The Big Picture
Two weeks ago, it seemed like over analysis to focus on two stalled drives hidden within the trashing of UTEP. The Longhorns led the nation by converting each of their opportunities inside the red zone. Problem was, and is, that the Texas coaching staff has no idea how to run the football in the red zone, leading to using the WildHorn there against UTEP, with poor results even though Mack Brown admitted that the plays were set up for failure. In fact, the whole offense inside the red zone is still searching for an identity. Which running back should play? Should it be Cody Johnson, who has the strength to pick up some yardage after contact? Should EBS play? Can the Longhorns throw the ball effectively with EBS in the game?
Against Colorado, the Longhorns experienced the same problems, as the first two drives of the game stalled deep on Colorado territory and the Buffaloes blocked the kick on the second drive, destroying red zone perfection for Texas on the season. What's going on here?
First Drive -- The Context
Shockingly and unbelievably, Colorado marched down the field on their first drive, going 66 yards and converting 3rd and 21 with a 25-yard touchdown pass from rag-armed Cody Hawkins to tight end Patrick Devenny. Ask Hawkins to throw the ball any further and his arm might fall off. In fact, judging by the velocity, or complete lack thereof, on the throw that Earl Thomas took to the house and that lofted throw to Devenny might have sapped lil Hawk's arm strength for the night. Note the sarcasm.
Attempting to respond, the Longhorns moved the ball methodically down the field as McCoy targeted Shipley three times for 47 yards. The drive even included Vondrell McGee's longest run of the night -- five yards on his first carry. The jumbo package took two plays to pick up two yards, but eventually got the job done and the beautiful 3rd and 12 throw by McCoy down the sideline to Shipley moved the Longhorns to the Colorado 19 yardline.
1st and 10 CU 19
The Longhorns line up in the WildHorn formation for the first time on the evening, but using Vondrell McGee as the running back for the first time:
Notice that the linebackers are all shaded over to the short side of the field. Even though the Longhorns haven't shown this specific variation of the WildHorn, the defenders seem to suspect something or flat out aren't concerned about McGee's speed to the outside.
Nor should they be, as the play will show. Texas runs a variation of the power play that is a staple of the Wildcat series, but instead of even faking the handoff with McGee, Davis uses him as the lead blocker on the play. In other words, instead of forcing the linebackers to move, they simply have to play downhill. Guess what? It doesn't work as well that way, as the outside linebacker on the wide side of the field, who would be responsible for McGee if he comes in motion, slices into the play and hits Chiles at the line of scrimmage. The play picks up three yards, which ties it for the most successful WildHorn play run in the last two games. At least Hall manages to snap the ball well.
2nd and 7 CU
Texas keeps the same 11 personnel grouping on the field, with EBS moving to the strong side of the field:
At the snap of the ball, Colorado run blitzes all three linebackers and the nickel corner lined up over James Kirkendoll in the slot:
The Colorado defensive coordinator guesses correctly, so the Longhorns don't have the numbers to pick up all the blitzers. It might be a zone read play, as McCoy pulls the ball back from McGee, but it's hard to say because it gets blown up so quickly. McCoy loses three yards on the play and takes a nice pop for his efforts, as well.
3rd and 10 CU 19
Will he break tendency and not throw a screen pass out of it?
It turns out that he will, but Colorado drops seven into coverage, including the middle linebacker showing blitz at the line of scrimmage in the above shot. Since the camera angle is terrible, it's impossible to know the routes Texas was running on the play except that John Chiles is the outlet receiver standing at the line of scrimmage. McCoy has solid protection, but can't find any of this three primary receivers on the play, though McGee is open in the right flat just as McCoy tucks the ball to run, picking up three yards. Given the quick reaction of Colorado defenders to McCoy's run, they were probably in zone coverage.
Texas settles for a 32-yard field goal from Hunter Lawrence.
Fourteen plays for 64 yards, 5:58 expired. Five of six passing for 50 yards by McCoy, as well as two carries for zero yards. Two rushes for eight yards for McGee, as well as one catch for negative two yards. Two rushes for three yards for Cody Johnson. One rush for three yards by Chiles, as well as one catch for five yards. Three catches for 47 yards for Shipley. One dropped pass by James Kirkendoll. One missed block for Dan Buckner on the failed shovel pass to McGee.
