As the Texas Longhorns near gameday against the West Virginia Mountaineers, defensive coordinator Vance Bedford is busy preparing his Horns to face head coach Dana Holgorsen's physical and accomplished rushing attack.
The Red Bull-chugging Holgorsen isn't running a wide-open passing offense that chunks the ball all over the field 60 times a game -- West Virginia is only narrowly in the top 50 in pass S&P+, but is averaging more than 220 yards per game on the ground behind Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood.
It's a little bit of a misnomer that one of the architects behind the Diamond formation that helped revive backfields loaded with multiple blockers and running backs is merely a pass-crazy Air Raid coach -- he's no Mike Leach, that's for sure, and is proving it definitively this season.
Shell is the power back who excels running behind tight end Cody Clay, an experienced and capable lead blocker at 6'4 and 265 pounds. Pretty much the Appalachian version of Geoff Swaim, actually. Smallwood is the smaller scat-type back (though he's still a solid 200 pounds or so) who represents the speed threat and can make some plays in the passing game.
As with any good rushing attack, the offensive line is a major part of it -- the group ranks No. 11 nationally in adjusted line yards and No. 24 in stuff rate, so inflicting negative plays on the Mountaineers in the running game is a difficult task.
Of the two backs, Smallwood is the most likely to create something out of nothing, but he does only have one run of 28 or more yards this season. In other words, Texas probably won't give up a long rushing play to either Shell or Smallwood, as the former has struggled to break off runs or 10 yards or more this season. His long of 43 yards against Texas Tech was a major outlier.
In fact, quarterback Skyler Howard may be the most dangerous runner on the team for the Longhorns. The 6'0, 202-pounder isn't impressive physically, but he has a 50-yard run this season and the Texas defense has had some assignment issues defending the zone read and quarterback run game in general. To put the Mountaineers in long down-and-distance situations and to get off the field on third downs, the Horns will have to keep Howard from hurting them with his legs.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Mountaineers are one of the most experienced and effective defenses in the Big 12 and the country, ranking No. 29 overall in S&P+, but No. 4 in rush S&P and No. 5 in pass S&P. What's up with the discrepancy there? Well, West Virginia has faced the second-hardest schedule in the country to this point in the season, so forget about the raw stats, this is a good group fielded by defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, even without star safety Karl Joseph.
The 3-3-5 attack Gibson teaches is a little bit unusual around college football, but it gets a lot of speed on the field and it allows for blitzes from a variety of angles, which will pose a major challenge for the Texas offensive line. Gibson has been running the scheme since 2002 under Jeff Casteel and has kept employing it under Holgorsen for the last three years.
Fortunately for Texas, it's not an unfamiliar defense for the team, as head coach Charlie Strong helped resurrect the 30 Stack defense at South Carolina after an 0-11 season under Lou Holtz.
Stil, the structure of the defense will make it hard for the Texas ground game, as the base alignment provides an eight-man front that is effective for stopping opposing rushing attacks with plenty of eyes on the football and less stringent requirements for players of prototypical size. Not only that, but the 3-3-5 also generally creates major issues for opposing blocking schemes, potentially bad news for an offensive line that struggles with the fundamentals of picking up slants, twists, and stunts.
Where most odd fronts ask defensive linemen to be responsible for two gaps, the 30 Stack merely asks them to control one gap, while using stunting linebackers or hybrid players to attack the gaps typically occupied by defensive linemen.
Two hybrid positions -- referred to as the Spur and the Bandit -- are critical to effectively run this defense. At Texas, those positions are essentially the nickel cornerback and the Fox End, but in Gibson's attack, both of those players are nickel cornerback types. So keep an eye on senior KJ Dillon, who shoulders the most wide-ranging responsibilities in the entire defense at the Spur:
It's easy to find someone athletic that can play at the point of attack (those guys are called linebackers) and it's also easy finding guys that can man-cover slot receivers. Of course, that's what corners do. But what do you call someone that has to do both? Then, for good measure, throw in the ability to blitz, play a 9-technique, a half-field man technique, play the third, cover the post, cover a slice, play on the roof and also be able to disguise coverages ... well, now you are talking about one helluva special football player.
Having those two versatile hybrid players give the defense the ability to stop the run while still possessing the back-end talent to cover when Gibson sends the house on some of his most aggressive pressure packages.
Zero blitzes with all three linebackers can be especially devastating for opposing offenses as Gibson allows his extremely talented secondary to do the hard work. Losing Joseph has hurt some there, but it may still be the Big 12's best defensive backfield and it takes a lot of pressure off of the front six, which is mostly full of role players, albeit role players who possess a deep understanding of the defense and their respective tasks within it.
In addition to being a road game in a hostile environment, the match ups on paper will put tremendous pressure on the Texas offensive and defensive lines -- whichever team wins in the trenches will almost assuredly win this game.
Those are odd words to type about a West Virginia team after some of pass-happy attacks helmed by Geno Smith, but that's the reality and it won't be an easy one to deal with for Texas on Saturday morning.