Thu Sep 17 04:18pm EDT
Xs and Os on Saturday's Texas-Texas Tech showdown from the proprietor of the essential Smart Football.
Without Graham Harrell or Michael Crabtree, the common assumption is that the Texas defense will be able to use its superior athleticism to wear the high-flying Red Raiders into submission. But that ignores Mike Leach's history of success against the 'Horns defense -- consider that last year's 39 point burst in the most dramatic victory of the season was actually down from the 43 Tech scored in 2007 in a losing effort. As far back as 2002, when the Leach program was just setting sail, Kliff Kingsbury threw for 470 yards in a 43-38 Tech upset in Lubbock; Tech put up 40 again the following year in a 43-40 nailbiter in Austin. With the exception of 2004-05, Mack Brown's best teams at UT, Leach's offense has routinely put up a handful of touchdowns and gobs of yards the 'Horns.
Saturday, however, will be defensive coordinator/head coach-in-waiting Will Muschamp's second chance at slowing down Texas Tech's aerial attack, and the home crowd in Austin greatly increases his chances. Last year, it seemed like Muschamp went into Lubbock thinking Texas Tech was like most pass-first teams, and any differences were only in degree, rather than in kind: He had the better athletes (with the exception of Crabtree), and he could put pressure on Harrell, play games with the line and the coverages, and more or less pound the offense into submission with those athletes. But, in literally every way imaginable, Leach is sui generis. His line was able to absorb the pass rush that had terrorized Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel just weeks before, and his quarterback easily picked the defense apart early on. It was clear that Texas was out of sync.
Over the course of the game the 'Horns defense settled -- one has the feeling that, although the finish was thrilling, if the two teams had played a few more quarters Texas might have cruised to a victory after having fallen behind so early. Muschamp is an excellent schemer in his own right, and despite his reputation as an aggressive fire-breather is unlikely to be seduced by the thrill of the easy blitz. Leach's teams have to be understood on their own terms, and because they execute so well, the defense's priority is less about just stunts and blitzes as it is with just flat executing.
Keepin 'em honest. As documented here last year, one of the more surprising keys to Texas Tech's victory was its unusually solid effort on the ground against the 'Horns defense; all things considered, it was probably the best rushing effort at Tech since Leach arrived nine years ago. To understand the ground game, or to understand anything about Tech's offense, is you must understand the very unsurprising proposition that literally everything is built around throwing the ball. Texas Tech's linemen very rarely, if ever, put a hand down to fire off the ball, instead lining up in a two-point stance to backpedal into pass-blocking mode.
More importantly, the Raider front takes very wide splits, meaning that the space between the players is much larger than normal. They do this to open up the passing lanes, but it often serves the purpose of opening up the running game -- Texas Tech takes "spread" to its fullest meaning.
The other thing to remember is that, while Mike Leach lets his quarterbacks call and check most of the plays at the line, almost every single run play is an audible of some sort. Leach's theory is that he only wants to run the ball when the numbers in the "box" are favorable, and when his offense has the angles. With the wide splits, this basically means that the defense is so stretched out that it's giving him the run game, and so it's the quarterback's job to call it. Unsurprisingly, they don't have many run plays, but a big reason for that is that with the splits so wide the linemen cannot perform the intricate combination blocks that other teams use. Instead, he runs a lot of a simple plays called "base," which can either have a lead blocker or not.
For the most part, the linemen just drive the men in front of them, though the center and guard can make a "fold" call to allow one to get up on the linebacker and the other, usually the center, to have a better angle on a defensive tackle or nose guard. Leach will run this play from under center but usually there is some kind of draw action by the quarterback. Last year, Tech got its first touchdown from this run.
The bottom line is that Tech's running game is set up by its passing game, though with better runners and better technique -- and probably a savvier Graham Harrell making the right calls at the line -- the personnel was a huge reason that Tech ran the ball as well as it did. This year with Taylor Potts calling the shots, the run game has been disappointing, though I think of the lack of attention to running against cupcakes has been Leach's attempt to get his new quarterback more "live" reps.
Protect to win. The Red Raider offensive line has become known for two things: Its William Wallace-esque appearance, and its surprising effectiveness at protecting passers who throw the ball 50 to 60 times a game. I already mentioned their incredible line splits, which you would think would create a lot of blitzing lanes, but which Leach believes create throwing lanes and forces defensive ends to come from farther away. But there's another reason that Tech's line has, generally speaking, been so effective.
To illustrate, think about Muschamp's early plan last year: He used lots of line stunts -- meaning the linemen often slant one way or another in tandem -- and tried to have the occasional linebacker shoot the gaps. Tech, especially early on, consistently picked it up. How? They use a pass protection technique called the "vertical pass set," that really can be summed up as the linemen backpedaling right at the snap to a depth of about three or four yards in front of where the quarterback will set up. Yes, they still form a pocket, but this pass set allows them to see and pick up all those funky line stunts and techniques before actually engaging with the defense, and to get in position to block guys like Sergio Kindle who can burst off the line. (See here for a coaching video on the vertical pass set.)
The linemen use their inside step to backpedal first, thus ensuring they get back quickly (most teams use something called a "kick-slide," but all you need to know is that they stay a little firmer on the line and that Tech's technique is different). The final benefit for Tech's line is that they don't have to hold their blocks as long because the defense loses about a second before the defensive line and the offensive line even engage with each other. Obviously, a team that takes a run-first mentality is not going to spend its time teaching linemen to simply run backwards on every snap, but Tech can get away with it.
Will hunting. Yet Muschamp isn't without options. Instead of calling so many line stunts, expect him to send Kindle, Lamarr Houston and Sam Acho right at Texas Tech's linemen -- the ol' bull rush. This is the best technique against a guy who is retreating, and Texas obviously has the studs to do this. Expect the 'Horns to couple this with some funky coverages and zone blitzes to confuse Taylor Potts, but don't expect them to go all out man-blitz either. Although they lost Crabtree, Tech's receiving corps is probably better as a whole, complete with the usual type-cast roles, like "How Did That Caucasian Get So Open?" (Austin Zouzalik), and "A Dude Seemingly Named After A Decepticon" (Detron Lewis).
Of course, if recent history is any guide Tech will manage some big completions and score some points, but the likelihood of their keeping up with Colt McCoy, especially without their stars from last year, is exceedingly slim. If Muschamp can do more than slow down the Red Raiders, that is just icing on the cake.
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Chris Brown writes the strategy and philosophy site Smart Football and also contributes to the New York Times' Fifth Down blog. You can reach him at chris at smartfootball.com, or follow him on Twitter.