July 30 2009 - In a pre-season fanpost, I expressed the following concern for the upcoming season
As evidenced in last year's games against Oklahoma State and Ohio State, Texas's defense, which is increasingly designed to emphasize speed and quickness in order to match up with spread offenses, is vulnerable to power rushing attacks.
Numerous pre-season posts expressed anxiety about Texas' defensive tackles behind Lamarr Houston, who was an unknown commodity himself, such as perceived journeyman Ben Alexander and green redshirt sophomore Kheeston Randall. Visions of helpless collapses against power running teams in critical games filled everyone's heads. 2009 could be the year of Motown's Lamarr and the Space-Eaters against the blitzkriegs of Chris Brown, Kendall Hunter, Christine Michael, Tim Tebow, or Mark Ingram. The Horns might even have to use, gasp!, true freshmen Calvin Howell and Derek Johnson. The call went out by anxious UT fans for anyone, anyone to step up.
The Space Eaters - Ben Alexander (92) and Kheeston Randall (91)
Sure, UT could win 10 and maybe even make a BCS bowl (little did we know that there might be as many as 6 undefeated teams after 9 weeks in the 2009 season), but if it was the 2009 mythical national championship the Horns wanted, these guys had to step up.
Jimmy Hoffa, from the grave, "I need some nasty, beefy guys up front, and not ya cousin Guido. Whatevah it takes, capisce?!"
November 1, 2009. Basking in the glow of 41-14, the report is in: The call was ANSWERED!
For the details and more on the offensive line, Will Muschamp, and other tidbits, make the jump!
The Evolution of the Defensive Tackles: Space Eaters to Gap Monsters
No doubt, the Cowboys thought they could build on last year''s success and overpower the spread-ready Texas D. From the first offensive play, Oklahoma State's strategy was clear. Double the strongside DE (Acho or Kindle) with a tackle (Russell Okung or Brady Bond) and tight end Wilson Youman. Let Lamarr Houston penetrate into the play and have Keith Toston cut back behind a double team from guard Noah Franklin and center Andrew Lewis on the presumed sacrificial Kheeston Randall. Randall holds position with his shoulders underneath Lewis, and then when Franklin leaves to block Rodderick Muckelroy, he reaches out and slaps the ball out of Toston's hands, luckily recovered by Oklahoma State. OK, not exactly chopped liver, but it's one play.
On the first drive, powered largely by Zac Robinson's scrambling and a couple of trick plays, OSU ran some variation of the inside power run at Kheeston Randall 6 times. In the half they tried it 8 times The result: gains of 2, 2, 3, 1, 3, 4, 5, and 3 yards. That's a 3.8 ypc average if you're calculating at home. Not exactly 2008, when the Pokes averaged over 6 yards per carry. On all six runs, either Randall or Houston was able to slide off their block into the gap chosen by Toston, or were able to tie up two offensive linemen without losing ground for long enough to let Keenan Robinson or Roddrick Muckelroy make the tackle.
Even more interestingly, on the second drive, OSU abandoned the inside run almost completely (only two more inside runs the rest of the half) and instead began to attack Texas' corners. In the next 7 plays, 3 before and 4 after Jordan Shipley's fumbled punt, and ending the dropped fourth down pass in the end zone by Hubert Anyiam, OSU ran speed options to the outside or passed. They did not make a first down on either drive, and both Houston and Randall had QB pressures. Indeed, for most of the game the primary pressure on Zac Robinson was from either Houston or Randall.
This is worth taking a moment to appreciate. The play of the Longhorn defensive tackles, perceived to be a weakness at the beginning of the season by the fans and clearly also by Mike Gundy (otherwise why call 6 inside runs?) so completely defeats the OSU power running game that the Cowboys have to go to Game Plan B after the first drive. This shift in offensive philosophy eventually leaves Robinson vulnerable to the Texas secondary and perhaps provided the key to the blowout. While the Houtson-Randall-Alexander trifecta may not be composed of the best individual defensive tackles in the Big 12, they are good enough to stop the best power running team on the schedule without altering the defensive formation or changing personnel.
