AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas defenders don’t need many words to describe what happened in Provo, Utah, last September.
“Terrible,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said.
“Probably the most embarrassed I’ve ever been,” nickel Quandre Diggs said.
“Just pain,” cornerback Duke Thomas said.
The Longhorns went to BYU expecting to win and left crushed. They allowed a school-record 550 rushing yards. Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill averaged 15.2 yards per carry and rushed for three touchdowns in a 40-21 rout. "When you look at rushing yards, you want to give up no more than 100 a game,” first-year Texas coach Charlie Strong said this week. “That’s five games right there.”
The Texas program was humiliated so thoroughly that something had to be done. That something was then-head coach Mack Brown's decision to fire defensive coordinator Manny Diaz the next day.
Brown’s panicked ousting of Diaz was the clearest indication yet that Brown wouldn't be able to bring the Longhorns back to national title contention. The BYU game didn’t end Brown’s tenure in Austin, but it pointed to the impending divorce. In January the school replaced Brown with Strong, who promised to instill Texas players with the same attitude he had instilled in his players at Louisville. They would be tough. They would play with an edge. They would not get steamrolled.
The best litmus test for Strong’s young regime is Saturday’s visit from BYU. Hill is still the quarterback. The Cougars’ offense hasn’t changed much. Texas has most of the same players on defense, and if Hill and the Cougars don’t provide enough pressure on their own, the Longhorns’ offense will break a new quarterback and a new center because the original starters are out with injuries. Meanwhile, Texas announced on Wednesday night that offensive tackles Kennedy Estelle and Desmond Harrison will be suspended for Saturday’s game. If Strong and his defensive staff have made improvements during the eight months they’ve been in Austin, they should show on Saturday. That might not be enough for Texas to win -- given the current offensive situation -- but it should reveal whether the Longhorns are moving in the correct direction or still have miles to go.
Players don’t blame Diaz for last year's BYU debacle. They blame themselves. “We laid an egg,” Diggs said. “We lost the guy his job. Plain and simple.”
Said Hicks: “The big thing is missed assignments. It’s all about leverage and doing your job. We didn’t have either of those on too many plays.”
It may sound as if Hicks is oversimplifying things, but when facing zone-read plays such as the ones Hill scorched Texas with last fall, leverage and a slavish devotion to one extremely specific assignment are pretty much all that matters. Current Longhorns defensive coordinator Vance Bedford chuckles when he hears pundits talking about some of the offensive innovations in the game. For Bedford, a lot of zone-read plays look just like the Wishbone plays he had to defend as a Texas cornerback playing against Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma teams from 1977-80. As far as Bedford is concerned, Hill may as well be J.C. Watts with fewer blockers and more receivers. The basics for the players defending that guy haven’t changed a whole lot. “If you’re supposed to take the quarterback and [you] take the dive, the quarterback may go 50 yards,” Bedford said. “If you’re supposed to take the dive and you take the quarterback, the dive may go 50 yards.”
That’s precisely how Hill sliced through the Longhorns last September. His first touchdown -- a 68-yard run on a third-and-two play late in the first quarter -- began as a simple dive-keep option. Hill’s job was to read Texas linebacker Steve Edmond, who was left unblocked, and decide whether to allow tailback Jamaal Williams to take the ball up the middle or keep the ball and run left. The video (go to the 45-second mark) suggests Edmond was assigned to hit Hill, while safety Adrian Phillips was assigned to charge toward the line of scrimmage in case Williams broke through on the dive.
When trying to stop the option, the defender assigned to the quarterback must always hit the quarterback, even if it appears the quarterback has already handed the ball away. The defender assigned to the dive back -- or the pitch man, depending on the offense -- must always hit that player, too, even if he thinks the quarterback still has the ball. Those quarterbacks and tailbacks practice fakes until they can fool television cameramen and defenders, and defensive coordinators stress that players stop trusting their eyes and simply trust their assignments.
On that third-and-two, Edmond chased Williams even though he was supposed to hit Hill. Phillips noticed this and tried to adjust to cut off Hill. He was too late. Hill zoomed past the secondary and raced to the end zone. This was one of about 10 plays Strong counted while watching last year’s game in which Hill got outside of the Texas front seven and took off running. “If you allow someone to get outside on the perimeter of your defense, you’re going to have an issue,” Strong said. “There were so many outside runs.”
