The outcome was: exceptional. Heading into this game, I felt good about Texas' chances, but I figured the 'Horns wouldn't pull away until the 4th quarter, when the difference between the two defenses would be most pronounced. Instead, for the second straight week the outcome was all but decided by halftime. Not only did Texas's score with 9 seconds left in the half give them a commanding 24-7 lead, but the touchdown was a beautiful 11-yard strike to Malcolm Williams in the back of the end zone.
Maybe best of all, the 'Horns didn't win 41-14 on the back of a "perfect performance" or anything like that -- Texas was just the better team, with the better roster, and with sufficient depth of excellence that even on a "merely good" day, the 'Horns blew out Oklahoma State on their own field.
If we say that this season contains three big goals -- winning the Big 12, getting to Pasadena, and winning the national title -- tonight's performance was tremendous in service of the first two; with the win, Texas is in commanding position to get to both the Big 12 title game and, assuming no truly monumental upsets, the national title game. After the jump, where this week's Postgame React focuses on the less-than-great aspects of tonight's performance, the motivation will be to think about how to achieve that third goal. The current version of the Longhorns can and should win the remaining games on the schedule; but even if they do, beating a team like Florida is a different story altogether.
The Offensive MVP was: Colt McCoy (16-21 passing, 171 yards, 1 TD; 11 rushes, 34 yards; 0 turnovers). If the early season offensive struggles were equal parts Bad McCoy, Bad Greg Davis, and Bad Offensive Line, the past two weeks have been a great sign that the quarterback portion of the problem is behind us. He threw two incompletions that were simply bad throws of his own fault, but the other three were the result of pressure/nowhere to go; the other 16 passes were, of course, completions.
McCoy's 10.7 average yards per completion and 8.6 per attempt were markedly up from the rank pile of mess we were seeing early in the season, his distribution is improved, and his scrambling/decision-making on the fly is once again providing a big boost to an offensive system that depends upon it. If we take away the 2nd quarter blindside sack for a loss of 10 yards (identical, by the way, to the Austen English sack that resulted in a fumble -- pretty clearly a problem with our blitz pick up scheme), McCoy's legs chipped in an important 44 yards rushing, while at other times his scrambling was enough to avoid costly sacks, or to buy his receivers time to drift open. When your offensive design is as pedestrian as is the current Texas model, success literally depends on the quarterback's ability to make yards on broken plays. I think it too charitable to call that part of the "grand design" of the offense -- McCoy's strengths could be similarly leveraged, but in a systematic way, as opposed to serving a rescue function -- but things being what they are, it's good to see that Texas has succeeded in getting McCoy back to being McCoy.
Alongside the scrambling playmaking, the two things I most liked about McCoy's performance were the improved distribution and, not unrelated, the increased willingness to throw the deep ball. Eight games in, we've now seen why McCoy-to-Shipley can be both problematic and an enormous asset: as a near-exclusive element of the passing attack, the tendency can be troublesome, but when, as tonight, McCoy-to-Shipley is simply the highlight of a more comprehensive passing distribution, the value is easy to appreciate. While Shipley's team-best 6 catches were incredibly important, the evening easily could have turned out to be a bittersweet one had McCoy not also found a half dozen other receivers -- none more important than the two completed to Malcolm Williams: the 11-yard touchdown before half and a 44-yard gain early in the third. Both were good throws but made for difficult catches, and if along with getting Good Colt back there is any single offensive bright spot on which to focus, it's surely that Texas looked to its enormous split end down the field, and on both occasions he came through. My cries to move Shipley back to the slot were in part about how best to use the Roommate, but the other big focus was the potential upside of Williams succeeding at split end. Things are looking up.
The Offensive offensive LVP was:. I don't want to spend too much time on this today, since the offense is improving overall, there are several trends to like, and so forth. See above. However, it'd be intellectually dishonest not to say a few words about certain aspects of the offensive approach.
To his credit, Davis correctly thought that McCoy could exploit the Cowboys' zone defense both through the air and with his feet; to that end, the five-wide, empty set playcalling was not entirely senseless. That being said, there's an obvious and important difference between timely using such a formation as a component of a broader game plan and, as we saw tonight, exclusively deploying the formation for entire drives at a time -- the former is a strategic deployment, the latter a pretty sad concession that there exists nothing else of value in the offense that could allow for well-rounded-ness. Put another way, while the five-wide, empty backfield stuff had its value as a weapon with which to attack OSU, that Davis went with it so early, so often was a depressing confirmation either that Texas doesn't possess the ability to execute in the running/play-action game, or that Greg Davis is simply disinterested in it altogether. In either case, the culprit is the OC.
