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Can Texas offense produce big plays against stingy Kansas State defense?
Tough and disciplined, it's difficult to produce big plays against the Wildcat defense, but there are some ways for the Longhorns to attack Bill Snyder's defenders.
Two weeks after shredding a a good Oklahoma Sooners defense, the Texas Longhorns offense will face another significant early on Saturday when the team travels to the Little Apple to battle the Kansas State Wildcats.
To understand how to attack Kansas State requires an understanding of the defense's objectives and priorities.
The Wildcats struggle to get to the quarterback despite the return of Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year Ryan Mueller, sitting at seven sacks on the season. Clearly, the emphasis is not on blitzing or in selling out to get to the quarterback -- there's only one sack apiece among the linebackers and defensive backs.
Sitting back in zone coverage and coming downhill to make plays is the strategy defensively for the Wildcats and it works -- Kansas State is ranked No. 19 nationally in opponent-adjusted FEI and excels in combating big plays by opposing offenses, though the per-play average yardage against is outside the top quartile in the FBS. Bill Snyder's team ranks No. 12 in explosive plays and No. 106 in methodical drives.
Having only allowed four plays of more than 40 yards, the Wildcats are an elite team big plays, but are willing to concede throws in front of defensive backs.
For Texas, the development of the offensive line and of the quarterback run game -- both credited to offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Wickline -- has helped to punish defenses that don't want to sell out to stop Texas by overloading the box.
And the passing game has improved on the outside, in part because of some pop concepts also brought from Oklahoma State by Wickline. Having opportunities has helped, but those chances were there in several games and Swoopes wasn't accurate enough to take advantage.
In one notable throw early against Iowa State, Swoopes attacked single coverage against John Harris on the outside and had his senior wide receiver helped him out on an under thrown the ball.
Beyond the fact that Harris showed off some impressive ball skills and hand strength on this play, the bigger takeaway might be the ball placement from Swoopes -- it wasn't perfect, but it allowed Harris to go make a play on the football, a marked contrast to the overthrows that characterized the deep passes by the Texas starter earlier in the season.
Play caller Shawn Watson lauded the competitiveness of Harris on Tuesday and it was apparent on that contested catch.
Against Kansas State, the match up might not be so easy for the senior pass catcher, however, as junior Kansas State cornerback Denzel McDaniel goes 6'1 and has been an impactful player this season, jumping an out route on the goal line against Oklahoma last weekend for a short but important interception return and coming up with five tackles for loss on the season to go along with 21 solo tackles overall.
He's a big, physical player who doesn't give up much height to Harris and may be more difficult for Harris to man-handle than anyone else he's faced this season.
The Kansas State secondary can be exploited, however, as Oklahoma proved last week.
Sooners wide receiver Sterling Shepard was able to go off for 197 receiving yards by himself, but one 29-yard catch highlighted just how hard it is to crack the Wildcats defense -- when Shepard pulled the ball down on the post route, there were four defenders in his immediate vicinity.
The play came on a first down play-action pass and the statistics reveal that half of the plays going for 15 yards or more through the air against the Wildcats this season have been on first down.
Another long play by Shepard illustrated how easy it can be with the right call in the right area. Also a play-action pass on first down, Oklahoma used some tempo that helped catch the lone deep safety shaded to the strong side of the field, leaving Shepard matched up against junior cornerback Morgan Burns on the other side.
A post route by the explosive Oklahoma receiver created major separation, leaving an easy throw for Sooner quarterback Trevor Knight.
By the way, Burns had a bit of a rough day trying to tackle Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine, as meeting him in the open field when Perine had a head of stem didn't work out quite as well as it did for Texas safety Jason Hall the week before in the hole.
But catching Kansas State in any single coverage with Burns on Harris would be a time for Swoopes to take a shot down field since Burns is both vulnerable in coverage and two inches shorter than McDaniel.
