I think Doug said it pretty well: it was a weird day in Columbia. A sad day, too. If you've been reading this blog for any part of the last four years you know there's been no bigger fan of Fozzy Whittaker than yours truly. If his season -- and UT career -- is done, as it appears it may well be: a huge thank you and all the best to a speedy recovery. Fozzy's a great kid with a huge heart and more talent than most realized. Ditto Keenan Robinson, who's been far more consistently productive than most imagined when he arrived on campus.
As for the game... honestly, I'm finding it tough to make much of today's game. Our offense was part-bad, part-incomplete. Our defense was mostly great, but with two costly mistakes -- one from each of our flawed senior safeties that cost us the two touchdowns that were the difference in the game. The Tigers got a pair touchdowns out of their first-half quarter with the wind, while the Longhorns got just 3 points out of theirs. The rest of the game was an even battle.
Our offense was hamstrung by Fozzy's injury -- and predictably inept after he went down -- and I was confused by a lot of our coaching decisions. It felt like we didn't have any kind of game plan for beating Missouri with our C Team, and it showed. I don't know whether that's something that's worth getting too worked up about... I'm inclined to shrug and move on, but your mileage may vary.
It still seems to me that the wins and losses of this season matter much less than whether we're getting the process right. So while I'm grumpy about losing and do understand anyone who's frustrated right now, this game seems like an especially appropriate time to point out that if you're unhappy with the position we find ourselves in, all the more reason to care about the big picture process. It was inattention to that process that led not only to last year's calamity, but to our being in the position we're in this season -- both generally and in Columbia today. If you didn't like the position you saw this Texas football program in Saturday, you should care about whether we're doing the right things to become a stronger and better program in 2012 and beyond.
Ultimately, saying you're unhappy with the way today turned out is tantamount to saying you're unhappy with what happened to let 5-7 happen to the program last year. However understandable the animating sentiment, it's a redundant, uncontested point, and the only thing that matters now is whether we're doing things the right way now. That we weren't a team capable of winning today's game is a consequence of our past failures, but not necessarily a reflection of our present misdirection. If you can't make that distinction, it's going to be difficult to offer a credible evaluation of our present process. Which, again, is all that matters.
As for the specifics, given the circumstances I'm tempted to skip the details altogether, but I do think it worthwhile to talk about them in the context of the broader project at hand, so let's dive in to the nitty gritty a bit after the jump...
Evaluating our passers. Starting with the quarterback play, we were doomed once Fozzy went down and our versatility and ability to attack Missouri in specific ways that Whittaker allows disappeared. Ash was better than his overall day implied (not good), and yet at the same time objectively bad in concrete ways. I'm less interested in whether he struggled today (he did), and more interested in whether (1) he would have been better operating in a complete offense, and (2) his mistakes are attributable to his being a freshman, or being inherently inadequate. On the first count, the evidence strongly suggests he would have been better under different circumstances -- as indeed he was to start the game. On the latter count, we'll have to wait and see, and if it's understandable that fans wish we didn't have to figure it out like this -- forced to accept all the bad to get our answer -- there's no alternative. We are where we are, and where we are isn't anything this staff can do anything about.
I thought Ash did a pretty solid job with his throws 15 yards and under, and his overall decision-making is much better than it was just a few short weeks ago, but after hitting Goodwin in the first quarter it was tough to watch him miss one deep ball after another. It was tough to watch half the time because he seemed to throw it deep without good reason, and the other half because he seemed to have no feel for the pass whatsoever. Making the right read on when to throw it is something that one assumes can and will improve with experience, but the ability to deliver the ball where it needs to be might be a limitation that sticks. At this point we don't know, and those who wonder about him long-term may well be right to worry, but for now I remain in the patient/hopeful camp -- in part, honestly, because I can't get that touchdown bomb to Mike Davis against Iowa State out of my head. I worry more about his ability to be consistent enough to win titles. It's too early to say, but that long-term question is much more my focus than whether he's going to have to battle through true freshman struggles to get there.
As for McCoy, I understand the coaches' impulse to grope for a spark, but it was unfortunate we wound up wasting three possessions with the wind. No, I can't say that Ash would have done more with those possessions, but he showed enough in the first quarter that it wasn't out of the question, and with his possessions McCoy simply confirmed why he isn't a viable starter. His mechanics are a mess, his not being a rusher makes us even more one-dimensional than we already are, and he's a turnover waiting to happen. He looks fine against terrible defenses who can't get to the quarterback and leave receivers wide open, but against credible defenses he's a liability. I love him as a quality back up that you could hope to win you a ball game if he had to come in, but the coaches have been right to go with Ash as QB1 and we need to continue to do so the rest of the season to get as good a look as possible at what he might be able to give us next year and beyond.
