Keys to the Game - Oklahoma St. vs. Texas A&M

By John Harris
September 21, 2011

The most in-depth preview of the Aggies/Cowboys contest you'll read all season.

Texas A&M (2-0), beat Idaho 37-7
Oklahoma State (3-0), beat Tulsa 59-33

Scouting the Texas A&M Defense

Quick Thoughts

  • It's a base 3-4 package with a multitude of looks, stunts, over and under fronts. Tim DeRuyter isn't scared to bring the blitz, whether it's a run blitz or a pass blitz.
  • The front is excellent with Tony Jerod-Eddie, Jonathan Mathis and Eddie Brown NT. Brown has a two gap body but can be a one gap player.
  • Aggies can play passing lanes in zone very well. Man coverage is pretty solid as well.
  • Secondary is VERY aggressive – love the double moves for Blackmon and company.
  • Did play some cover one to allow help over Blackmon if necessary.

Keys to Watch

Inside linebacker inability to decipher plays.

Here's a perfect example of what I'm talking about. Against SMU, the two inside linebackers couldn't play this simple zone run more differently. Unfortunately, the backside linebacker plays it perfectly. The playside linebacker, not so much.

Here's the setup: Ags in four man front (in an old school split six alignment inside) and the Mustangs are in traditional one back in the gun with SMU RB Zach Line to the left of SMU QB JJ McDermott. On the snap, Line takes a direct handoff and starts to run an outside zone to the right.

Backside linebacker #8 Garrick Williams plays it perfectly and reads it properly, but gets caught in the wash. If the defense is played properly, Line would've had to cut it right back into him. Unfortunately, it's not.

Playside linebacker #9 Charlie Thomas, I'm not sure what he reads or sees. He panics and doesn't move at all on handoff action. The thing is if the Aggies are cross-keying or gap exchanging on the play, he would've sprinted right to the hole that Line finds for a big gain. He freezes, gets caught in the wash and Line runs free to the one yard line.

On a scale of 1 to 10 with one being the simplest linebacker read on the field and ten being the most complex read, this one is a 0.005. No excuse for this to happen and it happened earlier in the game as well. What makes this miss more egregiously is that A&M ran safety Trent Hunter to the three wide receiver side late to "rob" any short route across the middle. So, you'll see him run to the wide side of the field late and then have to double back after the linebackers play this run so poorly.

Oklahoma State has a better offensive line and will attack the Aggies with the run game, especially out of the Cowboys' pistol and diamond formations, if those inside linebackers aren't even making these simplistic reads.

Open side blitz on 2nd and 3rd and short.

This clip is a three play sequence in the first half against SMU on 2nd and 3rd and less than 4 yards.

Each time early in this game, DeRutyer dialed up wide side of the field pressure, whether it was a corner in the slot (#7 Frederick) or an OLB (#10 Porter) bringing the heat off the edge. The philosophy is that by bringing that edge pressure, the quarterback sees it, can't find his receiver in the flat, and then goes to the short side where the options are a little more limited.

The only problem with this approach (you can see on the clip that the pressure does the trick) is that a linebacker is dropping to try to cover #2 and that's trouble. If Oklahoma State QB Brandon Weeden reads this blitz, his #2 receiver is going to be wide open on a 12-yard dig route over the middle of the field.

Check out the first of the three plays in the clip. The #2 receiver doesn't read the blitz and break off his route to the middle of the field, back across the face of the dropping linebacker. If he darts back across the middle on a short dig/slant, the linebacker has no way of covering that route. Keep an eye on Oklahoma State looking up #2 on this wide side blitz in the middle of the field. It could be a massive play for the Cowboys…if the pressure doesn't get to Weeden first.

How does Oklahoma State beat the Aggie defense?

  1. Run out of no TE, diamond formation.
  2. As such, put the onus of stopping the Cowboys on those Aggie linebackers.
  3. Quick count and quick snap Aggies to catch them in secondary disguises or stems up front.
  4. Isolate Blackmon on backside of formation
  5. Find the blitz, find the drop linebacker and pick him apart.

