Flavor of the Week at running back: John Chiles. After carrying the ball 20 times and finding the end zone for the second time in two weeks and landing himself atop the depth chart for the first time, Tre' Newton was a serious candidate to take this honor for the second week in a row. However, that's not how this things works. Fickle, remember?
That's why John Chiles lands in this spot for his cameo leading the WildHorn, the Texas answer to the Wildcat made famous at Arkansas by Darren McFadden and last season by the Miami Dolphins. It's the fad all across football at pretty much every level and the Longhorns are jumping aboard the bandwagon. On the incipient play of the formation, Chiles took a quarterback counter 33 yards and almost broke it the entire distance had he not taken a poor angle into a chasing defender. Trust your speed, Johnny C. The formation also produced a five-yard gain by DJ Monroe on a counter, a fumble on a poor snap by Chris Hall that Chiles should have handled anyway, and a completed reversempass to James Kirkendoll by Colt McCoy.
Mack Brown said on Monday that the formation is here to stay:
We want the ball in John's hands as much as we can get it. Every time he touches it in the running game in the past, he has made plays usually. Saturday night, I thought, he really jump started us offensively. He ran the quarterback counter and that was a read play and you have a 10.0 100-meter guy out there and you have John Chiles, who runs real fast at 200 pounds. It just gives you some extra weapons on the field. I thought the reverse pass was a good thought off of it, too. We'll continue to let part of the package grow and that's part of who we are because we will let Colt run it some, but it also takes the ball out of Colt's hands as a runner and lets John run, and we'll have some passes for John, too. We feel like that's better than the other package we had, so aptly named that it was dropped because John is doing more things that he is used to doing. Last year, we were trying to do things he was not used to.
Beergut questioned the difference between the WildHorn and the Q package and the last sentence provides Brown's thoughts on the matter. In the same post, I mentioned that I would like to see the Longhorns incorporate a jet sweep for DJ Monroe into the formation, a staple of the formation in Miami. Other options include Chiles throwing a pass to keep the defense honest, the zone read, and the speed option.
For a team still struggling at times in the running game, the WildHorn is the perfect formation to pick up yards on the ground, get the ball into the hands of playmakers, and put some serious pressure on the defense. Besides Kodi Burns at Auburn, there probably isn't another player in the country triggering the formation who is as much of a threat to pass the ball out of the Wildcat as John Chiles. Kudos tofor using the formation and giving the offense a spark.
A "work in progress?" Coming into the season, there were questions about the running game, the tight ends, and the defensive tackles, but few people found themselves spending time worrying about whether the offense was going to be able to move the football. Overall yardage isn't a a particularly strong measure of success, but the 340 yards of total offense gained against Tech represented the lowest output in total yards since 2007 KSU game, one of the low water marks of the last several years.
Mack Brown called the offense a "work in progress" after the game on Saturdya, a surprise considering the expectations surrounding the unit coming into the season. Last week, the major story was the conversation Mack Brown had with McCoy about having more fun, hoping that would help alleviate the slow starts by the offense over the first two starts. Unfortunately, McCoy got hit by the flu this week, according to Brown:
Practice is important and he didn't practice Tuesday. He was out there but didn't practice. He got very little done Wednesday. I thought at halftime, he had the shakes just a little bit because he hadn't eaten. He didn't feel good, and he was weak. They gave him stuff, some energy to help him, and I thought he settled down and played better the second half. I don't know.
The health problems explain the first half against Texas Tech, but not the first half of the other two games. Part of the solution may be speeding up the tempo earlier in the game:
We changed the tempo in the second half the other night. We probably should have started with a faster tempo and that would have helped. The first drive was good, but then we just kept getting stopped because you look and you have one guy here, one guy there, so you just challenge everybody to do better and be more consistent.
A faster tempo earlier in the game might help, but McCoy is also part of the problem. He often focuses in on Jordan Shipley and misses other open receivers. At other times, his mechanics break down and the ball sails on him, the case with both of the interceptions on tipped balls against Texas Tech. Sure, Malcolm Williams could and probably should have caught the second interception, but there's a reason quarterbacks are taught to keep the ball low when throwing over the middle of the field. It's hard to tell what the problem is mechanically, but McCoy needs to work hard on staying on top of the football this week. Another problem is his footwork, as he failed to step into a pass in the first half last week.
If defenses are going to keep two safeties deep and only six men in the box, the Longhorns must run the football more often and more consistently. In football it's hard to get betters numbers than that. Another adjustment is to run more intermediate routes and routes up the middle of the field, especially if a linebacker isn't retreating to cover the seam. That's a role for Buckner to exploit, but the Longhorns haven't used him down the field consistently, often keeping him underneath as a screen threat or check down option.
Until McCoy rediscovers his accuracy and the offensive line blocks well enough to force another linebacker onto the field or a safety up closer to the line of scrimmage, the Longhorns will probably continue to struggle against two deep safeties and seven or eight players dropped into coverage. Can Greg Davis make the proper adjustments?
Playmaking defense makes an appearance. Through the first two games, it appeared that Texas hadn't made progress in their off season goal of forcing more turnovers. Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon dropped interceptions and Aaron Williams looked like the only player really trying to knock the ball out on defense. That all changed on Saturday. Well, mostly. Earl Thomas could have intercepted one or two more passes and Aaron Williams had one hit his hands.
