Few things in football games are more important than getting into the red zone and scoring touchdowns on those trips.
Unfortunately, the Texas Longhorns now rank 103rd nationally in touchdown percentage at 52.9% and tied for 84th in red zone trips -- if the Texas offense were moving the ball better to get into the red zone, the touchdown percentage wouldn't be concerning, but the lack of trips puts even more pressure on the offense to score seven points instead of settling for three.
Fortunately, Anthony Fera has been outstanding and the Longhorns have avoided turnovers to score 88% of the time on red zone trips. Problem is, red zone field goals don't necessarily win football games -- scoring touchdowns does.
So what's happened this season?
Play caller Major Applewhite explained last week:
"Yeah, you can't get away with some of the quarterback runs whether it be option, quarterback draw."
The quarterback draw, and the quarterback run game overall, were clearly an emphasis entering the season with David Ash, perhaps to his detriment at times as Ash was bludgeoned before his concussion against BYU and didn't exactly opt to slide against Kansas State before he left the game for what appears to be the final time this season.
In any case, it's gone and the only options at this point are Tyrone Swoopes or a package with Jalen Overstreet triggering, but Overstreet hasn't carried the ball since a three-yard loss against the Cougars in just such a package and Swoopes can't even get in the game much when it's out of reach and the starter has thrown three interceptions.
"You watch a lot of people giving some match coverage, play two safeties over the top of receivers to make sure you don't get fades, and now the box is fair in terms of running the quarterback draw."
Obviously, the fade route at this point is the clear area where McCoy can make plays, as well as the wheel route to Marcus Johnson that has disappeared since TCU. Taking those away severely limits McCoy's ability to make plays in the passing game in the red zone and opponents can do that because they don't have to worry about McCoy taking off and running -- he has only four positive runs all season, with a long of 12 yards against Ole Miss.
"At this point, with a true freshman backup, I'm just being point-blank honest with you, that's not something I'm interested in."
Fair enough, as running McCoy doesn't make sense in general because of his lack of size and athleticism, but the true freshman back up is no longer the redshirt freshman back up, which has to at least play into larger considerations of the Texas offense's direction, if not in the red zone.
"So, try to be smart and conservative in terms of not running him down there, understanding that we've been taking some shots and being smart in the red area and we got a good field goal kicker. We haven't had that."
Also understandable, but this is verging into the realm of pure coach-speak because the longest field goal in the red zone is 37 yards and Nick Jordan missed one from 37 and one from 40 last year. Anthony Fera's miss against West Virginia was from 41.
Other than a blocked field goal from 32 yards, Texas didn't have any problems with field goals in the red zone last year other than the miss from 20 yards, which is significant, but not cause for too much consternation and conservatism, though it did make sense last year to be wary about drop-back passes near the edge of the red zone that would have put the team in a position where neither kicker was exactly reliable.
"Anthony (Fera) was injured last year so now you've actually got a chance to walk away with points."
Based on the evidence laid out above, there's very little truth to this -- even with all the struggles in the kicking game last season, only one miss came from inside the red zone and one more from the near-red zone area.
"So I don't want to be careless in certain situations when I feel like we can run the ball for a certain amount of yards and punch it in. Watch the game, we'll throw it if we have to. We're just trying to be smart with our approach."
All this makes more sense than the need for conservatism because the field goal kicking is better. Applewhite may also worry about McCoy throwing interceptions in this area with the field condensed and so many more defenders around. However, of the nine interceptions that McCoy has thrown this season, none of them have come while the team was in the red zone, though Kansas did intercept a pass in the red zone that was thrown from their 39-yard line.
And Texas did throw the ball against Oklahoma State in the first trip close to the red zone, when the drive stalled on the 22.
The first down play was a play-action on a slant-and-go to Mike Davis because Donald Hawkins whiffed on his pass block, one made more complicated because he wasn't in a pre-snap pass set and the Oklahoma State defensive end made a nice inside move on the snap.
Since the defense end and another defender coming from the other side made McCoy reset his feet, a situation compounded by McCoy's low delivery that requires extra space to deliver, the timing of the play was dead even if Davis had actually beaten his defender -- and it didn't look from the video view like Davis had a chance to create much separation against Poke cornerback Justin Gilbert, who was providing some cushion on the play, content to believe that he could make a tackle on the quick slant if Texas wanted it.
Second down was a packaged concept, but the field corner Tyler Patmon jumped the play and nearly beat Marcus Johnson to the football. The timing of many of those looks has been a problem for Texas in recent weeks and when the field corner starts jumping that route so hard, the Horns have to be willing to hit the counter with the double move, a play that was in Greg Davis' playbook, but hasn't been a part of the offense this season.