Scouting the Texas A&M Offense

Quick Thoughts

  • using Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray together in the backfield – husky package
  • Mike Sherman has the utmost confidence in Ryan Tannehill
  • One back – zone running game (think Broncos/Texans)
  • two backs – husky package – option out of the gun
  • two backs – I formation – power, iso game
  • offensive line is excellent.
  • tight end packages/3 WR packages – can use them equally well
  • speed up the tempo – force defenses to stay with personnel
  • a ton of formations – tackle over – watch TE on short side down the seam later in this game
  • lots of pre-snap reads/decisions at the line of scrimmage – will throw the fade on press man. Will throw quick, hot right now.
  • if you leave guys uncovered, Tannehill will throw hot immediately.

Keys to Watch

Bubble Screens

The Aggies will take what you give them and QB Ryan Tannehill is one of the best I've seen at making a pass read on a run play.

For years, I've seen the Texans have an automatic to a WR off of any zone run, especially if the DB is 7 to 9 yards off in coverage. Mike Sherman, the Texans former offensive coordinator, has taken that concept and handed it off to Tannehill who understands the right way to apply it.

In the clip, you see one fade route on the goal line and two quick bubble screen throws. The first two are reads off of a zone or isolation play (watch the OL run blocking). The third one was a pass called, but what I like about all of them is that the use of the bubble screen quick throw to uncovered receiver set up the last play of the four, a throw to Jeff Fuller in the hole after a quick fake to the bubble screen receiver. Tannehill has such a control of this offense and the confidence to decide to make that throw.

How does Oklahoma State beat the Aggie offense?

  1. Tackle on first contact, especially against quick bubbles and short throws
  2. Disguise coverages and disrupt Tannehill's pre-snap read
  3. Blitz from the wide side of the field and roll coverage to Fuller
  4. When the Aggies are in two back formations, run blitz to the strength (TE) of the formation
  5. Keep five DBs on the field especially if Texas A&M is trying to go up-tempo, but be willing to run another LB on the field given the personnel package A&M has on the field.

Scouting the Oklahoma State Offense

Quick Thoughts

  • Weeden similar to Tannehill, very confident. Won't hurt the team
  • They use zone beaters if you stay in zone - #2 deep out, #1 post – big play vs. Arizona's cover 2
  • The diamond formation is tough to stop, but key on the backs and the location in the diamond
  • Weeden's pre-snap reads are typically dead-on
  • OL is a better run blocking line – most think this is a team that'll air it out on the reg. But, this team is best when it's running the ball effectively
  • love the two back combination of Randle and Smith

Keys to Watch

The diamond formation

Teams have to decide if you want to stack the box with eight, but if you do, more than likely you're leaving Justin Blackmon one-on-one. OSU has run power, obviously out of it, but also a counter with the two diamond backs acting as the pulling guard and the guard turning up in the hole. Interesting concept and tough to stop. Real tough.

The Aggies are going to have to make sure they check personnel groupings in the diamond. If Joseph Randle or Jeremy Smith is at one of the diamond backs, you can expect a sweep to the side opposite that back. If Randle/Smith is the lone running back behind Weeden, expect power or inside counter.

This is a great formation for the Cowboys to use because they don't use a tight end, so you have Blackmon split out on the edge and you can't man cover him. So, if you take a safety and roll to that side, it's going to be hard to stop the power game inside out of the diamond with Blackmon on the perimeter and only 6 to 7 guys committed to stopping the run.

Case in point, on 3rd and 1 against Arizona, the Cowboys stay in the diamond near the goal line. Weeden sees Arizona has left Blackmon one-on-one near the end zone as they've put 8 guys in the box. I can't say it's a mistake by Arizona, but the Cats had to pick their poison. Weeden, as Tannehill did with Fuller against SMU on the goal line, throws the fade to Blackmon for six points (on a play that was originally a power run).

Man coverage and the blitz vs. Weeden

If you play man against the Cowboys, Weeden is fantastic at reading that on the run and finding the right matchup for the right situation. This play below is a great example of that. I'm convinced that this is a read play.

You can tell Justin Blackmon knows this one isn't going to him, but he knows his responsibility is to clear out and let Joseph Randle get down the sideline matched up on a linebacker. Mismatch is more like it.

How does Texas A&M beat the Cowboy offense?

  1. DO NOT leave the CBs out on Blackmon one-on-one – always have safety help available
  2. Keep stemming and moving to disrupt Weeden's reads, especially in the secondary with disguises
  3. Slant to beat the diamond, especially if Randle/Smith is on one side or the other
  4. Get defenders to get proper depth in zone coverage to drop under intermediate throws
  5. Unleash Sean Porter off the edge on the same side as Blackmon to force Weeden to have to see Porter as he attempts to throw to Blackmon. If Weeden throws opposite the blitz, Blackmon is then rendered moot…for now. If he throws to Blackmon, he has to do it over Porter or through him.