The other big takeaway from that sequence is that the issue of how often Texas uses tempo isn't necessarily about whether it's something that could be effective for long stretches, it's how the Longhorns can use it situationally to get easy pre-snap reads for Swoopes and keep the defense on their heels.
Knight had just hit tight end Blake Bell over the middle for 22 yards on the previous play, which also came on play action. Near the shot range of the field (just on the opposing side), the Sooners then called another simple play-action route and took advantage.
Getting off to a good start with Watson's scripted plays could also prove critical. The Texas play caller scripts between 15 and 25 plays before the game, many of them intended to get Swoopes into a rhythm by giving him passes that he can complete.
Against Iowa State, Watson only used the first 21 and Texas was able to produce 9.45 yards per play and 208 total yards of offense. Unfortunately, Swoopes threw the interception across his body in the red zone with the Longhorns set to go up 21-0 on one of those plays and another of the scripted calls from Watson was the odd push pass to John Harris that resulted in the interception return for a fumble.
The guess here is that the push pass to Harris won't be on the script for Watson on Saturday in Manhattan, though maybe the same play should be in there for an explosive player like freshman wide receiver Armanti Foreman, who took one carry for 31 yards against Kansas and another for 11 yards against Baylor, but somehow hasn't gotten an opportunity on the ground in the last two games.
Pop passes could also make a difference -- though every player and every member of the Texas coaching staff has lauded the discipline of Kansas State on both sides of the ball, the defense isn't perfect in that regard -- it's not invincible, as Oklahoma proved at times last weekend.
Just as the Texas defenders will need incredible discipline to hold the Kansas State pop concepts to short gains, the Wildcats will also have a similar challenge defensively.
One of those scripted plays that worked against Iowa State could be in that opening 15-to-25-play salvo from Watson -- the skinny post/seam pop route to Marcus Johnson, a route that also worked against UCLA earlier in the season.
It was the third play of the game for Texas and went for 28 yards after a run that went for 12 yards and a pass that also went for 12 yards.
The play is built off of the basic inside zone and was one that Ole Miss used to beat Texas for a touchdown last year in Austin. On the play side, the linebacker got caught up defending what he thinks is an inside zone.
As in the case of Iowa State last week, the safety may also have his eyes wrong or may otherwise be occupied by a multi-route combination to that side of the field like another seam route from the No. 2 receiver while the No. 3 receiver runs free up the middle, as happened to the Horns against the Rebels.
In the absence of big plays, the question will become whether or not Texas can execute in the running game and in the short passing game to keep moving the sticks. Improvement from the offensive line and the proven excellence of Swoopes in the roll-out game provide some hope there along with the numbers that suggest Kansas State will concede methodical drives.
Running on Kansas State isn't easy, though, as Oklahoma was the only team this season to average more than 3.3 yards per carry. The Sooners were able to rack up 198 yards on 4.7 yards per carry, which explains why the play-action passes were so effective.
One way that Texas managed to create running room for Swoopes on the pretty traditional zone read last week was to get all of the blocking surfaces, playing both senior Geoff Swaim and junior MJ McFarland on the line of scrimmage on each side of the formation.
Iowa State was leveraging the play with a force defender that McFarland was able to block on the play side with a deep set, giving Swoopes an inside alley with the play-side linebacker occupied by the fake to the running back. With a week to prepare, Kansas State may scrape exchange a linebacker to deal with Swoopes or tell the force defender to spill the play outside, where Swoopes is less effective laterally.
Fundamentally, though, Kansas State probably won't want to expose the cornerback to a possible one-on-one block from a physical player like Harris, regardless of Swoopes' speed, so that look may be in the opening script for Watson. At the least, it should be in his toolbox at some point in the game.
Or how about some more diamond looks? Texas was the Harris hold away from breaking off a run of more than 70 yards against Oklahoma from that formation with two lead blockers.
A bigger concern is probably whether the Horns can consistently avoid penalties and mistakes along the offensive line. Will the false start penalties return once again in a hostile environment?
