Two years ago, tonight's 17-16 win over BYU would have been utterly agonizing to watch -- frustrating, disheartening, a damning display for our chances to have a special season. I hope that was not your experience tonight. I hope that tonight you were able just to ride the roller coaster and feel ecstatic that we pulled out a win. I hope you were proud as hell of our defense for their brilliant performance, and proud as hell that our offense pulled together in the second half just enough to win it.
To have enjoyed tonight's victory like that, you have to accept who we are now and where we're building towards a year from now, but if you can -- if you did -- then tonight you got to be thrilled by one of the guttiest wins in theera. There were mistakes and problems and weaknesses on display, but the team survived a brutal start, hung tough on the shoulders of a breakout defensive performance, and found a way to get it done.
Put another way: if your takeaway from this game was that we aren't a great team, you probably don't understand why this was a great win. It was a great win for this team, this year. And it was a great win for what it said about the next special Texas team, probably next year.
Tonight's was definitely a game that will require some careful review of the film to fully digest, but let's dive in to a few game night observations:
huge fan of Diaz's tactics and strategy heading into this season, but one of the big questions that was important to see was whether he would be as proficient an in-game teacher/adjuster as his predecessor, Will Muschamp. Boy did he answer that question this evening, as Diaz's charges built on a strong performance in a challenging first half to deliver a dominant second half performance that was chalk full of examples of improvement on plays that gave the defense trouble in the first half. Whether it was Alex Okafor staying home and releasing on the late releasing tight end, or Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho adjusting to proper coverage of the tailbacks in the flat, the Texas defense dug in for a battle in which they knew that they had to be nearly perfect for Texas to win, and got it done. Had Texas not extended a BYU drive with two offsides penalties, they would have pitched a second half shutout. As it was, they held the Cougars to 3 points, literally just enough for the 'Horns to win.is a god. Not *the* God... I don't think. The bulk of the credit goes to the players, which we'll get into here momentarily, but as an initial matter, let's raise our glasses to toast Manny Diaz for his first performance that delivered a win that we wouldn't have picked up without an otherworldly defensive performance. I was a
Good bye, Garrett Gilbert could rally from his dismal sophomore season, we all assumed that he would be operating on a short leash. Indeed, the question heading into the year was not so much whether it made sense to open the season with Gilbert as UT's starter so much as how Mack Brown and his staff would handle things if he faltered again. As I wrote just before the season began: "Instead, a poor start by Gilbert mostly means a definitive pivot to David Ash and Case McCoy, the rest of the season an ongoing competition between the two to emerge as the leader of teams that will be positioned to compete for titles."? As hopeful as many of us were that
Heading into this game there was certainly a sense that BYU would present a defining challenge to Gilbert. They definitely did, and though Gilbert may have been able to remain at the helm at least for a while longer with a mediocre performance tonight, when he opened the game completing as many of his first 8 passes to Cougars as Longhorns, there was little decision to be made. Although it's possible he'll get a few opportunities to redeem himself this year, Gilbert struggled tonight in all the ways that make it hard to believe it's worth the while.
With all that said, to those fans who couldn't let things just play out as they were going to play out, but had to boo the kid on his home field, as early as the first series of the first quarter: Shame on you. If you wanted a change at quarterback, but Mack Brown and Bryan Harsin refused to make that change, you could boo those guys after the game, in any number of ways. To boo Gilbert as he's fighting to be what he desperately wants to be for this team -- and for us, the UT fans -- is just bush league. What an embarrassment.
McCoy and Ash. With Gilbert making precisely the kinds of mistakes that made it impossible to keep him in, the coaches sat him down and went to work trying to get things going with a combination of freshman David Ash and sophomore Case McCoy. Setting aside any future-of-the-position talk for a moment, you had to be proud of both kids for what they contributed to the winning effort. Case McCoy did what McCoys do: looking not particularly capable of making plays, and making plays nonetheless. He converted a huge 4th and 4 to DJ Grant on a drive that would have produced points but for Texas getting stuffed on 4th and 1 inside the 20. And on the very next drive, McCoy completed a pair of passes to Shipley for 34 yards, setting up Texas for the game-winning touchdown.
For his part, David Ash delivered a gutty, game-changing performance with his all-around play, rushing 9 times for 39 yards, completing 2-of-3 passes for 35 yards, and catching an enormous 23-yard reception to help seal the game. Certainly, his inexperience showed, as he at times made the wrong read by keeping the ball on read/option plays, but his positive contributions were critical, and just as important, he never made a costly mistake. He was as involved as any player in the offense tonight, but he never panicked and didn't turn it over.
So who's the guy heading forward? Although outsiders may characterize the situation as unstable or tumultuous, it seems to me that we're right on schedule. Gilbert flopped, and thus we're moving on to phase two, where we play both Ash and McCoy and let things sort themselves out in due course. Personally, I'm of the view that over time the combination of Ash's strengths and McCoy's limitations will lead to Ash as The Guy for 2012 and beyond, but I don't see any kind of rush for the coaches to settle the matter, and think it probably a good thing that these two will both get their shots to make things happen. If McCoy plays very well and proves to be the better QB, great -- I'll be thrilled to have him. And if as many of us think David Ash is the future, I actually like that he'll be assuming the throne having won the crown. It'll be better for him, better for McCoy, better for the coaches, better for the fans. Better for next year's team. Better for everyone, really.
