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Red-zone wins: Cracking the code to Texas red-zone TD drives in 2023

At the halfway mark of the regular season, the Longhorns have underperformed in the red zone. In the first of a two-part analysis, come decipher what allowed Texas to succeed.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 07 Oklahoma vs Texas Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Halfway through the season and the Texas Longhorns is 5-1 on the year and ranked No. 9 in the AP Poll. There is much to be proud of and reason for optimism for the second half of the year.

One area worth evaluating is the red-zone performance of the Longhorns. In the most recent game against the Sooners, the red-zone offense went 1-of-3, including being stuffed from the one-yard line four times.

In this two-part series, every red-zone drive will be evaluated to decipher what has worked well and what has not for Texas in the red zone. For part one, the focus will be on red-zone successes — every time the Horns entered the red zone and punched it in for six, which occurred 11 times in 24 attempts, a touchdown rate of 45.8 percent that ranks No. 122 nationally.

Rushing touchdowns

Texas has scored a rushing touchdown on 7-of-24 red-zone attempts. Here is a breakdown of each of those drives.

Ewers one-yard rush vs. Rice

On the first play in the red zone, Texas used motion and a fake screen to free up wide receiver Jordan Whittington for a nice gain that brought the ball down to the 1-yard line. From here, Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian opted for a read option. After motioning tight end Gunnar Helm, quarterback Quinn Ewers snapped the ball. After seeing the Rice defensive end crash the edge to meet a pulling Helm, Ewers kept the ball and went untouched into the end zone.

On this drive, Sarkisian did a nice job of using motion to isolate defenders. In both plays, the defense had multiple responsibilities to care for and sort out as the ball was being snapped.

Brooks five-yard rush vs. Alabama

After an interception set up the offense with 1st and goal from the 5-yard line in the fourth quarter, Texas was able to punch it in on just a single play as Sarkisian used a trips bunch formation into the boundary to set up the touchdown. However, this formation changed as a result of motion with wide receiver Xavier Worthy motioned into the far side of the field as Ewers faked a toss to running back Keilan Robinson in jet motion and handed the ball off to running back Jonathan Brooks.

The play ended up as a touchdown, but the performance from the handoff to the end zone was treacherous. Brooks had to redirect three yards behind the line of scrimmage, then break two tackles at the line of scrimmage before lunging into the end zone.

The play call once again presented a lot of options to the defense with the formation and motion pre snap and then adding a fake pitch. However, the blocking up front was far from perfect.

Ewers five-yard rush vs. Wyoming

Texas was once again set up with 1st and goal from the 5-yard line as Brooks had just ripped off a huge run in the fourth quarter. However, it took three attempts to punch it in.

On first down, Sarkisian used Sanders, Whittington, and Helm in a bunch formation off the left tackle into the field with Worthy the lone person into the boundary. Brooks took the handoff and powered forward for a short gain. On second down, Texas motioned Worthy out of the boundary and ran an outside zone into the vacated area. Before Brooks could get anywhere, he was met in the backfield for a three-yard loss.

Facing 3rd and goal from the five, Texas ran a run-pass option. Ewers pulled the ball as a Wyoming defender crashed on Brooks. However, Helm was covered coming across the formation from his H-back position, and Ewers scrambled, finding the end zone behind blocks from two offensive linemen.

This drive demonstrates some of the difficulty Texas has had trying to block in the red zone. A negative-yardage play on 2nd and goal is tough to overcome. Luckily, the Longhorns were able to do just that. The touchdown appeared to be a spin off from the rushing touchdown against Rice. In both plays, Ewers ran a read option as Helm came across to block. However, in this variation Helm slipped out. He wasn’t open, but the design makes it difficult for the defense to crash on the run without exposing themselves to an RPO.

Baxter seven-yard rush vs. Baylor

Texas was set up 1st and goal from the left hash of the 7-yard line in the second quarter after Worthy completed a 35-yard pass to tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders on a trick play. As the lone person on the short side of the field, Worthy motioned across. Ewers handed the ball to running back CJ Baxter. After waiting for a moment, Baxter bounced it outside and scored untouched thanks to left tackle Kelvin Banks doing a phenomenal job on the edge, which allowed Baxter to scamper in.

Once again, Sarkisian opted to use motion and run the ball into the vacated space. The play worked well.

Brooks two-yard rush vs. Baylor

Facing 1st and goal from the left hash of the 8-yard line late in the second quarter after the Longhorns moved into the red zone on an 18-yard run by Brooks.

Texas put three players into the boundary with wide receiver A.D. Mitchell lined up at the bottom of the numbers and Helm and Sanders lined up on the line. Worthy was the sole receiver in space and lined up just outside the hash. On a play-action pass, Ewers threw a fade to Worthy which drew pass interference.

On 1st and goal from the 2-yard line, Texas lined up in a goal-line I formation package with eight people on the line and Byron Murphy II at fullback. Murphy II led the way for Brooks who took the handoff and scored off the outside hip of Banks.

Texas did a nice job up front on this play. The hole was created and sustained for enough time to allow Brooks to get through and reach the end zone.

Brooks one-yard rush vs. Kansas

After a short gain on first down from the 14 late in the third quarter, Texas ran with Baxter from a single-back ace pair formation, meaning there were two tight ends on the same side with a lone receiver outside in each direction. Mitchell motioned behind a tight end before the snap, bringing in another blocker. Baxter took the handoff and found a hole on the left side for a sizable gain down to the 1-yard line.

