Iowa State's Defensive Strategy
Was both simple and brutally effective. The Cyclones loaded up the box on early downs and dropped nearly everyone on later downs. If Texas had a running quarterback, there was yardage to be made on quarterback run plays on passing downs. Bunches of it. And if the Longhorns threw the ball more effectively on early downs … let's just say there were plays to be had there.
Iowa State gambled (was it really a gamble?) that Case McCoy wouldn't be able to beat the Cyclones. They decided, the same as an actuary would, that the lowest area of risk would be to ask McCoy to make plays that were outside of his comfort zone and skill set. A quarterback who isn't a running threat? Don't worry about him running. A quarterback without a strong arm? Force him to make consistent throws to the boundaries of the field, giving your defensive backs enough time to break on the ball.
I don't want to pick on McCoy. He's performed reasonably well as a backup quarterback, as largely emphasized by the fact that he has 15 more passes than starting quarterback David Ash, and has yet to throw an interception. Neither has he been as explosive as Ash has been in the passing game: even with those 15 fewer throws, Ash has nearly 200 more passing yards. Ash is averaging 8.74 yards per attempt; McCoy is at 5.63. It isn't any secret why … watch the New Mexico State game and you get at least some feel for what Major Applewhite and Darrell Wyatt want this offense to be, one that can spread teams out to stretch them horizontally and vertically. That can really stress a defense with a quarterback like Ash who can propel the ball, on a line, to multiple stress points on a defense. And McCoy's lack of arm strength means that the number of stress points in that kind of offense dwindles.
Now, I do think Texas did a bit better offensively than the numbers state. For one thing, while Texas had just 363 total yards, that doesn't account for the 83 yards in defensive penalties that the Cyclones committed, including a whopping five pass interference calls for 69 yards. Even if you leave out the other offensive penalty — the 14-yard facemask on the Longhorns' final drive — Texas should at least get some credit for those pass interference calls, which would push the Longhorns over 400 yards. Even beyond that, Texas had at least one pass interference call on three of its four touchdown drives, meaning that those calls helped the Longhorns to 21 points.
Mike Davis in particular drew three of the four calls, two of which came when dominating freshman cornerback Nigel Tribune. Davis converted a third down by beating Tribune for a 12-yard catch. Then, after a holding call left Texas with a first-and-20, he caught an eight-yard pass. And he drew a 15-yard pass interference call from Tribune on each of the next two plays, meaning that over a four-play span, Davis essentially had four catches for 50 yards, creating three first downs.
Back to Texas's offensive plan: both analysts helping to call the game, Jesse Palmer and David Pollack, continuously ripped on the Longhorns' offensive strategy, accusing Texas of throwing the ball far too often despite having a more effective running game. But at no point in the game did either realize what Texas was actually doing … the Longhorns WERE calling run plays, as part of run/pass combination plays. Packaged plays are all the rage in spread offenses, with teams basically running a run play and a pass play at the same time.
So basically, the ball was snapped with Texas running both a run and a pass play. It's up to the quarterback, at that point, to make a decision about where the ball goes. If the box is packed, McCoy often has an outside throw option. And if Iowa State is more spread out, McCoy can hand the ball to a running back behind an offensive line that carries out its blocking assignments as if for a run play.
Ironically enough, Davis's penalty came on one of those packaged plays. Texas ran an inside zone/bubble screen play, with Davis asked to cut safety Deon Broomfield as part of the pass part of the package (a bubble screen to Jaxon Shipley behind blocks from Davis and Kendall Sanders). But on that specific play, McCoy DID hand the ball off, giving it to Joe Bergeron for an easy touchdown run.
Johnathan Gray is an exceedingly gifted runner
Texas runs zone blocking schemes a ton, which typically work because 1) the Longhorns, for the most part, have the linemen who can make those schemes work and 2) in Gray and Malcolm Brown, Texas has two backs who excel as zone runners because of their feet and ability to plant decisively and make a cut upfield.
Brown has certainly shown flashes of that ability in his Texas career. He's missed eight games in his career with injuries, and been tagged by nagging injuries in a number of other contests. But he still has five 100-yard games, thanks in large part to his vision and ability to find cutback lanes.
Gray flashed that ability on his way to earning five-star status and scoring more touchdowns than any running back in high school history. His vision, balance and agility were big reasons that he excelled despite not necessarily having elite physical gifts. At The Opening Gray, who wasn't considered a power back, ran the 40 in 4.53 seconds, a very good, but not necessarily elite time. His shuttle time, of course, was among the best recorded at the event prior to his senior year, giving an indication of his explosive ability to drive and cut.
