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Baylor - Houston Preview

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Baylor welcomes a very tough opponent to Waco on Saturday. It’s time for some football!

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Georgia vs Baylor Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

A Game!

Kudos to Baylor and Houston for figuring this out. After the disappointing news about La Tech, the sadness was compounded by the fact that Baylor already had a scheduled bye week and thus had to wait another week before opening conference play against Kansas.

You don’t want to enter conference play without playing someone else, particularly when you have a new coaching staff that still doesn’t know what they have in their current team. While Kansas is the best (worst) opponent Baylor could’ve hoped for in that scenario, it still isn’t ideal.

As long as it was a FBS opponent, it almost did not matter who Baylor could get scheduled. Ordinarily, a power 5 team has to try and find the perfect balance for a non-conference opponent; i.e., one who is good enough to gain some respect and provide a test for your team, but not too good to potentially impact bowl eligibility. None of those concerns applied here. It was either find a team to play or you do not play. Baylor and Houston made it happen, so they play.

Good job, Mack and co.

Holgerson Goes Full 2017 Baylor

Houston is a very interesting team entering 2020. Remember, they are helmed by Dana Holgorson, who not so long ago quit his gig at West Virginia (mutual? I don’t know) and decided to take the “step down” at Houston while making more money and arguably being in a more advantageous situation.

Prior to Holgorson, Houston was a very talented but sloppily coached team under Major Applewhite. Relative to most group-of-5 programs, Houston has major money to play with and did not accept his middling results. After paying out the wazoo for Holgorson, he came in and promptly commenced a full on tanking job. Houston redshirted 30+ players, including really good starters, and took in a handful of very talented transfers who weren’t cutting it at P5 programs. For much of 2019, Holgerson was rotating in a bunch of guys and was trying to see what he had while installing his system. It makes it very difficult to project their 2020 team, because many of the 2020 starters aren’t playing in 2020, or are only rotating snaps.

NCAA Football: Houston at Central Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The result was a 4-8 season in which they went 2-6 in conference, in large part due to a truly horrendous defense which finished 111th in defensive SP+. Like Rhule, Holgorson had his fat contract and knew he could afford to start off slower in order to produce a bigger payoff in years to come. As Baylor fans know, the initial pain can be rough to bear, but the potential payoff is equally ecstatic.

Houston fans are hoping to experience some of that ecstasy in year 2, the year in which coaches typically see their biggest jump.

https://twitter.com/Joseph_Duarte/status/1305539328928514054/photo/1

Houston’s Offense

Holgorson has had the reputation as a terrific offensive coach for his entire career. Originally coming from the Mike Leach tree at Texas Tech, he then had a few prolific stops as Houston and Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator before spending 7 years as head coach at West Virginia. As a Leach disciple, he of course learned under basic air raid principles. However, he’s made a name for himself for his spread-to-run concepts (i.e., spreading the defense out with the true intention of gashing them in the run game). At West Virginia, he was responsible for the ultra-creative offenses which often featured multiple backs in the backfield and utilized hybrid players, like Tavon Austin, who could motion between running back and WR.

He’s also been a big proponent of the pistol formation—where the running back lines up several yards directly behind the quarterback—in order to prevent defenses from discerning tendencies based upon the alignment of the RB. In the image below, former Baylor defensive graduate-assistant Cody Alexander discusses this principle of Holgorson being tendency-free. If you don’t understand the language, don’t worry. Essentially it is saying that from that one formation Holgorson ran many, many different plays.

Along with utilizing the pistol, Holgorson does a lot of standard college football offense stuff. He primarily plays out of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), but spends significant amounts of time in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) or 10 personnel (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR). Generally, he will be in 12 personnel in short yardage situations or when he wants to run a series (a series of plays based off of one concept). 10 personnel is more variable.

The other thing he utilizes more of than most is WR motion. He loves to run stacked WR formations (2 WRs lined up in the same vertical plane) and will frequently motion one of them across the backfield. For instance, it is very common for him to line up in a twins look (2 WR on both sides) ...

and then motion to a Trey look (trey = three WR to one side) ...

This makes it very easy for him to shift formations pre-snap, and it is something you will probably see a lot of on Saturday.

Offensive Personnel

Like the best group of 5 teams, Houston has really good offensive skill talent but questionable play on the offensive line.