34 or 43: Which is the Magic Number?
The average fan is often aware of offensive formations (Wildhorn vs. empty set, etc.) but oblivious to details in defensive formations. Texas features a "Buck" package with Sergio Kindle as the "Buck" linebacker who can put a hand on the ground as a defensive end (to make a 4-3 alignment) or line up as a linebacker (to create a 3-4). The 3-4 alignment allows Will Muschamp to move Kindle around and create confusion in the blocking scheme. The success of the 3-4 alignment depends heavily on Texas having a strong presence at the nose, and Kheeston Randall filled that bill pretty well. A 3-4 defense is strongest against the pass because of the flexibility and uncertainty it creates for the offense in choosing routes and pass-blocking assignments. The 4-3 has the greatest potential against the run because the defensive tackles can take just one gap and penetrate and the linebackers are more protected.
In the Oklahoma State game, Texas switched regularly between the two alignments, and with largely the same personnel on the field. Although both fronts played well, there was a striking difference in OSU's performance against the two that highlights their strengths and weaknesses. Oklahoma State ran (not counting QB scrambles) against the 4-3 front 5 times in the first four drives, gaining 3 total yards (0.6 ypc). They ran against the 3-4 front 9 times, gaining 45 yards (5 ypc), with two runs accounting for 20 of the 45, including a 13 yard "jet sweep" by Travis Miller. On the other hand, Robinson passed against the 4-3 alignment 8 times, going 4-7 for 31 yards and an added 5 yard scramble (4.5 yards per play). Against the 3-4 front, Robinson threw five incompletions and had one scramble for 5 yards (0.8 yards per play). By the second quarter, Robinson was checking in and out of running plays to try to avoid running against the 4-3. Eventually, that caught up with him as he checked out of a run on 3rd and 2 from the Texas 30, only to throw the pick six to Curtis Brown.
The moral of these stats is that there will be a little cat and mouse game every week with opposing offenses trying to avoid running against the 4-3 and passing against the 3-4. The dominance of each defensive front against the offense it is designed to stop allows Texas to play against the offensive tendency, such as to expect a playaction pass on first down against its 4-3 or expect a run against its 3-4. Reducing an offense's playbook by half is a powerful defensive weapon.
Muschamp, You Wily Fox, You
Muschamp, the fox, playing with the mind of Zac Robinson. No chance, mouse: 41-14!
In going back over my notes and studying the tactics of both teams' playcalling, I'm convinced (without proof of course) that Muschamp baited Zac Robinson into Earl Thomas' interception. One of the great things about spread offenses is that receivers' routes are dictated by coverage, which allows the receiver to exploit the right seam or gap in the defense. However, I think that one of the reasons Texas' offense is struggling as much as it has this year is because defenses have now learned what choices receivers and QB's tend to make against particular formations. Defenses can now "show" one formation, know what choice a QB will make, and then run someone to that spot to jump the route. Against OSU, Earl Thomas began to run with the slot receiver, likely knowing that if he went with the receiver, Robinson would make the read to throw to the receiver running underneath to the area Thomas vacated. Knowing that, Earl released his man to Gideon deep and jumped the underneath route. If a defense gets to the point of responding to an offense's read rather than the actual player movements, then the offense will suffer the fate of the poor mouse in the photo, especially since there's no hole in the snow for an offense to hide.
Jekyll and Hyde, Version 2009.8
The offensive line that is. Frankly, I'm tired of analyzing the line's play because it's the same infuriating play every week. Any given individual along the line makes 3 great plays, 3 okay plays, and one really bad play. Against OSU, it was MOS. Chris Hall lets the defender get underneath him and thus enough penetration to trip Colt McCoy for a first down on 3rd and 2 in the red zone (Texas 3-0 instead of 7-0). Adam Ulatoski takes the wrong pass rusher and Colt takes a sack (end of drive). Charlie Tanner turns his head to the left and a blitzing LB goes by him to his right - sack and end of drive.
