Postgame React: Texas Takes Care of Colorado, 38-14

The outcome was: incomplete.  In thinking and trying to write about Texas' 38-14 win over Colorado, I find myself returning to the following three related points:

  1. Texas won the game. Given the result (Pasadena) that is guaranteed to follow if Texas wins each of its remaining regular season games, the victory must be acknowledged and celebrated. 
  2. The team's performance was uneven overall -- outright terrible in some areas, brilliant in others, and up-and-down everywhere else.
  3. Discussing those performances is a relatively easy chore; the tremendously difficult challenge involves speculating about what tonight's performance might tell us -- good and bad -- about the rest of the season and, more immediately, next week in Dallas.

Speculating about what's in front of the team first requires we correctly diagnose what is and isn't working. I'm certain  that, at least for me, getting that right means a second (and probably third) viewing of the game are in order. Tonight, though, we dive into our first-take impressions of the performance. Join me after the jump for my initial reactions, then hop down to the comments and share with me your own.

The Offensive MVP was: Jordan Shipley (11 catches, 147 yards, 1 TD receiving / 3 punt returns, 88 yards, 1 TD). The Roommate's 11-catch, 147-yard evening was almost embarrassing, considering that Texas' offense more or less devolved into a two-man game. No kidding at all: if the McCoy-Shipley duo were any less sensational, this would be one painfully frustrating team to watch. As it is, the two are damn effective -- far more than any single pair has the right to be -- and they deserve a standing ovation.

With that said, the centrality of the offense's focus on the McCoy-Shipley connection raises two related questions, one easy and one hard: First, would the offense be better if it were not so hyper-focused on these two? And second, is this offense capable of thriving in some other form? The first question is the easy one to answer: for this offense to be great, it would need to develop into a more balanced and robust attack. What's difficult to say is whether it can or will...

For now, suffice it to say that Shipley is your unquestionable offensive MVP against Colorado, especially if light of his game-ending 74 yard punt return for a score. Whatever Texas' other issues on offense, the senior wideout is every bit the elite playmaker his most vocal fans always insisted he would become. On a night when virtually everything I wrote about this game wound up flipped on its head, it was perhaps fitting that Jordan Shipley spent so much time at split end, where his abuse of single coverage was the offense's only constant all night.

The Offensive offensive LVP was: Greg Davis.  And now we get to the WTF WAS THAT portion of the program, starting with the running game. Removing from the stat line the 2 sacks of McCoy for -12 yards, Texas rushed the ball just 23 times for a pitiful 58 yards (2.5 per attempt). The Longhorns rushed for 22 yards in the first quarter, -1 in the second, 4 in the third, and 28 in the fourth. It would be easy enough just to say that tonight's offensive performance was a repeat of the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, except that tonight those 11 excellent Buckeyes defenders were played by a group of Buffaloes who, coming into the game, had surrendered an average of 201 yards per game on the ground (111th nationally), at nearly 5 yards per attempt. West Virginia's Noel Divine gained more yards on one carry against Colorado than Texas did over an entire game.

Far above anything else that happened tonight, it was the utterly forgettable performance rushing the football that both angers and concerns the most. I can accept that this group isn't going to rush for gobs of yards against most solid defenses, but I had been under the impression that the ineptitude was so limited. Let's just be blunt about tonight's performance: this one's on the coaches and, in particular, Greg Davis. We can and will talk about the various personnel/performance issues, but the fundamental failing here was one of preparation and coaching. It's hard even to know where to begin, given the ease with which we could devote an entire postgame react to this single topic. For now, a few points rants on tonight's rushing misery:

  • Against Colorado we saw front and center why earlier this spring I strenuously objected when the coaches communicated an interest in using Cody Johnson in a featured role. First of all, on the "kind to Cody" side of things, there's the impact such a role might have on Johnson's proven value as an exceptional short yardage and goal-to-go tailback. But second, there's the idiocy of thinking a guy with his skill set is a legitimate option as the featured tailback in our rushing scheme -- for crying out loud, the quick guys often struggle to get to the rushing lanes we try to create. Now, is it possible to design a rushing scheme in which Johnson could succeed as the main man? I think so. But is this offense's one such scheme? It's incredible we even have to ask.
  • There is plenty we might say about the myriad sins committed by Texas' offensive linemen, but let's be up front about the fact that they are in many ways set up to fail. There are the many well-documented issues relating to the scheme itself, yes... but even beyond that, Davis's woefully weak overall approach to the endeavor all but guarantees the lousy results. No joke: Texas would be better off evolving to the point of conscious disregard for the run than it is with this "we care enough about rushing that we'll continue to make predictable stabs at it from time to time, but at the first sign of adversity we're mostly going to pass, except for the awkwardly timed plays in which we remind ourselves that we care about rushing." 
  • Related to the approach, of course, is the play calling. There is absolutely no synergy whatsoever between the passing and rushing attacks, and neither one serves to set up and/or support the other. On the worst nights, the end result is what we saw against Colorado: 25 or so irregularly called rushing plays that not only lack coordination with the aerial plan of attack, but all too often subvert it. The inverse, of course, is true as well: it is hard to imagine any coordinator with such a strong passing attack at his disposal do as little as Davis does to deploy it in a way that would support successful rushes. Again, Texas would be better off consciously committing more to the pass, if only for the benefit of being able to develop a complementary plan for rushing the ball.
  • Having said all that makes it nearly pointless to spend much time on personnel, but hell, if we're going to hand the ball off to our tailbacks and ask them to make water from wine, how difficult is it to conclude that the speedier and shiftier the tailback, the better? When on Texas' last drive the coaches finally got around to using their speediest and shiftiest tailback, Fozzy Whittaker was -- like his predecessors throughout the game -- rudely greeted behind the line of scrimmage almost as soon as he'd been handed the football. But Whittaker managed to scamper out of a tackle, reversed course, fired his jets to take the corner, and wound up turning his lone carry of the game from a three-yard loss into a twelve-yard touchdown. Even if it's naive to think any one player could  rescue this mess of a running attack, it's not too much to ask that we at least put in the runners with the best chance to make their own magic?
  • If you're wondering: after holding Baylor to 6 yards rushing on 17 attempts, Oklahoma has now surrendered just 268 yards rushing on 150 attempts (1.7 yards per rush). As much as anything else that Texas did well in last year's 45-35 win, they found a way to rush the football successfully -- 161 yards on 35 attempts (4.6 ypa). The favored Sooners, of course, did not, managing just 48 yards on 26 carries (1.8 ypa). If you're wondering what the blueprint looks like for this year's Oklahoma team to similarly knock favored Texas off its title track, it begins and ends right here. If next Saturday Texas is as impotent rushing the football as they were against Colorado, Texas fans will have to hope that either our own defense is even stouter or Colt McCoy has one of his best days as a Longhorn.

All those words, and we've barely discussed the passing game? Amazing... I'll keep it brief, then.

There was much more to be encouraged by the points of strength on display in the passing game, but there's no getting around the fact that from these points of strength Texas is extracting an uncomfortably low amount of value. Successful plays in the Texas passing game tend to flow from a chaotic scramble by McCoy at least as often as they neatly follow from design. It's schoolyard football, and while it's nice that the top two jocks are on our side making plays, they won't be able to do it all themselves when the opposing teams have athletic talent like our own.

More to the point, they shouldn't have to. Texas is not Rice, and McCoy and Shipley are not Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard. There is real opportunity for systematic excellence in Texas' passing attack, and though this isn't the space to chart all those X's and O's, I'm guessing we can all agree that the current version of the Colt McCoy offense -- however successful, however exciting -- too often produces at rates suboptimal to the talent of the players comprising it.

