In the Trenches - Longhorn Football is a Game of Nanometers

A game of inches? Quarterback Landry Jones of the Oklahoma Sooners extends his fingers the final nanometers to push the ball out of play in front of Jared Norton of the Texas Longhorns in the fourth quarter at the Cotton Bowl on October 2 2010 in Dallas Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Bill Parcells was famous in his post-loss press conferences of shrugging his shoulders and declaring, "It is what it is." Since we fans have to listen to Mack Brown and Greg Davis after games, there's no chance of hearing that. Mack seems to think that if the coaches claim some general unspecified responsibility ("I need to do better") and then pump highly pressurized sunshine, this is good enough for the public. So I thought I might offer some Parcellsian postgame comments that explore what really happened in the OU game. The 2010 Texas Longhorns are a collection of great athletes with self-defeating mindsets as a consequence of the schizophrenia of ultra-conservative offensive coaching and ultra-aggressive attitudes in the defense. As I discuss after the break, there is cause for concern about the future but also some signs of life. The Longhorns are what they are, a flawed team of talented players with slightly unscrewed heads, a suburban soccer attitude, and some potential to be better than they've looked the last two weeks.

The proverbial "game of inches" for Texas has become a game of nanometers. The nanometers, that is, of distance across the neuronal synapses of the warped psyches that led to 9 penalties for 81 yards, including 4 penalties on defense that extended Sooner scoring drives and 1 drive-killing penalty on offense. The nanometers left uncrossed of the synapses in Mack Brown's and Greg Davis' right brains that would allow them to believe in their sophomore quarterback and his ability to throw in the middle of the field to wide open receivers. The nanometers gained by Texas running backs in the second half when Oklahoma offered up the softest underbelly since Chris Farley. And of course, the nanometers crossed by Landry Jones' fingertips that pushed his fumbled ball just to the left of Jared Norton's covering lunge, causing the ball to be pushed out of bounds in a final cruel coup de gras of futility. Synapse_medium

One of many neural synapses that failed to fire on the Texas Longhorn coaches and players against Oklahoma via 1.bp.blogspot.com

 

The mistakes of past games on defense thus continued. The offense made fewer mistakes than against UCLA, but continued to be generally moribund until the risk of losing exceeded the risk of a bad play and the offense showed a few signs of life. Some detailed thoughts after the jump.

The Horns showed some resilience.

After Oklahoma's blitzkrieg of Pistol, shotgun, and I-formation plays in the no-huddle offense in the first quarter, Texas ran a perfectly executed jet sweep counter for the 60-yard DJ Monroe TD (more later on that play) to stay in the game and the defense made a few adjustments and hung in the game after that. Starting with Texas' second drive, the score was Texas 20, OU 14. There was much to like about the overall team attitude, and we saw none of the sluggishness of the UCLA game. Thanks to Monroe's big play, there was always a feeling that Texas had a chance, at least until Jackson Jeffcoat left his entire cerebral cortex quivering somewhere on the field on a third down and 20, giving Oklahoma a first down deep in Texas territory and the path to the eventual winning touchdown. That said....

This team needs a psychological enema.

The penalties called against the Horns that extended so many Oklahoma drives are, in my opinion, born of an anxious desperation to make every play more than it is. The defensive players look and act as if they feel the need to cause a turnover or an offensive injury on every play. They're not aware of the little mental things, like turning their head when in man coverage of a receiver going deep, like checking to see if they are onside, like making sure their left hand is not touching a receiver, etc. Perhaps these mental mistakes often are born of a desperation to compensate for the team's offensive inefficiency. Desperate people can act like they've lost their mind.

On the other side of the ball, Texas' offensive players have an authority complex. Not in the sense of compulsively needing to resist authority but rather the opposite problem: a compulsive need to "be where you are supposed to be," or "do what you are supposed to do," in a robotic assembly line attitude reminiscent of workers in 1930's German propaganda films. The coaches have this belief that the offense can't do very many things, and this belief has infected the players like syphilis before antibiotics. You can see from the sluggish routes and sagging shoulders that the players don't believe they can convert on third down and long because they know that the ball won't be delivered into a place where it can make a difference. The linemen don't hold their blocks because they "know" the running backs aren't going to run very far. The offense gets complemented by Greg Davis as having "played well" despite being ineffective and self-destructive for most of the game. The offensive players need to believe they are better than their coach thinks they are.