Against Texas this year, the swing player hasn't wanted to give much of a read, not committing inside or outside -- at that point, the read player should probably be the cornerback, as throwing that route into a cornerback jumping on it puts the blocking receiver in an impossible situation and sets up the risk of the type of catastrophic play that happened right before the half.
On 3rd down, there was a miscommunication between McCoy and his wide receiver -- Jaxon Shipley, it appeared -- and he ended up throwing the ball into a vacant corner of the end zone, perhaps expecting Shipley to run the same flag route that produced the big touchdown against West Virginia the week before. Seeing the two longtime friends not on the same page is a rare occurrence, but it did appear to end this particular Texas drive.
Part of what made the drive so damaging is that it took more nearly five and a half minutes off the clock -- the Horns have morphed into more of a ball control team that uses tempo situationally, mostly to set up the running game -- and can't afford to have long drives that shorten games result in field goals when playing from behind. It's just one of those consequences of having little margin for error.
The drive to start the second half was equally damaging from the same standpoint.
Down by 18 points after the late Oklahoma State scoring drive and the interception returned for a touchdown by Justin Gilbert, Texas needed a touchdown coming out of the half to have any chance to climb out of the hole exacerbated by McCoy's terribly poor decision before the half.
The drive didn't start well, as the attempted reverse on the kickoff was stopped at the six-yard line, forcing the Longhorns to move the ball 94 yards to hit the Oklahoma State end zone. A personal foul penalty on safety Daytawion Lowe helped extend the drive and McCoy capitalized on the next play with the longest pass of the game for the Horns, a 41-yard catch by Mike Davis, down the sideline, of course.
Later, from the 24-yard line, McCoy was able to pull some time in the pocket before stepping up and finding Shipley across the middle for 12 big yards on 3rd and 4. However, at that point the drive fell apart.
On first down, Texas tried to fake a bubble screen to one side of the field and then throw it back to the other side, but linebacker Shaun Lewis read the play and tackled Marcus Johnson before he had a chance to pick up any yardage.
The following play, Malcolm Brown was able to find a small crease on a play that featured the jet sweep motion from Daje Johnson, but there was little running room, as all the second-level players for Oklahoma State crashed the line of scrimmage hard as soon as Johnson came in motion across the formation.
On the drive's 10th and final play, McCoy tried to hit Shipley on a slant, but there was little separation and a deep defender over the top came downhill quickly to hit the Texas wide receiver short of the sticks and help dislodge the football. If McCoy had waited a split second longer, he might have had Johnson running free in the end zone, but it's hard to tell because the defender who came up to hit Shipley was also in decent position against Johnson, albeit rather flat-footed.
The drive ended in a field goal and Texas never got closer than 15 points after Oklahoma State responded with a four-minute drive and a field goal of their own.
So there's no Wildcat, no plays for Swoopes or Overstreet, no quarterback run game from the starter, defenses are taking out the starter's preferred throw, and McCoy doesn't have the escapability to make plays like Ash did.
What's the solution in the red zone, then? Even the pick plays that a lot of teams love to use aren't nearly as effective against teams playing match coverage -- those are routes designed as man-beaters. And the wide receiver screens Texas tried against Oklahoma State weren't working, either.
Would Texas think about resurrecting the Wildcat outside of Swopoes and Overstreet, who would likely have zone-read packages? Probably not, as Applewhite abandoned the look after some struggles early in the season using it to convert short-yardage situations, as Johnathan Gray was merely running Power every time and opponents were loaded up to stop it, so the guess here is that the package is dead under this particular coaching staff, as much as it helped the team in the red zone when Fozzy Whittaker was triggering it in 2011.
Joe Bergeron has run the package in the past at times, but Gray was the best fit among the current running backs, so his injury likely precludes its return as much as the early-season short-yardage failures.
Outside of bringing in one of the back-up quarterbacks, the best solution is probably to score from outside the red zone. With the lack of explosiveness in the running game, a problem all season, frankly, that has to come from the passing game, where McCoy is limited to making throws down the sidelines or hoping for something underneath to break open -- Texas only has six runs of 30 or more yards this season, and three of them came from Gray and another from David Ash.
In other words, there aren't a lot of solutions right now for the Longhorns -- certainly no easy solutions -- even as Applewhite tries to find some. Whether he's able to do so could play a large role in determining whether Texas can beat Texas Tech next week, though it's unlikely to matter against Baylor.