Simplified running game makes progress. Cody Johnson may have had only the second 100-yard rushing game of his career, but the big story coming out of the victory over Baylor was the job of the offensive line. Before going into that, let's get one thing out of the way -- Baylor is not a good team at stopping the run. They rank 89th in the country at stopping the run; UConn gained 235 yards against them and Iowa State had 240, while even Kent State averaged well over six yards a carry against the Bears. So yeah, they're not any good.
However, several things were heartening about the running game, starting with Johnson. Though he doesn't always hit the hole as hard as he could and keep his legs driving on contact, Johnson did make his normal yards after contact and did avoid dancing around in the backfield. On a day the coaches wanted to give him 15-20 carries, Johnson responded with 109 yards on his 19 attempts, without ever looking like he tired as the game went on. Losing 20 pounds and getting into the best condition of his time at Texas has really helped him
More impressive, however, was the work of the offensive line. Even against much weaker units like the Colorado defensive line, the unit struggled, but the big guys in the trenches for Texas had one of their best performances of the season, generally avoiding the individual meltdowns that have characterized nearly every other game this year. Greg Davis attributed the improved execution to focusing on specific plays during practice last week:
We said these are the runs that we're going to focus on - weak side zone play, the counter play, the one back power and they really came out and did a good job. Across the board I thought Adam Ulatoski, Charlie Tanner, Chris Hall, Michael Huey and Kyle Hix along with Greg Smith at tight end really came up big and gave Cody and Tre' some great creases to get the ball into the secondary.
While the zone and the counter have been staples for some time, the most interesting play they worked on was the power, a downhill, man-blocking running play extremely popular in the NFL and college football. Without going through and charting every single running play, from what I recall the Longhorns ran the power mostly out of the jet tempo and from under center, although I do remember one instance of a guard pulling on a gun run that might have been the power. The consistent execution was impressive and giving the offensive line a chance to drive blocks is a breath of fresh air -- there's something beautiful about seeing the line of scrimmage moved down the football field. There's also a strong chance that it helps their overall aggressiveness by giving them a chance to fire off the ball.
Besides the execution, the effectiveness of the jet tempo was also a major positive from the game, as the production from those plays had decreased drastically throughout the season. Since FSN managed to catch only brief parts of most of those plays, it's hard to say exactly what worked so well, but breaking tendency at times in recent weeks surely helped. Davis said this week that there are only a handful of passing plays they can run since they have so little time to call the play before getting the snap off and that group of plays changes every week, but as long as they can bootleg and throw enough screens to keep the defense from selling out on the run, the jet tempo may continue to be effective, particularly as a way to add some drive blocking to the Texas offense.
Defense failed to finish. One of the first things that Will Muschamp mentioned after the game was that the second- and third-team players who gave up the two late touchdowns to Baylor did a disservice to their teammates by not finishing the game well. For young players, every repetition is important on the field, regardless of the score. In fact, since they are trying to earn more playing time, they should approach those plays with every bit of the intensity of the starters. Unfortunately, the end of the game was characterized by sloppy tackling and some missed assignments. Muschamp talks about having a lunchpail, hard-hat mentality throughout the entire game and the back ups played reasonably well, but didn't finish in the same way that they did against UCF, when they rose up to keep the Knights out of the end zone late.
The back ups who came into the game owe it to their teammates to finish games well because the final score reflects on the starters as much as it does on the back ups. For a team trying to stastically rank as the best defense in the country, the two touchdowns scored count against the starters in terms of perception, as most of the members in the national media won't realize that Baylor didn't score until late in the game. In recent weeks there has been more talk about the strength of the Texas defense, but it still lags behind Florida and Alabama in national perception and 47-0 looks a lot better than 47-14.
It's also disappointing because those players are only an injury or two away from having to contribute. Since there aren't many games left in the season, that's less of a concern right now than it would have been early in the season, but the fact remains that Ben Wells is a couple nicks away from having to play meaningful snaps in the secondary and he clearly isn't ready, despite the fact that he's one of the hardest hitters on the team. The defensive tackle position is even a bigger concern, as Tevin Mims and Tyrell Higgins aren't ready and they are probably only one injury away from having to take some snaps with Calvin Howell still sidielined after his concussion.
