Flavor of the Week at running back: Cody Johnson. After the game against Missouri, I speculated that the Flavor of the Week award was possibly nearing retirement with Fozzy Whittaker and Cody Johnson seemingly entrenched as the preferred one-two punch of the coaching staff. However, after another game of punishing, physical running by the 240-pound Johnson, the bruiser from Waller is now listed ahead of Fozzy Whittaker in their co-starter relationship.
The coaches are increasingly emphasizing consistent running, keeping the offense ahead of the chains by picking up positive yardage on every play. With Johnson's ability to break tackles and a slimmer figure that helps maximize his speed, the coaches believe that he provides the team with a greater ability to grind out that positive yardage. No doubt the coaches are looking ahead towards a possible national championship appearance against a strong defense, a game in which the Longhorns may have to run the ball effectively not only to run, but also to hold any late lead may have.
This weekend, Central Florida, ranked ninth in the country in run defense and giving up only 3.56 yards per carry, provides a stiff test for Johnson this week and may determine whether he earns the starting job or if the coaches return to using Whittaker early in the game and then turning to Johnson to spell the smaller, speedier back.
Tracking: special teams. Kenny Vaccaro. Kenny f'ing Vaccaro. Wow. The true freshman for Brownwood, perhaps better known for throwing punches than for his contributions on the field, earned his scholarship against Oklahoma State covering kicks. Vaccaro made tackles on the first two Texas kickoffs and provided a hit on another that allowed his teammates to rally to the football and stop Perrish Cox. On Oklahoma State's best run of the night, Vaccaro was in position to make the play, but should have drawn a penalty when he was clearly pushed in the back. The kickoff coverage has been much improved since the Colorado game and the addition of Earl Thomas to the unit has made an impact, but nothing has been larger than Vaccaro's return to the lineup. If his work on special teams is any indication of his ability as a safety, he could be a major contributor sooner rather than later. With Vaccaro's help, Texas now ranks a respectable 38th in the country in covering kicks.
Hunter Lawrence continues to be excellent kicking field goals, having missed only two all season -- the 52-yarder that came up just short against UTEP and the blocked kick against Colorado. He hasn't had to kick a game winner yet this season, but there seems little doubt at this point that he is up to the task. Way to finally earn that scholarship, buddy.
On the negative side of things, Jordan Shipley made a terrible decision to attempt to advance the first Oklahoma State punt, fumbled the ball and took a brutal hit in the process. It was the first really poor decision he has made on special teams, but the bigger problem may be the poor work blocking of the punt return unit. On the play, the coaches called for the punt return, but two Oklahoma State players got down the field and into position to stop Shipley -- he had no chance on the play. In fact, since the touchdown return against Colorado, Shipley has three returns for -4 yards.
Since then, Texas blocked a punt against Missouri that Malcolm Williams recovered in the end zone -- it may be that the coaches need to try to block more kicks earlier in the game to slow down the opposing coverage units by making them stay in longer to block. The benefit is that even if Texas doesn't block the kick, it may set up a better return later in the game. Shipley fair catches plenty of punts anyway, as he should, so there is basically little to no risk and great opportunities for reward if the Longhorns go after more kicks early in the game. Mack Brown clearly has a lot of trust in his sixth-year senior, but may have to listen to Duane Akina when he requests more opportunities to go after the punter.
Tracking: playmaking defense. Some time in the Wyoming game, Curtis Brown became a football player with a vicious form tackle on a screen pass. Then, in the Colorado game, he blocked the punt near the goalline that Williams recovered, earning a coveted membership in the block party. Against Oklahoma State, he finally converted his great positioning in coverage into his first career interception, which he returned 77 yards for a game-changing touchdown and effectively finishing off the Cowboys in the second quarter. The shy kid from Gilmer with the tough background had transformed himself from an exceptional athlete playing football into a bona-fide playmaker and tough football player worthy of playing on Sundays. What a transformation and congratulations to the kid -- it's been beautiful to watch.
Of course, Brown wasn't the only player to return an interception for a touchdown. Lined up as the nickel back, Earl Thomas showed man coverage on the slot receiver, but, with safety help over the top from Blake Gideon, was really pattern reading and jumped the slant run by the Oklahoma State flanker and took it 31 yards for a touchdown to end any hope at all of a Cowboy comeback. Will Muschamp mentioned at some point this season that Thomas has worked hard to not only understand the total defensive philosophy on each play, but also to understand opposing offenses and no play better illustrates that incredible jump than his pick six last weekend -- he baited Robinson into throwing that pass.
The interception was the sixth on the season for Thomas, good for second in the country and a play that vaulted him into strong consideration for the Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back. After the game, Mack Brown relayed the story of how the coaches tried to get him to come out of the game after he tweaked his knee in the collision that sidelined Aaron Williams for the rest of the game, but Thomas simply turned his back on them and walked away, unwilling to leave the field. At this point, his play has moved beyond superlatives.