Evaluating our passing game as a whole. It should be noted, of course, that our quarterbacks were in a tough position to succeed. After Fozzy went down and Missouri realized what our running game could and couldn't do, smothering our passing attack was all the easier. It didn't help that our receivers dropped a couple of balls (Hales and White), while Goodwin missed on a deep ball he didn't get under properly, and we sorely missed a receiver who could punish Missouri in the quick/intermediate game. No Brown, no Bergeron, no Fozzy, no Shipley... as evenly as the game was played, with all four of those guys out we lose today's game 4 times out of 5.
The offensive line wasn't as bad as they looked when things went badly, but their mistakes just added another degree of difficulty to the challenge. Trey Hopkins and Padden Kelley each nearly got Ash killed, while the line as a whole wasn't consistent enough to prevent us from winding up in 3rd and Drive Over before we could get into scoring range. If you're wondering why Harsin kept trying to make something happen down the field, it's not because he wanted to see us fail to do so in ugly fashion over and over again -- it's because he didn't think we were consistent enough to avoid Drive Over downs otherwise. He was probably right.
An impressive, almost heroic, effort by the defense. You had to be proud of the way our defense battled throughout this game, and especially after consecutive second quarter touchdowns gave Missouri what looked like -- considering our offensive limitations -- an insurmountable two-score lead. The Tigers went into a bit of a protective mode once they got a lead, but they mainly did so only after our defense clamped down and was so locked in on what Mizzou wanted to do that it looked like just a matter of time before the Texas defense made a game-changing play. We had numerous near-misses in the third quarter, a couple of which could have resulted in a defensive score.
Our defensive line turned in another inspired performance -- particularly our ends, who did a terrific job keeping Missouri contained inside. Jeffcoat and Okafor both left it all on the field and were a big reason we held the Tigers to 270 total yards after they took their first drive 68 yards into our red zone. Losing Keenan Robinson -- who's been no less inspiring a warrior for this program as Fozzy Whittaker -- early in the game was unfortunate, and I really hope that his career at Texas isn't over. Our defense nevertheless overcame that loss in large part because Emmanuel Acho delivered one of the best individual performances by a Texas linebacker in recent memory: 12 tackles, 4 tackles-for-loss, a forced fumble in the red zone -- the senior was seemingly in on every play, and he's been our Defensive MVP the last month.
The defense's only real blemish was, well...
Paying for our senior safeties. If/when you get the Longhorn Network, as I did early last week after switching from AT&T to Grande, the intimate access you'll get to the players will make it a lot harder to be a dick about it, but we're not going to miss the costly limitations of our senior safeties. Two plays not only perfectly highlighted the weaknesses of Blake Gideon and Christian Scott, but each player's mistake resulted directly or indirectly in the touchdowns that were the difference in the game.
It was Christian Scott who on 3rd down and 7 could not accelerate to stay with TJ Moe in coverage, allowing a 40-yard completion that set up Missouri 1st and Goal from the 6. And it was Blake Gideon whose befuddling angle to Kendial Lawrence allowed a 10-yard gain to become a 35-yard touchdown. We all saw both plays, and there's not much to say about it at this point except to say that for all the positive things they've contributed to this program for which we should be grateful, their limitations make them players that we will be happy to try and upgrade from going forward. Personally, where the stakes are which non-BCS Bowl we might attend, I'd like to see that process get underway over the course of the remaining three games -- even if the transition is just incremental.
Looking ahead. Speaking of the remaining schedule, there are no easy wins left on the board, as on a good day K-State, A&M, and Baylor can all hang 25+ points on even a good defense, and they'll score a lot more than that if a defense isn't sharp. Needless to say, this Texas offense isn't a good bet to match that against a competitive defense. Although we can be optimistic about getting either Brown or Bergeron back (either will do, given the overlap in what they bring to the table), but Fozzy's gone for the year, and he was -- among other things -- our most critical red zone player. We can and must continue to hope that our passing game takes some steps forward down the stretch, but more likely we're going to need complete performances by our defense to win each game.
We could still win all three, but we could also lose all three -- particularly if we're anything as banged up as we were today. All things considered, we should probably just light the tower purple (again), but it would be meaningful to pick up that win in College Station, after which I'd feel great about our chances to follow that up with a win in Waco, as well.
We'll see, and this final stretch of games may test the patience and long-term vision of the Texas fan base. Losing sucks, but if you're pissed about the position we're in, much more than the final record of this season's team you should probably be a lot more concerned with whether this program -- this coaching staff -- is building the right kind of foundation, the lack of which is precisely the cause of the problems we're lamenting right now.