Since Iowa State quarterback Sam Richardson gashed the Texas Longhorns for 89 rushing yards in early October, the Horns had managed to avoid opponents with quarterbacks athletic enough to represent a threat on the zone read and quarterback draw, having fortunately avoided facing Trevone Boykin for TCU as the Horned Frogs went with Casey Pachall on his return.
Unfortunately for defensive coordinator Greg Robinson and his charges, the return of Oklahoma State's Clint Chelf to the starting lineup and subsequent games against Iowa State and Texas Tech revealed that the supposed pocket-passing option for the Pokes actually has some wheel. "Get away from the cops speed," if Gus Johnson is to be believed.
And so while those games, in which Chelf gained more than 80 yards in each contest, gave some time for Texas to prepare for the legs of Chelf, once the game got underway, it didn't take long for the Cowboys to start exploiting the inability of the Longhorns to defend the quarterback.
Eventually, Chelf finished with 95 yards on 9.5 yards per carry, along with two touchdowns. And it wasn't like the Texas Tech game, in which Chelf broke off his 67-yard touchdown, but gained 21 yards on his other five carries -- in this game, Chelf gained significant yardage or scored a touchdown on six of his 10 carries.
The first run for Chelf was a sign of things to come.
As happened often during the earlier part of the season, the defensive end pinched down on the play, allowing the quarterback to keep the ball with a lead blocker coming across the formation. Since the end Cedric Reed pinches, the fullback gets to the second level and blocks linebacker Dalton Santos on the play side. Meanwhile, on the outside, Quandre Diggs gets man-handled by inside receiver Tracy Moore.
Even if the listed height and weight for Diggs is accurate, Moore has four inches and 15 pounds on the Texas nickel back, who loses leverage and allows Chelf to get outside of him as safety Mykkele Thompson takes a predictably bad angle on the play to allow several extra yards.
And so in one play, the Cowboys were able to expose a number of deficiencies in the Texas defense that had gone mostly unexploited over the previous weeks.
Several plays later, Oklahoma State motions the running back out of the backfield, clearing the middle of the field. It appears there's a mix-up, as Diggs switches his focus to the flat, but linebacker Steve Edmond also vacates the middle of the field, while safety Adrian Phillips turns his back on the line of scrimmage on the other side.
It's a hazard of playing so much man-to-man coverage and one that the Cowboys clearly knew they could exploit the quarterback draw with that action. The defensive tackles didn't help either, as three tech Desmond Jackson vacated the A gap, as did nose tackle Malcom Brown, allowing Chelf easy access to the middle of the field.
The next zone read keeper for Chelf was played a little bit better for Texas, as safety Josh Turner was able to come up and make a nice open-field tackle as the Oklahoma State quarterback took the carry extremely wide, probably a coaching point last week for the Cowboys as Mike Gundy guessed that his fullback and wide receivers could win blocking battles against the Texas defensive backs, which did indeed happen consistently.
The other thing that Oklahoma State surely noticed on film is that Texas likes to dial up blitzes on third down.
In past games, the Horns have used a variety of zone blitzes dropping the defensive tackles, but the loss of Chris Whaley probably dropped some or most of those out of the playbook. This play is a Cover 0 blitz bringing both linebackers and a defensive back against a lead draw for Chelf, the same type of blitz that burned Texas against West Virginia last week when the front and coverage weren't tied together and Duke Thomas was beat on a slant that went 72 yards for a touchdown.
After Brown can't hit and separate from his block to stop Chelf, it's easy money to the end zone, with the lead fullback unable to find anyone to block in the vacated middle of the field.
By the second quarter, Texas still hasn't figured out how to stop the zone read.
The defensive end once again fails to get wide enough to force the give read, the linebacker Steve Edmond doesn't scrape and gets caught inside, while the play side safety has to deal with the arc blocking fullback and so the backside safety Thompson has to come in an make the tackle, but not until Chelf gains 11 yards.
In order to avoid belaboring the point here, it's probably not worth pulling out the other plays where Chelf hurt Texas with the quarterback run game, but the second touchdown run is worth describing.
On the touchdown drive midway through the second quarter, Chelf scores his second touchdown on the zone read keeper with the fullback blocking him. The defensive end once again takes the running back, leaving three Texas defenders apparently in position to make the play.
Instead, Diggs gets blocked by the fullback again, Edmond takes a terrible angle even though Chelf has widened past the blocking fullback each time he's carried on the zone read, and the play side safety Phillips gets caught inside as well and never has a chance.
In the end, Texas managed to stop four of Chelf's 10 runs -- one other run went for one yard and two third-and-long situations were not converted on quarterback draws, but the inability to defend the other six runs was terrifically damaging for the Longhorns defense.
While offenses have made the zone read more difficult to defend with lead blockers on Power Read and arc blockers on traditional looks, as well as Pistol looks that allow offenses to attack either side of the defensive formation, it still appear there isn't much of a plan for Texas defending those plays, especially against the zone read.
The quarterback draws were a situation where the defensive tackles had to pinch the interior gaps while assigning a defensive back to take the running back motioning out of the backfield, along with the Cover 0 blitz call that was exploited because it was too predictable, but the insistence on the defensive end crashing on the running back doesn't make sense against the zone read. Unless of course the linebacker can effectively scrape, which Edmond was not able to do.
Throw in the play side safety failing to make plays, getting blocked in one instance and not aggressively getting wide on the second touchdown run and whatever Greg Robinson was trying to do was mostly ineffective, though the defense does probably deserve some credit for not allowing first downs after the first big conversion that led to the first Oklahoma State touchdown.
On the other hand, the two quarterback draws that were stopped still picked up positive yardage (six yards and five yards) and kept the Texas defense from inflicting the type of sacks that would have helped flip field position or force a fumble.
So it's the continued inability to show an effective strategy for defending the zone read that causes continued concern for the season's final two conference games.
Texas Tech quarterback Baker Mayfield may not quite be as athletic as Chelf, but he's not far off and if Texas doesn't formulate a better plan to stop those same plays, the Longhorns are going to find themselves giving up chunk yardage to Mayfield on Thanksgiving, too.