Quarterback Maalik Murphy got his first career start against the BYU Cougars last week. After an interception and a fumble, Murphy was able to shake off the nerves and deliver a solid second half against the Cougars. Having Jonathan Brooks in the backfield along with a stellar defense that held BYU to just six points provided a solid cushion and low stress situation for Murphy to get into rhythm. However, this week the No. 7 Texas Longhorns will host the No. 23 Kansas State Wildcats on Saturday with the current spread (-4.5 according to Draft Kings) that is the closest it has been outside of the Oklahoma and Alabama games. Texas will have to lean again on the pillars that have performed well throughout this season to aid Murphy through another game.
Continuing on the topic of Brooks’ impressive season, I wanted to compare how he was performing relative to the offensive line. Below is a collection of leading backs for current Big 12 teams and other notable backs from high powered offenses or ranked teams this season. It compares the line yards metric which aims to attribute the impact the o-line has in the running game and measures yards lost or gained within five yards of the line of scrimmage. For running back performance, I simply used yards per carry.
Oregon’s offensive line has boasted almost four line yards per game and Bucky Irving has made sure to meet his front five at that caliber of play. For Jonathon Brooks, he has actually outperformed many other backs whose offensive lines creating similar running situations for them with only TreVeyon Henderson of Ohio State and Ollie Gordon III of Oklahoma State being able to do more with less. Kansas State returned the majority of its offensive line and DJ Giddens has been effective with 6.22 yards per carry.
Red-zone issues seemed to be a dragged-out topic of concern for the Longhorns. After Sarkisian went for it on fourth and goal and failed TWICE against BYU, we couldn’t help but bring it up again. Apart from Savion Red in the wildcat formation, I am constantly baffled by the play calling to be anything other than Brooks running it up the gut. To dissect further why this is can be an issue in the future, I broke down how each drive for the Longhorns ended when inside the 50-yard line. The x-axis shows bins based on the distance to the end zone on the final play of their drive and the colors dictate what exactly happened.
For the most part, Texas can indeed run the ball for a touchdown inside the 10-yard line but the turnover on downs (especially when one of them was such an impactful play against Oklahoma) still warrants a need for change. Another note has been the handful of missed field goals from kicker Bert Auburn over the course of the year. He did, however, nail the two attempts in clutch situations against Oklahoma and Houston.
The game plan is very similar to the one composed against BYU. Kansas State ranks 11th in the conference in run defense, tackling and in pass rushing, but they rank third in pass coverage with only Iowa State and Oklahoma having better secondaries. Texas should opt to run the ball again as much as possible as the Wildcats give up 3.74 yards per rush, leaving Murphy to only pass the ball when Sark wants to and not when they need to.
Their front line isn’t spectacular when it comes to stopping the run with only edge Khalid Duke (14 tackles, 5 sacks) being noteworthy. Their linebacker group is what allows them to be a great team consisting of mike Austin Romaine (18, 1), will Austin Moore (43, 1.5), and sam Desmond Purnell (30, 0.5), who all rank in the top quartile as run defenders. The Wildcats employ a 3-3-3 scheme with safety Marques Sigle (39, 0) being the player who rolls down as linebacker the most, and he is their highest graded run defender.
KSU floats closer to below average in the pass rush with edges Brendon Mott (16, 1) and Duke being the moderate threats. LB Purnell is their only linebacker who is above average in pass coverage but that is where their deep secondary comes in. Corners Jacob Parrish (8 pass breakups, 1 interception), Will Lee III (3, 2) aid safeties Sigle (3, 0), Kobe Savage (0, 2) and VJ Payne (2, 1) in being highly rated DBs in coverage.
First, I also wanted to recognize the effort the Longhorn D has been making all season long and constructed the same graph but for opponent drives where the last play was across the 50-yard line.
Texas has done a great job at slowing down opposing offenses once in the red zone and often forcing them to kick the field goal. I think the games against OU and UH were the instances in which they seemed to start to fall apart.
Longhorn safeties have consistently lost the foot race to opposing receivers, and Kwiatkowski seemed to acknowledge this issue. We have seen less instances where safeties are left on islands in coverage in recent games, but the trade-off is that the defense runs out of personnel available to blitz. For weaker offenses, Texas can get away with sending the front four defensive linemen and expect enough pressure to be created but they may need to more aggressive in their play calling.
The two graphs below demonstrate the splits in each game when Texas is blitzing versus when they are not. Each bar shows the total number of passing dropbacks for the opponent, sorted into whether pressure was created and if the pressure was converted into a sack.
Kansas State has added Avery Johnson into the quarterback rotation along with veteran Will Howard. Howard can run the ball really well and throw the short pass (he is 57-of-69 passing for four touchdowns in the 0-10 yard range over the middle) but he struggles with deep plays (9-of- passing 29 in the 20+ yard range). Johnson can also run and complements Howard’s game by throwing the deep balls. It isn’t so much that these quarterbacks are scramblers, but they are part of many designed runs. Below are the statistics for KSU’s offense.
DJ Giddens is the leading back for the Wildcats and arguably a top-20 back in the nation at the moment. Florida State transfer Treshaun Ward is the smaller and speedier option. The Wildcats rank 32nd in the nation in pass blocking and 11th in run blocking, led by left guard Cooper Beebe and left tackle KT Leveston.
Slot receiver Philip Brooks III can catch the short passes and is dangerous once the ball is in his hands. Ben Sinott is a Swiss army knife (think of Kyle Juszczyk) as he is a dangerous blocker in the fullback and tight end positions but is also a reliable pass catcher as well. Jadon Jackson is the designated X-receiver most of the time, but he doesn’t frequently get those deep looks.
While Kansas State boasts one of the better run games in the nation, the Longhorns’ run defense has been a pivotal strength in games. If Texas can slow down the run and force them to take more intermediate throws, the DBs will be ready to pounce on any interceptions.
Texas showed grit last week with a dominant performance against BYU despite injury setbacks. They will have to do it again, this time against a defense that has the physical strength to punch a hole in the Longhorn offense. Maalik Murphy will have more pressure to stay poised during this match as turnovers will be bigger momentum shifts. On the other side of the ball, Texas will look to their front seven yet again to hold things down while other groups may need to be given grace as the game progresses. This front line has been a menace all year long, T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy II are the best interior D-linemen in the country, and at times the entire front looks like nothing is in their way en route to the quarterback. Their performance will certainly set the tone for how the rest of the team plays on Saturday.