Following the success of the Wildcat formation with Roschon Johnson as the trigger man in last year’s win over the Kansas State Wildcats, Texas Longhorns fans were clamoring for more. And Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian was even forced to admit that it was working as the Longhorns sought some diversity with Bijan Robinson out due to injury and both quarterbacks banged up.
But the feelings about the formation have changed drastically after it saw little success in last Saturday’s loss to the Texas Tech Red Raiders in Lubbock when it produced just 10 yards on six plays and a failed fourth-down conversion at a crucial point in the game.
“I didn’t think we would get beat and give up penetration on 4th and 2 the way we did. I’ve gotta call a better play, obviously, in that situation,” Sarkisian said on Monday.
Despite the inability to convert that fourth down, Sarkisian defended the variety available in it even though Texas is yet to throw a pass from it, whether this season or last season.
“We’ve got a lot of variety as it pertains to Wildcat,” Sarkisian said. “Everybody assumes Wildcat is the same because the running back is at quarterback, but the reality of it is there’s a lot of different formations we’re using, a lot of different personnel groupings we’re using out of it. I think that package has been good to us and will continue to be good to us. I would’ve loved to have made the fourth-down stop that they made on us, but outside of that, it’s been very productive for us in the first four games and we’ll continue to lean on it.”
To assess the validity of those claims, it’s worth looking at every play from the Wildcat this season and why they failed or succeeded.
Every Wildcat play so far in 2022 pic.twitter.com/GRHZVOlRZ4— Nash (@NashTalksTexas) September 28, 2022
2nd and 10 at Texas 44-yard line — IZ read, possible speed option — Roschon Johnson runs for five yards
In 31 personnel, Keilan Robinson and Bijan Robinson are lined up next to Johnson in a Go-Go offense formation and, quite likely, a Go-Go offense play that featured a zone read play while the offensive line blocks inside zone and then, most likely, a speed option blown up as Alabama edge Will Anderson muddied the read by Johnson and then almost tackled him in the backfield to blow up the pitch relationship between Johnson and Keilan Robinson. Not sure why Ja’Tavion Sanders didn’t block the overhang defender on this play, but that might be why Johnson had to put a move on Anderson instead of making the pitch to Robinson.
3rd and 2 at Alabama 15-yard line — IZ zone read, possible pass option — Bijan Robinson runs for no gain
Once again in 31 personnel with the tight end lined up to the boundary this time, two offensive linemen fell down after Johnson handed off to Bijan Robinson on the read as a result of Alabama defensive lineman Justin Eboigbe running a line game smashing into a lineman responsible for a looping teammate who made the tackle. On this play, it looks like Keilan Robinson is either serving as a lead blocker or a pass option for Johnson if he keeps this ball. Like Anderson did on the previous play, he didn’t commit down the line of scrimmage or towards Johnson, making the read more difficult.
Alabama game — Two plays, five yards
2nd and 10 at UTSA 25-yard line — IZ zone read, possible pass option — Bijan Robinson gains seven yards
Staying in 31 personnel with this look, the tight end is to the boundary with the running backs in the Pistol offset I formation. This is the same play as the previous call against Alabama, just from a different formation, and it resulted in a solid gain as Robinson made it right by bouncing the ball off the left edge when his aiming point became congested.
3rd and 3 at UTSA 18-yard line — QB sweep — Rochon Johnson gains 16 yards
Sticking with 31 personnel, the tight end and the running backs are all to the field as Sarkisian dialed up an off-tackle play, using the two running backs as lead blockers for Johnson on the sweep. Sanders and both running backs made good blocks on the play and Johnson hurdled a defender to set the Longhorns up close to the goal line.
1st and goal at UTSA 2-yard line — IZ slice read — Roschon Johnson runs for loss of one yard
In 21 personnel this time with two wide receivers and the quarterback to the field, as well as the tight end, Johnson is in the backfield with Bijan Robinson. But the play got blown up when right tackle Christian Jones got knocked off the line of scrimmage and Sanders used poor technique against the read defender by hitting the defender with his shoulder instead of his hands. With the line of scrimmage moved on that side, Johnson didn’t have anywhere to go and the read defender made the play behind the line of scrimmage, something that should never happen on this call.
2nd and 7 at Texas 23-yard line — Pin and pull read — Bijan Robinson runs for 77-yard touchdown
In 21 personnel, Sanders is lined up as an H-back to the boundary with both wide receivers and the quarterback to the field. Johnson read the back-side defender as Sanders and right guard Cole Hutson both headed to the play side. Both players made strong blocks and Robinson exploded through the line of scrimmage with nothing but turf in front of him. With UTSA playing so many players close to the line of scrimmage, this is the type of massively explosive run that can happen from the Wildcat if Johnson or Robinson find a crease.