On special teams, whoever is returning punts needs to get about three times as many reps as they have been getting - splitting reps in practice has done Aaron Williams and Curtis Brown both a disservice. They need to believe they are making the right decisions to catch, fair catch or return punts, and right now they don't. Aaron Williams' fumbled punt was a classic example, as he actually leaned his body away from the ball even as he reached to catch it, almost as if to say, "I don't know whether to run away from this ball or catch it."

This is a team whose players are in opposing mindsets, each of which is creating mistakes. All the players on both sides of the ball need to believe that they are going full out, 100% of the time and making decisions that will lead to team success. If and when that happens this season, Texas may begin to resemble something other than the mediocre team they currently are.

 

OU's Kevin Wilson out-coached Will Muschamp in the first quarter.

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OU's Trey Millard allows OU to run a highly multiple no-huddle offense that had the Horns' defense reeling in the first quarter. via t0.gstatic.com

I'm  not sure how many fans noticed but the Sooners' no-huddle offense in the first quarter rotated between about six different formations: the Pistol with a fullback, the Pistol without a fullback but an H-back and WR's in a "flex" position 5 yards wide of the interiror line, the Pistol with 3 WR spread wide, the I formation with a TE, and an Ace (single back) with 4 WR or with a TE and H-back. Compare this to Texas' ubiquitous 3 basic formations: 1 RB, 1TE (11 personnel) in either the spread or the Ace (Garrett Gilbert under center), or 5 WR empty set. The secret to OU making this work? Trey Millard, a TRUE FRESHMAN fullback/H-back/wide receiver that allowed Oklahoma to switch between these six different formations without changing personnel. The no-huddle prevented Muschamp from making situational substitutions, which allowed OU to double-team Sam Acho at the DE position in the 3-4 defense and for Millard to take quick hitters into the heart of the Texas defense. Millard also completely wiped out Blake Gideon in his lead blocks on DeMarco Murray's two touchdown runs. It takes coaching to deliver that much sophistication in the performance of a true freshman, and coaching to trust the performance enough to use said freshman in so many different formations. It is interesting that this was Mack Brown's and Greg Davis' wet dreams from last spring to use Barrett Matthews in a similar role. It sucks when dreams die, doesn't it. The real question is why the dream died when the Texas coaches were so excited by the possibilities at the beginning of fall camp.

Will Muschamp matched Kevin Wilson for the last three quarters.

Forced by the no-huddle to keep a constant personnel on the field, Muschamp brought Blake Gideon up as a strong safety to jam the TE or provide contain against the Pistol, and took a risk of single covering OU receivers Kenny Stills and DeJuan Miller. Oklahoma rushed for 77 yards in 14 carries ( ~5.5 ypc) in the first two drives. With the exception of three long DeMarco Murray runs, afterward Texas held Oklahoma to only 51 yards on 24 carries (~2 ypc). Of these three exceptions, one was a draw play on 3rd and 24 that went for 17, one was the 20 yard touchdown when Muschamp substituted too late against the no-huddle, and the third was a brilliant move by Murray to split two defenders (Eddie Jones and Chykie Brown) who otherwise were unblocked and had Murray lined up in their crosshairs behind the line of scrimmage. It was no accident that the Horns started getting pressure on Landry Jones more in the second half, as the Sooners began facing third and long more often due to consistent stuffing of the run. Nevertheless, Kevin Wilson attacked the man defense with some success and Jones threw the ball extremely well, especially on the first TD pass to Kenny Stills and then again on the 34 yard pass to Ryan Broyles on the third TD drive

If you want to compare Kevin Wilson to Greg Davis, well that would be like Usain Bolt racing against Greg Smith.

