Anointing the play call as the stuff of dreams for an offensive staff after a week of preparation might be slightly hyperbolic, but it was truly the on-field culmination of scouting and situational awareness.
Even with the absence of Texas Longhorns offensive coordinator Tim Beck last Saturday against the Kansas State Wildcats, the combination of head coach Tom Herman, the rest of his offensive staff, and assistant quarterbacks coach Jordan Salkin up in the coaches box made a perfect call early in the game.
Facing a 1st and 10 from the Texas 45-yard line following an opening sequence of five plays for 33 yards (7:00), the Horns stacked three wide receivers to the field, with the running back and tight end to the boundary. Operating at tempo helped the pre-snap read for sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger — Kansas State didn’t have much time to disguise the coverage.
So Wildcats lined up with three deep defenders to the field and a linebacker outside the box to help with the run game and, most likely, anything to the flat on that side.
Formationally, the Longhorns gained a significant advantage here by forcing the Wildcats to put a cornerback and safety to the boundary or risk getting gashed there in the running game — this is a major value created by using a trips formation in 11 personnel.
On the opposite side of the field (from inside out), Texas had Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Devin Duvernay, and Collin Johnson lined up against a defensive look without any coverage over the top for any of those three receivers.
Not ideal for the Cats, but defense is about allocating resources and offense is about forcing those difficult choices in defensive alignment.
In this case, Herman and his staff clearly got what they wanted in the shot zone — the area of the field where a long completed pass can lead to a touchdown and avoid the difficulties of going against a defense buoyed by a condensed field in the red zone. For most teams, the shot zone is basically within the 40s.
All three receivers attacked Kansas State with deep vertical stems, with Johnson and Humphrey both breaking off their routes to occupy defenders while Duvernay ran a post route.
Keep in mind that TCU head coach Gary Patterson, one of the best defensive minds in the country, was concerned enough about Duvernay running post routes that he schematically conceded a one-on-one match up for Johnson against a cornerback at a critical point of that game against Texas. And the Longhorns took advantage when Ehlinger hit Johnson for a game-defining touchdown. Patterson admitted he’d become too predictable.
Basically, within six plays — the scripted part of the game — the Texas offense got a one-on-one match up with Duvernay against a defender forced to consider the possibility of a go route, a corner route, or a post route. Bad news.
Duvernay stemmed his route to the pylon just enough to get the bailing Kansas State defender to flip his hips and turn the wrong way. In the business, they call that stemmed and weaved. Or just straight-up burned.
This is essentially a one-man route by Texas that got the intended look from Kansas State, with Duvernay’s stem destroying his defender. Everything was perfect.
Except for the fact that when Ehlinger reached the apex of his drop, he didn’t properly anticipate Duvernay turning his defender and waited an extra beat to throw the football. So instead of driving off his back foot on time and in rhythm, Ehlinger allowed his feet to get stagnant and wasn’t able to deliver an accurate throw because he let his feet die.
So even though the defender was completely beat on the play, the ball fell harmlessly inside and beyond the speeding Duvernay.
If the ball had been thrown on time, in Duvernay’s area, and with enough air under it, it would have been an easy touchdown. Boom, 7-0 lead for the Horns. Given how wide open Duvernay was on the play, even a semi-accurate pass thanks to some live feet would have sufficed.
Instead, the drive ultimately resulted in a punt, and Ehlinger was left trying to explain his misfire on Tuesday.
“Continuing to work with our guys,” Ehlinger said when asked about how to fix it and what happened. “For some reason, the easiest ones are the hardest. I honestly don’t know why. But it seems to be a pretty prevalent theme in quarterbacking.
“Just continuing to work with those guys, and being able to put the ball on those guys will be something that will increase and be better.”
Now is that time — as a sophomore who has started 11 games, Ehlinger needs to stop thinking and let his mechanics take over. With that route combination, he had a clear pre-snap read and surely knew where he wanted to deliver the football. The play was simply about holding the boundary safety just long enough and then throwing the ball on time and in rhythm.
Yet, that’s not what happened — he held the safety but didn’t throw on the ball on time or even with good delayed mechanics — and it illustrated the continued and necessary room for growth with Ehlinger.
Since Texas clearly saw a flaw in the Kansas State defensive scheme and planned on exploiting it early in the game, I wanted to know just how much pressure is created from missing such a big opportunity early. The increase in pressure definitely seemed significant to me. After all, the first collective thought on the home sideline after that failed drive by the Longhorns was surely how to avoid allowing that play like that — a play that should have been a touchdown.
So, was that particular call wasted and potentially not available again after giving the defense a chance to correct?
“Not necessarily,” offensive line coach Herb Hand told me on Wednesday.
Still, it was obvious from the fact that Hand then launched into the subsequent teaching points by the coaches for use following just such a failure that he would not and could not offer a strong denial of my hypothesis.
“When we come out and have some plays in mind that we want to open up the game with, sure, you’d like to hit those, and you take those shots on downs where it makes sense,” Hand said.
“When we miss a shot play, we tell our guys before the game, ‘Hey, we’re going to throw the ball down the field; we’re going to press them vertically.’ We’re not going to be able to hit them all.”
The key at that point within the game, according to Hand, is making sure that players can bounce back and move forward to the next play without any residual hangover. In that regard, quarterbacks have to be a little bit like cornerbacks — short memories are ideal.
For the coaches, it’s about scheming for and identifying those opportunities early in the week.
“We’ll continue to have great shot-play plans going into each game, and hopefully we’ll hit more than we miss,” Hand said.
Here’s looking at you, Sam.