Happy holidays Husky fans!
After nearly a month off, UW football is just around the corner, and this year we have a case of deja vu. Almost exactly a year since last season’s finale in the Alamo Bowl, the Huskies and the Longhorns play a rematch game, but this time it is for a berth in the national championship. While a lot can change in the year since our last run-in, many of the anticipated keys to the game are the same as last year’s game. Texas HC Steve Sarkisian and DC Pete Kwiatkowski, both former UW coaches, have continued to load up the Longhorn roster with tremendous talent, and they have guided their program to their best season in nearly 15 years and their first CFP berth.
With one of the top offenses in the country, and arguably the best QB in the CFP, the match up between our offense and the Texas defense will likely be where the game is decided. Let’s take a closer look.
The Scheme & Personnel
From the perspective of an avid Husky fan, the Longhorn defense should look familiar, even if it has evolved to suit their roster’s strengths and weaknesses. Coach K’s defenses have always revolved around Even front structures and 2-4-5 personnel. I’ve written ad nauseam about Coach K’s defensive schemes when he was at UW and it’s evolution since his Boise days, so feel free to check those articles out here and here. If you don’t have time to read ~10,000 words on the topic, here’s the short version. At a high level, Coach K’s defenses blend techniques and personnel types of the 3-4 defense with the structures and alignments of the 4-3 defense, all while accounting for 11 personnel offenses with nickel personnel in the secondary. This approach usually works best with a couple of massive DTs, like Vita Vea and Greg Gaines when Coach K was at UW, or T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy at UT this year. These types of DTs can anchor the middle of the defense and control multiple interior gaps that allow the off-ball LBs to run sideline to sideline to plug gaps and make plays.
On the edge of the defense, Coach K likes to play stand up EDGE defenders like many 3-4 defenses, but their usage can vary depending on the personnel that are available. In a perfect world, these players can rush the passer and set the edge like a 4-3 DE, as well as drop into coverage in zone blitzes. Texas has bigger players at these positions this year, so their style of play has erred more towards a conventional 4-3 DE role, and even then the pass rush from the front four wasn’t as dynamic as many Texas fans would’ve hoped. That’s been perfectly fine for the defense though as their run defense has been absolutely suffocating. The Longhorns run defense yields just 80 yards per game on average, and by forcing teams into one dimensional passing attacks, they are able to play that side of the ball much more intentionally.
On the back end of the defense, Texas has a group of dynamic athletes who have been picked on at times. In the four games they played this season that were decided by one possession (TCU, Kansas State, Houston, and Oklahoma), all but one had an opposing QB that was able to pass for 300+ yards and multiple TDs. The one exception was Oklahoma, but in that game their QB passed for 285 yards and also ran for 113 yards. Outside of Gabriel at Oklahoma and maybe Howard at K-State, these aren’t particularly scary passing offenses that Texas were torched by, and the point I’m trying to make is that even when teams got their run game shut down, one dimensional passing attacks have still found success against the Texas secondary.
Keys to the Game
For as much talent as we have on the perimeter, the Sugar Bowl match up between UW’s offense and Texas’ defense will likely come down to who wins the trenches. We have an excellent offensive line that just won the Joe Moore Award as the nations best OL unit, but Texas’s stout DL also features the Outland Award winner in T’Vondre Sweat as the best interior offensive or defensive lineman. While this is deservedly drawing significant attention from fans and the national media, this match up in the trenches isn’t quite the strength vs. strength battle that it may seem at first glance.
As I mentioned earlier, Texas’ DL’s strength is more in the run defense department and not in the pass rush, and UW’s OL is a bit stronger in pass protection to cater to Penix and the passing attack. In the handful of games where our pass protection looked shaky, we were facing teams that focused on interior blitzes and had smaller, faster DL than Texas does. The type of pressure that Texas typically brings is slower developing pocket squeezing or fast pressure off the edge, which are less impactful to Penix than the alternative. That being said, Coach K is a good DC, so if we aren’t able to keep the defense at least a little honest in the run game, then we should expect to see those interior blitzes get dialed up.
If I were in Coach Grubb’s position, I would do exactly what he’s done all season. Focus on what we’re good at and hammer the defense’s weaknesses with our strengths. Texas is comparatively weak in coverage and the pass rush, so why would we try to outmuscle them up the middle right out of the gate if we don’t need to. That’s not to say that we should abandon the run right out of the gates. Instead, we should do our best to press our advantages in the air and on the perimeter while wearing out their huge DL. Get them running sideline to sideline with varied tempo and fewer substitutions before going for the knock out blow on the ground with Johnson.