counter read play of WildHorn fame (infamy?), except run this time without a tight end, though the lack of a tight end isn't a problem in the scheme, as the defensive end is optioned off. On this play, the end stays at home, giving McCoy a give read. The play has a chance for success and may in fact go for a big gain if Suh doesn't blow it up, except for the blitzing linebacker on the play, who happens to run right into Newton as McCoy makes the handoff, leading to a two-yard loss.

The Verdict

It's easy to blame Davis for this play, as he seemed to get a little too cute in this situation by calling a running play from a formation the Longhorns probably haven't run out of since the Oklahoma or Colorado game -- there was a reason the coaching staff abandoned any and all 10 personnel running plays. No one provides an extra blocking surface like Greg Smith, basically. The Longhorns really have good match ups on the line of scrimmage though because the play options off a defender -- it just seems like poor luck that Nebaska happened to be blitzing on the play. In terms of the defense anticipating the call, there's little chance of that since the Longhorns hadn't run this play from this personnel grouping probably at all this season.

The Following Play

The Longhorns go five wide on 3rd and 4 and run a double slant concept with Jordan Shipley and Goodwin on the weak side. It's the same play that scored the touchdown against Oklahoma and it works again here, as the safety goes with Shipley and Goodwin gets enough separation to make a tough catch on a ball thrown behind him a bit and pick up a big first down to continue the drive.

The Final Verdict

The fact that the Longhorns only had three second-and-short opportunities in the entire game speaks to poor production on first down, while the complete lack of success on second and short illustrates a combination of poor execution, poor playcalling, and bad luck. The three plays combined lost a total of four yards and led to difficult third-down conversions each time, with Texas only converting one of the three, which is completely unacceptable.

On the first play, the call was relatively beyond reproach, but the execution of the offensive line was terrible. Given the opportunity for three combo blocks, none of the three offensive linemen got off their blocks to get to the second level, allowing both linebackers to slice into the backfield and stop the play for a loss. The scheme doesn't exactly make things easy for the linemen, but the fact is that a ton of teams in college football run the zone read and the good ones consistently execute the play at a much higher level than Texas. Despite the abject failure of this play, it was one of the least egregious examples of the type of terrible execution and individual suckitude that characterized an experienced line that should be much better than this. One would think.

Also unacceptable is the fact that the Longhorns didn't take any shots downfield on any of the three plays -- most analysts and fans know that such situations are the best time for calling play-action passes. Greg Davis seems to have a different philosophy than most in these circumstances -- he just wants to move the chains as quickly as possible to get another set of downs. Perhaps that would be acceptable if his choice of plays actually picked up the first down instead of moving backwards.

Davis also deserves criticisms for not staying with the advances in the zone read. Many times now make it a triple option play, incorporating a bubble screen on the outside of the play, giving defenses more to think about it and making it more difficult to cover. In college football, it's not necessary to be on the leading edge of innovation, but simply to keep up with and copy and integrate successful plays. One of the problems is that Davis simply isn't doing that enough. It's not about trying to incorporate everything and putting in too many plays at the risk of execution, it's about adding things that can easily be integrated like the bubble screen on the zone read, which would only require a handful of repetitions to install.

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