The bottom line is that the coaching staff expects all the players to play to a standard for 60 minutes every Saturday and the defense didn't do that. The coaching staff expects players to finish the game and they didn't do that. Is it unrealistic to expect that the back ups for Texas can stop the first team for Baylor? Given the fact that Texas recruited very few of those players, the answer is no.
Tracking: playmaking defense. The Acho brothers. Talk about a feel-good story -- it's just hard to overappreciate what those two smart, articulate, and mature young men bring to the Texas football program. Blessed wtih immense physical skills, it's their understanding of the mental part of the game that sets them apart. Matched against a wide receiver on Saturday, Emmanuel recognized the route, jumped it, and intercepted the first pass of his collegiate career. Earlier in the game, matched against Kendall Wright, probably the single most talented player on the Baylor team after Robert Griffin, Acho ran stride for stride with him across the middle of the field and forced an incompletion. Given his high level of play this season, his missed tackle on Baylor's last touchdown was a huge surprise. As for Sam, he continues to play with an incredible motor, hustling downfield to make the stop on a pass play and coming from his defensive tackle position to force the fumble on the speed option Baylor tried to run on third and long late in the first half. More so than almost any other players on the defense, the Acho brothers have had the awareness to strip the ball free.
Then there's Aaron Williams. The kid is so good he has to pray for opposing quarterbacks to test him. After Baylor marched down the field on their first drive, Williams demonstrated why he has had so few balls thrown his way. With Muschamp bringing max blitzes on second and third down, Baylor anticipated the blitz and called a blitz beater on the first play and a man beater on the second. On the first, Williams broke up the slant in the end zone and on the second, ran stride for stride on the corner route before showing his athleticism by leaping to make a touchdown-saving interception. Later, Williams broke up another pass on the only other time Nick Florence tried to test him. I love me some Aaron Williams and he proved on Saturday why no one wants to throw at him.
As great of a story as the Acho brothers are, the story of perseverance by Eddie Jones is almost as unique and inspiring. Sidelined with ankle and shoulder injuries throughout most of his first two seasons, there were rumors late in the summer that he might never step on the football field for Texas. Given his injury history, that didn't seem like a stretch. Well, Jones is back and is finally fulfilling his five-star promise. In the fourth quarter against Baylor, Jones saw the offensive tackle in front of him attempt a weak chop block and read the flare pass into the flat, stepping in front of it and showing off his speed by taking the interception 60 yards for the touchdown -- Jones is good enough to start at defensive end for any other team in the country.
Since Texas is intercepting just about every possible pass now, the only area for improvement is forcing more fumbles. The Acho brothers are stripping the ball well, but other players just aren't quite taking the techniques that they work on in practice and transferring them to the game. One play stands out in particular -- on Chykie Brown's cornerback blitz, he had a free shot at the unsecured football, but never attempted to strip it as he brought Florence down, leading Duane Akina to yell for him to strip the football from the sidelines. There aren't many areas in which the defense can improve, but forcing more fumbles is one of them.
Tracking: special teams. Welcome to the block party, Kenny Vaccaro. The biggest question on special teams after Curtis Brown picked up his block against Missouri was who would become the next player to join the block party. Vaccaro was one of the names I threw out there and he made it happen against Baylor, partially deflecting a punt to set up a short field for the Longhorns and take a 28-0 lead. Not only that, but his work on special teams continues to be excellent, as he made another tackle inside the 20. An unsung hero on the kickoff coverage team is fullback Aaron Smith, a walk on who has done more to deserve a scholarship than several players who have a free ride at Texas and is consistently around the football on kickoff coverage after greatly helping the unit last season when he got on the field.
The kickoff return game was not particularly impressive, as DJ Monroe had a 27-yard return in what will be last effort there for some time, while Malcolm Williams was only able to get 16 yards on his return. The coaches need to go back and look at the return game this week in an attempt to figure out what is keeping Texas from breaking the same type of long returns they enjoyed early in the season. Jordan Shipley, on the other hand, had his best day returning punts since the Colorado game, taking one back 25 yards and another 11-yard return. With Monroe's suspension, he will once again return kickoffs.
