Happy Holidays Husky fans! I hope you all have had an enjoyable holiday season through the adverse weather the Pacific Northwest has faced over the last few weeks (as well as the rest of you Husky fans, like me, who are enjoying the holidays with family elsewhere around the world). After a brief hiatus since the Apple Cup, we are back for our final game week of the 2022 Husky Football Season.
It’s been an exciting first year of UW football under Kalen DeBoer & staff, and our Dawgs have an opportunity to finish the season off on a high-note against a number of familiar faces in this week’s Alamo Bowl. The Texas Longhorns have had a solid second season under former UW Head Coach Steve Sarkisian, and a large portion of their team’s success can be credited to the defensive turnaround that they’ve had under a couple of former UW coaches. After a challenging first season, Co-Defensive Coordinators Pete Kwiatkowski and Jeff Choate, both former defensive assistants at UW during the Chris Petersen era, have coached their defense to a breakthrough season. Their scoring defense (21 points/game down from 31 points per game last season, good for #28 nationally), total defense (362 yards/game down from 426 yards/game), and sacks (27 in ‘22 vs 19 in ‘21) all improved dramatically in their second year. While many of the core principals that they used at UW are still in place in Austin, they’ve had to make a few adjustments to match their scheme to the personnel.
The Scheme & Personnel
I’ve written extensively about Coach K’s defensive scheme, philosophy, and how it all came together at UW, as well as all the scheme specific positions that his defenses used. However, Coach K’s successes at his various stops have been rooted in his ability to adjust to the talent that he had on hand. At Boise State, Coach K ran a 4-2-5 base nickel defense that was more similar to Gary Patterson’s original 4-2-5 nickel defense, and it capitalized on the Broncos’ existing 4-3 personnel. At UW, Sarkisian’s staff built a talented defensive roster that fit then-DC Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 influenced defense, so when Coach K took over the UW defense, he had to adjust to the 2-4-5 defense that we became familiar with. At that time, we had talented NFL-caliber defensive tackles, a mixture of stout and versatile OLBs, and athletic LBs and DBs, so he adjusted the scheme to allow our defensive front to contain the run game and let our swarming LBs and secondary clean up whatever got through the front with little impediment from the OL. This was paired with a single-high coverage structure that highlighted our elite CBs and allowed us to play with heavier boxes and more players at the LOS to add variety to our pressure packages.
At Texas, Coach K again has elite talent, but their strengths require a shift in defensive structure. The Longhorns have the massive duo of Keondre Coburn (6-2, 344) and T’Vondre Sweat (6-4, 346) anchoring the middle of their defensive front, but instead of setting a hard edge with their OLB/DEs to funnel the rushing attack to the DTs and ILBs, Texas instead plays with more “spill” techniques than I ever saw Coach K use at UW. This is a similar to what Coach Inge & Coach Morrell use at UW, and it gets DBs more heavily involved in the run game while also allowing the DL (the EDGE defenders in particular) to shoot gaps aggressively to create chaos in the backfield. This approach to run defense also allows the Longhorns to deploy more varied defensive fronts without having to change the entire structure of their run fits. At various times and situations, Texas will utilize anywhere from 2-5 defensive linemen with their hand in the dirt. Sometimes that will include traditional EDGE defenders lined up outside the widest player attached the the offensive formation, and sometimes that will be every DL playing a gap on the interior with LBs playing overhang techniques outside of them.
In the secondary, Coach K has also shifted his approach to coverage. Instead of playing out of a single-high shell, the Longhorns play mostly out of a 2-high shell. Now, like most programs, this doesn’t mean they only play 2-high coverages. They will roll their safeties post-snap a fair amount, and there are certain formations that will draw them into their single-high checks. However, Texas simply does not have the same type/caliber of DBs that UW had when Coach K was calling the defense, so they will lean on more Cover 2 and Cover 4 coverages to both shore up their coverage and spill technique run fits.
Keys to the Game
As I touched on briefly in last week’s podcast, I think that this portion of the game will come down to our ability to block the Texas front. Coach K has gotten more creative with his use of various pressure schemes during his tenure in Austin, and he has the players to power an aggressive game plan. The aforementioned DT duo in the center of their defensive front are so overwhelmingly strong that they gave Alabama’s SEC offensive line fits, and while our most talented linemen are our tackles, we should have the size in the middle to fair reasonably well should we get the appropriate double teams in our blocking scheme. I don’t think that our usual inside zone run game will be quite as effective as it was down the stretch of our conference schedule, but picking on the aggressive EDGEs of this front might yield decent results.
Our auxiliary blockers will also be important in the pass protection against Texas. We will rarely see standard man blitzes against the Longhorns, so our TEs and RBs’ ability to read the defense and identify pressure angles in their zone blitz packages will also be important. Green dog blitzes, ones where LBs and DBs read the TEs and RBs and blitz if they stay in to block, will also be an added wrinkle that may cause some confusion up front. Alabama and a few other of Texas’ opponents exploited the green dog blitzes with slip screens to the RBs.
One weakness that I think Grubb might try to attack will be the void that is left in the middle of Texas’ defense with MLB DeMarvion Overshown sitting out this game in preparation for the NFL draft. Overshown played the critical BBK-role at the center of Texas’ defense, and his outstanding combination of size (6-4, 220) and athleticism (he was a top 10 safety recruit out of HS) unlocked a lot of options for the Longhorns schematically. His sideline-to-sideline speed covered so many gaps in their run fits that they could get away with playing out of 2-high shells and with both their nickel and dime backer (the other ILB) as overhang players outside of the box. He was also a key component in many of their pressure stunts/blitzes and could drop into intermediate coverage like a Tampa 2 LB, thereby protecting the soft spot in the 2-high shell. If Texas doesn’t adequately fill his spot or adjust their schemes, expect Grubb to probe the defense for creases in the outside zone run game and crossing concepts over the deep middle.
The Longhorns have a talented group with a brain trust of coaches that we know are good at their jobs, but this could still be a shoot out.