Texas has struggled on offense in recent years. The Longhorns have burned through four offensive coordinators in three seasons, and ranked 92nd, 113th, 65th in total offense in those seasons, respectively. One of the Longhorns’ worst losses was the season opener at Notre Dame last season, in which Texas only scored 3 points on just 163 yards of total offense. It was the lowest point of an abysmal period, and coming into the year the biggest question surrounding Charlie Strong‘s team was if they could move the ball and score more effectively.
This made Strong’s decision to go with a two-quarterback system into the season a questionable one, especially considering one of those quarterbacks was Tyrone Swoopes one of the signal callers from the aforementioned years of really bad Texas offenses. This, combined with the fact that the Longhorns were hosting the 10th ranked Irish to start the season yet again this year, led many to believe that Texas was in for a repeat nightmare.
And then the game happened and boy, did it not go that way at all.
Sterlin Gilbert Provides a Baylor-esque Offense to a Charlie Strong Defense
Gilbert comes from the Art Briles coaching tree, whose Baylor teams you’ll remember for…well, outside of what happened last offseason, you’ll remember for utilizing tempo to score lots of points. This was an evident change in the Longhorns’ scheme right away on Sunday night. After Notre Dame marched down the field and scored to open the game, the Longhorns, and freshman quarterback Shane Buechele, went to work.
Texas’ opening drive consisted of 11 plays going for 75 yards in just 2:58. For reference, Notre Dame’s previous drive took 6 plays to go 78 yards in just 26 fewer seconds. Texas was repeatedly hustling to the line after every play, keeping the Irish defense on their heels and pounding them with a balanced attack from Buechele and the Longhorns’ pair of running backs, D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren III. After converting a 4th and 2 inside the Irish red zone, Buechele capped off the drive with a beautifully thrown fade to the far side of the endzone.
After forcing Notre Dame to punt, the Longhorns nearly struck gold again, and would’ve gone up two scores if not for this dropped pass.
Before this throw, Buechele’s longest pass had gone for 19 yards, and Texas was favoring the run just slightly in the play count. This was a theme Texas would continue throughout the game: mixing up running and passing with tempo before looking for the deep ball to be there. Eventually, it worked.
Notice how nearly identical this second gif is to the first one, down to the spot on the field. What makes this style of offense work is the fact the the use of tempo lessens the need for variety, especially when throwing the deep ball. Lulling a secondary to sleep is much easier when you’re hammering them with runs and shorter passes every few seconds, and when the time is right, asking your receivers to simply outrun the secondary becomes a much simpler task. This was something Baylor was very effective at, and it’s something Gilbert has brought to life in Austin as well.
A Two-Quarterback System that Actually Works
Of course, something working on paper only gets you so far. What helps the Longhorns more than anything is having a quarterback who can make big-time throws. Buechele completed only 16 passes on 26 attempts, but the result was 280 yards and two scores to just one interception. Meanwhile, Tyrone Swoopes attempted just one pass the entire night, which fell incomplete. So then, why did the Longhorns come into the game with a two-quarterback system at all? To implement what Strong calls “The 18-Wheeler Package”.
The concept is fairly simple: Swoopes, who remains an athletic runner despite being an average at best thrower, could use his legs to wear down a defense and eventually exhaust them with constant, up-tempo run plays. The result was as good as any coach could ask for. The ability to mix in a much more physical runner with Buechele was not only working to keep the Irish defense off-guard, but as time went on in the game, Strong wanted to lean more heavily on this package, as it was obviously wearing down the Irish defensive front. The final result? Well…
The Defense Can Be Relied On, Even if it Wasn’t Always Evident on Sunday
Texas has an experienced and relatively talented defense. However, the Longhorns’ biggest advantage on Sunday might have been Brian Kelly‘s insistence on running a two-quarterback system of his own, despite DeShone Kizer looking much better than Malik Zaire. The fact of the matter is that the Fighting Irish were all of four points away from making the playoff last year despite injuries up and down their roster. A fully-loaded Notre Dame offense is one of the best in the country, and the fact that they score this much on the Longhorn defense isn’t all the surprising. What should be a comfort to Longhorn fans though, is that outside of maybe two more games this year, they won’t be playing offenses that are as talented. Once the defense settles in and plays some teams that allow them to grow and learn more as a unit, they’ll start to look much better on paper.
2016 Could Be the End of Texas’ Rebuild Period
After all sorts of pressure on Strong to start delivering wins in Austin, it seems like he might be doing just that. It’s only one game, but the fact that Texas offense could look competent at all, let alone downright good, is something to behold. If the Longhorns can build on this success and keep the momentum rolling throughout the year, there’s a chance people stop referring to what Strong is doing at Texas as a “rebuild” and simply as “winning”. And with Oklahoma and TCU looking lackluster in their season-openers, the Big XII is much more wide open than it was a year ago.