If you are a passionate Texas Longhorns fan, then you probably surf team boards fairly regularly. And if you're reading this then you more than likely are no stranger to the insightful analysis that Longhorn Scott (LHS) provides. He puts the blade in the phrase, "It's all in the weeds." Call me a devotee.
While again reviewing his article(1) in my now dog-eared Lindy's Sports In The Huddle Texas 2012 preseason magazine, I was intrigued not only with his ability to succinctly describe some very basic Bryan Harsin sets but to do so in a manner that even a football layman could interpret (of which I am a group member).
LHS provides clarity to a complex subject: That of the modern college football offense. With modal multiplicity, the amount of "looks" a defensive coordinator must scheme for is nothing short of daunting. In reviewing the Ole Miss game tape, it is understandable how the Harsin system applies stress to leverage a defense.
One of the things that LHS identifies is the beauty of the scheme and why Longhorns Coach Mack Brown blatantly tossed about the desire for the "Boise System" well in advance of a 5-7 season reset. As LHS "peeled back the layers" of the Boise State offense, he discovered "its core ideas are aimed at making use of a diverse, powerful running game, and generating explosive plays." This core concept easily explains Brown's unwavering obsession with a physical attack and the fundamental reason for acquiring the offensive coordinator's skills.
Here is how LHS artfully summarizes Harsin's approach.
If Harsin's offense has an aesthetic hallmark, it is to make itself appear as complex as possible to the defense. (I think) there is simplicity hidden within the complexity. The methodology of Harsin's offense is a lesson in specialization and efficiency. The difference where (other) offenses build complexity through a series of tags that alter a small set of plays, Harsin's offense achieves complexity by building and layering component plays on a week-to-week basis.
This was certainly true in the first three games this season where we saw Harsin implement incrementally various packaged sets aimed at gauging the potency of the young Longhorn offense.
With this said, what strikes me as the key fundamental in the now deemed Texas Offense is the way in which the attack evolves over 85 offensive plays in a game. The probing and experimentation in the early rounds seeks to identify defensive weakness and tendencies. This is really no different than what all great offensive coordinators seek to do. Heck, Tom Landry was a genius at this task. But Harsin has a great ability not only to expose weakness, but also to set about creating weakness.
And that is what I will attempt to highlight as we seek each week to identify...
The Defender in Conflict.
This week's Defender In Conflict highlights the play of Ole Miss junior "Rover" safety Charles Sawyer. He's no slouch as a recent article indicates.
In 2011 Sawyer was selected as a finalist for the Conerly Trophy, an award that goes to the top football player in the state of Mississippi. "It meant a lot," he said. "I'm not even from here and for them to want me to represent Mississippi as one of its best players, it was a big honor, and I loved it."
Sawyer's talent also got him noticed on a national level. Named All-American honorable mention in 2011, Sawyer started all 12 games, finishing third in the SEC with 13 passes defended. In addition, he tied for 23rd in the nation and sixth in the SEC with four interceptions. Sawyer finished the 2011 season second on the team with 70 tackles.
And he picked up where he left off last season as one of his team's leading tacklers heading in and out of the game against the Longhorns. He wound up the game's leading tackler with 6 solo and 6 assisted. While on the surface that is a great stat to be sure, I'm not sure a defensive coordinator sets about as a game goal for a safety to achieve that recognition.
Harsin began the game with a physical approach designed at loosening up the middle of the Ole Miss defense using Joe Bergeron primarily on power rushing and probing the speed of the edge players sending Malcolm Brown squirting on pin and pull, squaring shoulders and getting to the boundary. On Texas first two series, the play distribution was fairly even for both with Bergeron banging heads for 6 runs and Malcolm running off tackle for 4. The sets were not all that elaborate and there was no wasted energy spent with pre-snap movement. Harsin was not going to show his cards early.
In the first series, Harsin kept the ball to the boundary and weak side of the formation before a 3rd and 6 pass completion to Shipley fell well short of a first down resulting in an Alex King punt. All of the rushing plays, however, were away from Sawyer. Harsin was testing his read and react capability and his football speed. Like a controlled group experiment, Harsin is using his super-computing genius to learn tendencies.
Following the unexpected, but very appreciated, Steve Edmond interception for touchdown and a juiced up Texas defensive three and out, due to two back-to-back sacks by Moore and Jeffcoat, the Longhorns took over at their -37 and again Harsin went about loosening and probing the Ole Miss defense.
The second offensive series started like the first sending Joe Bergeron right through the middle of the defense. Sawyer was last man standing as he made a nice open field tackle on Joe to prevent a big explosive play.