The Defensive MVP was: Roddrick Muckelroy and Sergio Kindle. We could highlight other names from what was, in the end, a good night for the defense (127 total yards allowed, 2.2 yards per play, 2 INTs, CU 3 of 15 on 3rd down), but Muck and Kindle were simply in a different class. Both seniors attacked tonight's game with enormously fierce intensity -- indeed, in the early going, too much, leading to several undisciplined plays. Once they settled into the flow of the game and played within their assignments, the speed and power with which these two were flying around the field making plays was truly beautiful to behold. 

Muckelroy completed his evening with a team-best 11 tackles, including 2 tackles for loss (1 sack) and a pair of passes broken up. Kindle finished with 6 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, and countless teammate-springing pass rushes; an advanced box score would undoubtedly show Kindle with half a dozen assists. The aggression and raw speed with which both players hone in on the football instills in the opposition a visible sense of urgency to make a play immediately.

Beyond those two, the defense benefited from terrific play from every Longhorn on the line. Sam Acho was only a smidge less brilliant than Muck and Kindle, if at all, Lamarr Houston wreaked havoc in the backfield each and every time Colorado tried to block him with one man, and Ben Alexander had a career night with 5 tackles and solid penetration with his rush.

Ten gallon hat tips to Emmanuel Acho and Earl Thomas, as well, both of whom were absolutely filthy at various points in the game. Thomas is already a bona fide star, while it's a real delight watching the younger Acho develop as a player: once his intelligence and aggression finish melding with his outrageous physical gifts, he's going to be as destructive a linebacker as Texas has had in a while.

The offensive Defensive LVP was: Blake Gideon and Keenan Robinson. Fans have rightly thought it incomplete to talk about Gideon the past two years without acknowledging his many important contributions, which tonight should include his terrific diving interception. Of course, complete evaluation of Gideon also means that there is no avoiding his limitations, either. When you get down to it, what we think about Gideon comes down to which of those two lenses we're looking through when we ask the question: Given the team's needs, Gideon's contributions have been indisputably important; and... given a truly high-elite defense's goals, Gideon's limitations are unmistakable. I understand if fans prefer to limit the discourse to the former, but tonight seems the right time to spend a few words on what he is not.

Gideon's most obvious sins on Saturday night were the two highly visible ones on Colorado's opening drive -- a terrible  point-blank missed tackle on Sumler, followed three plays later by Gideon's late arrival to Devenny's touchdown catch. The missed tackle was atypical -- merely a mistake, which everyone is prone to from time to time. The late coverage, however, exemplifies the bigger problem with Gideon: he is a step shy of being a playmaker. It was easy to see on the late coverage, but it's equally easy to see in the box score, where Gideon on Saturday was credited with just a single tackle. Some of that's opportunity -- he spent a good bit of time in deep coverage -- but he's got just 16 tackles through 5 games this year, to go with just 2 passes broken up.

The complete story about Blake Gideon is this, then: It's not that he typically plays as poorly as he did early in tonight's game, it's that he is at almost all times merely adequate. Texas can live with adequate if there aren't costly mistakes, but in either case the truth of the matter is that Texas could use an upgrade. With Christian Scott derailed for the year, Gideon will likely stick and, if he's solid and can continue to avoid costly mistakes, give Texas "enough." But we should understand what he is, and needn't gloss over what he is not.

Moving down the chopping block, I take no pleasure in singling out Keenan Robinson for subpar play tonight, but even someone as bullish about the kid as I am has to say that this was not his finest game. Prior to tonight, the young linebacker had been handling about 80% of his responsibilities impressively well, with a smaller portion of his performance trailing behind. But where his weaknesses had heretofore manifested themselves sporadically over the course of several games, tonight he was not so fortunate with the distribution, as he spent much of the first half struggling with his positioning both in pass coverage and in navigating CU blockers. While the good news is that he has displayed all the physical tools (good speed and excellent strength) requisite to play the position very well, his inexperience has regularly caused him to take the wrong path to a play, leaving him too far away to close for a tackle or helplessly walled off by blockers from where he needs to be. It's all teachable stuff, so there's little about which to be concerned in the long term -- here's to hoping he learns a lot from film review of tonight's game.