The Cotton Bowl did reveal a much more poised Swoopes, though, and the young signal caller was able to build on that performance last weekend against Iowa State.
"He's playing free right now," Watson said. "He's not processing, he's not thinking, he's just trusting and reacting."
The situationally exceptional play calling of Watson has helped that process and will be necessary once again to exploit a good Kansas State defense.
Legacy Texas S Dylan Haines excelling in Charlie Strong's meritocracy
Welcome to the first true defensive fairy tale story of the new head coach's regime in Austin. It probably won't be the last.
It was a tremendous risk, jumping that route -- to try for an interception and miss is a cardinal sin for any defensive back.
But Texas Longhorns safety Dylan Haines knew exactly what the Iowa State Cyclones were running because he had seen it plenty of times on film, so he broke on the football just as Cyclones quarterback Sam Richardson released it into the flat, pulling it in before racing towards the sideline, then cutting it back inside and finishing the 74-yard return in the south end zone of the stadium, sending the partisan crowd at Darell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium into a frenzy.
Like junior wide receiver Marcus Johnson the week before, Haines took some ribbing from his head coach Charlie Strong because he cut his interception return inside against Richardson.
"My man Haines, if he just stays straight, he doesn't have to cut back. If he just runs down the sideline it's a touchdown, but he said, 'I wanted to make it interesting, Coach.' I said, 'I see you did.'"
After Haines made it more difficult for himself, junior cornerback Duke Thomas thought that Haines has some conditioning work left to do.
"Man, he better run some more wind sprints, I know that. My boy died with 40 yards to go."
The craziest thing about it all, though?
Haines wasn't supposed to ever be in a position to intercept a pass during a game at DKR because he was a walk on in the 2012 class and walk ons didn't play at Texas under former head coach Mack Brown, just a basic reality of Mack Brown-Texas Football.
The journey of Haines from walk on to scholarship athlete to starter to game-changing player has been an incredible one with roots sown decades ago -- the fact that Haines is at Texas is hardly a coincidence, so let's start back at the true beginning of it all.
Even though it wasn't supposed to happen like this for Dylan Haines, excelling in athletics wearing a Longhorns logo is basically in his genes.
That's because his father, John Haines, was quite the athlete when he was at Texas. At 6'6 and over 260 pounds, he was an imposing presence for the talented defenses of the early 1980s and a four-year football letterman, an All-Southwest Conference selection, a captain, a seven-time game MVP, and a recipient of the Neuhaus Presidential Scholarship Award.
Put it all together and John Haines' resume in burnt orange and white is exceptional.
In an article for the Eyes of Texas, writer Adam Jones described Haines and his contributions to the sterling 1983 defense.
"John Haines played one inside spot and, at six-foot-six, was a nightmare for centers and guards to contain. Good luck to any quarterback trying to find a decent passing lane when Haines came up the middle."
After his time at Texas, the elder Haines played one year with the Vikings after being drafted No. 180 overall and then spent three years with the Colts. In his rookie season in Minnesota, he managed two sacks and a six-yard fumble return.
And sis wife, Sandra, was even a track athlete for the Horns and came from a family of Texas track athletes, though the Texas players would likely joke that Dylan got his speed from his father.
Unfortunately, the pedigree and a productive career just outside of Austin at Lago Vista didn't produce much recruiting attention for their son despite the fact that he excelled in a number of roles for his football team -- corner, safety, receiver, running back, left-footed kicker.
In one game against San Saba as a senior, the all-purpose athlete scored touchdowns on a 75-yard reception, a 15-yard run, and a 40-yard interception return.
Yet, no scholarships offers came in for Haines, not even from a Division II school, leaving him trying to decide which in-state school would provide the best academic environment for him. After looking at Texas State and Texas Tech, it was clear that neither of those schools could compete with his parent's alma mater in that area.