Wide Receivers

Their receivers are really, really good. They’re led by senior Keith Corbin (who redshirted in 2019). He’s 6’2, strong, and plenty fast. He will body smaller defenders and burn slower defensive backs. He’s exactly what you want as a boundary X receiver in today’s game. Watch his highlights and see for yourself.

Their next most dangerous weapon is senior WR Marquez Stevenson, who had previously redshirted so did not in 2019. He is the type of inside receiver we used to see under Art Briles, a 5-11 guy who can just absolutely fly. They use him in a variety of spots on the field. Frequently, they’ll put him in bunch or stack formations to ensure that he gets a free release and can get up (or across) field as fast as possible. His highlights.

Other than those two, they still have a good amount of talent. Inside receiver Bryson Smith was a high level recruit that initially went to Houston to play QB. X receiver Jeremy Singleton is an outside target at his best in the short game. Z receiver Nathaniel Dell is a tiny, fast waterbug type who they will try to get involved in the screen game.

Quarterback

Ah yes, the quarterback. Houston is led by Clayton Tune, a true Junior who has played in about half of the previous two seasons. Last year he started the remainder of the year after star QB D’eriq King elected to redshirt and then transfer to Miami. Tune is similar to what Baylor saw at QB a lot under Briles. Adequate height, a good arm, plenty mobile to be a threat in the running game. He has an OK feel for the pocket, but his OL has been pretty bad since coming to Houston and he has some happy feet.

This has led to his biggest issue, which is throwing interceptions. Last year he threw 9 on just 179 attempts. For an offense that throws as much as Houston does, throwing interceptions on 5% of your dropbacks is not ideal (compare this to Charlie Brewer’s 2% rate at Baylor). For Tune, this is particularly bad because Houston uses so many screens and quick routes in their offense. What it effectively means is that on any play where he might have to diagnose something post-snap, he is liable to turn the ball over. His willingness to take risks when scrambling leads to some ill-advised decisions, as well.

Running Backs

By power 5 standards, Houston’s RBs are nothing special. They’re led by Kyle Porter, who transfered from Texas after an up-and-down start to his career there. He’s backed up by Mulbah Car, another adequate athlete at RB. It is difficult to ascertain their exact ability due to poor offensive line play, but I feel comfortable in saying that this will be one of the worst RB groups Baylor faces this season.

Offensive Line

For much of 2019 Houston was playing musical chairs on the OL. They’re run game was completely ineffective, and made much of the RPO and play-action stuff that Holgorson wanted to do that much more difficult. They are led by 3 seniors, a redshirt sophomore, and then a redshirt freshman (who saw significant action in his 4 games last year) at left tackle. Experience can work wonders for an OL, so it will be interesting to see if this group can develop any more cohesion during 2020, and how much is apparent in game 1.

Expect for Baylor to see what their base defensive fronts can do against Houston’s OL.

Baylor’s Defensive Response

So, given what we learned, how should Baylor defend Houston?

At this point, I expect Baylor’s base defense to look like this:

Whether this should technically be called an under front is up for debate. Please don’t @ me, Jeff.
https://rileykolstefootball.com/2019/05/12/the-bay-and-the-bayou/

Given Houston’s questionable offensive line, I would start off the game playing safe, standard coverages. I don’t want early shots to Corbin or Stevenson beating me. Baylor should send some standard blitzes, such as dropping back Logan (playing the position labeled “B”) and rushing Dillon Doyle (labeled “W”).

With Houston’s OL, I expect that these simple types of pressures will be enough to generate pressure while safely playing coverage on Houston’s dynamite WRs. The other option is to try and really confuse and overwhelm Houston’s OL, but I would only go for this option if basic pressures are insufficient to generate pressure.

At this point, I do not believe Baylor needs to worry about Houston’s running game. The primary way Baylor gives up big plays to Houston are 1) shots in the passing game and 2) Tune scrambling. Thus, the defensive gameplan should revolve around stopping those things. Maintain your pass rushing lanes, don’t let Tune loose, and hope Tune makes a mistake or two forcing the ball.

Houston’s Defense

Led by defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen, the Cougars run a defense unlike any that we will see in Big 12 play (because of what they do with their interior DL). Before Houston he was the coordinator at Arkansas State where he garnered a reputation for developing defenses that are havoc-heavy; i.e., defenses which generate a lot of sacks, tackles for loss, pass breakups, and interceptions.