It's just that ability that makes him such a threat in Texas's zone schemes, especially on outside zone, when Gray gets the ball on a "stretch" handoff, aiming diagonally for an off-tackle run. But the point of a zone play is that holes open where they may — you're using the defense's pursuit, or lack of pursuit, against it.
Check out Gray's 45-yard touchdown run against the Cyclones.
Texas actually pulls Dominic Espinosa (part of a fold maneuver with Trey Hopkins, who base blocks), essentially giving the impression of two lead blockers along with Geoff Swaim, seen here acting like a fullback (very, very well, I might add). That's where the hole "should be." In fact, if you freeze the clip quickly after Gray gets the ball, it seems like this is where the play will go. Mason Walters, the backside guard, missed his cut on linebacker Jeremiah George, but that's OK, because Espinosa is still coming through the hole with an eye on George. Donald Hawkins has driven the defensive end completely out of the play. Geoff Swaim has kicked out the linebacker responsible for playing that gap. Hopkins has accounted for the playside defensive tackle, Rodney Coe, and receiver Marcus Johnson, blocking down, has his hands on the safety, Jacques Washington.
Here's where Gray's vision and cutback ability comes in. If Gray just shoots through that nice, ready-made hole, he'll have a nice gain. If guys can hold their blocks, he might even get 10-15 yards. Instead, he plants his foot and drives toward the inside shoulder of Hopkins. There's an even bigger hole here, albeit one that wasn't nearly easy to spot. Kennedy Estelle, the backside tackle, cut the backside defensive tackle Brandon Jensen, off his feet. And Coe is trying to push to Hopkins's outside, essentially taking himself out of Gray's cutback lane.
The main issue here is George, because Espinosa was aligned to block George to the outside, and with Gray's cut, he's now unimpeded. But only for a minute, because of a great hustle play by Walters. Walters regains his footing after missing his diving cut block, and gets up just in time to put his 320-pound frame between George and Gray.
From that point, it's all Gray. He cuts yet again, this time sharply behind Walters, and zooms past Jared Brackens before Brackens can get to him. And his acceleration allows him to split cornerback Jansen Watson — Iowa State's fastest defensive player — and safety Deon Broomfield. Neither really has a chance to make the play.
So many things went right to create that play, from the way the Longhorns reached their initial blocks to Estelle's cut to Walters's effort play. But it also doesn't happen without Gray's gifts: his vision, his absurd plant-and-cut ability and the way he's able to accelerate quickly to full speed.
Malcom Brown is emerging, too
Keeping with the theme of guys Texas landed in 2012, Brown has become a force of nature on the defensive line.
That wasn't a shock … a source within the team told me this summer that Brown "looks like a future first-round NFL Draft pick." That certainly wasn't a surprise. Anybody who saw Brown, a five-star prospect, in high school likely made that type of assertion about the 6-foot-4, 305-pound defensive tackle with uncommon movement skills. He was athletic enough to play tight end for his high school team at Brenham, and was absolutely dominant at the Under Armour All-America practices against some of the top linemen in the country.
But Brown has truly come alive in the three games after new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson took over. In those three contests, Brown has 17 tackles, including five in the backfield, two sacks and two passes broken up. He has made at least one tackle for loss in each game, and his Iowa State performance — 10 tackles (five solo), two tackles for loss, one sack and a pass broken up, was transcendent. On a line that boasted Jackson Jeffcoat as its best player heading into the season, Brown has arguably replaced Jeffcoat atop the defensive line group, especially with Jeffcoat having what appeared to be a sub-par performance (though still good from a stats standpoint) against Iowa State.
On a semi-related note, it was an up-and-down first start for Brown's old teammate, Timothy Cole. The speed of the game seemed a bit much for him at times — Cole isn't huge and isn't a fantastic straight-line athlete, so that in itself isn't shocking. Cole's strength lies in his ability to diagnose and be in the right place at the right time. When he doesn't identify things in time, he doesn't have the, say, Peter Jinkens's ability to put himself back in the play anyway. It's a similar problem to the one that Steve Edmond has, although Cole lacks Edmond's size, and when Edmond gets going, Edmond's pursuit ability.
That doesn't mean it's time to pull the plug on Cole (nor Edmond, for that matter). It just means that his margin for error is smaller. Cole could be a very effective player at this level, and it's worth noting that for some of his faults, it was Cole who chopped down Sam Richardson short of a first down to help the clock run out at the end of the game. All told he finished with six tackles (four of which were assisted) and a quarterback hurry.