As mentioned in Sunday's Celebration and Reflection post, there is plenty of time for worrying about what went wrong against Nebraska and what could possibly go wrong against Alabama. In that spirit, here's a sunshine pumping edition of Morning Coffee focusing on the positives.
Eyes on the prize. For the Texas football team, there were three goals for the season -- winning the Big 12 South, winning the Big 12 championship game, and then making it to Pasadena to play for the national championship. With the weak schedule, each goal became absolutely necessary to reach the next. A loss in conference play might not have kept Texas out of the championship game for the Big 12, but it would have kept them from having a chance at Pasadena.
My oponent preview for The Eyes of Texas magazine this summer was entitled "Expect Perfection" -- that's been the narrative the entire season. In fact, that was the narrative even stretching back to last season, the reason why all that success seemed like such a bonus. Texas fans are famous for outsized expectations, but how could there be more pressure than for a fanbase to expect a berth in the national championship game for two full seasons? For anything less than perfection to be a monumental disappointment?
Even though this post will focus on the positives of the Nebraska game and future posts will analyze the numerous breakdowns, ultimately the eyes of Texas rest on the ultimate prize -- that crystal football. The parallels to the last Texas appearance in the Rose Bowl are significant and could grow even more pronounced if Colt McCoy loses the Heisman to Mark Ingram this weekend. Like USC, Alabama is highly favored in the game, with pundits across the country writing off the chances of the Longhorns, just as they did in 2005. Like the 2005 team, these Longhorns are led by an experienced quarterback, one of the greatest in the history of the program, and backed by defenses filled with future NFL players. The visit to Pasadena will seemingly complete the cycle, as McCoy will fulfill the trust that Vince Young put in him when Young told McCoy he would be the next quarterback at Texas before trotting onto the field to win the national championship. The symmetry is perfect, just like this season.
The bottom line is this -- in the only two close games this season, Texas found ways to win, the ultimate mark of a champion. There was no room for imperfection, the disappointment of a loss too great to even fathom. So they did not lose and now have a chance to win it all.
The clutch kicker. Throughout most of the season, the reliability of Hunter Lawrence seemed like a bonus, a luxury even -- just a way to keep putting points on the board even if the offense stalled on a long drive, the guy who would maintain momentum with his solid kicking. Against Oklahoma, he hit all three of his field goals, including twice from 42 yards, each kick crucial to the eventual win. For Texas fans, it was heartening -- proof that the kicker would be reliable in a big game in the distant future. Most believed that if Lawrence was going to kick a game-winning field goal, it would be on the biggest of stages in the Rose Bowl.
Except fate wrote a different script -- the struggling Texas offense, stymied all evening by Ndamukong Suh and a swarming horde of defensive backs, used two big Nebraska penalties to move into field goal range down by a single point, then nearly ran all the time off the clock because the four-year starter at quarterback didn't know that the clock doesn't stop on a ball thrown out of bounds until it hits something. Hardly a chip shot, the subsequent kick was the most pressure-packed of Lawrence's life. To top it all, the senior kicker would attempt the first game-winning kick of his collegiate career.
A miss would mean a lifetime of ignominy, known as the sorry kicker who cost the Longhorns a chance at a crystal football. A make would mean a place in Longhorn lore among the all-time greats, a lifetime of congratulations from strangers and free drinks at the bar. Only this wasn't a chip-shot field goal, it was a 46 yarder, a distance from which even the best kickers in the NFL are not automatic. Hell, the Redskins lost to the Saints this weekend because their kicker, now unemployed, shanked a 23 yarder, the type of kick random fans make at halftime promotions every weekend across the country.
Not only that, but the big Nebraska line stood in the way, responsible for five blocked kicks on the season, with Suh repsonsible for three himself. Perhaps cognizant of their position on the right side of the Texas line and despite kicking from the left hash, Lawrence angled the kick left, wide of the beefy hands raised to deflect it, to destroy the Texas title hopes. Left just far enough, but not too far, with just enough draw to bring it back right to sneak through the left upright with only inches to spare.
In the ensuing celebration, Lawrence found himself at the bottom of a exultant dogpile, then lofted on the shoulders of his teammates as the Longhorn nation let loose with a hearty exhale. Though the game may have ultimately been unsatisfying, there could be no doubt that Lawrence had proved his mettle in the most clutch of situations, making sure that if there is a next time for such a kick, it will be on the biggest of stages. And the anxiety for Texas fans will be much less pronounced -- after all, Hunter Lawrence has done this before.
Malcolm Williams and a double move. The big sophomore receiver didn't have a particularly high number of catches against Nebraska, but each of his three was important in the context of when they occurred -- the first catch, for 16 yards, picked up a first down to move Texas deep into Nebraska territory on the drive that resulted in the only touchdown of the game, the second catch came as McCoy was under pressure on the long drive that ended with Dejon Gomes taking the ball from Dan Buckner, and the final catch came on 3rd and 16 on the same drive with McCoy under pressure again. All three catches came with a defender in his face and all three were difficult. In pressure moments, Williams made the catches.
