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Morning Coffee Talks Texas Tech Strategery

If this post usually can be read quickly before launching into the work day, today's might be one you print and save for reading on that long walk over to the coffee shop down the street. What can I say? I'm excited for this game...

Get out your roster cards and pay attention.  Big Roy got into the issue of game length (both time and plays run) in yesterday's outstanding Morning Coffee notes, an issue defensive ends coach Oscar Giles spoke to during a Tuesday afternoon presser:

On the importance of depth against Texas Tech: [Sam] Acho, Eddie Jones, Henry Melton, Sergio, Russell Carter - as many guys as we can get in. At the tackle position, we've got Aaron Lewis, Lamarr Houston, Roy Miller, Kheeston Randall - the more the merrier, because it's going to be a long game. It could be a 90-play, 100-play game. We really feel good about our depth there.

On the difficulty of substituting against high-tempo offenses: It's that way week to week. The guys on the field have to do a great job. We've done a great job of conditioning. Our guys are in great shape. We'll get them in. We just have to make sure that the guys in there are doing the job.

It's a factor to watch closely--especially late in the game--and Longhorns fans need only look back three weeks for an example of how it can be a decisive one. Crucial to seizing control of the Red River Shootout was the pressure Texas put on Sam Bradford throughout the 4th quarter, when Texas' impressive depth wore down the Sooners' massive offensive line. Though the Red Raiders are well-conditioned, a constant barrage of fresh legs bringing heat from the edges inevitably takes its toll. Healthy, strong contributions from all of the guys Giles named would go a long way towards giving Texas an edge in the home stretch.

Aw, crap. It works both ways.  If a swarm of fresh bodies could in theory help Texas' defensive line be a difference-maker down the stretch, we can't ostrich away the Longhorns' own potential fatigue issues. On offense, Greg Davis mentioned banged up players during this week's Film Review, while Big Roy noticed and wrote about apparent Ship-Cosby-OG fatigue. Now, after watching Texas-OSU game tape, Red Raiders blogger Dedfischer includes among his viewing notes:

The Texas defense looks like they’re suffering from "tired" legs in this game.

Texas DT Roy Miller and others expressed after Saturday's game that the battle with OSU had been a brutally physical affair, which means that if Dedfischer perceived correctly, Texas' fatigue could well be amplified this coming week against Tech. And even if Texas didn't particularly suffer from tired legs last week, the showdown with the Red Raiders will be the Longhorns' fourth straight tussle with a Top 10 opponent.

The upshot is that Texas may be too worn down itself to accomplish what it did against OU three weeks ago. To be perfectly honest, I feel exhausted as a freaking fan from the last three weeks. How must the team feel? More distressing yet, if Texas' insane stretch of games could be a significant liability come Saturday, consider as a vinegar on the wound, icing on the cake, mixed metaphor cherry on top that Texas Tech enters the game on the heels of a comfortable blowout win over Kansas which allowed them to ease up in the second half. They're as fresh as we are tired.

At least the game is in Austin.

This pass blocking thing turns out to be important.  On a more upbeat note, Dedfischer in the same report hit on the Catch-22 of defending Texas this year:

That being said, if we can’t get to McCoy without blitzing, we’re screwed, and I don’t think blitzing is a good idea whatsoever.

Though Texas' relative lack of rushing prowess has been the more prevalent topic of discussion (understandable, among a fan base and punditry probing for weaknesses in the nation's top ranked team), the Longhorns' offensive line has developed into one of the nation's finest pass-protecting units.And thus the yet-to-be-solved conundrum for opposing defensive coordinators:

  1. Blitzing Colt McCoy and his band of telepathic receivers is a fool's errand.
  2. Not getting pressure on Colt McCoy is inviting another Heisman-worthy stat line.
  3. Getting through Texas' offensive line and to McCoy without a blitz has proven exceptionally difficult.

Which leaves... what, exactly? Texas' toughest challenger, Oklahoma State, buried the Longhorns' running game and threw everything but the kitchen sink at trying to get to McCoy, but Texas' line held and the Cowboys were shredded by robo-passer. Neither Oklahoma nor Missouri came close to disrupting this hard-to-believe Texas pass attack. Frankly, the Texas passing game to date has been as impossible to stop as the Indianapolis Colts under Peak Peyton Manning or 2007 New England Patriots under Tom Brady. Scoff all you like--I make the comparison firmly pinching my own nose--but the passing game to date truly has been similarly devastating as those two units at their best.

So again: that leaves... what, exactly? Disrupting Peyton-In-His-Prime's Colts most frequently has involved the use of revoltingly athletic NFL athletes in the 3-4 to zone blitz and create maddening dual reads for blockers. Helpful to Tech this week? For many reasons: No. Not only is this way outside what Tech has done or could do, but I don't think Texas would mind one bit sinking into max protect while Colt took turns gobbling up enormous chunks of yards passing just to Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby.

However, the Patriots' lone loss last year was--at its core--a matter of a good offensive line getting beat by a great defensive line: Because the New York Giants were able to disrupt so frequently Tom Brady with just four down linemen (supplemented only by strategically timed, pick-your-spots blitzing), they had seven defenders free to deal with the pass spread attack. No time to throw deep to Moss + enough defenders to deal with the Patriots' 10-yards-and-under passing game = Success. (This seems the appropriate time to direct you to Chris's outstanding essay "Pass Protection, The Super Bowl, Tom Brady, and The Blind Side" over at Smart Football.)

