The most explosive offense in the country fought for table scraps for most of Saturday in a 45-31 loss to SMU. A deluge delayed the game, but the Pony’s defense forced the Coogs to take shelter. First-year defensive coordinator Kevin Kane came up with a beauty of a game plan, one designed to use Houston’s tendencies against them. It didn’t hurt that D’Eriq King’s shoulder didn’t cooperate and that SMU’s running game finally woke up, but the Pony defense deserves some credit. A lot.
Know Your Enemy
The old Briles offense evolved in recent years and continues to develop, but the basic tenets are the same. The game is about asset allocation. Houston wants to do damage with their zone run; Art Briles used to say they tried to “dent” you with their inside zone. Once they start denting you, they’re betting you’ll bring safeties up, or your safeties will begin to trust their guts instead of their eyes.
Former Baylor OC and current Tulsa head coach Phillip Montgomery didn’t need a safety to crash down, he just needed one to take a misstep or a read step in the wrong direction, and the athletes on the edge would take over. The offense thrives on creating explosive plays by beating man coverage flat out and spreading you out so far that zones are ineffective.
The offense also takes advantage of another form of asset allocation, while the defense has to cover the entire field, the offense doesn’t have to attack all of it. Part of the genius of the offense is that half the receivers didn’t even run routes on certain pass plays. The strategy, deployed in part to simplify the offense and in part to conserve energy, causes the defense to spend assets covering non-threatening receivers. That strategy is used less than it was in the hay day, is still in play today. You have to commit assets that are chasing decoys.
Another facet is that because of its simplicity; the offense can go fast. That speed is predicated on getting first downs. If the offense can move the chains, they can pick up the tempo, continue to pound the run, look for man coverage or a defensive back peaking in the backfield, and bang, a big play or touchdown. The Cougars can make quick, simple pre-snap reads and keep their foot on the accelerator. Houston runs a play every eighteen seconds, the fastest pace of any team by a pretty decent margin.
The pace creates a sort of fog of war for the defense. You’d better line up quickly, have your plan and execute. Then, regardless of the outcome of the previous play, do it again. And again.
We weren’t invited to the defensive meetings that Kevin Kane had prior to Houston, apparently our invites were lost in the mail, but we’re assuming his strategy was thus: commit fewer assets to stop the run, maintain personnel flexibility, don’t let Houston get behind you, tackle well, and make Houston use up plays to score, i.e., limit explosive or splash plays.
That’s relatively audacious, considering Texas Tech couldn’t do that to Houston and that SMU hadn’t been able to pull that off against many teams in 2018. They entered the game allowing 36 points a game.
Let’s look at each of those keys one by one. Tedious as hell. We’ll go quicker now.
SMU played an odd-man front, three down linemen, and two linebackers primarily. Defensive tackles Pono Davis and Ken McClaurin were able to control the “dent” for most of the game. Houston ran for two fewer yards per carry than their season average (4.0 compared to 6.0). Linebackers Kyran Mitchell and Richard Moore were physical and active run support.
Houston’s offense is going to take what the defense gives you, and a five-man box is too tempting, plus SMU clogged passing lanes with their coverage unit.
The SMU defensive staff took a calculated risk against the run that they could win up front often enough to neutralize the run and that their safeties could close ground and rally to the ball.
Kane used safety Patrick Nelson as a force player, a hybrid defensive back/linebacker. Kane gave him the freedom to move quite a bit, contribute to coverage and to run support.
SMU used three high safeties, the majority of the time, these three lined up between 10 and 15 yards off the ball. Three high safeties give you a lot of flexibility to run some coverage options with a lot of zone looks. The distance made a difference. SMU kept their spacial discipline and with a very few exceptions, didn’t get caught crashing down.
Here’s a screen grab of SMU’s typical alignment against the Cougars and their alignment against a similar personnel package a few weeks earlier at UCF. Notice the three safeties, setting a perimeter as opposed to the single high look with a more clogged run box used against the Knights.