Houston was truly horrendous on defense in 2019. But as discussed previously, you have to take these results with a grain of salt. They base out of a 4-2-5 (4 defensive lineman, 2 linebackers, 5 defensive backs) where the field-end (the defensive end lined up to the wide side of the field) is lighter and quicker than his boundary mate and will sometimes be in a stand-up position. Cauthen has also utilized some 3-3-5 looks in the past whose primary goal is to disrupt and create pressure.

Cauthen’s linebackers will often line up much closer to the line of scrimmage than most, sometimes only 2-3 yards off the line of scrimmage. Like many, Cauthen utilizes a hybrid player as his field linebacker who is more defensive back than linebacker. Here’s a standard defensive lineup for Houston:

Defensive Line

This is the area where Houston’s defensive scheme is markedly different than most. On early downs, both of their interior lineman will “two-gap” (i.e., be responsible for both gaps on either side of the OL they are opposite of). If you watch an average first down, you’ll notice that the interior DL line up over the offensive guards, their hands shoot to the OL’s armpits, and the DL are reading where the play is going.

Some teams will two-gap with their nose tackle, and some don’t two-gap with anybody (like Rhule and Aranda), it is very rare for two DL to be two-gapping. What this allows is for the linebackers to be more free in the run game, at the expense of DL shooting gaps and disrupting things themselves. Huge shoutout to Jeffrey Davis for explaining this to me.

Like many good group of 5 teams, this is the weakest area of their defense. Their best player is probably Junior Derek Parish, the field defensive end who stands at 6-2 245 lbs. He’s flanked by a variety of seniors who, thus far, haven’t done much in their careers. Their DC says they are “improving,” but a lot of it sounds like the Baylor coaches talking about Baylor’s “improving” OL in year’s past. This is an adequate group and will be one of the weaker units Baylor faces in 2020. If any one of them is giving any of the OL significant problems in this game, that does not portend well for Baylor.

Linebackers

The linebackers include Houston’s best defensive player, senior Grant Stuard. Last year he played as Houston’s nickel, but while he is certainly athletic he is not quite as fast as you want from a guy at that spot. Houston will utilize his quickness and tenacity at linebacker this year, and you can expect him to make a lot of plays in this game. He’s really good laterally and can chase plays down. The question will be how good he is at taking on pulling OL in gap schemes.

He’ll be flanked by senior Donovan Mutin, a fine enough player with a lot of experience who will do his job and not make mistakes, albeit not as athletic as Stuard.

Secondary

This is the area where Houston will look most different in 2020, and likely why they’ll be much better than they were in 2019. They utilize a hybrid player as their field LB (STAR, SAM, nickel, all the same thing) who primarily needs to work in coverage. At safety they’re like everyone else, they want guys who can range over the top, come down and be physical against the run, and not be total liabilities against wide receivers in man coverage. At corner they use a mix of off and press coverage depending on down and distance and formation.

Their secondary is the strength of their defense. There is some serious athleticism here and easily comparable to teams like Oklahoma State and better than most of the Big 12.

STAR

Houston utilizes a STAR type position that many defenses are using currently, a secondary player who will line up to the wide side of the field (or the passing strength, it just depends) and has to be able to cover guys out of the slot (this is the position that Jalen Pitre will be playing for Baylor this year). In 2019 they utilized Stuard, who has since moved to LB, and they will now be inserting West Virginia transfer and former Katy Tiger JoVanni Stewart. Stewart played in every game as a true freshman and then was a starter his junior year before departing with the arrival of a new coaching staff in West Virginia. He’s a heady, quick player who will primarily operate as a disruptor.

Safety

At safety, they will field a duo of senior Deontay Anderson and junior Gervarrius Owens. Anderson is a former 5* recruit who spent a year at Ole Miss and has had an up and down career, though his athleticism cannot be questioned. He plays on the boundary and is the bigger of the two at 6-2 225 lbs (a standard size for many linebackers). He’s like Christian Morgan, super-athlete boundary safeties you mostly want heading downhill. Expect him to be much more effective in his second year in this system.

Owens is a junior and will primarily be playing to the wide side of the field. He’s not a super athlete but is good enough to not get embarassed by inside receivers. I do think the matchup against him is one that Baylor can look to exploit with guys like Gavin Holmes.

Anderson and Owens are backed up by a couple of transfers from Power 5 programs who left after their freshmen years.

