Spring practice is in full swing for the Texas Longhorns, who are looking to make their long-awaited return to the top of the Big 12 this season. But to do so they will have to figure out how to beat the pesky Oklahoma Sooners, and the team's move back to the up-tempo spread offense is a great step towards doing just that.
It is no mystery that Texas head coach Mack Brown has had trouble taking care of business against the team's most bitter of rivals, going 6-9 against the Sooners over his tenure. But these past two seasons have redefined those struggles with Texas losing by a combined 80 points in its flagship game of the season.
Brown can ill-afford another embarrassing defeat at the hands of Bob Stoops and the Sooners, but this might be his year thanks to the offense of his former quarterback Major Applewhite. The team's new offensive coordinator is using this spring to reinstall a spread attack that Texas rode to a national championship and two BCS bowl victories. The 'Horns are hoping that this attack, along with a plethora of young talent, will bring them back to national prominence and allow them to take one back from the Sooners in 2013.
Given the nature of this up-tempo scheme and the matchup problems that it creates, this new attack will be instrumental in Texas' reclaiming of the Golden Hat this October. Here's why.
Johnathan Gray is a key player that should benefit from Texas' quick-hitting attack.
The ultimate goal of Applewhite's offense is to run as many plays as possible to wear out the opposing defense and keep it off balance. That alone will give Texas the ability to dictate the flow of the game and achieve a balanced attack.
Looking at the box scores from the blowouts of the past, there so much disparity between the two teams it would be understandable for a Texas fan to burst into tears on the spot. But one thing that stands out is that the Texas offense, which was designed to be able to run on anyone, netted only 110 yards.
This discrepancy is the product of both not having enough confidence under center and an offense that moved far too slow, allowing the defense to get set and substitute appropriate personnel. The result was a lot of running plays getting stuffed in the backfield, leading to 3rd-and-long scenarios that are perilous to a team's chances of sustaining a drive.
That will not be the case this time around. The Texas offense is going to move at a much faster pace, often using the no-huddle, which will prevent the physical OU defense from cycling fresh bodies and situational players onto the field. Since they should have no fewer than five skill players on the field at any given time, that should translate into the Longhorns having much easier time moving the ball and sustaining drives.
Daje Johnson, Texas' fastest player, is going to be a matchup nightmare in Applewhite's offense.
The primary complaint Texas fans have about the brief Bryan Harsin era is that his offense did not adequately exploit the Longhorns' team speed. The up-tempo attack is designed almost exclusively to take advantage of this particular trait, and the Sooners are going to have a hard time stopping it.
This past season Texas typically used three-receiver sets with a tailback, a blocking tight end or a fullback and a quarterback that mostly stayed behind the sticks. This season everyone on the field that is not an offensive lineman will be a threat to advance the ball, creating a lot of one-on-one matchups that Texas' speed should win a lion's share of the time.
This means more open receivers for David Ash and more room for the skill players to break loose. When your team has guys like Daje Johnson, Johnathan Gray and Mike Davis that all have breakaway speed, that usually translates to a lot of scoring.
The only downside here is that Marquise Goodwin and D.J. Monroe did not have an extra year of eligibility to go nuts in this scheme.
Ash should find success running the ball himself against the Sooners.
The spread offense has been, historically speaking, a sort of Kryptonite for the Sooners. This is especially true when a running quarterback is thrown into the mix, and will be key to the 'Horns beating their bitter rivals in 2013.
Over the past eight years the Sooners have had struggles defending teams that run the spread offense, losing two national championships to spread attacks during that span. More recently they got blown out by Johnny Manziel and the Aggies in the Cotton Bowl this past year and struggled against spread teams like West Virginia, Baylor and Oklahoma State.
This is not to say that the Sooners are helpless against this offense but they have had their issues, especially when dealing with a running quarterback. It is no coincidence that the last time the 'Horns beat the Sooners it was with Colt McCoy, a deft scrambler, under center running a spread attack. In fact, the only sustained success Mack Brown has had against OU was with either McCoy or archetypal dual-threat quarterback Vince Young as the starter, going 4-2 from 2004 to 2009.
David Ash is no Vince Young but he does have the speed to break one once if defense forgets about him. He also has much better running backs than did McCoy during the last two years of his college career, which will make him a much more effective rusher. This, along with the benefits provided by the pace of the system, will give Texas its best shot at beating the Sooners in four years.