Play of the Game

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Cody Johnson scores against the Land Thieves three plays after a surprising catch on a tricky sideline go route. via assets.sbnation.com


Certainly everyone's favorite might be D.J. Monroe's 60 yard world land speed record run on a counter off the faked jet sweep to Marquise Goodwin. However, my vote was for the 33 yard pass to Cody Johnson on a sideline go route out of an empty set look. That was perhaps the most creative play I've seen Texas run this year. The idea was to make it look like Cody was in to block on the WR screen to Goodwin. Instead, Cody took off past the cornerback and was hit perfectly by Gilbert in the seam between the corner and safety. I'm sure all the fans would like to see more of this sort of breath of neuronal activity from whomever on the Texas offensive coaching staff was responsible for designing and calling the play.

Invisible Hero of the Game.

Mason Walters, who looked like Shaquille O'Neal on PCP on a fast break in his his ability to clear out OU safety Tony Jefferson on the 60-yard counter jet sweep to D.J. Monroe. Kyle Hix sealed two guys in his best block of the season on that play, but Walters had Jefferson virtually sitting down on the field in fear. That one play allowed Texas to hang around and still be in the game at the end. Runner-up, Malcolm Williams. Despite being double covered virtually the entire game, Malcolm caught the two balls thrown to him, including a deep pass along the sideline to set up Texas' final field goal. His constant double coverage helped free up James Kirkendoll for his performance, including the 44 yard post-flag route that set up Texas' last field goal. Now if only we could see Williams on some deep routes over the middle (more on this below).

Invisible Goat of the Game.

There were so many visible goats, like Jackson Jeffcoat, or Eddie Jones, or Britt Mitchell (although given that he was isolated on Jeremy Beals most of the game, he played well I thought). My vote goes to John Chiles. Even casual fans knew that Texas' number 1 receiver, Mike Davis, would be out, and that a senior who has "bled for the program" Chiles, needed to step up and take up some of the slack. Instead, Chiles could not block very well on the wide receiver screens, could not get open against single coverage, and effectively forced Texas into trying to get 2 WR open against 4 defensive backs and two linebackers. Futility all around. Runner up, Blake Gideon. Blake brought nothing to this game, and though Muschamp putting him over the TE near the line of scrimmage helped stuff the Sooner running game in general, he took bad pursuit angles that allowed each of DeMarco Murray's touchdown runs. If there's anything this defense misses from last year, it is Earl Thomas' flawless pursuit angles that stuffed so many big plays.

Rust Bucket

Another key to defensive improvement was the increased number of snaps for Jared Norton. Recall that Norton missed all of last season with a shoulder injury and has only slowly been worked into the line-up this season. Last week against UCLA, his rust was highly apparent, despite Texas' urgent need for him to stop the run, as he failed to plug the right gaps or indecision left him at the mercy of reach-blockiing linemen. Early against Oklahoma, Norton was similarly plagued, but after a change in gap assignments for Alex Okafor,  the traffic around his feet got cleaned up and he was able to make more authoritative plays. Hopefully, as further rust shakes off of Norton's pads, fans won't have to endure another bad quarter like what Oklahoma put on the Texas D.

Neverland.

There's a place I've heard of, where cool breezes blow across vast empty green plains beneath blue skies. It's said that a person's soul can be redeemed there. No, it's not the Serengeti Plains, or Bora Bora. It's the MIDDLE OF THE %$#&^%#! FOOTBALL FIELD. The Mack/GD conglomerate corporate HQ believes that, like for a two year-old in a parking lot, the deep middle is an unsafe place for our young toddler of a QB to be looking to throw. While there's something to be said for not constantly interpreting the LB drops and safety postures required to live in the middle, AT LEAST RUN SOME ROUTES IN THERE to force a safety or two to at least delay by a couple of steps their pell mell attack on Texas' 5-7 yard sideline routes and bubble screens. The problem is that teams are putting their safeties outside the hash marks, effectively reducing the distance needed to blow up or jump short routes and daring the Horns to throw there. If the Mack/GD conglomerate is going to insist on safety first, at least do something to help free up the safe space by forcing the defense to actually occupy the unsafe space.

