For much of the first half against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, the prolific Texas offense struggled to move the football against the fast and physical Buckeye defense. Then, in the second half, Greg Davis made a strategic decision foreshadowing the direction of the 2009 offense. Going no huddle with Chris Ogbonnaya in the backfield, the Longhorns increased the tempo and went under center to create a downhill running game. The strategy worked, as the Longhorns finally got the running game going and put the Ohio State defense on their heels.
Such a look is not new to the Big 12. Oklahoma successfully implemented the no-huddle offense in 2008 in an effort to run more plays and combat the clock rules put in before the season. It wasn't always a smooth transition, as OU quarterbacks threw six interceptions in their spring game, including three from the normally mistake-free Sam Bradford, prompting Bob Stoops to wonder how much the Sooners would be able to use the offense. Turns out Stoopsy didn't have much to worry about.
Part of what made Oklahoma so successful was their versatility on offense:
OU has hybrid players all over the field on offense. Tailback DeMarco Murray and tight end Jermaine Gresham can be big-play threats from the slot. Tight end Brody Eldridge is a great blocker at fullback. Fullback Matt Clapp can play tight end or tailback. Unlike almost any other offense in college football, OU can line up in an I-formation one play, shift to an empty backfield with five receivers the next play before swinging to a double-tight end set on third down. And the Sooners can do it all without having to change personnel.
Center Jon Cooper emphasizes the advantages going no-huddle has for the offense, particularly with a personnel package as versatile as the one Oklahoma employs:
The defense can't sub. They could be in a nickel package, and we can go from [an] empty [set] to big without changing anybody, and they have an extra defensive back on the field when we're going to try to run the ball instead of them loading the box. They have to make a choice for a drive instead of a play.
The Sooners ran a national-best 1,036 plays -- nearly 80 per contest - while ranking just 72nd nationally in time of possession (29:46 per game). That means OU, on average, completed a new play every 22.4 seconds -- and that's with the running 40-second clock between plays that the NCAA instituted this season.
In essence, the reason the no-huddle offense works so well isn't complicated:
First, there's the simple mathematics of it. The more plays you can run, the more points you're capable of scoring.
Secondly, the shortened span between plays makes it harder for opposing defenses to disguise their coverages. Oftentimes, the Sooners snap the ball so quickly, there's simply no time for a safety to creep up or a linebacker to shift gaps.
Teams often tried to disguise their coverages against the Longhorns last season, particularly Oklahoma State, as the Cowboys incorporated a significant amount of pre-snap movement in an attempt to keep Colt McCoy guessing and off balance. There's no reason to expect that McCoy will operate at a level any less than he did his junior season, making blitzing and disguising coverages important once again for opposing defenses. When the Longhorns choose to go no-huddle and up-tempo in 2009, they will reduce the ability of defenses to disguise what they are doing, providing the surgically accurate McCoy with the opportunity to pick defenses apart to an even greater degree. Scary.
Passing offenses aren't known for being particularly physical or wearing down their opponents in the same way that a downhill, pounding running game can leave an opponent, particularly defensive linemen, gasping for air. In a strange way, the 2008 Texas offense wore down opponents by going on sustained drives. While coaches will expect Malcolm Williams to provide more of a deep threat in 2009, the Texas offense will probably remain mostly in the mode of a controlled passing team.
Accelerating the tempo, which reduces a defense's ability to substitute, could help the Longhorns wear down opponents, making it much easier to run late in the game to kill the clock with a lead -- a major emphasis for Mack Brown this season, hence all the spring I-formation work.
In fact, the Longhorns plan to really accelerate the tempo in the 2009 season, both under center, as they did against Ohio State, and also in the shotgun. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis describes the decision:
We used it in the bowl game and with quite a bit of success. We had seven snaps of real fast tempo and six of them were really productive. We caught them [Ohio State's defense] one time with 12 guys on the field, we caught them offsides on a touchdown play and so it's a part.
Davis also notes the role that Colt McCoy will play in running the offense:
It will be a bigger part of our offense as we enter the fall. We're sending in the formation and the play. He'll [Colt] have freedom within that system. One of the things you're doing in that offense is you're trying to catch the defense from being exactly set with their call. Every time you give the quarterback freedom to start changing up there, you're also giving the defense more time to adjust to the formation, but he does have freedom in that formation, in that tempo.
Davis' point illustrates an important facet of going to a no-huddle offense -- the quarterback must have experience in the offense and the confidence to check plays at the line of scrimmage. While Davis took away some of McCoy's responsibility in checking down at the line prior to the 2008 season to limit his mistakes and keep him from trying to make a big play every time, it looks like the Heisman runner-up's leash will get longer in 2009.
Much like the Sooners did in 2008, Davis has lofty goals for the tempo of the offense and will use several different formations to give defenses different looks:
We have a couple of different kinds. One is we're hurry-up in the gun and then we do have hurry-up when we're under center. We're trying to get to the line of scrimmage as the official is making the ball ready for play. Then, we're trying to get the ball snapped from five seconds after he moves away from marking the ball ready for play.
In some ways, the no-huddle offense isn't so much about getting plays off as quickly as teams like Tulsa or Oklahoma -- it's more about getting to the line of scrimmage quickly, then receiving the play from the sideline. In other words, the idea with the no-huddle offense sometimes is to simply keep the opposing team from substituting, rather than getting plays off so quickly after the referee spots the ball, the goal that Davis has publicly set. In that sense, the Longhorns may have, as do many no-huddle teams, several different tempos.
As to Davis' other point about accelerating the tempo both under center and in the shotgun, he may be suggesting a shift to more situational drive blocking. Against Ohio State, the Longhorns did block downhill, on one play moving the line of scrimmage about eight yards downfield on the playside, allowing Chris Ogbonnaya an easy gain. If the offensive line can achieve that level of success drive blocking, then it won't really matter who is running the ball -- any of the current running backs can have a great deal of success with that much open field in front of them.
The greatest disadvantage of the no-huddle offense, particularly when snapping the ball as quickly as possible, is that the defense doesn't have as much time to rest. Oklahoma suffered that fate last season in the Cotton Bowl, as the defense wore down late and allowed the Longhorns to win the game running away. For that reason, going no-huddle, but taking the time to get plays from the sideline may aid in keeping the defense from substituting, but allow the defense time to rest.
Since Will Muschamp isn't known as a person reticent to make his voice heard and purports to having a close relationship with Greg Davis, he will surely let the offensive coordinator know when the defense needs time to catch their collective breath.
However, accelerating the tempo does look to be a major shift in offensive philosophy going into the 2009 season and rates as an exremely sound decision by Greg Davis. The Longhorns don't need a revolutionary offense, but only the ability to evolve by copying other successful ideas that will help improve the running game, especially late in the game, as speeding up the tempo is sure to do.
Let's make the jump to light-speed.