Texas' brilliant defensive performance. The performance of this group deserves a post all its own, and in the days ahead we'll certainly talk more about it, but let's spend a few moments highlighting some of the brilliance we saw tonight. First of all, if any positional unit gets the game ball for tonight's win, it's the linebacking corps, all of whom were fantastic, especially in the final 40 minutes. After a few early issues dealing with some of BYU's misidrection and bootlegs/waggles, the trio of Emmanuel Acho, Jordan Hicks, and Keenan Robinson were absolutely brilliant, whether in cleaning up with tackles or denying opportunities in coverage. Jordan Hicks is going to be a two-time All-American, the way he's going. And you have to be excited about Steve Edmond as the future at MLB; he's already tough to keep off the field.
Turning to the secondary, my thought in August was that you'd better get after these guys early because they're going to be formidable by November, but they're ahead of schedule. The inability of Heaps and BYU to test Texas downfield certainly helped, but there's no need to qualify the performance of Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom this evening. Diggs' game-sealing interception showcased everything that makes him special, and the job Byndom has done in each of the first two games in stepping up and playing a physical corner has made me beam with pride. He's still a bit raw in learning how to use his body and hands to break up pass plays, but the superior job he's doing as a tackler and all-around defender is so exciting to watch. And to think, I haven't even mentioned Adrian Phillips yet, who seems to possess a little bit of everything -- great instincts, an eagerness to tackle, and the ability both to be physical as a tackler and turn his hips and run. We're ahead of schedule this year, and this group is going to be filthy in 2012.
As for the defensive line, there were some issues, but they finished strong and we're starting to see some key young players answer the bell. Starting with the issues, early in the game both Alex Okafor and especially Jackson Jeffcoat were having real problems with basic containment. Part of that's over-aggressiveness and part of it's technique, but it's easily correctable and indeed we saw both improve as the game went on. On the interior, I pity the fan who doesn't appreciate what Kheeston Randall does for us because of what doesn't show up in the box score. BYU basically abandoned trying to run the ball inside and that's Randall. But if we knew what we had in Randall, it was very encouraging to start to see some signs of the future alongside him. Desmond Jackson gave us several good snaps, Calvin Howell had his best game yet, and Ashton Dorsey really flashed some quickness, strength, and disruptive ability that bodes very well for the future.
The offense does just enough. We've already discussed the quarterbacks, but let's wrap this with a few notes on their supporting cast. To begin with, it's hard to overstate how satisfying it is to have an offense that is able to execute a power rushing attack. We're a far cry from 2009 Alabama, but we have the ability to pound it into the end zone when we get in close, and we're running a complete offense that includes success in basic, straightforward rushing plays like the Power and Inside Zone. I've consistently maintained that this is the ideal way to use Cody Johnson, but I'd ideally like to see certain short-yardage carries go to Malcolm Brown, who has a good bit more slither to him, without sacrificing much power. Speaking of whom, I've been comfortable with the pace at which the coaches are bringing along Brown, as I think there's wisdom in pacing him through this freshman year. That said, he's the guy, and I don't doubt that it won't be long before we start leaning on him earlier in games; don't sweat it, if you are. Beyond Malcolm Brown, it's fantastic to see how we're using DJ Monroe in a specialized manner, and we saw tonight that going forward we'll see Fozzy Whittaker used more and more situationally, as well. The important thing is still what these guys offer us in combination, and it's very clear that Harsin and Applewhite understand what each brings to the table, and how they'd like to use them.
Turning to the receivers, the passing game was a bit of a mess tonight, and when we talk about how much room to grow and improve this team has, Mike Davis' zero receptions says it all. There's nothing to worry about long-term there, and in terms of those who were involved, obviously Jaxon Shipley picked up where he left off last week in terms of making you wonder whether he can really be a true freshman. Beyond that, the only substantive comment I have is that Darius White needs to step up his game. He's playing like a player who's thinking out there, and he needs to get it going and assert himself as a readied playmaker or he'll get passed up by a depth chart that isn't lacking for talent.
As for the offensive line, offering evaluations of individual performances based on a live viewing isn't particularly helpful. You notice some individual screw ups, but it's hard to really evaluate anyone's overall performance without going back over the game tape, so I'll save any thoughts on individuals for later. As a whole, I thought they did a pretty decent job pass protecting and once again seemed to improve as the game went on as a run-blocking unit.
Final thoughts. To end where I started, I was so proud of the way this team battled to win the game. I was grateful as hell for our defense in the first half, when they single-handedly kept us in the game. Even as the defense battled through their own challenges with BYU, they held the line by holding the Cougars to field goals. And as they made adjustments as the game wore on, they completely took control and began to dictate to BYU, rather than the other way around. I noted in my preview of BYU's offense that "when he's grooving Heaps is keeping the defense off balance with quick-strike passes to lots of different receivers and backs," and though that's precisely what he was doing to open the game, the Texas defese did a fantastic job of knocking Heaps completely out of rhythm in the second half. Texas outgained BYU 201-67 in total yardage in the second half, and outrushed the Cougars 166-43 overall for the game.
All in all, it was hardly a pretty performance, but given the way things started and everything that unfolded over the course of the game, this ranks as one of the best and most encouraging wins in a long while. Indeed, it was the first time Texas has won after trailing at the end of three quarters since Colt McCoy and Texas stormed back from a 35-14 deficit to defeat Oklahoma State way back in November of 2007. This is a young Texas team very much still finding its identity, but what made tonight's choppy performance such a good one was the fact that (1) what we saw very much spoke to the development of such an identity, and (2) they won the game in the process.
And though in the heat of the games it can be hard to remember, let alone appreciate, that's what this 2011 season is all about: process.
So far, so good, and I couldn't be happier or prouder of this team that after tonight they've also got a 2-0 record to show for it.