Cornerback

At cornerback, they received a huge boon with the transfer of Sun Belt freshmen of the year Marcus Jones. He’s small, but he’s fast and has great ball skills. There aren’t too many corners capable of making this play:

That’s truly special stuff. His running mate is senior Damarion Williams. He has the requisite athleticism and size to press and will bring a steadying presence as a senior. You’ll see him primarily in the boundary since he is so much bigger than Jones. One of the big questions will be whether he can hold up in solo coverage in the boundary against guys like Tyquan Thornton.

Jones and Williams are backed up by two junior college transfers, Art Green and Jayce Rogers. Green will play behind Williams, as he is 6+ feet tall and was one of the top junior college players in the country with offers from a bevy of high level programs. He has a few plays on his highlights out of JUCO which are truly special. Rogers is similarly diminutive like Jones, a guy they’ll play to the field.

Baylor’s Offensive Response

This game has John Lovett’s name written all over it. Houston is weak on the DL and Houston is breaking in a converted safety at LB (though I don’t think Stuard will have too many problems). This is a great start for what should be a much improved Baylor OL to see if they can make some real headway in their run game. Not that Baylor needs to bang its head against the wall, it’s still modern football so runs will have pass options attached.

The major things to watch for early in the game are: Is Houston playing more coverage or are they getting more aggressive in the box? If they’re getting aggressive, can Baylor punish them or is Houston’s secondary too good? My expectation is that, after years of subpar OL play, Houston will want to see if their base looks can stand up against the Baylor run game. Look for Baylor to establish the run creatively early, and then start taking their shots if Houston has to come up to defend the run.

In the passing game, the matchup I like the most is Gavin Holmes vs their linebackers and safeties. JoVanni Stewart is a good player at STAR, but he’s more of a thumper than a coverage player, and Owens is probably the weakest of their secondary players (though still good). Thornton and Sneed will attract attention, but with Holmes not playing for a few years he will get opportunities he might not get later in the year.

Keys to the Game

The best part of studying an opponent before a game is that it allows you to watch for the key determinants early in the game. Generally, the strengths and weaknesses are well known for each team, so it is interesting to see how they come out and try and handle them. Here’s what I’ll be looking at early in the game on Saturday:

  • Does Houston load up the box to stop the Baylor running game and trust their secondary to handle Baylor’s wide receivers? If so, can Baylor punish those one-on-one match-ups?
  • Can Kalon Barnes, Raleigh Texada, and Mark Milton hold up against Houston’s wide receivers. In particular, can Barnes handle Keith Corbin to the boundary? Watch to see what Baylor does with Christian Morgan. Morgan is the boundary safety and will be there to help against Corbin, I expect Baylor will be shading Morgan towards Corbin all game. As long as Baylor’s run defense can hold up without the help of Morgan, that should continue.
NCAA Football: Baylor at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports
  • Can Baylor’s OL impose their will on a substandard Houston defensive line? If there’s a standard box (i.e., Houston is leaving defenders back in coverage, not loading up against the run), can Baylor get a consistent 6-8 yards on running plays?

Prediction

This is an incredibly tough game to predict. If it were pure talent to talent, I’d take Baylor by ~10 points. The big difference, of course, is in staffs. Houston has a staff that has been together for a year; while no staff wants to put together an entire gameplan in one week, it helps if you’ve already put a dozen together before. For Baylor, not only is this the first game for them as a staff, but it is occurring under very unusual circumstances. What impact this has on the game is impossible to predict, but it certainly makes things more difficult for Baylor. Furthermore, these week 1 games across college football have been nuts with some very sloppy play on both sides of the ball. Most noticeably, it looks like some teams understandably haven’t practiced tackling as much.

If Baylor wins, I think they dominate in the offensive running game with Lovett and get enough out of the passing game, primarily highlighting Ebner and Holmes. They will also need to limit early season mistakes on defense. Houston’s WRs are going to make big time plays, Baylor just needs to limit them and not give them anything for free. If Houston wins, they likely light up an inexperienced Baylor secondary and do enough on defense to limit Baylor’s running game.

Overall, I like the matchups for Baylor. After years of playing behind bad OL play, I think that this is the game where Lovett and Ebner demonstrate how good of a running back duo they are as Baylor’s OL is much improved. However, Baylor’s secondary likely takes several shots to the bow from Houston’s very talented and able wide receivers. I don’t think this game becomes a true BUTT-bowl-style shootout, but I do think both teams get into the 30s.The difference likely could (duh) be turnovers. Hopefully Brewer continues to take care of the ball and Tune gifts Baylor a couple of freebies.

I’ll take Baylor: 38 - 31.