SMU’s defensive strength, if it isn’t Mitchell and Moore, it’s safeties Mikial Onu, Rodney Clemons, Elijah McQueen, and Illinois grad transfer Nelson.
The personnel and alignment Kane and his staff deployed allowed them to move players around what we could call a strong dime formation, four safeties, and two corners. Houston’s offense is based, like a lot of spread concepts, on favorable numbers inside or outside the run box. This dictates the play selection as much as down and distance because the Cougars believe, and rightly so that they can make enough of a dent in the run game to keep the machine rolling.
The Mustangs used the numbers, or at times, lack thereof to their advantage. They didn’t make many personnel adjustments, if Houston went heavy, with one or more tight ends, Nelson or the offside corner would slide into the box. If Houston went empty or light, they slid out. The safeties, rarely if ever moved inside of ten yards from the line of scrimmage.
Don’t Let anything Behind You and Tackle
The depth of the safeties paid off in clogging passing lanes and limiting big plays. The Cougars gashed the Mustangs on a few plays in the run game, but SMU was working with their net of safeties.
Since the days of Vance Bedford and his Texas defenses, who had the most success against the Bryce Petty led Bears, you’ll notice that if you can take away the offenses first pass read, there is an inevitable hitch in the quarterback’s execution. Texas caused an outstanding quarterback to have a horrific day back in 2014. This was the case with SMU and King. In the first half, King was utterly inefficient, completing two of eight passes for 56 yards, fifty of those yards came on one play to Marquez Stevenson.
SMU took away King’s initial read, didn’t give him much room to operate in zone coverage, and generally won in man to man coverage.
Kane’s unit also pursued maniacally, Nelson stood out in this regard and didn’t allow freebies due to missed tackles. SMU rallied to the ball and got the Cougars to the ground.
Make Them Work
Houston averaged a play every 18 seconds before the Saturday night, on Saturday night they ran at a more pedestrian pace, averaging a play every 40 seconds. In the first half, Houston punted six of eight possessions and failed to pick up a first down in three of those six possessions.
SMU’s defense was able to get off the field in the first half, most critically, after four straight punts and trailing 17-0, Houston gained footing with two scores in two minutes. The first came on a 50-yard touchdown pass to Stevenson then a fumble return for a touchdown on the ensuing SMU possession.
Here’s the touchdown pass to Stevenson, a rare brain fart in the game plan, the Mustangs play man, blitz, and safety Elijah McQueen gets caught in no man’s land, blitzing late and not contributing to either coverage or pressure. This is what Houston can do and has done all year, isolate one on one, and beat man coverage.
Normally that’s a perfect opportunity for a team like Houston will take over. But Kane’s defense bowed its neck and held Houston’s next two drives to six plays and nine yards.
In the second half, the Cougars scored on three consecutive drives. Houston picked up the pace, averaging a play every 22 seconds, but the drives took ten, eleven, and seven plays, using precious time.
Kane used some of Houston’s genius for his benefit; his defense lined up in a similar formation for most of the night, this allowed them to counter Houston’s pace and also disguise their coverages, and limit Houston’s ability to make sight reads pre-snap.
Every measure has a countermeasure, but if there’s a criticism of Houston’s offense is that it is so simple that it lacks certain adjustments. The Cougars struggled to adjust to SMU’s zones. They don’t use the middle of the field often, and they don’t cross through zone coverage, forcing the defense to travel or carry a receiver.
Those aren’t schemes or skills that Houston can add or call. They don’t emphasize or train for it. The lack of implementation isn’t unusual for most college offenses, practice time restrictions, installment issues, skill deficiencies, and other constraints leave every offense with blind spots, most defenses on most Saturdays are going to try to direct the offense into a blind spot. For most of 2018, Houston’s been able to fight through their blind spots and get humming. They couldn’t find their rhythm Saturday night.
The biggest takeaway and this can’t be overstated in my opinion, is that SMU’s defense plays like their hair is on fire. They played with relentless effort on Saturday, the same energy I saw from them against Tulane and Cincinnati in previous weeks.