Scouting the Oklahoma State Defense

Quick Thoughts

  • throw to the blitz to beat the Cowboys.
  • Cowboys played a bunch of nickel against Arizona, which may be how the Cowboys attack the Aggies. In playing the nickel and even 6 DBs, they've got to be careful with the Aggies on first down. Staying with 5 DBs or even 6 on first down will force the Ags to the ground on first down, but expect the Cowboys to counter with some run blitz on first down anticipating the Ags to run.
  • zone dogs dropping Jamie Blatnick, nose tackle in coverage
  • Played a mix of odd and even fronts
  • Arizona used play action to draw the attention of safety Markelle Martin, when he had underneath coverage. The Aggies run play action as well as any other team in the nation, so expect A&M to exploit his aggressiveness by throwing the deep in or slant routes as he reacts or even freezes to read into the backfield.
  • Defense seemingly runs to the football more aggressively than in past years, now some of that is due to the fact that they've played with five defensive backs most of the time and probably will stick to that 4-2-5 type concept this week for the Aggies.
  • The Cowboys use a mix of zone dogs and blitz concepts out of both their odd and even fronts.

Keys to Watch

Front mix

Most teams currently are using a mix of odd and even fronts. Oklahoma State didn't have the personnel, in my opinion, in the last few years to play a multiple front defense (being a base 4-3 defense). But this group has the potential to do it and has done it through the first part of the season.

DC Bill Young doesn't change things up too much and wants his defense to execute, tackle and turn the ball over more than he wants it to be a "tricky" defense. However, when the Cowboys went to a three man front against Arizona, Young was a bit more aggressive with his zone dog/blitzes out of that three man front so keep an eye on whether Young will go to his three man front with 5 or 6 DBs to confuse Tannehill with various coverages Young can throw at the Aggie quarterback.

Understanding Aggie tendencies

Stopping the Aggies is going to be difficult no question, but by understanding the Aggies personnel packages, the Cowboys will be much further ahead of the game. Here's what I mean.

  1. Husky package – Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael in the backfield together – this is the most dangerous one, but expect some gun option with both of them. The Ags have held back from this a bunch to save it for this game, so the tendencies aren't quite set here.
  2. I formation with TE – two plays, isolation/lead and play action.
  3. I offset – zone stretch and bootleg
  4. Three wides (Swope, Fuller and Nwachukwu) and no tight end – tough one to stop because OL can zone you up pretty well. Most versatile and difficult personnel grouping for Cowboys to stop.
  5. Tackle over (Jake Matthews and Matt Joeckel next to one another) – this is two plays, zone stretch to the two tackle side or it's going to be (this is in the playbook, I'm certain) a throw to the TE down the seam on the backside. This is a great formation because safeties typically don't see that TE because he's the second man on the line of scrimmage and leave him wide open. Gus Malzahn and Chris Petersen have dialed up touchdown throws to the tight end out of this formation.

Know who's in the game and it might take you to the football. If Tannehill is under center with a tight end in the game it's zone to the tight end or bootleg. A&M doesn't trick teams, it out executes teams with this myriad of personnel groupings and Tannehill's ability to handle it all.

How does Texas A&M beat the Cowboy defense?

  1. If OSU puts 5 DBs in the game, pound the zone all day long.
  2. Keep the tempo at full throttle
  3. Pick up 4+ on first down to keep entire 2nd/3rd playbook available.
  4. Utilize Husky package to get both Gray and Michael in the game at the same time
  5. Get Ryan Swope touches in as many ways as possible to frustrate linebackers (the ones that are still on the field)


When it comes down to it, these two offenses are potent and led by tremendously intelligent signal callers. It does come down to tackling in space and not blowing coverages or assignment responsibilities. Regardless, the Ags can control the line of scrimmage in the run game and frustrate the OSU defense, a group that must decide to stay base 4-3 or go to a 4-2-5 look to "win" on the perimeter. Tannehill redeems himself for the Aggie QB performance in last year's game and leads the Aggies to a big win in the pursuit of a Big 12 ring in the Aggies last year in the Big 12.

Texas A&M – 37 vs. Oklahoma State - 27