Leading up to the darkest weekend in a while for Texas fans, the offense's ineptitude augured a potentially tough contest for the Horns. As dismal as that first sentence sounds, it was nothing compared to what actually transpired. Texas got their asses kicked in all three facets of the game by what can only be described as a mediocre-at-best UCLA squad.
The beginning of this week felt like the aftermath of the apocalypse, and understandably spirits are low and emotions are running high. On Monday, though, after a day of reflection, I was walking across campus and had this beautiful feeling wash over me. Something, as a Texas fan, I haven't felt in a long time. It was the dearth of expectations. I felt like this nagging weight had been-let's use one of GoBR's favorite words-extirpated from my shoulders.
There are a few bad things that come with being a consistent winner in sports:
- Every flaw is magnified 10x and examined to death, with the constant need for improvement.
- It's increasingly harder to enjoy wins. Close wins should have been bigger wins. Bigger wins should have been blowouts. Blowouts should have been slaughters. Anything less than perfection starts to irritate you like a rash that never goes away. There's only so many 2005 Big 12 Championship-type games each decade...
- Losses are somewhere between a Godzilla raid and the real-life version of the movie Independence Day. People's jobs start getting questioned week after week. Players are labeled as lazy, heartless, and arrogant. A wholly negative attitude pervades the city and the Web. It feels like the apocalypse.
Texas has been going through all of the above lately, and the third one is just tearing us apart right now. Ironically, though, the third problem can alleviate a little bit of the other two.
Fans can get complacent with continued success just like programs can, and eventually it becomes nigh impossible for us to enjoy the everyday win without letting the negative, nit-picky attitude seep in a bit. A loss provides us some much-needed perspective on what happens to half the teams in football every single week. A loss like UCLA shows us what it's like to be Colorado. I don't need that much perspective.
For me, though, that loss is like a rebirth. Inexplicably, I feel possibly more optimistic about the team than I did directly after the Texas Tech game. That may sound like bullshit, but after the Tech game my expectations for the team were tempered because I saw just how bad our offense was and how bad they could be.
With last week's debacle, though, the coaches are out of excuses. They can't point to an undefeated record, they can't say the players gave maximum effort, and they can't say it was a fluke. They HAVE to do something about it. The fans, media, and boosters demand it.
Now, you're likely saying, "Please point me to a time in the past when we've made these kind of adjustments" or "What have Mack and Greg shown to us that makes you optimistic?" Many would respond with the typical "They took the reigns off Vince in 2004!" retort. Whoop-dee-doo! I could have taken the reigns off too. I don't think letting the greatest football player in history be himself on the field was any sterling accomplishment from our coaching staff. In fact, it's embarrassing that they had to do that at all.
No, you're looking at it too narrowly. Widen your gaze. What this loss really means is that Mack and Greg are forced to get out of the current shell that they're in and finally open up the offense. They understand now that the defense can carry them every game. That there's a difference between the supposed "SEC" offense that doesn't accumulate that many yards or points, but also minimizes risk, and our offense, which doesn't accumulate that many yards or points, but still ends up leaving our defense vulnerable like a fish near a BP oil tanker. Or, at least I think they do. I hope they do. I literally do NOT see how it's possible that they don't see it...but I've been wrong before.
Whether it means we go under center and try to open up holes with our offensive line in the running game then take shots deep or we sit back in the shotgun and spread the field out with speed or we try to run a balanced offense combining elements of both doesn't matter. I don't really care. I have a preference, but the most important thing to see from this offense is commitment. Commit to one style or the other. Give it a chance. We junked the offense we had been trying to figure out all offseason after less than six quarters of football. Then brought it back for the Tech game. It worked, but execution bit us time and time again. Then we went into survival mode like a turtle in a fight with a lion. We are supposed to be the lion! Not the freaking turtle. Repeat, Greg Davis, "We...are...the...li...on."
Lately, instead of dwelling on the past weekend, I've been incessantly racking my mind trying to figure out the best plan of action for the UT offense. Or, at least, some ideas on how to beat OU.
OU and their coaching staff lean on talent advantages and a tried-and-true scheme of building the team around playmakers at WR and RB and letting the quarterback be a facilitator, instead of a catalyst. Oklahoma is one of the very best teams in the country year in and year out at getting their playmakers the ball in space using plays like the outside wide receiver screen, the bubble screen, the halfback flare pass and screen, and the dreaded middle screen.
Sam Bradford was a phenomenal, phenomenal player, but OU made him look even better by building the offense around him instead of making him the offense (see: Tebow, Tim; McCoy, Colt). Landry Jones is a perfect QB to do this with because he's a good talent that isn't going to carry a team on his back.
Texas is trying to do this with Gilbert this season, but it's failing miserably as we see more and more flashbacks to Colt McCoy running for his life and zero help at running back or offensive line.
Let's examine some strategies that would both take pressure off Gilbert and take advantage of OU's defensive deficiencies in the inside running game and the deep passing game:
1) D.J. Monroe. Get that man the ball. The newest RB flavor of the week had six rushes for 51 yards (8.5 yards per carry) against UCLA. He did have a fumble off an exchange, which always-accountable Garrett Gilbert took responsibility for, but I'll take his explosion any day of the week and sacrifice a few errors (especially since it's not his fault the coaches haven't repped him properly).
