Postgame React: Texas Overwhelms UCF 35-3

The outcome was: solid.  If it wasn't before, that an undefeated Texas will play for the national title is officially a certainty after Iowa's loss to Northwestern today. For Texas, then, the only "outcome" that matters is the scoreboard -- narrow wins, big wins, uneven wins, it's all the same in terms of getting to Pasadena. As such, the Horns' 35-3 win over UCF was plenty solid, enough to maintain the second or third spot in the BCS while waiting for SEC elimination to play out. Win, and they're in.

Beyond the victory, if you're eager to see Colt McCoy win the Heisman Trophy then today's outcome was satisfactory on another level as well. If Malcolm Williams had scored Texas' second touchdown instead of Cody Johnson, McCoy not only would have finished with 3 passing TDs instead of 2, but the reception would have been enough to put his total for the day above the 500-yard mark. As it was, the 470 yards set a school record for a regular season game (single-game record set by Major in the 2001 Holiday Bowl, at 473 yards passing), a gaudy number that -- in a wide open year for the award -- will give a big boost to a name familiar to voters. Neither he nor the offense were perfect on the day, but if over his final four games he puts up numbers anywhere near today's, he'll return to New York once again and have as good a shot as anyone to take the trophy.

The Offensive MVP was: The Roommates. We've already started to discuss McCoy's big day (33-46 passing for 470 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 INT), but there's no way to separate his production from Jordan Shipley, who finished with 10 receptions and a ridiculous 273 yards receiving, including an 88-yard touchdown in the final quarter. Shipley's big day not only shatters the university's single-game record for receiving yards, but improves his season totals to 74 catches and 1,050 yards. If he maintains his current pace Shipley will finish the 14-game season with 115 receptions and 1,516 yards, both of which would leave in the dust Texas' current single-season bests. Three notes on the duo's huge afternoon:

  1. Central Florida's secondary is awful. I say that not to discredit the stellar performance, but to wonder about the Longhorns' empty offensive first quarter, which was an example of opening the game content to "do what we do" rather than scheme to an opponent. To Texas' credit, after the second drive the usual offensive approach was discarded, Greg Davis started taking shots downfield, and the passing party was underway. What's more, I'm not sure about any larger point here, since a week ago I was greatly miffed by Davis' decision to open five-wide particularly to attack a perceived OSU weakness. I think, if anything, the lessons here might center on (1) our offense's standard operating procedure, which teams have been defending successfully since the start of the year, and (2) the encouraging results the offense has seen employing various adjustments to that core approach.

  2. Shipley's production today was a lot like that from the Colorado game, only this time around there's not much about the big day about which to be concerned. Recall that against CU, not only was McCoy-to-Shipley more or less the entire offensive production, but it more or less seemed the entire offensive focus. Not so today, when Texas -- though again paying only lip service to the running game -- featured a much more robust aerial attack that included roll outs, heavy play action, and multiple shots down the field (to multiple receivers). The Malcolm Williams breakout continues, Kirkendoll and Chiles are settling in to minor but helpful roles, and even when Marquise Goodwin isn't making receptions he's affecting the game with his speed, versatility, and superior blocking.

  3. While first and foremost developing diversity in the passing game was essential to countering that which defenses have been doing to frustrate what we wanted to do, there are rich secondary benefits to be had from evolving. Chief among them is the return of Texas' efficiency converting third downs, a healthy 55% over the last three games (22-of-40), up from 42.5% (34-of-80) through the season's first six games. The outstanding McCoy-to-Shipley connection is valuable to the offense in any case, but substantially more so when defenses have to commit resources elsewhere.

Quick hits on other highlights from offense:

* I really like how Colt McCoy is taking an active role in launching a Malcolm Williams breakout party. McCoy's near-touchdown strike to Williams was a great look on its own, but it was the way McCoy went right back to him on the next play that impressed me most. If this is something we wish had begun early in the season, the effort underway now appears genuine and ambitious.

* Other good signs in the passing game include steady niche production from Chiles and Kirkendoll. No longer miscast as a receiver with the ability to separate, Chiles is contributing nicely in the ways he's able, developing into a solid possession guy helpful to keeping defenses honest. As for Kirkendoll, he seems to have gotten his head in the right mental place after a mostly miserable start to the season. He's neither quite fast enough nor strong enough to do much with the underneath crossing stuff we run for him, but as a receiver to send out on a seam route he's plenty capable of finding space and making catches 15 yards downfield.

* Gotta love the effort Texas is getting from Big Cody, whose 10 carry, 44-yard stat line seems like it undersells his overall contributions. It's comical to send him out there for our zone stretch plays, but in all fairness, Barry Sanders would struggle to make yards on those plays, too. I still like Johnson in a situational role, even if that role is a relatively involved one; Johnson isn't a great fit as a primary guy in the zone read or pseudo-counter.

* Illustration by contrast: great a weapon as is Cody for various goal-to-go situations, Texas doesn't score that final touchdown if it's Johnson instead of Whittaker. Speaking of which, Fozzy was limited to just 4 carries on the game, 5 if you include -- as does the box score -- his ridiculous attempt to execute a flea flicker (the fumble of which wound up counting against him for -13 yards rushing). As middling as is our rushing scheme, I'd still like to see him touch the ball 10 times a game; as we've seen two of the last three weeks, he possesses the speed and slipperiness that allow him to get to the end zone where others will not.

