Entering the Saturday contest against the UCLA Bruins, the Texas Longhorns offensive staff is scrambling to find ways to move the football and put points on the board after narrowly avoiding a shutout last weekend against the BYU Cougars.
With so many starters out of the lineup, young players have to emerge quickly to demonstrate an understanding of the offense that is sufficient enough to open up the playbook after an extremely vanilla gameplan hurt the offense in the home blowout.
Sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes factors into that equation heavily. Can he read defenses to the extent that he can make all of the pre-snap and post-snap adjustments that are necessary to run Watson's modified West Coast offense?
Based on Swoopes' first start, Watson believes that is possible.
"I liked his focus and his attention to detail," Watson said on Wednesday. "When I was talking to him during the game, I'd always quiz him on what he was seeing, what he saw in coverages and what the defense was before I would tell him, and he was right on. He didn't miss any, so that just shows his preparation. I was really pleased with the way he played."
Assuming that Watson isn't devolving into coach speak and praising his young quarterback because it's the right thing to do at a media availability, there may be more immediate upside to Swoopes than previously thought.
To be sure, even though the offense was mostly a trainwreck, the play of Swoopes was one of the few positives to emerge from the second straight debacle against BYU, especially accuracy that appeared to be improved over the spring game back in April.
"I thought he had a really good game," said the Texas play caller. "I was really pleased with a lot of things you need to see a young quarterback do and the management aspect of it. He had a few speed bumps in there, which you would expect, but he had a lot less than what I thought he would have had. I thought he had a great week of preparation."
With a long pass play of only 22 yards and only one attempt deep down the field, one of the major questions since the BYU game has been about the lack of a vertical passing game.
Watson explained how the offense works in that regard.
"In every route pattern we have, there's a deep ball," he said. "The defense has to give it.The defense we played this past week was a defense that was a bend-don't-break style of defense, and they kept a tight umbrella on everything. They're a type of defense, if you look at their history, that doesn't give up a lot of big plays, explosive down the field throws because of the style and coverage that they play. They more or less make you work it."
In fact, BYU aligned with two deep safeties, showing little to no respect for the Texas running game to find success against even numbers. And the decision by the Cougar defensive staff paid off -- the Horns weren't able to threaten the BYU front seven with the running game and so the secondary was never put in the type of run-pass conflicts that often result in big plays.
Just how bend-don't-break is the BYU defense? The Cougars sit tied for 60th nationally in plays of 10 or more yards allowed, but have given up only three plays greater than 20 yards and one play of more than 30 yards.
With many of the option routes that Texas runs, players were breaking them off into shorter routes like stop routes and comeback routes.
So going into the game against UCLA, the critical equation for Texas will once again remain the ability of the offensive to create some holes for the running game after completely failing to do so last weekend.
"We've got to keep growing those guys," Watson said. "[Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach] Joe [Wickline] has a really nice philosophy on how to develop those guys. We've got to get those guys many looks. There's so many things happening in their world that could disrupt blocking patterns, and it's experience. Probably the biggest variable is the communication aspect. We've got a center who will get his second start and really extended game time. In the real world, the life of a center is very little. He's in his infancy, but that's where the communication and identification starts. We just have to keep growing those guys."
The center helps the line with the "Zero ID" approach that characterizes the zone blocking scheme run by Wickline. Here's the explainer from Barking Carnival:
The "Zero ID" approach means that the center identifies the first defender to the playside and dubs him #0. That's the center's blocking assignment. From there, you count outward to number and assign the rest of the defenders - here, the Mike becomes #1, the strongside DE becomes #2 and the Sam playing down over the TE becomes #3. The same approach applies as you work out on the backside of the play. Counting out from the center, the Will linebacker becomes #1 (there's no #0 on the backside of a play), the 3-tech DT becomes #2 and the weakside end becomes #3. It's probably just about the simplest system for handling the question of who's got who (and so far as I can tell it's the same approach that Chip Kelly uses.) There's no need to learn complicated rules for Under vs Over fronts or anything like that. There can be some adjustments in the zero ID if, say, a strong safety walks down late as an overhang defender on a certain side, but for the sake of generally understanding what we're trying to do all you need is this basic concept.
So everything starts with the pre-snap work by the center in identifying the first playside defender that sets the rest of the assignments. It sounds relatively simple, but it's just one basic aspect of the center's job.
And redshirt freshman Jake Raulerson doesn't have nearly as much overall experience as injured senior Dominic Espinosa, who had started every game in his Texas career until he fractured his ankle in the opener against North Texas. Difficulties in helping the line identify players may have resulted in plays like the opening effort against BYU in which junior left guard Sedrick Flowers was the only lineman who was able to engage a defender.
The next step is developing chemistry and understanding with the combination blocks that help create displacement on inside zone. In that regard, the Horns are working from the inside out, starting with Raulerson, to improve that facet of zone blocking.
"We're starting from the centerpiece and getting him up to speed," Watson said. "The thing that gets overlooked is the combination. You've got to work with a group of five, and they've got to know each other. It's like a basketball team. They've got to know one another and know how the pieces all fit. The calls get transferred down the line, and they have to know what it triggers to the next group. There's a lot of coordination that goes on, and that's experience things that have to take place."
Along with developing functional strength to go against collegiate defensive lines, the need for coordination along the offensive is a big reason why having experience linemen is considered such an advantage -- it takes reps upon reps upon reps to build that coordination.
Right now, everything revolves around a steep learning curve not only for Raulerson, but for the rest of the offensive linemen who have hardly played together.
The returns in the BYU game were not impressive, as the Cougas held the Horns to 2.3 yards per rush.
An inability to run more consistently or add some different looks to the Texas run game will keep the offense behind the chains again and lead to stalled drives, putting even more pressure on a defense that will have to deal with the superb talents of UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley.
More pressure on the defense, but also more pressure on Swoopes to convert long down-and-distance situations, a recipe for turnovers.
Is there anything up Watson's sleeve? Is the offense going to expand and how so?
Content to hang with the Cougars in the first half last week, the third-quarter meltdown on defense put the game out of reach with a quickness.
Is Watson willing to again play it conservative and give the team little change of winning?
What shame is there in going down kicking and screaming, with both middle fingers raised?
Problem is, the Texas offense has the kicking strength of a dying person, no tongue, and hands gnarled by arthritis.
So there's that.