Hill’s third touchdown -- a 26-yard scamper on a third-and-10 play early in the third quarter -- also appears to be the result of a missed assignment. Hill faked a handoff, and Hicks played his assignment by hitting tailback Michael Alisa (who did not have the ball). While Hicks and Alisa collided on the right, Hill moved left. Diggs appeared to have containment responsibilities, but his hard charge into the backfield left him trapped when BYU left tackle Michael Yeck kicked out Texas defensive end Shiro Davis. Stranded behind Davis, Diggs couldn’t reach Hill, who ran through the spot Yeck cleared and then into the end zone.
None of these plays are particularly fancy, and when defenders hold their assignments, they usually aren’t particularly successful. But there is a reason Georgia Tech coach and noted option enthusiast Paul Johnson calls the option a big-play offense. If one key defender doesn’t play exactly the way he has been coached, long touchdown runs ensue. “It looks like it’s ground chuck,” Bedford said. “All of a sudden ground chuck turns into prime rib.”
Texas coaches won't reveal their game plan for stopping the Cougars, but just as basic option concepts haven’t changed much in 40 years, neither have the basics of stopping option-based plays. So, it shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out. Depending on formation, one Texas player will be assigned to Hill and one will be assigned to the back. The rest will be charged with getting proper leverage and driving Cougars' blockers back instead of allowing them to open holes. This is all easy to say and extremely difficult to do. That’s why coaches who can teach their players to trust their assignments more than their eyes, and to be the low man on most plays, tend to get paid a lot of money.
Texas has a new bunch of coaches getting paid a lot of money. We should know on Saturday whether they’re earning it.
- Arizona at UTSA: The Roadrunners ruined the opening of Houston’s new stadium with a 27-7 win. Now, they’ll open their home schedule against an Arizona team that didn’t seem to lose a step on offense despite a protracted four-man quarterback competition this offseason. Rich Rodriguez chose Anu Solomon as the starter, and Solomon made that choice appear wise in a 58-13 win over UNLV.
- Pittsburgh at Boston College: In the ACC opener for both teams -- that still feels weird to write -- the Panthers will try to slow Eagles quarterback Tyler Murphy, who spent much of last season as Florida’s starter. Murphy, who was recruited to Gainesville by current Boston College coach Steve Addazio, reunited with Addazio this offseason and won the starting job. In a season-opening 30-7 win over UMass, Murphy threw for 171 yards and a touchdown and also ran for 118 yards on 13 carries.
- Western Illinois at Wisconsin: The Badgers' quarterback situation got weird this week when the program released a statement on Tuesday saying quarterback Joel Stave -- who started last season -- had a shoulder injury. In an interview later that same day, Stave told reporters he wasn’t injured. After that, Badgers coach Gary Andersen walked back the injury story. The truth is Stave has been removed from the game plan because of his suddenly erratic throwing. He isn’t hurt, but he isn’t throwing the ball consistently, either. So, Tanner McEvoy will start, and if he gets hurt or Wisconsin takes a big lead, Bart Houston will be the backup.
- Oklahoma at Tulsa: The Sooners’ offense raced out of the gate last week against Louisiana Tech, and one of the biggest reasons for the start was freshman fullback Dimitri Flowers. When I visited Norman a few weeks ago, Bob Stoops said Flowers could jump in immediately and give the Sooners what Trey Millard gave them in recent years. Given the step back the offense took following Millard’s injury last year, it was obvious the Sooners need a versatile athlete at that position, which can function like a traditional fullback or an H-back. Flowers, a 6-foot-1, 244-pounder from San Antonio, seems to fit the bill perfectly.
- USC at Stanford: USC ran 64 plays in last November's 20-17 upset of the Cardinal at the Coliseum. The Trojans ran 105 plays in their first game under Steve Sarkisian. Stanford coaches know Sarkisian’s offense. After all, they faced it when he was the coach at Washington. But the Huskies beat the Cardinal in Seattle in 2012 and nearly shocked them in Palo Alto in '13. Sark has better players running that same offense now, and that makes this matchup quite intriguing.
