Flavor of the Week at running back: Cody Johnson. Yes, one might be inclined to suggest that Fozzy Whittaker deserves this honor after what was undoubtedly his best performance in a Longhorn uniform and to further suggest that the only reason Cody Johnson is receiving this coveted honor is because the Flavor of the Week must change, avoid repeats as long as possible. Both valid arguments.
However, there are several reasons for Johnson winning the award this week -- the first reason is the hard work that he put in this fall to lose nearly 20 pounds and maximize his quickness. Yes, he should have been in better shape coming into fall practice, but the point is that right now he is where he needs to be physically. The second reason is that the coaching staff seems to finally have settled on the proper role for Johnson -- a fourth-quarter battering ram to bludgeon tired defenses. Mack Brown spent a lot of time during the spring and beginning of fall practice talking about wanting to run a better four-minute drill at the end of games to kill the clock and maintain possession of the football. For that role, Johnson is the perfect weapon.
Johnson also wins this award because against Oklahoma he looked as quick as he ever have, but more importantly, he ran angry, with a purpose, instead of the tentative Johnson from earlier in the season. The end result -- five carries for 31 yards, helping him finish with the highest per-carry average on the team for the game, while also catching a pass out of the backfield for a six-yard gain. He won't ever be a big-play threat in the passing game, but if he can make himself available for McCoy to pick up positive yardage on otherwise well-defended plays it can provide a big lift to an offense struggling to find an identity.
The bottom line is that Johnson provides the Longhorns with a serious weapon in games that are close into the fourth quarter and in situations where Texas needs to kill the clock. Nice to see him finally deployed in a way that strategically makes sense other than his specialty, short-yardage situations.
Musical chairs at the receiver position. John Chiles took a beating in PB's Postgame React due to his inability to separate from defenders. Well deserved after catching two passes for one yard on the day, one of them on a slip screen that Oklahoma clealry saw coming, as they did not even bother to line up a defensvie back over him. Had he just run straight down the field he probably would have been open. James Kirkendoll picked up a personal foul penalty for head-butting Quinton Carter, who apparently took acting lessons this off season from former punter Mike Knall and would have made Vlade Divac or your average Argentinian basketball player proud with his subsequent flop. Kirkendoll caught three passes for 11 yards and may be the biggest disappointment in the receiving corps after so much off season talk about how consistently he runs routes. Besides the Wyoming game, Kirkendoll has provided little in the way of help this season on offense and has been giving questionable effort.
So, exit Kirkendoll and Chiles, enter Malcolm Williams and Marquise Goodwin. During his Monday press conference, Brown spoke about wanting to run the ball better to open up more play-action possibilities downfield, which is where Williams enters the equation. The bottom line is that the other receivers haven't produced, so it's time to finally, belatedly, see what Williams can do with his first shot at extended playing time. As for Goodwin, the touchdown catch and the diving play near the sideline illustrate just how good he can be with more opportunities. It's cliche now given that he's proven all season that he's a football player willing to put as much of a hit on defenders as he can, but it's true. He's a football player who also happens to be an all-world track star and the future at Texas is incredibly bright for that young man. It's also worth noting that Jordan Shipley will return to the flanker position that he occupied most of the last season after failing to create separation against Oklahoma's Brian Jackson, who surely raised his NFL stock with his strong performance on Saturday.
Tracking: playmaking defense. What a change a year can make. After forcing five turnovers against Oklahoma, with two coming on special teams, the Longhorns now have three more turnovers than they forced all of last season. Individually, Earl Thomas now has five interceptions, only one fewer than the team had as a whole in 2008 and good enough to tie for the national lead in that category. Apparently not content to allow his brother to recover all the fumbles, Emmanuel Acho joined the party with two fumble recoveries and would have had a chance at the fumble Thomas forced near the goalline had he broken down a little better instead of overrunning the football. Hey, at this point, if an Acho is around a loose football and doesn't recover it, it's a remarkable occurrence.
Curtis Brown and Deon Beasley, once regarded as the two least physical members of the entire defense, put hard hits on Oklahoma players to knock the ball out, with Beasley's play probably ranking as his best at Texas, though there really isn't much competition. Like Michael Huff and Aaron Ross before them, it's now time to say that Duane Akina has finally molded them into football players. At points last season, I wasn't sure that I would ever be able to say that about them.
Consider for a second the stats put up by Earl Thomas -- seven tackles, two for loss, three pass break ups, one forced fumble, and one interception. Thomas had huge expectations for growth entering the season and it's safe to say that he has fulfilled those expectations and perhaps even gone beyond them. His play on the interception was just beautiful -- he faked the blitz towards the line of scrimmage, then dropped back into coverage and showed off his excellent speed doing so. Kid is fun to watch and it will be a travesty if he doesn't win a Thorpe Award at Texas.
Speaking of which, he might end up with some serious competition from Aaron Williams, who recovered from the biggest mistake of his career, the missed tackle on the long touchdown by Ryan Broyles, by using his sick vertical leap to catch a pass that Landry Jones was trying to throw out of bounds. You can watch football for a long time and never see a more athletic pick than that. Oh yeah, and he also knocked the reigning Heisman winner out of the game. If Will Muschamp could engineer a nickel back, he would have a hard time making a more perfect player than Aaron Williams. Simply incredible.
