Smart Football On Texas-Texas Tech

The blogosphere's finest in X's and O's -- the inimitable Chris Brown of SmartFootball.com -- checks in with a guest column on Texas' 34-24 win over Texas Tech. If you're not reading Chris's superb site already, you're cheating yourself. Today, we bring the good stuff right to you.

Even in Texas, a win is a win. But not all wins are made of the same stuff. The Longhorns' victory over the Texas Tech Red Raiders undoubtedly falls into the less-than-satisfying category. Most obviously, the Colt McCoy led offense was not as sharp as it has been, and Mike Leach's newest gunslinger, the grizzled and grizzly looking Taylor Potts, threw for over 400 yards and three touchdowns against Will Muschamp's defense.

But there are lots of positives to take out of this game, and keeping a scrappy Mike Leach team at arm's length the entire game (despite the 10-point margin of victory, the outcome was never seriously in doubt) should garner no shame.

Texas's defense. Coming into the game, we knew defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and Co. wanted revenge, but the question remained whether he'd learned anything from the 30+ points and 579 yards Leach, Graham Harrell, and Michael Crabtree had put on the 'Horns in their 2008 win. And, while Taylor Potts moved the ball effectively in the second half and threw for 420 yards, I'd say yes, Muschamp's defense put in a very nice performance.

The fact that Tech had those yards and scored 24 points is just a testament to what Leach has done there. Indeed, one of the reasons his offense works is that you're fooling yourself if you think you can shut down their passing game to the point where they can't complete any passes -- they know you'd like to do that, and have many dramatic answers for that approach (ask Dennis Franchione). No, as Muschamp appeared to learn, you have to understand and be disciplined enough to handle a barrage of short completions, and still take away the things that can really kill you.

In this vein you saw Muschamp bring a fair amount of heat and blitzes, but rarely did he go all out man-to-man blitz to just blindly get after it. In fact, while Kirk Herbstreit kept saying during the game that Texas had to get up and "press" Tech's wideouts and then bring heat, I'm pretty sure all three of Taylor Potts's touchdown passes came against man blitzes. Instead, Muschamp had solid success bringing a variety of zone blitzes against the Red Raiders, where he rushed between five and six guys but kept the rest in safe zone coverage. Potts managed to complete some passes against this but the defense tackled better than a year before, and held the Raiders to less than 10 yards per completion.

The 'Horns also did an excellent job against Texas Tech's screen game. With their barrages of passing and spread formations, both in terms of their receivers and linemen, the Red Raiders are among the best in the country at the screen game. They are especially adept at waiting until a defensive coordinator becomes frustrated by the small but seemingly impossible-to-stop gashes from the passing game and brings the heat, and then dropping the hammer on them in the form of a flanker screen or screen to the running backs. Neither was effective for Tech last Saturday. Most notably, Tech's runningbacks combined for zero yards receiving on five catches.

This is not to say everything was perfect. In the second half Taylor Potts at times looked unstoppable -- well, by anyone except Sergio Kindle of course -- and anytime a team completes forty passes against you, you're not totally excited. But it's unclear what can be drawn from this game. Mike Leach's offense is sui generis, and Will Muschamp had an excellent plan that pretty much shut down everything except quick, well-executed passes by Taylor Potts when he was under pressure. That's what you do against the guy with two career starts. But Potts proved himself a pretty gritty performer, and made enough plays to keep Tech competitive. And with a good offensive team versus a good defensive team, there's going to be some guessing on both sides and sometimes it works well for one and sometimes for the other. For example, Leach three times played Rock in the second half, and Muschamp called Rock himself, then scissors, then paper: On the first play of a drive in the second half, Leach called a deep-crossing route, but Taylor Potts missed the open receiver. Sure enough, on the next series Leach called the same play again on the first play of the drive, and the Red Raiders hit it for a twenty-plus yard gain and then went on to score. The next series? Leach called it again on the first play, but Muschamp pressured Potts and he threw his sole interception for the game.

The upshot is that the success Tech did have is no knock on UT's defense, and even if it was, it's not evident how that would apply to any of the rest of Texas's opponents. They passed this test -- they won -- and the other, more important ones, will come later in the season. And the defense appears ready to pass those as well.

Texas's offense. And now we come to what put every Texas fan in a querulous: Colt McCoy's at-times erratic, two interception performance. It's true that in the first half McCoy just flat missed some open receivers; his footwork was off; and he was not helped by pressure in his face. From a quarterback coaching perspective, he's missing receivers high, which tends to be a mechanics flaw as simple as locking out your front knee when you throw or possibly taking too long of strides on the throw -- it's too hard to pinpoint exactly and I'm not sure. But that's something Colt can work on and will be fine with. Sometimes they just get away from you; he clearly has put a lot of pressure on himself.

And that's why I'm not all that worried about Texas's offense. McCoy still completed over 70% of his passes, and the best thing that be done for him is to provide him with a run threat, and Tre' Newton looks like he might be it. McCoy will get the crisp timing back, and his receivers appear to be stepping up. We know about Shipley, but Dan Buckner and John Chiles both made plays and look promising.

But was there some scheme issue that Texas was being thwarted by? I didn't see anything revolutionary, and Ruffin McNeil's Texas Tech's defense does seem to play well against Texas, particularly in the first half. And that leads to the lesson with the 'Horns: A win is a win. When you're Texas, you're always somebody else's rivalry game, regardless of what you think of them; you always get their best shot. The fact that UT took a pretty good one from a scrappy in-state team that beat them last year, and yet the game was never likely to go the other way, should be solace enough.

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