On the Milk Carton: Malcolm Williams (0 catches). No need to reopen all the same wounds, but for all the McCoy-to-Shipley brilliance, it's scary to imagine that Texas is going to try to win 13 games without developing a deeper, more well-rounded offensive arsenal. And it's hard to imagine that Malcolm Williams can't or shouldn't be a part of that. You didn't have to spend much time watching Florida's defense tonight to realize there aren't any happy endings for a one-dimensional offense against so fast and powerful a defense as the Gators. More importantly, Texas won't even get the chance to dethrone the Gators if the Longhorns' offense is as stale in the Cotton Bowl as it often was tonight.

Garrett Gilbert watch: 1-1 passing, 2 yards. Those of us who predicted a blowout by halftime thought Gilbert might get his first taste of Big 12 action, but it was not to be. On the bright side, he completed his only attempt to raise his completion percentage up over 80 on the season.

Oklahoma Fear Factor: 8 out of 10. (5) is the baseline. +1 for Texas' disastrous rushing performance tonight; +1 for the offense regressing to Colt-looking-for-Shipley; +2 for the implications of Davis's failure to develop this offense against the easy portion of the schedule; +1 for Sam Bradford being healthy enough to start; -1 for Jermaine Gresham on the sidelines; -1 for Bradford lacking any downfield weapons; -1 for Oklahoma's OL making their rushing game average; -2 for Texas' phenomenal special teams; -1 for the positive results in our coaching staff when they feel a sense of urgency after a sketchy performance; +4 for the intensity of the rivalry.

Heading into next week I feel: Conflicted.  How should fans feel after a win like tonight's? Should we focus on the win  and Texas remaining unbeaten, celebrating the brilliance of McCoy-to-Shipley, the excellence of the special teams, and the overall dominance of the defense? Or is it naive to look past the abysmal rushing performance, the lack of diversity in the passing game, and the team's hyper-dependence on Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley?

Indeed, there's your million dollar question, Longhorns fans: Are this team's strengths exceptional enough that Texas will still win even when all the team's weaknesses pop up in the same game?

Against average competition, the answer is clearly yes, but what about against Oklahoma, Missouri, or Oklahoma State? Is Texas strong enough to overcome another half like last year's opening period in Lubbock?

The related question, of course, is whether there are reasons to believe the team can improve on its weaknesses. How fundamental are the troubles, what viable solutions appear to exist, and how likely are they actually to develop?

Though I don't think anyone can definitively say they have all the answers, I invite your thoughts on any and all of the questions posed throughout this post. For my part, I obviously am at this point conflicted, torn between my excitement about the team's many strengths and the nagging worry about the offense remainiong vulnerable to occasional bouts with mediocrity. For what it's worth, my sense after five games is that the defense, special teams, and overall roster composition are substantially stronger than last year -- sufficiently so to mitigate the offensive question marks. Whereas in 2008 Texas was vulnerable to a bad game on both sides of the ball, it's difficult to envision the 2009 defense coughing up big points and needing a pick-me-up. If that's correct, then Texas can win any given game if either the offense has a good day or, in the case of a pedestrian performance by the offense, Texas' defense and special teams put points on/keep opposing points off the scoreboard.

That's all speculative, though, and with the best team on the schedule awaiting us next Saturday, it's going to be one hell of a stressful afternoon in Dallas if the coaches don't have a successful week of practice righting some wrongs. Because I'd rather not find out whether on an afternoon Texas' offense only scores twice, the Longhorns defense really is, as I hopefully suggest, good enough to carry the team to a Red River Shootout victor, anyway.

Hook 'em 'Horns. OU Sucks.

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