Remember when it seemed like Blake Gideon couldn't catch the football to save his life? It wasn't that long ago -- in fact, Gideon picked off his first career pass against UTEP barely more than a month ago and has since added three more to tie for ninth in the country. The problem for Gideon has never been being in position, but he has made the leap to know making plays -- good for him. He also recovered an early forced fumble.
That forced fumble brings us to Sam Acho -- seemingly tired of only recovering fumbles, the elder Acho finally forced one, stripping the ball from Hubert Anyiam after an excellent hustle play catching up with the Oklahoma State receiver downfield on a slip screen. Even though the Texas defense forced two fumbles against Oklahoma and benefited from a poor quarterback/running back exchange to recover another against the Sooners, Texas had not had a defender strip the ball loose since Emmanuel Acho took advantage of poor ball security by Tech running backs on several plays. Stripping the football loose remains a priority and talking point with the coaching staff and one of the few areas for improvement defensively.
Tracking: third down conversions. After ranking third in the country last season by converting 54% of their third downs, there seemed little change the Longhorns could match that number again this season, particularly after converting so many third and longs in 2008. Texas has indeed fallen off the ridiculous pace of last season, converting 44% this season, a number that is somewhat unhelpful given that they have only played one close game the whole season, but still good enough for 31st in the country.
Against Oklahoma State, the Longhorns converted five of 12, good for 42%, slightly lower than their season average. That number includes two drives in the fourth quarter when the game was clearly out of reach. In the first half, Texas converted four of seven third downs, including two on the momentum-swinging touchdown drive just before the half.
On that drive, no play was bigger than McCoy rushing for 19 yards on a 3rd and 8 to move Texas deep into Oklahoma State territory and field goal range. On the previous drive, which went for a touchdown, Texas converted a 3rd and 11 when McCoy completed a 16-yard pass to Jordan Shipley on an out pattern perfectly fit between the cornerback and the safety by McCoy -- an excellent pass. The unheralded play in that sequence was a nine-yard scramble by McCoy on 2nd and 20 following Ulatoski's blown assignment that led to a sack, leading to the much more manageable down and distance.
Texas probably will not ever operate this season at the same almost impossibly high level of last season without reliable targets like Chris Ogbonnaya and Quan Cosby, but this season's team is certainly respectable in that category and the offense still seemingly has room to grow with four games left in the regular season. As the Longhorns head down the final stretch, if McCoy can develop the confidence to throw to receivers like Marquise Goodwin and Malcolm Williams on third down, the Longhorns could begin to at least approximate their production from last season and, therefore, begin to produce offensively at a much higher level than they have most of this season.
- Marquise Goodwin gained eight yards running the jet sweep in place of DJ Monroe and picked up seven yards against Oklahoma State. Monroe did not receive a carry in the game. Why the coaching staff doesn't run that play five times a game is beyond me.
- The sack numbers are not impressive for Sergio Kindle -- two fumble-forcing efforts against Texas Tech and UTEP, but those numbers do not even come close to telling the whole story. The senior defensive end/linebacker will be a top-15 pick this season because of his ability to play the running game and execute his assignments. The pass rush overall wasn't as effective as normal against Oklahoma State, but a big part of the reason was that Muschamp played Kindle more at linebacker, where he appeared responsible for the flat and had contain on Zac Robinson and the defensive line as a whole was more conscious than usual of maintaining their lane integrity.
- It's worth saying again -- Texas is an extremely dangerous team offensively when Colt McCoy runs the football.
- The Texas defense only missed three tackles on Saturday, a truly phenomenal number -- it's hard to ask much more than that.
- The linebackers were a key to the game and did an excellent job of making plays in the running game and keeping Oklahoma State from being able to utilize the screen game to Keith Toston. Emmanuel Acho probably turned in the best play, chasing Trevor Miller down the line of scrimmage on a jet sweep and stopping him for no game. Extremely impressive. I have a problem with Sonny Acho, though, and it's that he only had two boys. More, please.
- The two catches by Malcolm Williams were excellent and should have gone a long way towards complete earning the trust of Colt McCoy. His play could be the difference in a close game this season and it's great to finally see him on the field doing the things of which he is capable.
- The UCF game will be an interesting test for the Longhorns because they place so much emphasis on defending the football and defend the running game and sack the quarterback so well. In fact, after Oklahoma, the Knights might have the best defensive line Texas will face in the regular season -- the offensive line needs to show up ready to play and demonstrate that they can play well with everyone healthy. Avoiding missed assignments on the edge will be particularly important and represents a significant area of concern -- it would be an absolutely travesty to have McCoy get injured against a team overmatched in nearly every other area.