For the second straight week the Longhorns picked up three first-half turnovers and put an opponenet away early, routing Iowa State on the road handily, 37-14. The defense executed a terrific Manny Diaz game plan, David Ash had a breakout game, and Texas worked the entire depth chart in a choppy second half that saw pretty much every scholarship player on the roster get time on the field.
As we head into the Red River Shootout, both No. 10/11 Texas and No. 1/3 Oklahoma are both 4-0, the fifth time both teams have been undefeated in the Brown-Stoops era, and first since 2008. Before turning our attention to the Sooners, a wrap of the Iowa State game after the jump.
Texas' first drive. After the defense forced an easy three-and-out, Texas took over the ball on its own 43 yard line. Malcolm Brown took the first down carry 22 yards to the ISU 20 yard line and DJ Monroe followed that up with a nice 8-yard run that set up 2nd and 2 from the ISU 12. ISU loaded up the box and stuffed Brown for a 2-yard loss, and on 3rd and 4 Case McCoy scrambled out of the pocket and took off to run, but wound up sliding upon reaching the first down marker, setting up a 4th and 1. Mack Brown decided to go for it, we gave it to Cody Johnson, and he got stuffed, turning it over on downs.
A few comments on that first drive: First of all, although thus far this season Case McCoy for the most part put his good feet to use in terms of buying time to pass, it's becoming clear that he is not -- at least at this point -- a good rusher. More on that in a bit. Second, even though it didn't work, I loved Mack Brown's call to go for it in that situation, and I hope the failure of this one play doesn't deter him from making the right call in future instances. If you watch the play, it's the blocking that breaks down, as Berryhill -- rather than make a block on an ISU defender -- runs over Barrett Matthews instead, knocking him off his own block. And if you look at Cody Johnson's success rate on short-yardage and goal-to-go situations this year, he's been pretty damn good:
|4th||1||Opp 14||No gain|
|3rd||1||Own 12||No gain|
Whether or not we decide we need to mix it up a little bit with our play calling in short-yardage situations, Mack's decision to go for it last night was the right one.
Turnover Party, and the Diaz Defense. The gods of good mathematical decision-making rewarded Mack Brown for his decision four plays later, when Iowa State put the pigskin on the ground on a botched hand off exchange. Okafor immediately pounced on it at the Iowa State 32 and we were right back in business. That was the first of three Texas turnovers, the other two coming on an incredibly impressive strip by Quandre Diggs, and a terrific interception by Blake Gideon (returned 43 yards). The Longhorns did not turn it over once and now have 11 takeaways for the season against just 5 giveaways, 2 of which were Garrett Gilbert INTs. Our +6 turnover margin early ranks among the nation's best early in the season, and in stark contrast to the -12 margin from a year ago, very nearly the nation's worst.
It was the second straight week Texas buried its opponent with early turnovers and while the big early leads won't always come so easily, the turnover festival is not really an aberration, either. Manny Diaz's defenses produced 116 takeaways over the past four seasons; by comparison, the Longhorns had just 98 takeaways across those same four years.
Defensive takeaways are a part of Manny Diaz's defensive design, but that design is often misunderstood. You'll hear people mischaracterize Diaz's scheme as a hyper-aggressive, almost all-or-nothing attacking defense, but the beauty of it is that it is aggressive in the putting pressure on the offense without being big-play-or-bust. Diaz is aggressive and complex in how he deploys the five rushers he sends, but it's still just five, except when he brings more than that situationally. Manny Diaz's defensive scheme is as aggressive in its approach to taking away the big play as it is in trying to put pressure on the offense.
That's a neat trick if you can pull it off, on both the micro (play) and macro (drive) level. On an individual play basis, at the same time that you're giving your defense a chance to create a negative play or a turnover, you're also blanketing the opportunity for big plays. And at the drive level, by forcing the offense to get to the end zone by stringing together 10+ play drives, you increase the number of opportunities your defense has to make an impact play (negative yardage or turnover). It's a brilliant scheme, properly executed. More on the execution of the Diaz game plan shortly.
David Ash's Big Day. After bringing him along bit by bit through the first three games of the year, against ISU Harsinwhite unveiled the depth and breadth of David Ash's capabilities. On his first pass he faked a hand off before delivering a picture-perfect strike to DJ Grant om the sideline -- right between the underneath defense and help over the top. Then early in the 2nd quarter, on his second full drive at the helm, he essentially put the game away on an impeccable deep bomb to Mike Davis down the middle of the field, again on perfectly executed play-action. Ash wasn't as perfect all game as he started, but it was by far his most complete performance both in terms of how, and how much, he was used. Ash finished the game a crisp 7-12 for 145 yards with 2 touchdowns and no turnovers.
Before we even get to McCoy, let's just take a few moments to note what, exactly, was so exciting about what we saw from the true freshman Ash. At the top of my list was the way that he stands tall in the pocket. On his first downfield completion of the game, to DJ Grant for 19 yards, he stepped into his throw and delivered a gorgeous strike that demonstrated equal parts strength, touch, and accuracy, even as he was about to get popped by a defender. His deep ball to Mike Davis was a textbook example of a good play fake, good footwork, and a beautiful, strong throw with air under it -- Davis could have caught it in the cradle of his neck, it was so perfect. And on the F U THIS GAME IS OVER touchdown strike to Shipley, Ash took the pitch from Shipley, got himself re-set to make a throw, and stood tall to deliver the throw, once again as he was about to take a hit.