After a motion penalty by Espinosa on 2nd down, Harsin comes back with a beautiful pin and pull to Brown which allowed him to get to the sideline boundary. A play in which NJCAA All-American transfer right tackle Donald Hawkins earns his scholarship and marks his first pancake of the evening on none other than Sawyer who had aligned pre-snap on the play run side (see photo sequence below). Here we see yet another run to the short side of the field (boundary) and again more stress applied to Sawyer.
The very next play Sawyer aligned in run support to the field side shadowing the slot receiver Shipley. Again, Harsin runs Brown out of I-formation behind Roberson blocking in an off tackle, boundary side play where Brown trucks the first defender and as he is moving into the second level is met by Sawyer who sprinted across the field to notch his 3rd tackle on the night in an incredibly athletic play on his part. Sawyer has now got a good taste of the Texas Offense and is gulping his sweat.
After these successful plays pushed the Longhorns into the red zone for the first time in the game, Harsin goes back to Bergeron for a couple of runs and then back to Brown for a few more. None of which gained all that much but saw Sawyer defending the middle with run support and the Ole Miss defense bowing its back deep in negative territory. After a false start penalty, Harsin called only the second pass play of the evening when Ash miss-timed a throw to Shipley who was streaking on a wheel route into the corner of the end zone. Texas came away with only three points and while disappointing the drive did not result in a touchdown, it was nonetheless part of the complex, yet simple, stress inducement inherent in Harsin's play calling approach.
After a great start by the Texas defense, they gave up the first big play of the night on Ole Miss' next possession when on 3rd and 17 from their 41, JUCO All-American quarterback Bo Wallace completed a 31 yard pass, followed by two gashing runs for another 25 yards putting the stunned Longhorn defense on the -3. The resulting touchdown closed the score to three points. With the game tight early in the 2nd quarter, Harsin finally unleashes on the Defender in Coflict.
On first down Harsin working from the spread showing play action away from the field side with Ash narrowly escaping the defensive end (missed block by Greg Daniels) who worked on a naked boot leg pass to freshman speedster Daje Johnson. The play showcased Ash's ability to extend a potentially negative play into a positive 9-yard pick up with his feet. The 2nd down rush by Malcolm was a power play off the right edge to pick up the first down. Note both plays again run to the boundary, and more importantly, away from Sawyer.
Interestingly, on the next first down Texas called a timeout presumably to ensure everyone was on the same script in advance of Harsin's first speed strike play of the game. Coming out of the timeout, Harsin moves Marquise Goodwin in motion to the field and as the ball is snapped, Ash fakes to Goodwin on the speed sweep and hands to Brown who quickly headed north through a huge hole. However, the potential big play was whistled dead after a suspicious false start by Greg Daniels. Here is where all the work for well over a quarter of offensive play pays off for your Horns.
Now 2nd and 15, Harsin masterfully moves into full checkmate mode calling for the same exact alignment, same exact motion by Goodwin as the previous play. But instead of Ash faking to Goodwin, the Longhorns execute the basic speed sweep, as eloquently portioned by LHS in the Lindy Sports article, to perfection. As Ash times the snap and subsequent handoff perfectly to Goodwin, the result was a 69 yard touchdown scamper to a head bobbing Marine where Craig Way proclaims, "Say goodnight to it," and Roger Wallace correctly states, "They go with the speed game for the first time." No doubt.
On this play we see the results of Harsin setting up Sawyer as Defender in Conflict. Through a quarter of football, Harsin tactically utilized the physical power game to condition Sawyer as inside run first support. And the result is phenomenal. I say phenomenal because the replay shows Sawyer correctly identifying who has the ball but due to the Pavlovian conditioning moves away from the play side run and basically takes himself out of the "last line of defense" position. As a result, the Longhorns block all defenders, Goodwin reads them correctly, and Olympian speed does what it do.
It was at this point in the game that Harsin unleashed what many believe is a look at the full potential of this very special Texas Offense, amassing almost 700 yards and equaling the school's 2nd best offensive production performance in its illustrious football history. This was Texas best scoring output in a true road game under Mack Brown, one which ultimately resulted in an SEC team allowing more points in a home loss against an OOC opponent than any other. Evar.
For the Longhorns, the game was one for the ages to be true, but doubtless that Harsin's exposure of the Defender in Conflict as a cornerstone of the Texas Offense was so much more revealing of the team's untapped offensive potential.
(1)Gerlach, Scott. "Looking Back To See Forward: The Coming of Age of the Texas Offense." Lindy's Sports In The Huddle Texas 2012 Aug 2012: 80-87