The five wide offense has some combination of five wide receivers, and there are usually trips to one side and twins to the other. The reason it works so well for Texas is the fact that there is unbelievable WR talent on the Forty Acres. After the Big Three, you still have Tony Jeffery, Kyle Shanahan, Brian Carter, Robert Timmons, et al. Even if a team has three great defensive backs, which is very rare in college football, the Horns' fourth and fifth WR are much better than the fourth and fifth defensive backs of many, if not all, teams. To use an old coaching cliché, "Ours is better than theirs," and talent, for the most part, wins at every level of football.
The routes that are run on each play can be dictated before the play is run, audibled to at the line of scrimmage, or made up on the fly. It may sound like sandlot football, and at its core, that is exactly what it is. If the opposing team is running a zone defense when the Horns step to the line, Chris Simms will search for the "bubble". The "bubble" is a space in the zone, and the receivers are all looking for it also. If one of the receivers does not have a man right in his face, generally the "bubble" route will be directly in front of him. (If I've lost you, think of it this way…Roy Williams steps up to the line and he sees that there is a DB playing 10 yards off of him. He also looks and sees a zone look. Therefore, he will probably run a 7/8-yard stop route.) This system requires great communication between the QB and the receivers.
If that wasn't hard enough, now the QB and receivers must see blitzes, and especially zone blitzes. The "bubble" can be filled very quickly by an end or tackle dropping into the bubble. That makes it much, much harder, and is one of the reasons for the Longhorns' defensive success.
If routes have been preset before the snap, the receiver running into the "bubble" will be the hot receiver. Several times on Saturday, the crossing route was open across the middle. The receivers would see it and settle down into the "bubble". It makes for a short and easy completion for Simms, and with the UT receivers' athleticism, it can turn into a long gain with a few missed tackles.
If the defense is showing a man look, the receivers will run a lot of crossing routes. Defensive backs get "chipped" or "rubbed" (run into) by receivers hoping to get their teammates open. These generally lead to much larger gains. These routes also open up the threat for the long ball down the field.
Why would a team choose to run man-to-man defense then? Well, it's another game of choose-your-poison. If the line is pass blocking well, Simms has all day to throw and find the "bubble". Therefore, the other team has to commit more and more people to pressuring the quarterback. More people rushing the quarterback means less people covering the pass. Notice that all of this is based on the premise that the offensive line can keep defensive linemen off of Simms (they have been doing a serviceable job of that since the North Texas sack-fest).
As Mack Brown mentioned at halftime of Saturday's game, the Horns ran a lot of the five wide set in the first half to tire out the OSU defense. When depth is an issue for a team, it makes a big difference in the fourth quarter (although we didn't see it Saturday at DKR). It takes a lot out of a defense physically and mentally to rush the passer continually and come up short.
The main drawbacks of the five wide set, and its predecessor, the run-and-shoot, is that it is hard to score in the red zone. That was noticeable on Saturday, because Texas struggled some inside the 20. When the field is compressed (meaning there isn't much field left), the "bubbles" become non-existent. The offense usually breaks down to two plays: fade routes to the corner and crossing routes into traffic. Neither play is a high percentage play.
In the pros and college, so many resources are used on receivers for teams that run the five wide set or run-and-shoot (i.e. scholarships or salary cap dollars) that quality running backs are scarce on the teams. However, we know that the Horns have a great stable of running backs. It should be pretty simple for the Horns to return to the running game in the red zone and run higher percentage plays, but we didn't see that much against OSU. Why not? That is really the $64,000 question.
Mark Kissinger has coached high school football in Texas and Tennessee, coaching OL, TE, WR, DT, DE, and serving as both an offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator. In high school, he was coached by the legendary G.A. Moore. Mark recently retired from coaching and received his M.B.A. from Rice University. His 'Technical Analysis' column will appear each week on InsideTexas.com.