Hunter Lawrence continued his campaign for the Lou Groza Award with his clutch field goal before the half, though it could hurt him that he hasn't had to win any games late. Of course, his performance against Oklahoma was the difference between the Texas victory and a devastating loss, so that will definitely help his candidacy. With the wind at his back, Justin Tucker kicked two balls into the end zone for touchbacks against Baylor and he also made a tackle at the end of a 35-yard Baylor return. The punting game was not as impressive, though, as Tucker continues to struggle killing kicks inside the 10 yardline and John Gold, in his first early appearance in some time, kicked a ball well into the end zone with an opportunity to give Baylor a long field. In the end, it makes more sense to use Gold with a long field where he can use his big leg to boom punts than to have him try to punt it inside the 10, a skill at which Tucker's rugby punt should be much more successful.
- Kenny Vaccaro can lay the wood, as he knocked 200-pound Baylor receiver Ernest Smith back about 10 yards on a fourth quarter hit, earning himself the weekly Hard Hat Award in the process. With the depth in front of him, he may not get a lot of time at safety next season unless Earl Thomas leaves or he can beat out Nolan Brewster, but Vaccaro will contribute significantly before his Texas career is over.
- Marcus Davis can lay the wood as well and looks like an extremely sure and physical tackler. He's probably not as far along as a freshman as Aaron Williams was last season, but it's hard to tell because Davis hasn't had to play as Williams did -- but even in limited action, it looks like Davis has the chance to be the next great nickel back at Texas.
- After coming under fire last season for his hands, EBS hadn't dropped any passes this year. Until Saturday, that is. On the second possession of the game, Smith dropped a third-down pass that would have gone for a third down and extended the drive. Instead, the Longhorns went three and out. Then, on the last possession of the first half, he had a ball go through his hands and was lucky that it deflected to a waiting James Kirkendoll for an important gain to set up Hunter Lawrence's 41-yard field goal. It wasn't exactly a Peter Ullman volleyball set, but it was the worst performance in the passing game for EBS this season and it sets him back in his efforts to lose his nickname. With the two dropped passes, he now needs to score two touchdowns or have a 30-yard reception (up from one touchdown or a 25-yard reception) to rid himself of the EBS label. The good news is that he continues to be a major factor in the resurgence of the running game, so he is a very good Extra Blocking Surface.
- Um, where was Malcolm Williams? The big receiver barely saw the field against Baylor, mostly in favor of John Chiles, who played early and often and failed to get out of bounds on the drive before the end of the first half, costing Texas a shot at the end zone and then dropped a third-down catch that would have given Texas a first down midway through the third quarter. The coaches are clearly working hard to give Chiles every possible chance, but the fact remains that Williams gives Texas the better chance to break a big play in a possible national championship game and needs the repetitions more than Chiles.
- Dan Buckner saw him action at split end and just doesn't look explosive enough for the position -- he's probably going to remain at flex tight end until he improves his burst off the ball and after the catch. However, he still has the best hands on the team, as evidenced on his 22-yard snag on the first possession to convert a 2nd and 17 and his one-handed catch to convert a 3rd and 6 in the second quarter.
- Kheeston Randall and Ben Alexander continue to play exceptionally well on the interior of line, as well as Lamarr Houston, who is close to becoming the same type of disruptive force that Roy Miller was last year. He doesn't quite have the same pure strength, but he's probably quicker. On the third-down play that set up the fourth-down stop of Nick Florence on the quarterback sneak, Houston engaged the Baylor offensive lineman, then threw him down to set up in the hole to stop the running back. Ridiculous. I mean, he literally just threw the guy to the ground. As good as Sergio Kindle has been this year, especially in stopping the run, Texas will probably miss Houston more because he won't be as easy to replace.
- The Texas linebackers gave a look at what a post-Muckelroy future will look like, performing admirably in the game, paritcularly Dustin Earnest, who is now contributing at a level most probably thought wasn't possible after his first two mediocre years in the program. His fourth-down stop of Florence was particularly critical in the game.