It's hard to overstate how important and impressive is that ability to stand tall and deliver the ball downfield in the face of pressure. The last throw to Shipley exemplified it perfectly, because while the throw wasn't the beauty he delivered to Mike Davis, a lesser QB wouldn't have gotten that throw off at all. Ash did, putting his receiver -- in one-on-one coverage by design -- in a position to make the play. It wasn't an A+ throw in terms of where he delivered it, but it was an A+ throw under all the circumstances.
And Case McCoy? Although he made a couple very nice throws, McCoy didn't have a great game, and several of the mistakes he made early in the game were representative of the challenge he's going to face to hold off David Ash for primary duties. Case McCoy continues to have happy feet in the pocket, and though he has a knack for slivering through pressure and buying time, this isn't a playground offense. Bryan Harsin is designing and attacking with purpose, and the name of the game for the quarterback is executing that which is being called. Put another way: where the ability to make lemonade out of lemons was everything in some of the recent Texas offenses, presently that skill is subordinate to the ability to execute the offense as designed.
On Texas' second drive of the game, McCoy held the ball too long, wiggled out of the pocket to buy time, and was extremely fortunate not to fumble upon getting hit hard from behind. More broadly, although McCoy has demonstrated nice ability to run around, he is not an effective rusher. Compounding that problem for McCoy is the fact that David Ash is an effective rusher, the QB you'd choose on a designed run.
None of that is to diminish how effective McCoy has been this season to date -- very -- but as David Ash continues his impressive development, McCoy's ability to execute the game plan becomes increasingly imperative. What's important about the difference between McCoy's deep ball to Mike Davis against UCLA and David Ash's deep ball to Davis against Iowa State is not just who has a bigger arm, but about the way on Saturday Ash stood tall and stepped into throws in the pocket. For all that Case McCoy is doing well in that McCoy-esque way, that manner of getting it done isn't necessarily Harsinwhite's first choice.
My Guy: Fozzy Whittaker. I've been touting Fozzy Whittaker's breakout ability for going on four years now -- describing his running style as "looking like he was being controlled by a joystick in a video game, his fluid hips and quick feet allowing him to change direction laterally with remarkable smoothness." Fozzy was derailed first by injuries, then by overall offensive incompetence, but this season he is finally putting it all together. Through 4 games Whittaker has 141 yards rushing on 28 attempts (5.0 per), including 4 touchdowns, each more impressive than the last.
Whittaker was phenomenal against Iowa State, scoring the game's first touchdown on a brilliant 16-yard carry up the middle out of the Wildcat, in which he made a beautiful cut to his right, and then absorbed a blow from his left, before finishing the run by plowing forward into the end zone. Whittaker had two more fantastic runs of 10+ yards, both of which demonstrated similarly excellent finishing ability. Along with the improvement in scheme, that ability to finish his runs is the difference from year's past, and why Fozzy leads the teach with 5 touchdowns scored through the season's first 4 games.
Kicking the Ball: You're Doing It Wrong. Before trashing the special teams, I do want to acknowledge the outstanding play by true freshma Mykkele Thompson to block an ISU punt, which true freshman Josh Turner scooped up and returned for a score. And on the season Justin Tucker has remained crisp in the place-kicking department, now 6-7 in FGs and 17-17 in PATs. So the special teams isn't a complete disaster...
But the kicking/coverage game certainly is, where Justin Tucker is barely cracking the 10 yard line on kickoffs and averaging a substandard 38 yards per punt. First, on the kick offs, Tucker's leg appears to be dead, leading us to try and get it done with shorter kicks with hang time,, but our coverage approach is disjointed, to put it charitably. The punting and coverage has been only modestly better, begging the question: what the hell is William Russ doing on scholarship if he can't assume at least one of those duties?
At this point, it's hard to imagine we could do much worse in either regard, and given Tucker's value as a place kicker, what's to lose by handing the kick off and/or punting duties to Russ? That's to say nothing of the overall impotence, but if we're going to suck either way, why not protect Tucker's value as a place kicker?
Our incompetence in the kicking game has yet to bite us in the ass, but I'd rather not wait for a Ryan Broyles touchdown to decide we can't afford to make some changes. Yikes...
Steele Jantz Fact #426: Manny Diaz is Kryptonite.. All you need to know about the dominance of Texas' defensive performance is that when Iowa State finally got on the scoreboard with a pair of 4th quarter touchdowns, the Longhorns were well into the third string of the depth chart, fielding a team almost entirely comprised of true freshmen. Manny Diaz schemed to take away the big play and force Steele Jantz and Iowa State to string together a sustained drive of successful plays. Texas consistently played 5 defenders in coverage and challenged Jantz to make plays as a ball carrier, content to concede the occasional medium gain in the rushing game as it clamped down on big plays and pressured Jantz.
It was a beautiful game plan executed exceptionally well by Texas' defenders. The Cyclones' longest rushing play from scrimmage was 14 yards, and longest passing play was 19 yards. Meanwhile, the Longhorns defense picked up 2 turnovers and racked up 10 tackles-for-loss, shutting out the Cyclones until the 4th quarter, long after Diaz had emptied the bench with back ups.
Closing Thoughts. I heard some grumbling about the second half performance, but it didn't seem to me indicative of anything about which to worry; Texas put away Iowa State early and worked its entire depth chart the rest of the way. The first third of the season is in the books and I don't know how you grade the performance anything less than an 'A,' considering the youth and inexperience, and the development this group needed to do in the early going. Now the real tests arrive with back-to-back games against OU and OSU and we'll find out where we are from being ready to compete for titles.
I think almost all of us thought that would be next year, and that's still probably true, but if you thought in the preseason that the team would have come this far by October 1, I commend you for your forsight. From my seat in the stands, we're ahead of schedule, and our next two games are much more intriguing than I thought they'd be in August.
Hook 'em, and OU sucks.