If the core of Bryan Harsin's offensive philosophy is his commitment to the power running game, the corollary and resulting commitment to throwing play-action passes to hit defenses sending an eighth man into the box is just as important to the overall success of his offense.
In fact, as the Longhorns seek big plays to bolster offensive production in the season's second half, the play-action passing game needs to play a major role as Harsin seeks to develop a vertical passing game that has struggled to produce big plays all season, but especially in the last two games.
The numbers for Texas are distressing offensively. With the inexperience at quarterback, it isn't surprising to see the underwhelming numbers the passing game is putting up, especially in comparison to other conference foes with high-powered aerial attacks like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Texas Tech. Throw Texas A&M in there as well.
The Longhorns are clearly lagging behind the curve in the pass-happy league, ranking eighth in completion percentage, ninth in total passing yards, eighth in yards per attempt, eighth in quarterback rating, and have thrown the second-fewest touchdown passes. On and on. What's hidden in those numbers is an intense difficulty creating big plays through the vertical passing game. Actually in producing big plays at all.
The Longhorns are eighth in the Big 12 and 75th in the country with only 85 plays of 10 or more yards. Certainly a disappointing stat, but looking past those plays that have gone for between 10 and 20 yards, Harsin's offense is currently producing even fewer of the long-yardage plays that instantly flip field position or result in touchdowns -- the only two plays of more than 50 yards came against Rice in the first game with Garrett Gilbert at quarterback.
Since then, David Ash and Case McCoy have combined for five pass plays longer than 40 yards -- three by McCoy and two by Ash, a stat that runs somewhat contrary to the general perception that McCoy isn't as effective in the downfield passing game. Of course, that general perception exists for a reason, as Ash does have a stronger arm and should also prove to be more accurate on long passes as a result.
Take out McCoy's post to Mike Davis against UCLA that should have been intercepted and the numbers are even. But then the McCoy supporters can surely take out Ash's trick play completion to Jaxon Shipley against Iowa State on the reverse pass if the cherry picking of stats is going to happen.
The overall point remains that the Longhorns are struggling to complete passes over the top of the defense, especially in the last two games against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, when the longest pass plays by either quarterback were a 23-yard pass from McCoy against OU, a 22-yarder from Ash against OU, and a 20-yard completion for Ash against OSU.
While Oklahoma opted to pressure the Longhorns by bringing a variety of blitzes to overwhelm the offensive line and the young quarterbacks standing behind it, Oklahoma State adopted a different tactic of limiting big plays by keeping two safeties deep and then not worrying about everything going on in front of them in an effort to make Texas move slowly down the field.
In those situations, the Longhorns are struggling to make big plays after the catch. In fact, of all those big plays in the passing game, only DJ Grant's touchdown against UCLA included significant yardage after the catch and that necessitated only a stroll into the end zone. It seems safe to say at this point that Texas simply doesn't have a receiver with the capability of making big yardage post catch. Perhaps Marquise Goodwin on the tunnel screens both Harsin and Greg Davis liked to run for him, but all of that yardage is after the catch and he's never managed to take one of those plays to paydirt.
As defenses use bracket coverage on Jaxon Shipley and refuse to commit a safety to the running game and take away the post routes even if Texas is gaining yards on the ground, producing those big plays remains difficult. It's the classic story of constraint plays and the ability to stretch the resources of a defense, something that Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are doing at an elite level.
Another factor is that two of the other six passes of 30 or more yards since the Garrett Gilbert era ended came as a result of trick plays -- passes from Ash and John Harris to Shipley, who threw another touchdown pass of his own from 23 yards out. Throw in the Statue of Liberty play and the Longhorns have scored four touchdowns on trick plays. Those four touchdowns represent almost 20% of the total touchdowns scored by the offense this season, with another handful coming from Fozzy Whittaker out of the Wildcat. Add it all up and it becomes even more clear that the base offense is struggling mightily to produce scores.
Since Harsin executes those trick plays so well and since there is so much room for progress with the offense as a whole, where the touchdowns come from right now isn't as important as whether or not they happen at all. What is a problem is having to rely too heavily on those plays against teams that can take away the reverse passes by having the scheme and player awareness to play contain and turn those potentially game-changing big plays into potentially game-changing negative plays, as Oklahoma did in the Cotton Bowl. Of course, the prevalence of negative plays is a story for another day.