But what about Texas A&M, a notable omission from the above list?
"No, not A&M," Haines said decisively on Monday. "My parents would not have let me go to A&M."
And so his father in particular had a big impact on his son's decision, Haines said.
"I chose to come here because of his influence on me, and he convinced me, he always knew that I was capable of whatever I wanted to do, and when I told him that I wanted to play football, then he said, 'you go play football, that's what you can do.'"
But even after making the short trip to the 40 Acres, walking on wasn't easy for Haines, who called it one of the most difficult decisions he's made, knowing as he did that the upside was as a "tackling dummy" and someone who could possibly play on a special teams unit or two.
After trying out, making the team and then redshirting, Haines said he felt like he never really got an opportunity to prove his potential worth to the team in his second year under Mack Brown.
"My second year I wasn't given the opportunities in practice or in spring ball and camp to really show what I was capable of. I was kind of just limited to running the scout team against the first team offense. I guess, yeah, just a lack of opportunity was the real problem."
That all changed when Charlie Strong arrived, but even though the staff made it clear to Haines and the entire team that there were no superstars, no starters and no backups, that everyone was going to be treated equally, he was confused when defensive coordinator Vance Bedford called his name with the starters during practice.
"I thought maybe he got the name wrong," Haines said.
Bedford had not and Haines has been taking advantage of his opportunities since, playing well enough to start for the Texas team in the Orange-White game and intercepting Tyrone Swoopes' first pass and returning it 23 yards to give his side the ball at the 20-yard line.
It was his fourth snap in the spotlight at DKR.
The ball was overthrown by Swoopes and a good drop by linebacker Dalton Santos helped to force the overthrow, but Haines was in position and made the most of his opportunity, the first public display of that continuing theme. With four tackles on the day and the important interception, Haines helped establish himself as a player who could contend for the rotation given his start with the second unit.
During the summer, Haines was a survivor while the other contenders for the job made poor decisions. Senior Josh Turner was reported to be dismissed during the first great Purge by Charlie Strong, possibly resulting from the round of drug tests that took place after Big 12 Media Days.
Collins was one of the players dismissed during that Purge, having already exhausted his chances in quite a short period of time.
Entering fall camp, then, Haines had performed better in the spring game than Adrian Colbert and he had worked hard and followed Strong's simple core values, unlike the dismissed Collins and the suspended Turner.
Now, having returned an interception for a touchdown against Iowa State to help Texas to a critical victory and having intercepted a pass in his first game game against North Texas and having started every game since that opener, Haines has become the first true poster child for upward mobility in the Charlie Strong era defensively.
Given an opportunity, he's run with it because of his work ethic and preparation. Call it luck, perhaps, since that's the meeting of preparation and opportunity.
"He does everything you ask him to do," Strong said on Monday.
The preparation that enabled Haines to make the game-changing interception against Iowa State was the result of an ability to prepare that has defined him since high school, according to Lago Vista's head coach Alan Haire.
"He's the type of kid who would come in on Tuesday and tell you the other team's favorite routes and, with the kid he was covering, what his routes were depending on splits and alignment," Haire told ESPN early in fall camp. "He was a student of the game. I think he's a late bloomer if you ask me. He didn't reach his full potential until college. To me, he's still developing."
There may be a ceiling athletically for Haines -- his teammates have certainly suggested so after senior cornerback Quandre Diggs ribbed Haines' return as happening in slow motion -- but the ceiling mentally is exceptional. With his preparation ability and instincts, the Longhorn legacy can make up for his lack of ideal speed.
So far, the results have been both special and improbable, yet inexplicably probable because of that combination of opportunity and preparation.
"It's fun to watch him," Strong said. "What's happening now is everybody is taking notice, and because the whole team, when you're looking for that player that you really say, hey, that's the kind of guy that you like to see go play, and because he plays hard, and he gives you everything he's got.
Under Charlie Strong that's more than enough, even for a walk on.