Texas just managed to cover the 20 point margin against Wyoming I provided as a litmus test for the validity of 10 win season expectations. The next contest against New Mexico will reveal nothing about this team as "los Lobos" are likely to be a Mountain West doormat that fellow league teams like Wyoming walk all over this season.
Against Wyoming, Texas unveiled much of the strategy that we can expect to see over the course of the season. To put it in MMA terms, Texas' strategy is "ground and pound", ball-control offense featuring runs and complementary passes mixed with physical and dominant defensive play. The run'n'screen offense, you might call it.
We can roughly measure the Longhorns success in implementing this strategy with three key statistics: time of possession, turnovers, and rushing yards. It was by managing those factors that Bill Snyder's 2011 Kansas St. team managed a 10 win season.
Texas out-rushed Wyoming 280-69, won the turnover margin 2-1, and held the ball for 35:12 to Wyoming's 24:48. Each of these statistics played into the others. The turnovers gave Texas possession of the ball, the rushing yards drained clock and kept the Cowboys off the field, and holding on to the ball for an extended period of time made the running game more effective.
On offense, the game plan gave us a glimpse into the coach's perception of the team's strengths and weaknesses. While the running game is the focus, the Longhorns do not have a line like LSU's or Alabama's that can line up and knock people off the ball for 4 quarters. What they do have is a unit of athletic young lineman who can pull and make blocks in space paired with a collection of versatile running backs.
On the perimeter, Texas has one receiver that is a true route-running threat (Shipley) and then a mix of downfield threats, speedy youngsters, tight ends, and big, blocking receivers.
Between these players and Ash, Texas has neither the skill nor the experience to include a diverse 3-step passing game based on timing and coverage reads. But they do have players that can threaten a defense catching screen passes, deep play-action bombs, short throws, and sweep hand-offs, all of which are easily paired with the Texas run game.
Texas utilized most of these concepts while pounding Wyoming, although they were unable to land a play-action haymaker, and after 3 quarters had sufficiently worn down the talented Wyoming DT tandem to allow the OL and Joe Bergeron to trample them like an enraged elephant.
Ash successfully avoided turnovers (besides the bad snap), but teams that combine strong DL play with an athletic defensive backfield will present serious difficulties for this offense unless they can convert plays in the vertical passing game. The timing and execution on these plays was still not there for Ash and the receivers.
Another problem for the offense that is likely to be corrected is finishing drives with the kicking game. Freshman Nick Jordan was 1/3 on field goal attempts of the sort Texas fans have been able to take for granted most of the Mack Brown era. Penn St. transfer Anthony Fera's return to health could make a big difference for Texas in winning some of the inevitable close contests with league foes.
On the defensive side, heavy pressure and disguised coverages resulted in the 2 interceptions despite a heroic effort by Cowboy QB Brett Smith in buying time and finding receivers on the run. Meanwhile, Diaz left 6 "in the box" (aligned between the tackles) throughout the game to control Wyoming's spread running game.
Normally, defenses will respond to 4 and 5 WR formations by taking linebackers out of the box and keeping both safeties deep to prevent being killed by the passing game, but this can leave linebackers out of position to fill gaps on running plays.
Texas kept 3 linebackers on the field on 1st and 2nd down and dropped Vaccaro down into man coverage with only Phillips playing as a deep safety. With only defensive back deep, Texas could leave 2 linebackers in the box to account for every run gap. This strategy dared Wyoming to beat Texas with deep passes while facing the ever-present danger of a Fire Zone blitz descending upon their most important player.
That player, Smith, acquitted himself quite well, managing 276 passing yards on 28 throws (9.9 yards per attempt), much of it manufactured in the face of a pass-rush. Other than a typical early-season missed tackle, the secondary weathered his improvisations and some missed assignments while capitalizing twice with game changing interceptions.
When all is said and done Smith is likely to be worthy of mention alongside the the signal-callers Texas will face in league play.
Because Texas' defensive backfield is strong enough to allow Diaz to outnumber opposing running games, the New Mexico "pistol" offense, which is oriented around the option, is unlikely to find much breathing room. The vulnerability Texas will need to shore up is a good spread passing team that can attack the linebackers in coverage, confuse assignments with motion and alignments, and catch the new safeties out of position with vertical throws.
Unfortunately Texas will not face another such team until Oklahoma St., but in the meantime, the key for Texas this week and in subsequent contests is to continue to develop the hammering process that is the running game, improve communication in the secondary, and nail down the play-action passing game that will take this team where they want to go.
New Mexico provides a confidence builder for the offense facing an overwhelmed front and a mental exam for the defense playing against the option. Then things get real in a hurry @Ole Miss, @Oklahoma State, West Virginia in Austin, and then away to Dallas to face the hated Sooners.
Truly a brutal series of challenges for the young squad, but if Texas has really developed a Matt Hughes mindset, they'll survive.