In a game when the Longhorn receivers had trouble getting separation, it was Williams who most consistently was able to beat press man coverage by getting inside releases on two of his catches. On the third, he paused in his stride and gave just enough of a shake to get the defender to bite on the hitch and, had McCoy had time to set his feet and deliver the ball downfield, beat the defender enough to pick up a huge gain on the play. The concern on the part of the Nebraska cornerbacks to match his physicality with physical play of their own also led to a pass interefence penalty, as the Husker corner had his hands on Williams trying to push him towards the sideline after McCoy had released the ball.
And it could have been an even bigger day -- Williams got behind a Nebraska defender on another third-down play, but McCoy threw the ball out of bounds, failing to give his open receiver a chance to make a play on the ball. Unlike the smaller Texas receivers, Williams is better suited to beating press coverage, using his strength to get off the line of scrimmage and when he does get an inside release, he can screen defenders with his size. When McCoy is under pressure, the ability to throw the football up for Williams to go get it makes him a security blanket for the senior quarterback almost on par with Jordan Shipley.
Shovel passes, quarterback draws, and a zone read. It was an astounding sight. On the second play from scrimmage, following a terrible chop block penalty on (one of two such terrible calls on the night), Greg Davis dialed up a shovel pass to Tre' Newton and it worked, picking up 25 yards, perhaps the first time in years that Davis not only called it at the right time, but that the Longhorns executed it correctly, with Hall getting downfield and delivering a block. Twice more Davis called the play and twice more it worked. Against a defense with aggresive defensive tackles trying to get upfield, using the shovel pass was some of Davis' best work in the game.
Likewise, with the Nebraska defensive tackles getting upfield and the linebackers either bailing out into coverage or not on the field at all, the quarterback draw was also an effective play for Texas, as McCoy scored the only touchdown of the game on the play and picked up positive yardage every other time the Longhorns called it with the exception of the final drive when the Texas was already in field goal range. Besides the shovel pass, one of the few other positive plays early in the game was a zone read McCoy kept for a 14-yard gain, but only called one other time. In fact, besides an eight-yard run by Newton, all the other runs of eight yards or more came from McCoy.
Looking back, Davis probably should have called the quarterback draw and used the zone read more often because the zone play and counter were not particularly effective in the game and power was only slightly better. One of the benefits of running the zone read is that the inside zone play becomes more effective because it puts doubt into the mind of the defenders, particularly the backside defensive end and linebacker and giving the offensive line better numbers and an extra combo block. Since Nebraska contained McCoy in the pocket on passing plays, the called runs were the only way use McCoy's legs and his legs were the most effective weapon for the Texas running game.
Playmaking defense. It's been a theme all season, so it's no surprise that the Texas defenders were able to make plays in big moments, particularly the secondary. The Nebraska offensive plan revolved around setting up play-action passes downfield with their running game and mixing in some screens, but the Longhorns never sold out to stop the run, instead controlling the line of scrimmage with the front four and strong play from Keenan Robinson, Roddrick Muckelroy, and Emmanuel Acho, while keeping the secondary back to take away deep passes.
On the first attempt downfield, Blake Gideon intercepted a Zac Lee pass thrown too far inside and with too much air under it. Then, after Nebraska blocked Justin Tucker's punt at the start of the second quarter, the Huskers took a shot at the end zone, but unfortunately decided to pick on, who intercepted another pass with too much air under it, perhaps keeping points off the board -- Nebraska needed only a handful of yards on that drive to reach field goal range. In the third quarter, Muckelroy's interception, only the second of his career, helped the Longhorns win the field position battle over the next several possessions that eventually led to a field goal, as Texas needed no more production than a 12-yard run from McCoy and a pass interference penalty to get into range.
Those were the big plays, that ones that show up in the box score as turnovers. However, there were other plays equally as important, ones that don't show up in the box score. At the start of the fourth quarter, Nebraska had the ball at the Texas 38 yardline, right at the edge of Alex Henery's field goal range -- he hit one early in the game from 52 yards that looked like it had enough distance to have been good from nearly 60. On second down, the Huskers went downfield to their best deep threat, Niles Paul, who had worked behindjust enough to be open. Lee finally delivered an accurate pass and Paul went up over Brown to make the catch. But just as he secured the football, Earl Thomas launched his body into the Nebraska receiver and jarred the pass loose, a play that might have saved the game for Texas. The type of play that only the best defensive backs in the country make. Still, Henery would have had a good chance at making the 55-yard field goal, but the Longhorns defense made another play on third down -- Keenan Robinson read the screen pass from the start of the play and beat a blocker to take down Rex Burkhead and knock the Huskers five yards back and out of field goal range, forcing a punt.
Then, the Nebraska offense got the ball at the Texas 10 yardline following the long punt return by Niles Paul, the defense stopped Burkhead twice and on third down Chykie Brown's defense was just good enough to force Brandon Kinne to catch the ball out of bounds. Nebraska kicked a field goal when a touchdown probably would have won the game.
With the offense providing the defense with almost no margin for error, the defense made no errors and came up with big plays with the game on the line. Without having to load the box, the front six and seven of the Texas defense stopped the downhill rushing game of Nebraska, holding the line and disengaging from blockers to make plays. Ben Alexander played more snaps than he ever has and effectively plugged the middle, while Sam Acho led the team in tackles. Nolan Brewster rebounded from a poor game against A&M to blow up two plays by submarining Suh -- excellent work by a safety taking on a big defensive tackle. And all that makes the struggles against A&M seem like a thing of the past.