For the most part, the Texas offense responded well to the Colorado touchdown, converting the 3rd and 12 and the fourth down with Cody Johnson running, but stalled inside the red zone once again.
The new WildHorn power play with McGee blocking did not exactly fail, but it did demonstrate that Davis and Mack Brown fail to understand a key concept of the Wildcat series -- the plays must compliment each other. They must be run more than once or twice a game to take advantage of whatever the defense is giving. If the defense goes with the man in motion every time, the power play or the counter is open. If the defense sells out to stop the power play, the stealer is open to the outside. So simple a caveman can do it. But apparently not Greg Davis.
On the play, the outside was open, but McGee doesn't have the speed to exploit it, a fact the Colorado defense took advantage of to shade all three linebacker towards the short side of the field. In the true Wildcat series, the next play would be the stealer and it would probably work, even with McGee.
If the Longhorns insist on keeping McCoy and two other receivers on the field in the WildHorn, there is no ability to use an h-back in the formation as a lead blocker. Instead of accepting that fact or taking a wide receiver off the field, Davis instead chose to use the running back as a lead blocker. Once again, the problem there is that the defense doesn't have to worry at all about anything going outside to the wide side of the field. Misdirection is quite possibly the key to the Wildcat series and this power play has absolutely none.
The other issue is that Chiles himself said last week that because the defense is keying on him the offense needs to utilize DJ Monroe more to the outside. Instead, Davis put McGee in the game as a lead blocker. Great. The WildHorn could work for the Longhorns but the coaching staff is going about it completely the wrong way.
On the second play featured above, it looked like the Colorado defensive coordinator had read Davis' offensive script before the game, run blitzing into a running play. However, responsbility for the failed play rests on McCoy, who did not check out of it when he saw the blitz. With the nickel corner blitzing, the safety is seven yards off of Kirkendoll, giving McCoy an easy hot read if he checks the play at the line of scrimmage. Even if Colorado then switches out of their blitz, at least the play has a chance.
The third play illustrates several things. First of all, the Longhorns have struggled this season against zone defenses, possibly because the receivers didn't get a lot of game reps last season finding holes in the zone. Secondly, McCoy has not done as good of a job this season of finding his running backs out of the backfield, perhaps as a result of having less trust for McGee and Newton than McCoy had with Chris Ogbonnaya. Finally, the zone defenses help limit McCoy's scrambling ability because the defenders don't have their backs turned to the quarterback. Whatever the case, the Longhorns need to figure it out because defenses are going to continue playing zone defense until McCoy and company make them pay.
Second Drive -- The Context
After the poor start to the game, the Texas defense responded by forcing a three and out on Colorado's second possession. Offensively, the Longhorns dinked and dunked their way down the field to once again get inside the red zone against a statistically-poor Colorado defense. Following his eight yards on two carries on the first drive, McGee struggled to find any room behind the Texas offensive line, picking up three yards on three carries. A second offsides penalty on the drive against Colorado on 3rd and 2 puts Texas inside the CU 10 yardline.
1st and Goal CU 8
Greg Davis calls in for 11 personnel on first down, with Cody Johnson staying in the game after entering the play before to run the ball on third down. Notice EBS on the short side of the field, indicating to me pre snap that the Longhorns are going to run the sorta counter to the left, about the only running play that the coaching staff uses with Johnson:
Unbelievably, it is indeed a counter play behind the left side of the line, which gets good blocks on the play. On the other side, Kyle Hix decides to take out the knees of defensive end Nick Kasa given the problems the Longhorns have had during the game of unblocked players on the backside of plays making tackles. Michael Huey comes through the hole and seemingly has trouble deciding which of the two linebackers to block and barely gets a piece of the playside linebacker as they combine to make the stop, limiting Johnson to a three-yard gain.