However, there were positive signs. The Longhorns sacked Potts three times, pressured him 10 times and got 23 hits on the Tech quarterback. More importantly, Texas forced five fumbles, recovering two. Emmanuel Acho forced two of them, with Aaron Williams forcing another and Eddie Jones and Sergio Kindle both stripping the ball on sacks. The Longhorns should have recovered the fumble forced Jones had Alex Okafor simply fallen on the ball instead of scooping it up and trying to run in for the touchdown. Sam Acho would have. Earl Thomas intercepted a pass that he nearly returned for a touchdown, but replays showed that his knee hit the ground as he caught the football.
Interceptions may continue to be hard to come by as land as the defensive backs show a general inability to catch the football, but there is potential for growth there with the secondary still being remarkably young. More heartening is the playmaking of Aaron Williams and Emmanuel Acho -- those two players seem to have a real knack for knocking the ball loose and if there has been one truth revealed by the first three games, it's that Sam Acho will be around the football once it ends up on the ground.
Tracking: first half third down conversions. A major reason why the Longhorns struggled to move the ball in the first half was the inability to convert third downs for a second straight week. After going five for 17 against Wyoming, Texas only converted three of eight third downs in the first half against Texas Tech. The first failed third down came on the first possession after Adam Ulatoski got beat on a speed rush by a defensive tackle playing defensive end out of necessity. Think about that for a second. Not good. On the second failed third down, McCoy rolled to his left and airmailed a pass over the head of an open John Chiles on a 3rd and 3 -- it should have been an easy pitch and catch.
The third failed third down found McCoy's footwork breaking down on 3rd and 11 and missing Kirkendoll on his check down, but the play wouldn't have gotten close a first down anyway -- the real problem came on the play before on an ugly play that might have been a zone read as Bront Bird took down McCoy in the backfield for a six-yard loss after a gain of four yards on first down. If the play was a zone read, McCoy should have handed off the ball because Bird crashed hard into the backfield. Whatever the case, the play was a complete disaster and put the Longhorns in a tough situation on third down.
The fourth failed third down came mostly as a result of the Chiles fumble on first down in the WildHorn that put the Longhorns behind the chains. Chiles made up for it on second down with a screen pass that he turned into a 10-yard gain with a couple of nice cuts and a spin, but McCoy tried to find Shipley on third down even though he wasn't open and had the pass knocked down at the line of scrimmage.
On the last Texas drive of the first half, the Longhorns failed to convert a third down for the fifth time in the half. On 3rd and 5, the Extra Blocking Surface stayed in the game and caught a pass for three yards in the flat. He never had a chance to make the first down. An Extra Blocking Surface might help the running game (I'm not overly convinced of that, either), but on obvious passing plays like 3rd and 5, if EBS is going to stay in the game the Longhorns might as well just punt on third down and save themselves the trouble. And that's not a knock on Greg Smith as much as it's a knock on Greg Davis.
In analyzing all the failed third downs in the first half, it's really a smorgasbord of the failures of the offense at the current time. There's a missed block on the offensive line, courtesy of the left tackle, an overthrown pass by McCoy, bad footwork by McCoy, McCoy staring down Shipley, and the fan favorite, EBS. Just a little bit of everything there. A resumption of McCoy's normal accuracy would greatly help the offense on third down, as would McCoy going through his reads properly.
The bad news is that this team, without Quan Cosby, Chris Ogbonnaya, and Brandon Collins, just might not be as good on third down as last year and that means the running game in particular needs to step up and avoid plays that result in zero or negative yardage because McCoy completing 80% of his passes doesn't look like it's going to happen this season.
Tracking: special teams play. For the second year in a row, Jordan Shipley scored a touchdown on a punt return against Texas Tech. Fortunately for Texas fans, this punt return helped the Longhorns win the game instead of just get back into the game and counted for the only touchdown of the first half. Had Shipley not found the end zone on that play, which included great blocks by Ben Wells, Nolan Brewster, and Curtis Brown, the first half would have been an unmitigated disaster for the Texas offense, and, instead of playing comfortably with a two score lead for most of the second half, the Longhorns would have found themselves in a dog fight with the Red Raiders.
Last season, field position wasn't a big deal for the Longhorns, as it just meant the Longhorns would take more time off the clock and wear down the defense even more with a longer drive for a touchdown. This year, with the offense struggling at times, field position appears to be a much bigger factor, at least in the last two games. The Longhorns failed to score on all four drives that started inside their 30 yardline and scored only once in six such drives against Wyoming. To give proper credit to the Texas offense, three drives went for more than 70 yards and touchdowns against ULM, though the WarHawks are by far the worst team Texas has faced yet this season.
The point in all this is that DJ Monroe and Malcolm Williams become even more important returning kicks, along with Jordan Shipley returning punts, because field position may play a larger factor this year in determining whether the Longhorns score or not. Monroe averaged 33 yards per return against Tech and Williams averaged 29, so both players are putting the Longhorns in good position to start drives. Shipley averaged 22 yards per punt return against Tech, numbers aided greatly by his return for a touchdown.
The problems in the kicking game did not return this week, perhaps aided by the unconventional rugby-style punting Texas went with against Texas Tech, as John Gold did not attempt a punt in the game and Justin Tucker continued to be effective kicking with either foot, leading to three punts down inside the Tech 15 yardline. On kickoffs, Tucker hasn't been as impressive during the two games at home as Mack Brown seemed to indicate he was in fall practice, but the coverage has generally been solid, keeping Tech at their 27 yardline on kick offs. More touchbacks would nice, however, and save yards in the field position, but the Longhorns shouldn't be losing any phases of the kicking game very often.