"Old-fashioned Street Fight"
BYU head coach Bronco Mendenahll is an old-school guy. And old-school guys like physical football. So even though the Cougars were primarily a spread team during the last several seasons, when former offensive coordinator Robert Anae stepped down late last fall, Mendenhall wanted a bit of a revamp for his offense. Enter Brandon Doman, the former BYU quarterback and quarterbacks coach, who switched to a more multiple offense featuring pro-style sets with an emphasis on downhill running and the play-action pass.
Sounds a lot like Mack Brown going into the 2010 season, doesn't it? And frankly, the early returns for BYU against Ole Miss last Saturday looked similar to Texas last year -- sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps was only able to manufacture one touchdown offensively, relying on a late defensive touchdown to pull out the win on the road.
What the Cougars did show was a willingness to get physical, something that has concerned the Texas coaches all week in preparation. Often running behind a strong right side of the line, the Cougars will able to move the Ole Miss defensive line off the ball at times, though the end result of a 3.9 yards per carry average for the three backs used is hardly terrifying on paper.
On the defensive side, Mendenhall's unit primarily plays the 3-4, essentially playing three capable nose guards across the front, a massive group that goes about 300 pounds apiece. There's no gap-penetrating defensive lineman there, just a handful of big uglies who are tough to move, which did not appear to be the strong suit of the Texas offensive line against Rice, as the interior struggled to get a push on obvious short-yardage plays, situations where Stacy Searels no doubt wanted his charges to overpower their opponents physically.
In his Monday press conference, Mack Brown laid out how this game will likely go down -- like "an old-fashioned street fight."
Don't Make the Same Mistakes Twice
Texas co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin knows that the development of his offense will be a learning process. It couldn't be any other way as his team adjusts to his scheme and works to become dominant at the point of attack for the first time in years. For that to happen, Harsin wants to eliminate the previous week's mistakes. It won't be new mistakes that gall him, but repeated mistakes:
Our goal going into next week is no mistakes. We'll eliminate the ones we made. There will be new ones that come up each and every game. We've just got to make sure they're new ones and we eliminate the ones that we've made.
A high standard, to be sure. In terms of the mistakes the Texas offensive made, Harsin will expect to eliminate to procedural penalties caused by players not being set after shifts or motion, which happened three times against Rice. He'll also expect that the tight ends and fullbacks do a better job blocking -- DJ Grant missed several blocks, as did Cody Johnson, particularly on zone plays when coming across the formation to block the backside defensive end. It's not an easy block to make, but a crucial one to ensure the existence of a cutback lane for the running backs.
The theme is the same on the defensive side of the ball. When senior linebacker Emmanuel Acho commented that the linebackers can play better, he was completely serious. And completely correct. Keenan Robinson and Jordan Hicks both missed several tackles and had a couple instances in which they took poor angles to the ball. While the defensive line needs to improve run fits, the linebackers do as well, as Robinson and Hicks failed to fit their gap at times, negating good run fits up front. It was a disappointingly average from a group that is supposed to pace the team.
Believe in the Scheme
For any unit, offensive or defensive, one of the biggest adjustments to a new coordinator is belief. Not only belief, but allowing that belief to translate to quick decisions on the field -- playing fast and with confidence. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said this week that he wasn't disappointed in the defensive tackle play, despite a lack of flashy plays from Kheeston Randall, Desmond Jackson, Calvin Howell, and Chris Whaley. The return of Ashton Dorsey from suspension will give the Longhorns more depth there, but for Diaz it's not really about that.
It's not that the depth and talent isn't there -- Diaz seems to believe that -- it's that the group still needs that confidence to translate from practice to the playing field, especially important with the constantly changing run fits Diaz demands with his multiple defense:
It just takes a while for everyone to trust it. I saw in the spring where guys were thinking, ‘Should I definitely go?' And then they finally realize, ‘Yes. Just go.' And then, bam, all the plays start coming.
Then you get into a game, and because of the speed of the game, the same process happens. I've seen this movie before, where they get in the game and start thinking, ‘They're going left, should I go left?'
And then you can show them in the film room afterward if you would have just taken two more steps you would have had a tackle for loss. That's what this week is all about: being confident, letting it go and trusting the scheme.
