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Game plan with the Coach: How Texas may scheme to slow USC

How Texas defense can stop the Sam Darnold and the Trojans.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Texas opens this weekend as 16-point underdogs to a fourth-ranked USC team in the first meeting between the two since the 2005 BCS National Championship game. The Texas defense, which struggled against Maryland in its season opener before shutting out San Jose State last week, has a tall order to fill in attempting to slow a Heisman contender in Sam Darnold, and a slew of other weapons.

The USC offense is a sophisticated system that can attack an offense in a number of ways. They will line up with unbalanced sets, empty the backfield, use a pro set (21 personnel), use 11 personnel, and do everything in between. They run zone, power, draw, and offer a number of different screen passes and run-pass options.

They have a sophisticated passing game, which creates mismatches and exploits them. Most importantly, USC is disciplined and well-coached on both sides of the ball, minimizing the number of mistakes.

There’s been much buzz this week about Tom Herman’s track record against ranked teams. If Herman is going to pull off an upset this week, he’ll need a stellar performance from his defense.

This is not intended to be a detailed game plan of the Longhorn’s defense for the USC game (you would get tired of reading all of the what if’s), but it will highlight a couple of schemes in Todd Orlando’s arsenal that can be effective against an offense like USC.

The first priority of this defense must be to stop the run. If USC can run the football, Texas won’t be able to compete for four quarters. I know, I know; Darnold is the poster child of this offense, and a Heisman contender. Texas will have to stop him with pressure, coverage, by changing our entire defensive scheme, right?

No, this team runs the football. To be successful, their efforts must start with stopping the run.

USC features two major threats at running back, their feature back, Ronald Jones II (25):

Freshman Stephen Carr (7):

If that doesn’t convince you that USC will beat you on the ground, consider this — The Trojans have run the ball 82 times for 539 yards on the season, averaging 6.6 yards per carry. They’ve only thrown the ball 59 times in the first two games for a total of 605 yards.

The biggest statistic that stands out in this area is explosiveness.

The running game has produced eight touchdowns over the season, with explosive runs of 52 and 37 yards. The passing game has only created four touchdowns on the season. More importantly, the running game will wear down a defense, especially one that is as thin as Texas seems to be at multiple positions. This leads to big second half numbers for the Trojan offense, putting teams away late in the game.

So what about Darnold? Can Texas win simply by stopping the run? No.

If Texas is able to stop the run, USC will turn to its many weapons, including leading receivers Deontay Burnett (80) and Stephen Mitchell Jr (4). The Trojans also feature a very capable receiver in tight end Tyler Petite (82).

Additionally, Jones II and Carr can hurt a defense catching passes out of the backfield. In order to stop the Trojans offense, Texas must account for all of these weapons in coverage. Darnold has shown that he can beat a defense using man coverage just as well as he can find holes in a zone, so what weakness can Texas exploit in this offense?

Some will say getting pressure on Darnold, limiting his time to read a defense and make a throw will help minimize his effectiveness. That game plan can work, however, if the pressure is too reliant on the blitz, Darnold can find open receivers very quickly, getting rid of the ball before the pressure affects him. Additionally, when Darnold is pressured, but is allowed to leave the pocket, it extends the play and gives his athletes time to make explosive plays.

Based on that, the second portion of the game plan must revolve around keeping Darnold in the pocket. If the defense can accomplish that, and get Darnold off of his first read, the quarterback becomes very uncomfortable. He’s thrown four interceptions on the year, and all of them have come when he is forced to check off his first read in the pocket.

Lastly, in order to minimize the mistakes that Texas has been prone to defensively over the past several years, Texas must use a scheme that is simple.

So, there we have it. In order to stop the USC offense, Texas must stop the run, keep Darnold in the pocket, and make him check off of his first read using a simple defensive scheme to minimize mistakes.

It’s easy said, but how is that accomplished.

Let’s start with stopping the run. USC likes to use 11, 21, and 20 personnel when running the football. Against those personnel groups, Texas needs to place four men on the line of scrimmage, with at least three down linemen. One of these personnel should be in a 6 technique in order to take away the tight end’s free release, in addition to run responsibilities.

The base defense can accomplish this by using the slot receiver to dictate strength rather than their usual alignment to the wide side of the field. This will put the nickel back over the slot receiver, preventing a free release, and the B-Backer over the tight end. The free safety will line up over C gap and about eight yards deep, having C gap run responsibility. It looks something like this:

Another variation that Todd Orlando had success with at Houston that can be used is to move both defensive ends to the open (slot) side of the formation, one in a 3 and the other in a 5. In this front, the B-Backer plays a 6 technique and the nose plays a 2i to the tight side of the formation, resulting in something like this:

Stanford used a safety blitz along with an inside slant in by the ends out of this formation with success against the USC run game last week:

Now for the passing game. The above listed defensive sets can place six or seven men in coverage on any given down, leaving four or five to pressure the quarterback. Both Cover 2 and Cover 3 offer soft spots in zones, which USC’s offense is extremely good at identifying and exploiting, especially when only six men are left in coverage.

Because of this, Stanford attempted to use man coverage early in the game against USC, and Darnold showed them why that’s a bad idea. Against man coverage, a safety is generally required to man up with any deep routes by a slot receiver. This can create a speed mismatch when Mitchell Jr. is lined up in the slot, or a size mismatch when Burnett is lined up in the slot, resulting in big plays as seen in the highlights above.

The cornerback and safeties will execute a 2 read also known as a blue concept, both reading number two receiver and reacting appropriately.

Texas can play some games in order to get pressure with the remaining five defenders, however, they must account for the back with one of the linebackers. One look I really like is bringing the B-Backer off the edge on the open side with the end getting outside pressure to the tight end side, keeping Darnold in the pocket. In this coverage, the Mike linebacker would be forced to cover the back if he releases into a pass route, and the Rover would have the tight end man-to-man.

A variation of this coverage that can be used out of the base formation (B-backer has the tight end) is to “combo” the QB spy and running back. This simply means the Rover and Mike linebackers have responsibility for the running back and a QB spy. In this coverage, the linebacker to the side of the formation which the running back releases to will take coverage responsibility, and the opposite linebacker will spy Darnold, pressuring him when he attempts to escape the pocket.

Lastly, if this offense is allowed to be on the field for any period of time, they will find holes in any defensive scheme and exploit them. Tom Herman is not a time of possession guy, and neither am I, when the offense is dynamic. If you are scoring points very quickly, time of possession really doesn’t matter. The problem is this Texas offense is not dynamic, and will not win in a shootout with USC. Based on USC’s run defense so far this year, and the fact that there are multiple injuries weakening the front seven, Texas should be able to create holes like this in using their power and zone run offense.

In order to win, Texas must play good defense, but they also must control the pace of the ball game by running the football offensively, using the screen game to widen the defense (thereby opening up the running lanes), and then choosing their spots to take advantage of aggressive defensive backs with play action passes down the field.

If they allow this game to become a track meet, the defense will be worn down by halftime, and the offense will not be able to keep up.