From the one, Texas lined up in a unique version of the I formation. With an extra blocker on either side of the tackle, Texas motioned a tight end into the backfield next to fullback Murphy II in an offset I. Texas then ran it away from that side with Murphy II leading the way in addition to pulling left guard Hayden Connor and the tight end into the hole. A point of interest — Texas opted to use offensive lineman Malik Agbo as the jumbo tight end they ran behind rather than Sanders or Helm.

Texas did a good job of creating mismatched blocking assignments. On both plays, the Longhorns had a considerable advantage in terms of blockers vs. defenders.

Ewers one-yard rush vs. Kansas

On this red-zone possession, Texas had to gain a first down before punching it in. After a minimal gain on first down and an incomplete pass, Texas lined up with three receivers for the 3rd and 8 from the 11-yard line. Using Helm and Baxter for added protection on the play, Ewers had enough time to find Mitchell on a slant for the first down. The route was about two yards short of the line to gain, but Mitchell was able to elude the defenders around him and move the chains.

On 1st and goal from the 1-yard line, Texas lined up heavy. However, Ewers pulled the ball and ran a naked bootleg, using his speed to score in a race to the pylon.

Texas utilized spacing on this drive particularly well. Rather than overloading a side or adding extra blockers, Texas spread the defense and allowed for enough room for Mitchell to run a critical third-down route that eventually set up the touchdown.

A consistent set of themes appear to become clear when evaluating the drives when Texas runs the ball well in the red zone. First, the use of motion and strategic formations before the snap creates post-snap success. When Texas is able to move players around before the ball is snapped, opposing defenses react a step slower, which can be the difference between a successful block and an unsuccessful block.

In addition, the use of targeted formations allows Texas to bring more blockers to key areas. Utilizing extra tight ends, fullbacks, and specific wide receivers gives the Longhorns more blockers than necessary and can spring the ball carrier into the end zone.

Another theme is the importance of Ewers’ mobility. Both on the read option and as a scrambler, his speed and ball-handling ability aid the team significantly. Ewers doesn’t need to run the ball frequently in the red zone as the threat of him carrying it can be enough to distract opposing defenses.

Passing touchdowns

Texas has scored a passing touchdown on 4-of-24 red-zone attempts. Here is every one of those catches.

Mitchell nine-yard catch vs. Rice

Texas used a short run into the boundary from the 12-yard line to set up a 2nd and 7 from the 9-yard line in the third quarter. On the left hash, Sarkisian crowded the boundary and left Mitchell as the only Longhorn on the far side of the field. This space and the play-action fake from Ewers gave Mitchell more than enough room to win the one-on-one battle against the Rice cornerback and secure a touchdown.

This play is the epitome of using formations and ball location to create beneficial match ups. By using two tight ends near the hash, Sarkisian creates a one-on-one matchup for Mitchell, a matchup that should end favorably for Texas a majority of the time.

Mitchell seven-yard catch vs. Alabama

Sarkisian opted to create a similar matchup on 1st and goal from the right hash of the 7-yard line. Both Sanders and Helm lined up on the line into the boundary with Worthy located in the middle of the numbers. Mitchell was lined up a few yards outside the opposing hash with the entire half of the field to himself. Ewers faked a handoff and easily found Mitchell for the touchdown. Once again, Sarkisian used his formation to create a favorable one-on-one matchup outside and Mitchell was able to take advantage.

Murphy II one-yard catch vs. Wyoming

Texas came into the red zone at the 17-yard line. Using a screen pass to Worthy and a pass to Helm, Texas advanced to the 1-yard line. On first down, Texas had Sanders and Murphy II in the backfield as blockers for Brooks. While trying to run behind Murphy II and the left side of the offensive line, Texas was stopped. Banks and Agbo both did enough on their blocks, but pulling right guard DJ Campbell ran by a defender and Sanders whiffed, allowing Brooks to be swarmed. On second down, Ewers faked the handoff and found Murphy II, who leaked out of his fullback position in the end zone.

Texas used spacing and the aerial attack on this red-zone drive. After being unable to gain a single yard at the one, Sarkisian made a nice call to switch it up and use play action. The inability of Texas to gain a yard behind Agbo, Banks, Murphy II, and Sanders plus a pulling Campbell is alarming. These players should be able to move any defensive player backwards, especially when working together.

Mitchell nine-yard catch vs. Kansas

On this drive, Texas ran the ball on first and second down from the 10-yard line for a net gain of two yards early in the fourth quarter. One first down, Texas used a two-tight end bunch formation and ran behind it into the open side of the field, but was unable to garner any traction as the trio in the bunch did not sustain their blocks. On second down, Texas was once again stopped while using two tight ends. Luckily, third down was successful — as the lone receiver in the boundary, Mitchell ran a corner route and Ewers put the ball on the money for six.

The ability to create space in such tight areas of the field is a unique and valuable skill that Sarkisian possesses. When the Longhorns are able to score in the red zone via the air, he successfully overloads one side so a Texas player can use the entire field to win a one-on-one battle. Sarkisian has primarily relied upon this approach when the ball is in the 5–10-yard range. With the speed of the receivers and accuracy of Ewers in the intermediate range, creating one-on-one matchups in the red zone seems to be a winning approach for the Longhorns.

The first part of this analysis provides valuable insights into Texas’s red-zone success, showing how motion, formations, quarterback mobility, and matchup creation play pivotal roles. It sets the stage for further exploration in the second part of the series, where we’ll delve into areas that may need improvement to enhance the Texas red-zone performance for the remainder of the season.

Texas running back Jonathon Brooks is +15000 to win the Heisman Trophy, according to DraftKings.

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