- Eastern Michigan at Florida: Maybe we’ll finally get to see whether the hiring of coordinator Kurt Roper has produced a functional offense at Florida. Maybe. According to the weather forecast, there is an 80-percent chance of thunderstorms in Gainesville on Saturday.
- Ole Miss at Vanderbilt: Derek Mason’s debut as the Commodores head coach couldn’t have gone much worse. He used three quarterbacks, and his team committed seven turnovers in a 37-7 loss to Temple. Mason said this week that he’ll look like a different coach on Saturday. He tried too hard to contain his emotions last week because that’s how he thought he was supposed to act on the sidelines. This week, he’ll just be himself. It’s not clear whether that will keep the Commodores from handing the ball to the other team, but it can’t hurt.
- Michigan State at Oregon: How can Oregon crack one of the nation’s best defenses? With a stable of backs that might be the best the Ducks have had during their recent run of success. SI.com’s Lindsay Schnell explains.
- Maryland at South Florida: The Terrapins’ tuneup for Big Ten play continues in Tampa, where they should face a slightly more challenging opponent than in their opener against James Madison. Of course, USF barely squeaked by Western Carolina last week, so slightly might be overstating things. The good news for the Bulls? Freshman back Marlon Mack carried 24 times for 275 yards and four touchdowns against the Catamounts. The bad news? The defense that couldn’t stop the Catamounts must now face quarterback C.J. Brown and wide receiver Stefon Diggs. The obvious news is that I just like typing the word Catamounts. Catamounts. Catamounts. Catamounts.
- East Carolina at South Carolina: Steve Spurrier was worried about this game before the Gamecocks got throttled by Texas A&M. Last week’s 52-28 loss should keep South Carolina players from looking ahead to next Saturday’s matchup with Georgia. Of more concern is the fact that the Gamecocks surrendered 511 passing yards against a hurry-up spread offense. The Pirates also run a hurry-up spread, and quarterback Shane Carden has played in a lot more games than the Aggies’ Kenny Hill. East Carolina doesn’t have a first-round-caliber left tackle like Texas A&M did, but the Pirates do have a future NFL receiver in Justin Hardy.
- Michigan at Notre Dame: Brady Hoke summed up what this game means for Michigan quite well during his press conference on Monday, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the series ending for the foreseeable future. This is a measuring stick for the Wolverines. “The talent level is there. There are guys they recruited that we recruited, there’s guys we’ve got that they recruited,” Hoke said. “I think to some degree, the talent level there is very similar. That, being as much as anything else, gives you a little bit of an idea about where we stand.”
- Memphis at UCLA: A Bruins' offensive line that looked porous against Virginia had better be ready for Memphis defensive end Martin Ifedi. Ifedi racked up 11.5 sacks last season, and fans will probably hear about him plenty in next year's pre-draft process. Ifedi might be slowed by an injured ankle, though. He appeared to suffer the injury in the third quarter of a 63-0 win over Austin Peay. Tigers coach Justin Fuente told The Commercial Appeal this week that Ifedi “looks good.”
Throwback video of the week
Just because the current participants haven’t gotten choked up about the end of the Michigan-Notre Dame series doesn’t mean that we can’t. Here are a couple of classic plays from the rivalry.
Notre Dame looked done in 1980 after the Wolverines took a 27-26 lead with 47 seconds left. That left Fighting Irish freshman Blair Kiel to lead the offense into field goal range -- which he did, setting up a 52-yard attempt for Harry Oliver with four seconds remaining. Oliver booted the ball through the uprights for a 29-27 win, and the fans stormed the field.
At Michigan, they just call this “The Catch.” On fourth-and-inches in 1991, Wolverines coach Gary Moeller approved a shot into the end zone. Elvis Grbac threw it, and Desmond Howard made the diving grab to seal a 24-14 win.
On the menu
Unless they’re lucky, those heading to Eugene for Michigan State-Oregon will probably fly into Portland. Before taking Interstate 5 South, visit Pok Pok for the nation’s most addictive wings. They’re coated in an irresistible Vietnamese fish sauce, and you’ll eat more than you thought your body could hold. If you’re stuck on the East Coast, you still have a chance. Pok Pok has a location in Brooklyn.