As the Texas Longhorns offense seeks to consolidate the gains made against the Oklahoma Sooners when the Iowa State Cyclones come to Austin on Saturday, there are five big areas of emphasis for the Horns.
Here's what play caller Shawn Watson, sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes, and the rest of the offense are looking to achieve a week after putting up 482 total yards against the Sooners, the second-most total yards ever put up by the Horns in that long-running rivalry.
Establish Power and inside zone
On the ground Texas has had increasing success over the last several weeks, in part because the coaches have introduced run/pass reads and jet sweeps/jet motion that have put second- and third-level defenders in conflict.
Movement along the offensive line to find the best grouping has also helped, but the unit failed to create running lanes in the critical third quarter against Oklahoma, continuing a season-long trend of offensive issues coming out of halftime.
Some of the blame falls on Watson, who went away from the horizontal running plays like pin and pull and outside zone that Texas had some success with in the first half and instead went more often to inside zone and Power to start the third quarter.
Unfortunately, the execution wasn't really there for the Texas offensive line -- sophomore Kent Perkins didn't make the next step as a physical presence inside at guard and his junior counterpart Sedrick Flowers struggled pulling on Power once again, as well as on pin and pull.
For the Longhorns to truly take the next step as an offensive line, the inside running has to be there as teams start to key on the flow of outsize zone and pin and pull. It's either that or stay committed to misdirection like play-action bootlegs that get Swoopes moving to the right side, where he completed most of his passes against Oklahoma.
The Cyclones represent an important opportunity to improve on Power and inside zone as Iowa State features a 260-pound defensive tackle in Mitchell Meyers at the three technique and has been having trouble stopping the run all season. The group has limited big plays since getting gashed for long runs by FCS powerhouse North Dakota State in the opener, but Baylor still averaged more than five yards per carry, as did Toledo last weekend.
The question then becomes whether or not Iowa State opts to pack the box. Kansas did so and was able to control those running plays by Texas as the offensive staff stayed relatively stubborn in trying to get them to work. The guess here is that the Cyclones hope to stay in the game by stopping the Longhorns rushing attack.
This weekend, taking what the defense gives to the Horns would seem to be the higher priority, so even if Texas has to get aggressive in the passing game in order to have a shot at improving on those staple plays, that would be preferable to banging against overloaded defensive fronts with no success.
Find balance between protecting defense and running tempo
For weeks, some of the most effective offense the Horns have run has been at tempo. Late in the game against Oklahoma it was effective in scoring two late touchdowns to stay within reach of the Sooners, a comeback that ultimately fell short as much because of poor timeout management as anything else.
Watson acknowledged that the coaches have constant discussions about how much to use tempo and when to do it.
"I know that's a way for all of the young players, especially you get defenses to numb up, go a little vanilla for you," he said. "Plus, the players, they're moving so fast they're not overthinking the process, so it definitely helps out -- especially the younger quarterbacks."
So the benefits are essentially three-fold -- get easy reads for the quarterback because defenses have to be more simple in their looks, get a rhythm for the quarterback and other offensive players due to the pace, and wear out defenses.
Swoopes weighed in on Monday and expressed his comfort level when going quickly.
"Yeah, it makes me feel more comfortable just because I feel like the defense doesn't have time to dial up any kind of crazy pressures or anything like that," he said. "So they just give us really simple looks. So it's easier to go out there and play against simpler looks than it is to play against some of the crazy blitzes that defenses can put together when they have time to get them from the sideline."
Texas doesn't even have to run four or five plays in a row at high tempo -- at times the team has used tempo on first and second down and then huddled on third down.
The excuse from the coaches is that the offense wants to stay tied to the defense and keep it from being exposed by an offense that gives up the football quickly. But if the offense has gone fast and then gotten behind the chains on third down, huddling can give the defense some extra time and the bottom line remains that three and outs are bad for the defense whether they happen in 30 seconds or in a minute and a half.
If the tempo makes Texas that much more likely to get easy first downs, then the risk would seem to be more minimal than head coach Charlie Strong and his staff often make it out to be.
Swoopes needs to keep making the right reads
One of the best moves that Texas has made that diversifies what Watson brought from Louisville has been to add run/pass option reads in the passing game and to use give Swoopes some Power read looks that allow him to work more north-south.
Against Oklahoma, Watson said that Swoopes has been making the right decisions, both at the line of scrimmage before the snap and after the snap when reading defenders.