Can Harsin get back to producing big passing plays with the type of trick plays that were working earlier in the season? Doing so could once again take pressure off of the base offense, a pressure release that's certainly needed at the moment.
The need to manufacture big plays in the running game as well casts further light on the once-again underutilized DJ Monroe. Sure, it's nice that he's more often in the game working as a decoy to open things up for Texas other places -- and it's scary to think about what the offense would look like were he not used in that capacity.
Let's just look at the raw numbers with Monroe. He's averaging 7.9 yards per rushing attempt with a median of six yards per carry and 12.8 yards per catch, amounting to 8.6 yards every time he touches the ball. Moreover, despite the fact that defenses have to key on Monroe, his median carry nets six yards and his median touch eight -- so those gaudy per-touch numbers are backed up by consistent success, not just a few long runs or catches.
If Texas has to move the ball slowly down the field, the biggest chunks in the running game are available through Monroe, with the least chance of a negative play or a play that puts the offense behind the chains. Even against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Monroe had only one negative play (his only negative play of the season) and two plays of less than six yards -- a five-yard catch against Oklahoma State and a two-yard run against Oklahoma that counts as a successful play because it picked up the first down. On the season, there's basically a one in five chance that a play to Monroe isn't successful and a one in 26 chance that it loses yardage.
To top it off, Monroe has seven explosive plays -- roughly one in every four touches -- and has another five carries (32%) that have gone for eight or nine yards. Basically, 50% of his plays are explosive or extremely close to it. And this guy can't get the ball 7-10 times per game? Really? Don't go Greg Davis on me here, Harsin.
The rest of the running game isn't quite as easy to track with the higher volume of carries for both Malcolm Brown and Fozzy Whittaker, but simply looking at their longest runs provides a similarly distressing story as the passing game. Upon his entrance into school at Texas, the major concern about Malcolm Brown was his ability to break off long runs i college and the answer to that is that he's struggled, with his longest run being 27 yards and his second-longest the Statue of Liberty play last weekend.
Perhaps it's heartening that both of those runs came against Oklahoma State, a possible sign of improvement for both Brown and the offensive line as it seeks to eliminate the individual errors that can negate the strong efforts of five or six other blockers, but until Brown can crack off a run of 40 or 50 yards, the skepticism about his ability to do so will remain as Texas fans wait with bated breath for Johnathan Gray to arrive next season as a running back who mostly certainly projects to turn in those type of efforts even in the college game.
As for Fozzy Whittaker, as impressive as he's been through the season's first half, his longest run is for 36 yards -- a Wildcat play against woeful UCLA and he hasn't had a run over 18 yards since, though it looked like a one of his runs against Oklahoma State may have gone for a touchdown had Cody Johnson peeled off his first block faster and gotten to the third level of the defense to block the final defender who had a shot at slowing Whittaker. With the surprisingly productive senior back working mostly of the Willdcat formation, it's understandable in some ways that he hasn't broken more long runs since defenses are clearly keyed to stop the run in those looks.
In the end, it's impossible to separate the various issues that are also currently plaguing the team like poor pass protection at times, poor pre-snap reads by the quarterbacks who didn't get Texas out of bad plays against the Sooners and Pokes, missed blocking assignments in the run game. Poor evaluation and development for years. Two quarterbacks with one pass attempt before 2011 vying for time several quarters into the season in a new system. On and on. So it goes.
Basically, the underlying issue is that the offense is still such a work in progress that stretching a defense thin enough with a variety of threats just isn't possible at this time. Until then, no matter how many individual plays are capable of creating major gains, executing those plays against defenses schemed to take them away is difficult at the least and impossible without players and coaches stepping up against opponents capable of gaining significant advantages in a specific area to start forcing opposing defenses to overcommit resources that start opening up other parts of the field.
Harsin and the offense are facing some serious challenges that involve a ton of moving parts. If the Texas offense is going to succeed moving forward, it will have to produce more big plays. And Harsin will have to earn every penny of that paycheck he's receiving from Texas.