UTSA game — Four plays, 99 yards, one touchdown
2nd and 10 at Texas Tech’s 17-yard line — QB power read — Roschon Johnson runs for one yard
In 21 personnel, the wide receivers and the tight end are lined up to the field with Bijan Robinson to Johnson’s right. This play goes wrong from the start when left guard Hayden Conner was stepped on by left tackle Kelvin Banks as he started to pull — there’s no real chance of success after that point, especially when Johnson received a hard keep read from Texas Tech edge Tyree Wilson.
3rd and 1 at Texas 38-yard line — IZ slice read — Roschon Johnson runs for no gain
A truly jumbo formation here — 23 personnel with tight end Gunnar Helm in motion and Sanders lined up to the field next to backup tackle Andrej Karic playing tight end. Sanders immediately got blown up on this play, which kept Helm from being able to get to his block. And Karic didn’t come off his combo block quickly enough, allowing the linebacker an easy shot at Johnson, who was impeded because the defender who beat Sanders tackled Bijan Robinson. Johnson did well to pick up a few inches on this play after spinning out of the initial tackle attempt but couldn’t pick up the first down.
4th and 1 at Texas 38-yard line — QB power read — Roschon Johson gains two yards
The back side of this play lost line of scrimmage, but it didn’t matter as Hutson made a good block to provide Johnson enough room to pick up the first down. If Helm can make his block effectively and Conner can get to the second level, this might have turned into a big play, but Karic got knocked back into Helm, slowing him down and causing him to miss his block. And Conner got caught up in traffic trying to come off his combo block and wasn’t able to get to the linebacker.
4th and 2 at Texas Tech 22-yard line — IZ slice read — Roschon Johnson runs for no gain
Let’s just start off with this image. A good way to tell that a play didn’t go well is that only two players are still standing right as it ends.
The two major issues here as Texas runs from the 32 personnel package once again with Helm coming in motion across the formation for his block — Hutson missed his block badly as the defender slanted across his face and Sanders didn’t come off the combo block to account for the defender in the hole, an extremely important block.
And then there was also the fact that everyone ended up falling down.
1st and 10 at Texas 35-yard line — IZ read with pass options — Bijan Robinson gains five yards
Back in the 31 Go-Go formation with the tight end to the field and the running backs to the boundary, Johnson handed off to Robinson, who stepped through a tackle and turned in a nice gain. What stands out about this play is that Johnson appeared to have three pass options if he keeps this ball — wide receiver Jordan Whittington on a go route, Keilan Robinson on a wheel route, and Sanders in the flat. The pass aspect of this play represents a key constraint to a defense that wants to commit all of its defenders to the box.
2nd and 5 at the Texas 40-yard line — IZ read with pass options — Bijan Robinson runs for two yards
Texas comes back in the same formation and runs the same play with Johnson handing off to Bijan Robinson again. But Robinson didn’t have much running room because Jones never came off his combo block, allowing the play-side linebacker to make the stop. Texas Tech also brought a safety down to come off the back side, limiting the amount of success this play was going to have if Robinson received the handoff.
But it also represented one of the biggest missed opportunities of the game because Whittington and Robinson weren’t defended at all.
If Johnson pulled this ball and found either one, it’s probably a touchdown with the safety in the left corner of that screenshot the deepest defender for Texas Tech.
Texas Tech game — Six plays for 10 yards
So far, Texas has used the Wildcat formations on 12 plays, producing 114 yards and one touchdown, but 77 of those yards came on the Bijan Robinson touchdown run. And although the Longhorns have a 41.7-percent success rate with those plays — defined as gaining “50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down” — the non-UTSA success rate is 25 percent. Even in short yardage, the formation only has a 33.3-percent success rate.
The Go-Go offense plays outside of short yardage have had some success, producing the touchdown run and the 16-yard run against UTSA, but the 32 personnel plays didn’t work in short yardage against Texas Tech because of poor execution and the lack of constraint plays.
Where are the jet sweeps or players in motion to keep defenders honest? In the Arkansas iteration of the Wildcat, as well as how the Miami Dolphins used it, the jet sweep was crucial to allow room for QB power to work.
And the lack of a throw from Johnson this year or last year from the formation is notable, especially when Texas Tech ignored Whittington and Robinson on both plays during the crucial drive that resulted in a punt with the game tied at 31-31 more than halfway through the fourth quarter. Not throwing on the first play is understandable, but even if Johnson doesn’t get the ideal pull read on the second play, he should pull it and at least try to throw it because the potential for a big play is so huge. For the formation to work, it’s something the Longhorns have to try.
Until Texas can execute better along the offensive line and at tight end, Sarkisian should reconsider the 32 personnel short-yardage package, but the Go-Go looks, particularly with the pass play attached, look promising and will demand defenses pay attention to the players running routes or will remain possibilities for big plays if Johnson finally gets a chance to throw the ball.