The good news is that, for the first time in three games, the OL was not physically overmatched at any time. The bad news is that this means it's all mental and after 140 collective starts or whatever it is, there shouldn't be this many mental errors. The offensive line is like an old house with faulty wiring: when you flip the switch, the light comes on most of the time, and good luck figuring out why it doesn't come on a few times. That said, GD had better be careful in how much he relies on only the core 5 offensive linemen to protect Colt. Five wide may be a nice change of pace, but an entire series of plays based on it, or using it on third and long, is going to get Colt injured or result in a turnover.
Greg Davis is a Genius
In an ode to GhostofBigRoy's call for series-based playcalling, I give you Texas' third drive against the Pokes at 14:25 of the second quarter. The previous (second) drive self-destructed from missed blocks by Greg Smith and Chris Hall and a failed run on first down, Colt throwing to a triple-covered Shipley for 3 yards when James Kirkendoll was 10 yards from anyone wide open 3 yards downfield on the opposite side of the play on second down, and a missed block by David Snow allowing Colt to get tripped up on a QB scramble.
With visions of Wyoming and Colorado dancing in the fans' heads, Texas started their third drive, after Hubert Anyiam's fumble, with three plays from 4 or 5 wide receiver sets. After overcoming a first down failure of the empty backfield and a sack of Colt, the Horns started first down on the OSU 38. The Horns, using their 11 personnel set with a running back and Greg Smith as the TE, ran the most beautiful series of running plays of the season.
1st down - Jet sweep to Marquise Goodwin (surprise, not DJ Monroe) for 7 yards.
1st down - Fake the jet sweep to the left and run Fozzy on a counter sweep to the right for 6 yards.
2nd down - Zone read, the DE crashes on Fozzy to seal the backcut, and Colt keeps for 6 yards.
1st down - Play action, fake the zone stretch left, Colt rolls out to the right and finds Marquise Goodwin in a seam vacated by Jordan Shipley's crossing route for 11 yards.
1st down - Jumbo package - Cody Johnson goes 2 yards and breaks the plane of the goal line - touchdown.
So the next time someone tells you that Texas has no running game, no misdirection, or no playaction passing, you can whip this out. The Horns have now used multiple plays to set up multiple other plays on the same drive, including in the running game. MORE OF THIS PLEASE!
Greg Davis goes from genius to imbecile on the same drive
It's the first drive of the second half. After the best playaction pass of the year for 44 yards to Malcolm Williams on a post pattern vacated, once again, by a Shipley crossing route underneath, Texas has the ball on the OSU 20. We're seconds away from 31-7 and good night ladies....
1st down - Cody Johnson on the zone stretch, cuts back inside and, with a good block from Buckner, gets 6 yards.
(Yeah, baby, pound it home!)
2nd down and 3 - Oops, OSU dances in front of Adam Ulatoski, threatening the blitz. Uli decides to tango. False start -5 yards.
2nd down and 8 - Davis can't get the play in in time AFTER A PENALTY &^&%&I. - 5 yards
2nd down and 13 - Let's call a play that hasn't worked all year against a defense that isn't blitzing. Shovel pass to Fozzy, who is clocked by an unblocked linebacker. - 4 yards
3rd down and 17 - Using 11 personnel (Okay, the Horns aren't running, it must be for max protect), Greg Smith runs out in the flat, Colt gets harassed and throws it to Smith for 5 yards.
4th down and 12 from the OSU 23 - Hunter Lawrence bails out the Horns with a 40-yard field goal.
What does it all mean?
Somehow, out of the flickering lights of GD's brain and the offensive line's attention span, Texas has a top offense that is going to look unstoppable on some series and infuriating on others. It is what it is, and I will officially stop complaining from now on and start appreciating it when the lights are fully on.