What frustrates me the most is the overwhelming evidence that the problem is primarily Greg Davis disinterest. If Texas was simply grossly incompetent, it'd still be on Davis but there would at least be the silver lining that such knowledge could be helpful to optimizing a game plan. However that is not what appears to be the case here: for one thing, there is reason to believe that Texas can run the football with modest success, certainly enough to be useful and off which play action can be utilized. Moreover, just when it looks like Greg Davis may have abandoned the run altogether, he haphazardly turns to it at predictably inopportune times. Call it the Token Run Play game plan -- limit your offensive package with disproportionate passing, and then make the challenge even harder by wasting a dozen plays a game on token rush plays called at the wrong time, and to which you're not meaningfully committed.
With Good Colt showing up this week, the offense had enough punch to be solid, but again, to the extent the goal is to win the national championship, the obvious concern has to be whether it will succeed against another elite defense. If Good Colt shows up, and if Texas continues to get more from its full set of receivers (Williams especially), it might be just enough to win alongside a dominant performance from this defense. For Texas' title chances to be greatest, however, the offensive approach will need to evolve and improve between now and January. After tonight, I'm convinced what we see is what we're gonna get; any meaningful recalibration would be a pleasant surprise.
The Defensive MVP was: All. No fair to single out any one or two guys when the entire unit stepped up to deliver such a thrilling performance -- all told, 4 picks, 1 fumble, and 2 touchdowns scored, while limiting the Cowboys to about 3 yards per play while the outcome was still in question.
The secondary will get most of the attention for this one, but hopefully fans noticed just how good was Texas' defensive line for most of the game. Sergio was Sergio, but my lunch pail would go to Kheeston Randall for his brilliant first half -- whether blowing up double teams, destroying any semblance of an inside running lane, or making Robinson throw the ball a half-second sooner than he wanted, Randall's impact was outstanding.
Moving back from the line, Texas got its best game of the year from its linebacking corps, who were physical in the run game and disciplined in support of the passing attack. Muckelroy was a human missile, Keenan Robinson was a bull, and Emmanuel Acho was just plain unfair -- he's going to put up junior-senior seasons that would make Derrick Johnson proud.
Finally, then, the secondary -- last year's goats not only aren't giving up anywhere near as much yardage, but are, as a second-year unit, turning the ball over at an amazing pace. Four more picks tonight for the DBs, with one each from Curtis Brown (TD), Earl Thomas (TD), Chykie Brown, and Blake Gideon. So long as Aaron Williams' injury doesn't linger, his absence tonight gave Texas fans a nice chance to see how far along Nolan Brewster has come; the sophomore safety knew what he was doing out in coverage and was encouragingly physical in run support (still a weakness for Blake Gideon).
The offensive Defensive LVP was: Oklahoma State receivers. Just a quick reminder that football is about preparation, and football is about execution, but it's also a bit about plain old luck, too. A year ago, Texas caught very little luck -- be it the brutal schedule, the Gideon gimme, or the terrible outcomes from other games that hurt the 'Horns in the BCS. This tear's team is better, but also to this point a good bit more fortunate: the schedule has been helpful (including, especially, the move of the Tech game), Texas won the Red River Shootout despite the offensive no-show (thanks, in large part, to two dropped pick-sixes by OU defenders and a game-saving tackle by Colt McCoy), and now last night in Stillwater, an early assist from Oklahoma State's receivers, whose bumbling first half performance spared the Longhorns the pressure of another tight contest in the early going.
This is not to say that the Texas defense was lucky, or the team's win fortunate... Just a nod to Lady Luck, who has to this point in 2009 smiled kindly upon the Longhorns. It can only help.
On the Milk Carton: Rushing the football. Because of the Shipley fumbled punt and the Curtis Brown run-back for a score, Texas only had four offensive drive in the first half, but as discussed above, the effort to rush the football was sparse and sporadic. On the team's opening drive Davis passed his way down to the red zone before token running his way into a field goal; the three-and-out second drive included one rush for a loss of three yards; the third drive opened with three straight pass plays, before 4 of the drive's final 6 plays were called rushes (Texas' first touchdown drive of the game); the fourth and final drive of the half was all passes in the two-minute drill.
Let us pray that this week's overwhelming number of five-wide, empty set formations were mostly about Davis thinking he could particularly drill an OSU weakness with them; the game's rhythm being what it was, the sample size of offensive drives when the game was in question was notably small. There's not much to dislike about a 41-14 win, but for the reasons discussed at length above, the five-wide, empty backfield as a primary emphasis of the offense has concerning long-term implications.
Central Florida Fear Factor: 2 out of 10. (5) is the baseline. +1 for Texas's potential to start flat from being in letdown mode; -1 for the near-certainty that any flat start could be overcome; -1 for the home field; +1 for UCF's defense looking respectable so far this year; -3 for Texas' defense looking like one of the two best in the country.
Heading into next week I feel: Excited. At the very least, Texas is a very good flawed team that has an excellent chance to battle through the rest of the regular season undefeated. At best, Texas is a great team coming into its own -- already there on defense, and with time to work on optimizing the offense.
Either way, the nightmare scenario is behind us (I was fearing my ability to blog the rest of the season after a loss to OU or OSU) and the season's three big goals are all very much in play and, increasingly, within reach. I'll drink to that...