Let's explore an example. Texas has the ball at their own 43, first down with 6:22 left, down 28-17. Not a time in the game to beat around the bush. The Horns opens in the standard 11 personnel with a TE (Barrett Matthews) and two WR (Goodwin in the slot and Williams all the way wide) to the right and a lone WR (Kirkendoll) to the left. Convinced that Texas will either pass or run a draw to Whittaker, Oklahoma zone blitzes with Travis Lewis and Tom Wort and drops Jeremy Beals into coverage on the weakside. Michael Huey fails to recognize the zone blitz for what it is, and Wort gets a free run at poor Fozzy, swims over his cut block and sacks Gilbert for -11. This failure isn't what's important, however indicative of the Texas offense it is. Bob Griese, color commentator for the game, used the opportunity to show how all the Texas receivers were covered, and the wide angle picture shows exactly what I am talking about.

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The yellow arrows indicate the routes that the Texas receivers ran on the play and the white arrows indicate the movements of OU's defensive backs. Williams and Kirkendoll both run a stop and go, Goodwin runs a 3 yard out, and Matthews runs a 5 yard crossing route. In response, Beals drops and runs under Kirkendoll, who, from the defensive formation and choice of blitz would be the hot route, to ward off a back shoulder stop route. The OU corner doesn't bite on Kirk's half-hearted stop and turns his hips while Kirk is still 3 yards short of him. Covered. Seeing no danger deep on that side, safety A (Jefferson I think) is free to charge the dragging Matthews, thereby limiting any catch to 3 yards. A possible completion and better than a sack, but not really helping the cause at 6:22 left down 11. The OU slot DB (defensive back B) sits on the short out and the outside left CB takes outside technique with Williams and knows he has safety help deep.

Given the route structure and blitz, Gilbert is thinking that he has single coverage on the weakside and the planned double move by Kirkendoll might be open if the corner bites. That would probably be the right choice if Huey and/or Fozzy had been able to slow Wort and/or it was any receiver other than Kirkendoll running the stop and go.  Notice how the yellow arrows create three sides of an open box? The area to the left and outside these lines is the presumed "safe space" for Gilbert to throw. If you are a DC, how nice it is that you are responsible for defending only 33% (or less) of the field. It's no wonder that Griese marveled, "Gilbert's got no one to throw to..."

So let's look at what Gibert's options would be with one or both of two different route choices. If Kirkendoll plants his left foot and slants in on a post route (blue arrow number 1), then he beats the corner to the inside (because he has already committed to outside technique) and forces safety A to make decision to either slide over and help on the deep route or attack Matthews' short route. Gilbert reads safety A and either throws to Kirk in the space between the weakside corner and safety A, or dumps off to Matthews, who has plenty of room to rumble because the safety is not flying at him full speed. Or leave Kirk's pattern the same and instead send Matthews on a seam route between safety A and DB B (blue arrow 2). This forces DB B to choose between staying up on the short out (route 3) or sliding right to cover the early part of the seam route, which would leave route 3 open. If Gilbert reads DB B, then he throws to route 2 or 3, either of which would produce at least good yardage on first down. Certainly a TE seam route at that point in the game would be unexpected and might have been ignored by DB B, which would have left Matthews wide open for a big gain. Imagine the further possibilities if both routes 1 and 2 were run, and safety A helped on route 1 and DB B took route 3. Matthews would be running completely wide open by 15 yards.

Bottom line :

1. Even if Gilbert never actually throws to the middle of the field, running routes there would force the defensive players to make a decision, and this would open up some of the short routes.

2. Routes to the middle of the field mean that, if one of the safeties makes a poorer choice, someone with at least 4.4 speed is running in either single coverage or wide open deep.

3. While the Mack/GD conglomerate may think that GG is not ready to read safeties, he already proved that he could in the MNC game on both TD passes to Shipley. Those who are questioning Gilbert and giving full credit to Shipley for those plays simply haven't broken down the film. If the conglomerate trusted Gilbert to make those throws in the MNC against arguably one of the toughest and most complicated defenses in the country, why can't they trust him to make them now?

4. If the Mack/GD conglomerate doesn't start using the middle of the field, they have no hope against the 'Huskers and the team is looking at a 7-5 record and an Alamo Bowl date against Penn State or Wisconsin.

5. If the Mack/GD conglomerate finally is willing to open up the middle and the offense starts having success, then maybe the D stops pressing, stressing and messing, and the Horns win out.

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