It's easy to forget now how much the Longhorns had to replace on the defensive line losing four players who were essentially starters or major members of the rotation in Roy Miller, Brian Orakpo, Aaron Lewis, and Henry Melton. This group inside is playing about as well as you could ask -- even though Sergio Kindle doesn't have the gaudy sack numbers, every team slides their protection to his side of the field and he still makes plays, pressuring the quarterback and playing the running game so quickly and aggressively that he's able to consistently make plays up and down the line of scrimmage. The player that he has become in the last season and a half makes his usage through his first two seasons at Texas all the more criminal. Shame on you, Gene Chizik, Larry Mac Duff, and Duane Akina.
Sam Acho's play on the other side deserves plaudits as well -- he has made the jump predicted in his first season lagging heavy snaps. Then there's the interior of the line, supposedly a major weakness. Remember that? Seems so long ago, doesn't it, since we were all wringing our hands about the defensive tackle position? Lamarr Houston has been unbelievable and Ben Alexander continues to play extremely well in his last season on the 40 Acres. Kheeston Randall has held his own, but now has at least three roughing the passer penalties on the season and that needs to stop. Like, yesterday. Oscar Giles and Mike Tolleson both deserve a raise after the job they have done with this group. Phenomenal.
Tracking: special teams. The special teams may not have scored a touchdown on Saturday, but they sure worked hard at it. Deon Beasley's forced fumble along the sideline nearly led to a scoop and score by Malcolm Williams, but I still have no idea how the officials ended up determining that it was Texas ball at the OU 18. As mentioned below, the field goal kicking was perfect from Hunter Lawrence and the rubgy punt was much more effective this week from Justin Tucker, who did not kick the ball left-footed during the game.
Of his eight punts on the day, Tucker put three inside the Oklahoma 20 yardline and averaged 45 yards per attempt, including one 60-yarder. The concern is that he's having trouble consistently getting the ball to fall in front of opponents to get that good roll he consistently got last season, which creates another problem -- with the low, line-drive nature of the punts, it's easy to out-kick the coverage, especially if the punt travels 40 or more yards in the air. That precise scenario allowed Dominique Franks to return a punt 30 yards to midfield. After a week of evaluating whether to stick with the rugby punting or return to using John Gold, Brown clearly made the philosophical decision to stick with Tucker and that simply may be the way that Texas continues to punt in the future.
The return game was not as effective as it has been, with Shipley picking up negative yardage on his two punt returns and DJ Monroe failing to break off any long plays on his three returns. On the positive side, Antwan Cobb returned a sky kick 18 yards and Monroe was effective, averaging 25 yards a return, certainly enough to give the Longhorns the good field position they enjoyed for most of the day.
The Sooners made the smart decision to block Marquise Goodwin when punting, but Aaron Williams came free on the edge and nearly blocked the first attempt of the day. Good to see him return to action in that capacity. On the other side, the Longhorns covered kicks as well as they have this season, holding Mossis Madu to only 21 yards per return on the day.
Overall, it's clear that the Sooners have worked hard in the last year to shore up their kick coverage and did a passable job by not allowing any long returns by Jordan Shipley or DJ Monroe. However, it's equally clear that Texas will continue to win the special teams phase of the game if the Longhorns can continue to cover kicks and get good production of Justin Tucker rugby punting. And it should be a major relief to Texas fans that Hunter Lawrence proved himself so capable on such a pick stage. Way to go, kicker.
Randomness. Let's do this bullet-style.
- The game plan running the football was excellent against Oklahoma with some actual misdirection and using DJ Monroe in motion on the jet sweep. Kudos to the coaching staff. The plan in the passing game? Not so much.
- Recently, PB asked me about where I would rank this Texas defense and after that performance against Oklahoma, it has to rank right up there with 2005, but this team even seems to have a few more playmakers on it. Another performance like that against Missouri and I might be inclined to put them in front of that excellent 2005 unit.
- Fozzy Whittaker won the Hard Hat award this week after crashing into Thomas following a personal foul committed by Oklahoma. Mack Brown said that the team had a good laugh about that at the meeting.
- How clutch was Hunter Lawrence? Anyone who has watched teams like South Florida over the years knows that field goals of over 40 yards are far from gimmes in the college game and Lawrence nailed identical 42-yarders. You can bet that Bobby Petrino would have sacrificed one of his children to have someone that consistent against Florida this weekend.
- Blake Gideon missed six tackles by himself against Oklahoma. Christian Scott let his team down terribly by failing to remain eligible and I wonder how his teammates will accept him back next season, assuming that he makes progress academically -- will it be hard for them to trust someone who left them hanging with his own selfishness?
- Why has the offensive line been such a disaster in the first half of so many games, only to respond with sometimes-dominant performances in the second half? I love the ability to finish, but why the consistently poor play early?
- You may have heard rumors about OU still sucking. Absolutely true.