Monroe probably played harder than anybody else on the offense last week, in limited time. He had an outside run that was impressive, but my favorite play of his was a five-yard run up the gut when he didn't even consider going down on first contact. I saw physicality, fire, and a need to pick up those yards that we've seen very little of from our offense this season.
OU's weak up the middle, so instead of only using D.J. as an outside threat, let's send him up the gut a few times to keep Oklahoma off balance. Doesn't need to be a "power running game;" we can test them with the delay handoff from the shotgun. The theme of the week should be big plays, and Monroe has a good chance to bust one big if OU is expecting to have to stretch their defense laterally whenever he is in the game. Combine that with his usual allotment of outside runs and swing passes, and Texas definitely has a weapon that can overcome their lack of consistent execution.
The D.J. Monroe 16-touch breakdown plan:
- Two power runs inside
- Two delay draws
- Two flare passes
- One end-around
- Five outside zone runs
- One kick return
- One PA wheel route (like Jevan Snead threw to him in the Army AA game for a TD)
- Two halfback screens
2) The deep ball. Look, I don't care if Gilbert throws four picks, it's not any worse than stalling out on offense every single drive and scoring 12 (really nine) points against UCLA.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, the key to this team is to minimize the need for perfect execution. The offense simply can't help but trip over itself this season, so we need to get down the field in fewer plays in order to avoid making mistakes that we can't overcome.
When you have a QB as accurate as Colt McCoy and two fearless and technically brilliant wide receivers like Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby, you are able to nickel and dime down the field drive after drive. You can mess around on first and second down, like Greg Davis is prone to do, because 3rd and 7 for that team was like 3rd and 3 for most teams.
But this team doesn't have either one of those receivers or a quarterback as precise as Colt, yet we're trying to run a similar offense. Hmmm...Greg Davis is three years behind the times as usual.
OU's secondary is athletic, but all are prone to giving up the deep ball. They aren't what I would call "bad in coverage," because they make great plays on the ball once it's in the air, but they're capable of giving up a big gain if they diagnose the play wrong. Unfortunately, that relies on A) our being able to actually scare them with play action, which hasn't happened since 2007 or B) at least one of our receivers being able to run consistent double moves. I'm not overly optimistic about A, but I think Davis, Kirkendoll, and even Williams all run pretty solid double moves. The bad part with these guys is they still have to catch the ball consistently.
We have to capitalize on our wide-open opportunities, meaning Gilbert can't get jumpy and overthrow receivers like he did with Kirk last week and the receivers have to hang onto the ball for dear life once it gets to them. The margin for error on this offense is tiny, and exists at all only because the defense is probably the best in the country.
Malcolm in particular is a huge key to this game because he can basically jumpstart the offense all by himself. We have to get him the ball vertically; there's no reason to throw four-yard passes to him when he has like a 25-percent chance of dropping the ball. Give him the same chance to catch a forty-yarder instead. It's called expected value, for Christ's sake.
3) Smart usage of the sideways passing game. Look, OU's defense does exactly ONE thing consistently well: covering the field sideline to sideline. They're always one of the best teams in the country in lateral speed because their DEs are usually speedy edge rushers, their LBs take incredibly disciplined pursuit angles, and their safeties love to come up and be physical in the running game.
It's almost impossible to imagine a better offense for a defense ranked in the 90's nationally to face than ours. Venables almost always earns his entire yearly paycheck against Texas, and I swear the guy would have been fired years ago if it weren't for his being able to go up against Greg Davis every year.
As we know, Davis is absolutely in love with the horizontal passing game, so I'm not stupidly going to list this point as "abolish the sideways passing game," because it ain't happnin'. His quote earlier this week about trying to wear UCLA out with it made me simultaneously puke in my mouth and burst out laughing, which resulted in a near asphyxiation that would have been studied by doctors for centuries to come.
So, while I agree we need to use the horizontal passing game (and rushing game) because it best complements our deadly speed guys like Goodwin, Hales, Davis, and White, it needs to be faster and better thought-out (as in, thought-out at all).
Don't run a play action fake to the running back then throw a screen to Kirkendoll. There is so much wrong with this play it's almost hard to imagine. First, three OU defenders are already poised to detonate Kirkendoll by the time he catches the ball because the play is so slow to develop and our WRs don't block well enough to stretch the play out. Second, Kirkendoll isn't a great playmaker with the ball in his hands, has minimal change-of-direction ability, and doesn't have the speed to break away for six even if he somehow does elude the initial defenders.
Guys like Goodwin and Hales are so much better when they can catch the ball on the move with space to juke. So instead of throwing standstill screens to the short side of the field, be smart and throw bubble screens to the open side of the field. And for God's sake, if you throw a screen pass, cut block the defensive end that is on that side of the field.
Final Thoughts: If you've somehow made it through these ramblings, I commend your usage of leisure time. And the fact that you actually have this much leisure time.
I'm stubbornly optimistic about this game, and I can't give you a tenable reason why other than that I see it as a turning point (for better or for worse) in the season-possibly even the program as a whole.
We could figure out the keys to beating OU, implement them this week, come out pissed, and kick some Sooner ass tomorrow. Or we could be complacent, come out and play our typical scared, "not to lose" game, keep the game close until our defense again runs out of gas/loses focus mentally due to our offense's incompetence, and get mudholed in the second half.
Keep the faith. It's all we've got right now.