Against New Mexico State, Texas took full advantage of a spread staple called four verticals, a play that, like its name implies, features four receivers running vertical routes down the field. Let's take a longer look at this play, and the advantages it brings.
Ash Lofts A Pick
As you can see, it's a second-and-six, and Texas runs a four-verticals concept. David Ash decides to throw down the sideline to Davis. The throw is on-time. You'll notice the ball is out precisely at the moment Davis gets past the corner playing zone. But Ash lobbed the ball there as if he were playing against a single-high safety, while the Aggies are actually in cover two, meaning two high safeties.
If Ash powers the ball in, Mike Davis likely has a touchdown. Instead, the air under the ball gives the safety the time to cut off the opening and make an outstanding interception.
Ash Learns His Lesson
First, you'll notice that this is actually not a four-vertical play. Texas actually, on the previous down, hit the tight end on the quick out. So here, Texas runs another quick out, with Jaxon Shipley, the slot receiver, breaking to the outside. When the cornerback steps up to help on Shipley's route, that opens things up down the field for John Harris.
Here's the reason I included this play: it's the same throw on a vertical sideline route that Ash made earlier, only this time, he drives the ball in, instead of laying it over the top. The result is that he hits Harris before the safety can get there, and Harris is able to juke said safety and run for a touchdown.
It's always encouraging to see a player learn from his mistake, and in this case, you have Ash making the perfect throw for the situation.
Also, if you'll note: the safety is late getting over. Part of that might have been because he's 1) frozen by the crossing route across the middle and 2) Texas had been threatening the seams earlier.
Ash Throws Tip Pick
I included this throw because you can see what Texas is trying to accomplish with the vertical routes here. Ash has a window, albeit a small one, to try and fit this ball into, though it gets tipped at the line and intercepted.
Both outside receivers are stretching the defense vertically up the sideline, and the slots, Daje Johnson and Shipley are stressing the seams. You'll notice that Johnson and Shipley both break their routes inside a bit, forcing the two deep safeties to make a decision: either help along the sideline and leave the middle open or stay in the middle and leave the boundary defenders on their own. In this case, the right safety tries to split the difference, leaving Johnson with an opening over the middle.
If this throw makes it through — and as you'll see, it still had to make it past the linebackers patrolling the middle — Johnson likely has a touchdown.
As an aside, that's also why Joe Bergeron spills out of the backfield here. If the linebackers drop too deep to try and take away those seam throws, it's an easy decision to dump the ball off to the running back in space.
This Is What They Meant To Have Happen
And here's what happens when you play three-deep against four verticals. It's simple math: you can't defend four guys with three, especially when those four are running routes designed to space you out and utilize the whole field.
In this case, Mike Davis runs the deep corner off down the sideline, meaning that when Johnson breaks slightly to the inside, there's nobody there. The corner can't abandon Davis, and the single-high safety can only defend one of Johnson or Shipley, or split the difference. There's just no way to cover that much ground.
Again, Ash powers the ball in here, as opposed to putting air under it, because he wants to hit Johnson quickly, while he's still in space, while not giving the defenders a chance to make a play on the ball. From that point, it's just Johnson's natural ability taking over.
Anybody who has played the NCAA Football video games knows that when you send your receivers deep, there's plenty of room for a quarterback to scramble. And that's what happened here. Note again that the Longhorns send four receivers on vertical routes. Here, Ash doesn't throw the ball, but instead takes advantage of the fact that New Mexico State has half of its defense covering receivers way downfield.
Ash takes off when the Aggie defenders get out of their rush lanes, and notice how far he's already gotten before he meets a defender with a chance to stop him. Conservatively, we'll say that the first defender who could feasibly tackle him is the defender taking on Shipley's block at the 23-yard line (that's conservative because how much of a shot did the defender really have with a full body between he and the quarterback? Not a great one.). That means Ash already has a 32-yard run before defenders really enter the picture. Eventually, of course, the play ends in a 55-yard touchdown. But even without Shipley's outstanding blocking, Ash had a huge gain on his hands because the receivers ran off the defenders.
The Longhorns ran four verticals on somewhere between one-fourth and one-fifth of Ash's passing attempts on Saturday, and it's a concept we should expect to see plenty of this season from the Longhorns. Not only is it a spread staple to test the seams vertically — a huge percentage of Baylor's offense, for instance, is four verticals with receiver options to stop or break off their routes at any openings* — but it fits Texas's personnel well.
* What do I mean by that? So many of Baylor's routes start off as a four-vertical concept, but receivers are given different route trees to utilize if the defense is playing them a certain way. A defender giving an outside receiver a massive cushion, for instance, is an easy decision for the receiver to break his vertical into an out route. It's then up to the receiver and the quarterback to be on the same page, so that they both know which decision should be made, and the ball can get out on time. Those in-route options, of course, make it extremely difficult to defend.
That first pick aside, it's a route concept that David Ash has proven proficient at throwing, and one that Ash is comfortable with. And with players like Mike Davis, Jaxon Shpley and Daje Johnson, and the speedy Kendall Sanders, who didn't play on Saturday, the Longhorns have the receivers to make this go.
This is a tough play to defend, for multiple reasons. First, if a team plays one-high safety, there simply aren't enough deep defenders to take the four players running vertically. And in Cover 2, or Cover 4, there just isn't really any help for any of the defenders.
Even if you defend it perfectly, and have a man on a man, you still have one player running with Johnson, or one player covering Davis, with no extra over-the-top help. That's a situation that Texas will take.