And there you have it--all those words to confirm Dedfischer's single sentence. Texas Tech features their best defensive end tandem in school history, and it's probable that their success or failure beating Adam Ulatoski and Kyle Hix will be determinative in Texas Tech's defensive success, period. It's that, or blind hope that robo-passer isn't so... robotic.

Of course, though I'd normally try to label such a hope as foolish wishcasting, I'm of the habit of telling people night games in Lubbock are like trips through the Bermuda Triangle. So who the hell knows? Colt could go Rick Ankiel on us Saturday evening and I probably wouldn't blink. I'm prepared for anything.

Aw, crap. It works both ways, Pt 2.   If Texas Tech's defensive ends are the key soldiers against Texas' offensive line if the Red Raiders are to slow down the ridiculously efficient passing offense under Colt McCoy, the flip side is that Mike Leach's "Air Raid" offense can and will be equally automatic if Texas' defensive line is insufficiently disruptive.

Today, in 2008, Texas fans' (and players', for that matter) familiarity with the shotgun pass spread attacks which dominate this conference is sufficient to ensure the Red Raiders' offense is no longer some kind of standalone oddity. Even so, Mike Leach's offense is not the pass spread attack that, say, Sam Bradford runs so well. Or what we saw last week from Zac Robinson and OSU. The closest offense to Tech's that the Longhorns have seen in 2008 is that which Gary Pinkel has installed at Missouri, but even that's not the Mike Leach Air Raid that Texas will try to defend on Saturday. For those unfamiliar, let's review some of the basics of the system:

  • Wide splits along the offensive line.  If you've never watched Tech's offense before, one of the first things you're sure to notice is how much space exists between the offensive linemen. Why do they do it? The Air Raid is predicated on spreading the field and creating exploitable space, which the wide splits serve in several ways.

    First, the wide splits push outward the opposing defensive ends. One way to make life harder for Brian Orakpo, for example, is to lengthen the ground he must cover to reach the quarterback. By extending horizontally the offensive line, defensive counterparts must slide out and away from the quarterback, as well.

    Second, in making less dense the center of the field, Tech's wide splits on the offensive line allow for less-clustered, simple-to-execute running plays--and in particular the draw. A primarily man blocking scheme, if everyone hits their blocks, the running back will have luscious space in the middle of the field to make yardage.

    Third, for the same reasons, the widening of the offensive line also is useful in creating clear passing lanes for the quarterback to throw. Decreasing density = good for finding open windows to pass.

  • It only looks hectic. Though the four- and five-receiver sets Tech deploys can make what the offense is doing appear hectic and helter-skelter, in truth the engine of the Air Raid is simplicity. The passing attack relies on the quarterback and his receivers developing exceptional rapport and rhythm by mastering with one another the execution of a handful of core plays. Though within those plays receivers have flexibility--for example, in selecting which route to run based on defensive formation--the entire Mike Leach offensive "play book" could be comfortably diagrammed on one 8x11 sheet of paper. Despite how the offense can appear to the unitiated, the Red Raiders aren't breaking down confused defenses with an impossibly deep exhibition of complex plays. Quite the contrary, they're just absolute masters of a few core concepts.

  • Liberal use of screen passes.  Hand in hand with the preceding is Tech's robust screen pass game, manifested in numerous ways. Again taking advantage of an extreme spacing and precise timing, Leach's Air Raid attack gets the ball quickly from quarterback to receiver (RB or WRs), who in a typical well-executed screen (1) will already be running at full speed and (2) is either isolated one-on-one with a defender or exploiting a gap in the defense's coverage.

Though a full expose of the Air Raid would entail describing in much greater detail the numerous reads and variations that go into making it a robust offensive attack, it truly is as conceptually simplistic as I've laid it out. At its best, its lethality is derived from the perfect timing and execution players develop through near-endless repetition in practice. For defenses not accustomed to covering the entire field quite in that way, it's a nightmare to defend, which in part explains why Tech has racked up monstrous point totals in winning 5 of their last 6 bowl games under Leach.

For most of Texas' coaches and upperclassmen, of course, the system will not be novel, and no player on the Longhorns roster was around for the Longhorns' last loss to the Red Raiders back in 2002 (also in Lubbock). Still, it's impossible to ignore how many young players Will Muschamp's secondary depends upon; for guys like Earl Thomas, Blake Gideon, Curtis & Chykie Brown, and Aaron Williams, this year will be their first to defend Leach's Air Raid. Mistakes are inevitable.

I'd argue Texas' defensive success on Saturday most depends on the following:

  1. The ability of Texas' defensive backs to keep the criss-crossing, zig-zagging Texas Tech receivers in front of them. That is: Where conceding yardage and first downs is both inevitable and acceptable, letting a 10-yard screen break free to become a 60-yard touchdown is not.
  2. The degree of disruption Texas' defensive linemen + Sergio Kindle, Tactical Missile can manage. The truth is: As a senior, Graham Harrell has nearly perfected this offense; he can and often does run the Air Raid at its high-end real world capacity. A sack party isn't in the cards, nor is any kind of statistically impressive smothering of Tech's passing yardage. Success will be a matter of managing the Air Raid, disrupting it enough to prevent its establishing the rhythm which makes it most lethal, and opportunistically making big plays that force a couple-few punts or result in turnover.

Can you tell I'm ready for a football game on Saturday? Yeah.