* And finally, we're running a lot of play-action all the sudden, a welcome development. With that said, when Texas finds itself facing an elite defense, the play action won't sparkle like it does against terrible teams, unless the play fake is actually credible. We're still running the ball so haphazardly, and generally poorly, that elite defenses can and will be able to ignore the run game as insignificant -- enough so, at least, to scheme to ignore all play fakes and assume that whatever runs we do call won't pop us much, if at all. As noted above, part of the solution to a good defense sitting back on our passing game is to develop and diversify the passing attack itself, but I remain in the skeptics camp that there won't at some point be a price to pay if the offensive approach doesn't better and more systematically incorporate runs.

The offensive Offensive LVP was: The O-Line.  I've spent the better part of too many Saturdays this fall hammering out new variations on the same points, and I am at this point disinterested in continuing to do more of the same. This week, we keep it simple: the offensive line struggled in myriad ways, some of which is inadequacy of players, and some of which is inadequacy of coaches. In any case, well-established as are the various strengths and weaknesses of all involved, detailed analyses of substantial changes that might be made are at this point wishcasting. We are what we are as a running team, and I've limited my hopes in that regard to modest improvement in the way our mediocre rushing game is incorporated into a larger strategy, if only to assist the passing game. Beyond that, the story to watch is how far along Texas gets developing a truly dynamic passing attack, such that even an elite defense that can ignore our run will be challenged to deal not just with Shipley, but with Malcolm Williams and Marquise Goodwin. And so forth.

The Defensive MVP was: Lamarr Houston and Sergio Kindle. Nine tackles for Kindle, 7 for Houston, 3 tackles for loss apiece. Another opponent's game plan brutally disrupted by Texas' ferocious defensive line. There's a lot to love about Sergio Kindle, and if you're just watching him as a pass rusher, you'll miss it. To be sure, he's a good pass rusher right now, with an already great speed rush and, in my view, a lot of yet to be realized potential as he adds more upper body strength and some variety to his moves. It's easy to forget that he's still in some important ways relatively green. In any case, there's so much more to what he's giving us than pass rushing, and he's as likely to be the one blowing up a screen in the flat as a linebacker or defensive back. He plays with intensity you can't teach, which on the first series occasionally leads him to overpursue, once he settles into a groove and the game gets going, he's everything you could ask for in a college end.

As for Houston, I've made no secret about how much I love his abilities, over-zealously proclaiming prior to last season that I thought he could be the best player on the entire defense. In year two as an interior linemen, he might well be if not for the outrageous depth of elite excellence on this defensive roster. No one would be wrong to single out Earl Thomas or Sergio Kindle for top honors, but neither do I hesitate to place Houston right there alongside them. The play we're getting from Kheeston Randall and Ben Alexander has been tremendously valuable, but as much of it has to do with the jobs they're doing, a non-trivial amount of it has to do with Houston's dominant season. It's a damn shame he'll likely have to settle for Second Team All-Big 12.

Overall, there's not much to be said about today's defensive performance, given its dominance represents for this group par for the course. George O'Leary's squad did a nice job in the first half countering our pressure, but as has also become par for the course, Will Muschamp made decisive counter-adjustments in-game, shifting to more zone play and steady diets of both run and zone blitzes. After which the Golden Knights did absolutely nothing.

The offensive Defensive LVP was: N/A.  I may never answer this again.

On the Milk Carton: Dan Buckner. Briefly now, because I've already said far more about the game than I intended, I want to raise one final point about the haphazard commitment to running the football. One consequence of remaining disinterested in meaningfully committing to rushing the ball is that in so doing the Greg Smith > Dan Buckner proposition loses most, if not all, of its value. That is, if we're not even going to pretend to be interested in rushing, we'd might as well go with Buckner. Alternatively, if we intend at least to enjoy some benefits from conveying to defenses that we're interested in rushing, it's still not clear that there's any reason not to go with Buckner; sure, the run blocking might be a downgrade, but where we're only haphazardly running as a means to an end, and thus only minimally succeeding in any case, what's the real loss?

To the extent that the plan is either to ignore or only minimally engage the run, roughly the same could be done in the run game with Buckner as with Smith, while the benefits to the passing game are obvious. Of course, I'll say once more that the alternative to those two options is the one I'd prefer: meaningful commitment to running the ball not out of naive belief that it can be a centerpiece, or even a strength, but as an essential ingredient to the passing game being all it can be. We can all agree that Texas will or will not win the national title based on -- at least offensively -- what Colt McCoy does on the field for us. It is at this point well-established that the line between his being the focal point of the offense, and his being the only thing in the offense, is the line between the player who will at times struggle, and one who can win us a national title.

I hope we get it right.

Baylor Fear Factor: 0 out of 10. (5) is the baseline. -5 for no Robert Griffin.

Heading into next week I feel: Steady.  The team is in the ideal position we hoped it would be, the defense is a dream, and the offense has over the past three weeks begun to round into form -- if not yet to the point where I'll predict great success against Alabama or Florida, at least to the point where it's almost unimaginable the team could fail to reach Pasadena. 

For now, that feels good. It feels great, really. 95% of what a college football fan should care about relates to getting to the title game. The other parts related to maximizing your chance to win it are important for exactly the two teams who actually get there. Insofar as we're on track to give ourselves a chance, this season is at this point a success. We can at this point watch the next four games and, firstly, root for the wins to send us to the Rose Bowl, and second, from those performances spend an entire month talking about how well-suited we are to win it.

So long as we're having that debate in December, I'll be happy. And hopefully, I'll be, well, hopeful. So far, so good.

Hook 'em

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