"He was spot on with all of his checks -- moving our protections, he didn't miss a beat," said Watson. "He did a really nice job in the read game. He had one misread, and when I'm talking about that, that's our run options. He had one misread, and then after that, he was pretty much spot on."
At times, Swoopes has been reluctant to keep the ball on read option plays, but he started to make the right decisions pulling it against Oklahoma, including the 73-yard touchdown run that was called back and on his late touchdown run.
Perhaps the light switch has come on for him in that regard on the Power keeps and zone read keeps, but his execution of the speed option is still far from ideal -- Swoopes must attack the read defender much more aggressively and could benefit from the confidence to throw a fake at that defender to get upfield as quickly as possible and ensure positive yardage.
In the pocket, the Texas starter took criticism from both Strong and Watson in previous weeks for his lack of pocket and desire to escape out the side of the pocket rather than stepping up and then possibly finding the north-south running lanes where he can use the athleticism he does have effectively.
According to Watson, major growth happened in the game after intense drill work on those aspects of the game in practice.
"We work hard on creating protection in the pocket," said Watson. "I do several different drills to move him around, and he did it, he did it. He was textbook in it. He would kick, he'd slide, he created protection, would find his window and get his ball out. He's learning."
Communication, attention to details have to improve
The inability to get plays in against Oklahoma could have cost Texas the game. It certainly cost the Horns a legitimate chance to mount a game-winning drive. Watson said the timeout on the two-point conversion late was a result of headset issues that plagued the staff all game, hardly shocking given the general state of the Cotton Bowl's facilities.
But Strong also said on Monday that sometimes Swoopes isn't confident in what he thinks he's getting from the sidelines.
"What happened was once we get them, Ty looks back, and sometimes it's just the inexperience to make the call, the head coach said. "Because a lot of times he's heard it so many times in practice, but he wants to make sure it's perfect. Because you get to critical points in the game, and you want to make sure it's the right play and making sure it doesn't go wrong."
The contest against Iowa State will be the sixth start for Swoopes, so it's time for him to be confident in what he thinks he's getting from the sidelines. Even if that doesn't happen this week, he'll at least benefit from not having to worry about crowd noise as a factor in making the play calls in the huddle.
Likewise, false starts consistently put Texas behind the chains against Oklahoma -- there were six in total -- and Strong blamed some of that on crowd noise and not going to a "first sound" snap count until the second half. At home, crowd noise won't be a factor during snap counts, either, so there won't be any excuse for the offensive line and tight ends to have those same problems.
And with more experience at the center position, the issues with snaps should reduce greatly for junior Taylor Doyle, who hadn't spent much time there prior to starting against Oklahoma last weekend.
Playing at home will mitigate some of those issues with the little details, but this will be another learning experience for Swoopes in making sure that he doesn't come up hard against the play clock so consistently.
Keep Marcus Johnson involved
It's been a disappointing junior season for the League City Clear Falls product who was perhaps the most likely player to develop as a legitimate deep threat after the hamstring injury to senior wide receiver Jaxon Shipley in fall camp.
Instead, he's been lost in the offense, failing to create any big plays heading into the Oklahoma game and not even catching many passes outside of four catches for 40 yards against UCLA, mostly on slant routes from POP passes. The one big catch he did have, on a fade against Kansas for a touchdown late, was called back due to penalty.
He couldn't catch a break.
Until what could have been a breakout game in the Cotton Bowl working across the middle of the field and catching seven passes for 93 yards, including one catch and run that could have gone for a touchdown if he'd simply stayed straight instead of altering his path towards the end zone and allowing a defender to catch him.
Shipley said having Johnson step up was "huge" for the offense and he thinks that having another threat will be a boon to the play of Swoopes.
"I think it shows we've been stretching the field a little bit more and if we can have us three guys playing up to the best of our abilities, that's only going to help the offense out," he said. "It's going to give Tyrone a lot more confidence, as well, because he had an awesome game and he really saw that his receivers have a lot of trust in him and also he can have a lot of trust in our receivers."
The trust may not quite be there yet for Swoopes with Johnson after there were several dropped passes against the Sooners that would have put the 6'1, 193-pounder over the 100-yard mark for the first time since the TCU game last year.
If he can provide a credible third threat for the offense over the middle and perhaps even deep to complement Shipley and breakout senior pass-catcher John Harris, the Texas offense could truly take off in the passing game.