2nd and Goal CU 5
Desperately seeking solutions, Davis calls for an empty set with Fozzy Whittacker entering the game at the bottom of the screen with Dan Buckner and James Kirkendoll on the wide side of the field and John Chiles and Jordan Shipley on the short side:
Notice that Colorado is in man-to-man press coverage against all the receivers except for Whittacker, who is played to take away the inside release. The Buffaloes have only one linebacker and one safety in the middle of the field.
The man coverage takes away any quick throws for McCoy and a stunt by the strongside defensive end Marquez Herrod beats the right tackle Hix and eventually results in a sack and a loss of eight yards. It looked like there was some miscommunication between Hix and Huey because Huey left his man to try to slow down Herrod, allowing his original assignment, defensive tackle Curtis Cunningham, to get to McCoy at roughly the same time as Herrod.
3rd and Goal CU 13
The Longhorns stay with the same personnel grouping, but put Whittaker in the backfield and once again use the bunch formation to the bottom of the screen.
Judging by the pass, Kirkendoll was supposed to run an option route, going inside if the defender shades him outside and going outside if the defender shades him inside. Kirkendoll goes inside, while McCoy throws the ball outside, leading to an incompletion.
4th and Goal CU 13
The punt team comes onto the field to attempt the field goal. Notice that the kick is from the left hash, meaning that Lawrence has to angle the kick to the right, making Ahmard Howard's protection on the right side of the line more important than if the ball were in the middle of the field or on the right hash.
Howard has a decision to make. Should he help Alex Okafor with the man coming across his right shoulder or should he block the man coming to the outside? Given the position of ball, Howard needs to block the outside man because the placement of the ball means the kick will be directed into the edge rusher:
Howard makes the wrong decision and the edge rusher blocks the kick, costing the Longhorns three points.
Thirteen plays for 46 yards, 5:09 expired. Five of six passing for 28 yards and two carries for one yard by McCoy. Two catches for 13 yards by Shipley. Two catches for 11 yards by Chiles. One catch for five yards by Dan Buckner. Three carries for one yard by McGee. One carry for three yards by Johnson. Two offsides penalties for 10 yards by Colorado. One miscommunication between Kirkendoll and McCoy. One poor decision in field goal protection by Ahmard Howard.
Once again, the Longhorns move the ball well before stalling close to the goalline. Once again, the drive stalls following a similar pattern -- a run for three yards, a terrible play resulting in a loss, and then McCoy unable to connect with a receiver.
The counter play to Johnson works reasonably well, but the problem is that Hix had to stay home blocking the defensive end because of the problems with backside players making tackles. The point of the counter play is that it uses misdirection to get the defense flowing in the wrong direction because of the counter step. Well, as well documented in these parts, there is no counter step. Hix staying at home left a linebacker unblocked and Huey did a poor job of blocking the other linebacker, giving Johnson little to no chance of picking up any more yards than he did.
On the second play, the right side of the Texas line failed to pick up the stunt by the defensive end, a tactic they will see often this season if it continues to work for opponents. Given the state of the running game, the Longhorns will have to throw the ball upwards of 35 times to beat Oklahoma and correctly this problem will be necessary to sustain drives, because even one sack will almost certainly derail a drive.
The third play illustrates the trust issues that McCoy seems to have with his receivers other than Buckner and Shipley. Mccoy must throw the ball on the option route before the receiver makes the break, so he has to trust that the receiver will make the same read. Kirkendoll did not and the play should have resulted in a touchdown. Throughout the season, McCoy and Kirkendoll have struggled to connect close to the goalline. Until a third receiver steps up and earns the trust of McCoy, the Texas offense will continue to struggle scoring touchdowns. On top of that, Kirkendoll's poor read was representative of a bad game that saw him drop a pass, get called for holding, and generally fail completely in the blocking game. What happened to the step forward he was supposed to take after making that critical catch against Ohio State?
The offense is clearly casting about relatively aimlessly trying to find solutions for the problems punching the ball into the end zone. In the last two games, nothing has worked well, not the WildHorn, not Cody Johnson running, not spreading the field. Eventually, settling for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns will prove to be a major issue and the main hope is that Davis finds something that works. The bad news is that the Longhorns are now entering the toughest part of their schedule and don't have any more time to experiment against overmatched teams. They will have to figure it out on fly.