With the addition of former North Carolina Tar Heels head Larry Fedora as an offensive analyst during the offseason, the Texas Longhorns worked to expand the package of available run-pass options to limit the hits on junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
Last Saturday against Kansas State, Texas successfully deployed one of those new RPOs to create four explosive plays.
The most typical run-pass option, and the one most frequently used by the Longhorns, pairs the bubble screen with a running play, typically inside zone. A concept akin to a deep slant that features the wide receiver stemming the cornerback vertically before winning inside, however, stresses defense down the field, so instead of functioning as an extension of the running game, it’s a call that can produce big plays.
Texas installed the play during the spring, but hasn’t used it often — the Longhorns make those play-calling decisions based on factors like the defensive coverage, its leverage, and the defensive front.
The cornerback’s leverage is particularly important, as the wide receiver targeted on the play, either the X receiver or the H receiver, has to get across the face of the cornerback. If the cornerback is playing with inside leverage, the play isn’t likely to work.
Another reason the Longhorns are cautious about using it is that the play is more susceptible to pressure than quicker-hitting RPOs like the bubble screen.
“You’re at times rolling the dice if they’re bringing pressure, because if the guy you’re reading in the RPO game is pressuring, there’s nobody blocking that guy,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said on Wednesday.
That means that Texas has to get the right looks at the line of scrimmage in coverage, leverage, and front to call the play — without asking Beck specifically, there have probably been times this season when Ehlinger or the coaches checked out of the play at the line of scrimmage for any one of those reasons.
Making those pre-snap determinations is an important part of the pre-snap chess match and one reason why so many spread offenses use a dummy clap to force defenses to expose their blitzing players.
When Texas was able to get into the play against Kansas State, it was a tremendous success.
Down 14-0 early in the second quarter against the Wildcats, the Longhorns were trying to show signs of life offensively, but had a 28-yard catch by senior wide receiver Collin Johnson negated by a hold, putting Texas behind the chains. A run by Ehlinger and a catch by sophomore wide receiver Brennan Eagles got the Horns back on schedule with a first down.
In hurry-up mode, Texas got to the line of scrimmage quickly in 11 personnel, with sophomore tight end Reese Leitao stacked in front of freshman running back Roschon Johnson to the boundary.
With Ehlinger intent on riding the mesh point with Johnson on zone slice as long as possible to suck in the linebackers, he got the Wildcats to bite and found senior wide receiver Devin Duvernay all alone over the middle for 32 yards.
When Texas was looking for a big play in the second quarter down 14-0, the Horns dialed up a new RPO installed during the offseason attacking opponents vertically with a deep slant, this time to Devin Duvernay. It went for 32 yards helped set up the first TD. pic.twitter.com/dJshQTDwlf— Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) November 15, 2019
It was the longest play of the game to that point for Texas and set up the flea-flicker touchdown pass to Johnson that got the Longhorns back in the game.
Opening with the ball in the third quarter down by a third quarter down by a touchdown, the Longhorns started to move the ball again with a 20-yard run by sophomore running back Keaontay Ingram and a seven-yard catch by sophomore wide receiver Brennan Eagles.
On the third play, the Horns ran a variation of the same RPO with Counter attached to the X position. Ehlinger actually had to scramble a bit because there was an unblocked defender coming from the back side, but he was able to find Johnson for a 14-yard gain. The play worked, but the narrow margin on Ehlinger getting the ball out is a reason why the Longhorns haven’t used it more frequently.
Texas scored on Ingram’s 34-yard speed option run on the next play.
After the Longhorns defense forced a rare three and out, the offensive coaching staff dialed it up for the X again, with Ehlinger finding Johnson for a 38-yard catch and run.
The Longhorns can also run that win route to the X position and set up another TD with this 38-yard catch and run by Collin Johnson.— Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) November 15, 2019
"I wish I had Devin's speed, you know, but it's all good," Johnson told me after the game. pic.twitter.com/4HtNgjjRHv
The drive stalled due to penalties in the red zone — the block in the back on Ehlinger and the unsportsmanlike conduct — but did result in a 36-yard field goal.
On the final drive that took the remaining 6:45 off the clock to set up sophomore kicker Cameron Dicker’s game-winning field goal, Texas used the play again, this time targeting Duvernay for an 18-yard gain into the red zone.
After the game, senior wide receiver Collin Johnson said that Baylor hurt Kansas State with that play earlier this year, so even with the risks of running it, they knew they could exploit certain looks by the Wildcats defense, whether in tempo or on sideline checks like the first pass to Johnson.
All told, those four passes from that RPO concept produced 100 total yards, 22.4 percent of the team’s total output. And while that might not seem like a lot, it is substantial substance for a single concept that the Longhorns haven’t even used that much this season.
More importantly, Texas scored 20 of its 27 points on drives that were in no small part keyed by those explosive plays — the offseason installation of that play and smart deployment of it against the Wildcats was one of the factors that helped the Longhorns win that game.