Even with the strength of the BYU offensive line and willingness to try to physically overpower Texas in the trenches, Diaz sounds confident that if his players can execute his scheme, good things for happen for the Longhorn defense.
Quarterback vs. Quarterback
If the battle in the trenches hits a stalemate, the quarterbacks for each team will have to win the game. Texas fans are still understandably hesitant to believe in Garrett Gilbert after what was at times an underwhelming performance against Rice. Avoiding an interception was a major step forward after doing so in only four games in 2010 -- all victories -- but that probably won't be enough against BYU.
In what will likely be a close game, Gilbert can't afford to miss Mike Davis on potential touchdown throws, especially if the Longhorns can generate more high-quality chances with the play-action passing game. Of course, that isn't a given unless Texas can pull the safeties up close to the line of scrimmage to create those opportunities over the top and that depends on running the ball successfully. Step on up, Malcolm Brown.
But back to Gilbert for a second. His career suggests that it will be difficult to avoid an interception again this game, but doing so will be crucial in a game that will likely be decided by a few key plays. Though the BYU secondary is relatively untested and had little to do against the terrible Ole Miss passing attack, if the Cougs decide to sit back in two-deep zone coverage, Gilbert's ability to make those short and intermediate throws, the type of throws he struggled with at times against Rice and the type of throws where his tendency to overstride and the hitch at the top of his delivery can sap his arm strength and result in poor efforts.
For Texas fans, the good news is that BYU quarterback Jake Heaps more closely resembled the shaky freshman he was during the poor start to 2010 than the top-rated recruit fulfilling his potential down the stretch. Seemingly rattled at times by Rebel pressure -- particularly in his inability to read two cornerback blitzes that hurt BYU -- Heaps was inconsistent with his accuracy on short and intermediate routes and made a handful of mental mistakes that showed poor game management, including a delay of game penalty and then wasting three of the six Cougar timeouts during the game with his inability to get the team to the line of scrimmage and into the proper play.
Not to mention the interception Heaps threw that resulted in six Ole Miss points when he stared down his receiver, allowing the safety to read his eyes and jump the route, a terrible decision in the red zone that resulted at least a 10-point swing and nearly cost BYU the game.
As with Gilbert, there were flashes of the talent that made Heaps such a heralded recruit, throwing a touch pass to former Texas commit Ross Apo down the field and on several other occasions showing superior arm strength for his six-foot build. But for the most part, BYU was content to target the tight ends and diminutive running back JJ DiLuigi out of the backfield or lined up in the slot, where he can be dangerous when matched up with a linebacker, a match up Manny Diaz would be wise to avoid.
However, as much as Heaps struggled against Ole Miss, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him return to his late-2010 form, especially if Texas can't get pressure on him and his big targets outside in Apo and Cody Hoffman can get separation against the young Texas cornerbacks, something they failed to do for the most part against the Rebels.
Edge Runs to Slow Down Edge Pressure?
The stout interior line for BYU could make it difficult for Harsin to run his preferred Power schemes, complicated by what was only average execution in those sets until late in the game against Rice -- Texas may not have the opportunity or ability to wear the Cougars down in that same manner.
Instead, a better option might be to exploit the edges to take advantage of the superior speed Texas possesses. It may mean more WildHorn looks, including an expansion of David Ash's package, which Harsin appears intent on doing anyway, possibly to groom the young quarterback to take over for Garrett Gilbert if he struggles at some point during the season. When the Rebels found success against the Cougars, it was on the edge, something the 'Horns may be able to exploit with a healthy dose of screens to Fozzy Whittaker and jet sweeps for DJ Monroe and Jaxon Shipley.
But that's in the running game. If Texas wants to take shots downfield -- and it will -- holding up against outside linebackers Jordan Pendleton and Kyle Van Noy will be imperative. The two may be the best BYU defenders and Van Nuys made the game-winning play coming off the edge to force and recover the fumble, taking it three short yards to victory. Rice never seriously tested Texas tackles Tray Allen and Trey Hopkins, but rest assured that Pendleton and Van Noy will. The team that wins that battle could well win the game.