Texas scored 56 points and got just enough second half defense to end their two-game skid against the Baylor Bears.
Alright, let's set aside the coaching drama for now and just talk about the game...
Texas recovered from a 21-14 first quarter deficit with four touchdowns to close out the opening half and carry a 42-31 lead into inermission, then managed to hold off the Bears in the second half to secure a 56-50 victory. With the win, Texas moves to 5-2 on the season and -- most importantly -- ends a two-game losing streak to Art Briles and the Bears. Losing to Baylor used to be a final nail in a UT coach's coffin, but among the reasons it wasn't for Mack Brown is the fact that the Bears have been a legitimately dangerous football team under Briles.
Texas fans may not be happy about it, but the two teams matched up pretty evenly on Saturday night. Both offenses largely had their way with the opposing defense, with the Longhorns defense coming up with just enough stops to make the difference in the final score. Texas amassed 525 yards across 75 plays (7.0 average) while Baylor racked up 607 yards across 85 plays (7.1 average). Texas ran the ball 44 times for 251 yards (5.7 avg) and 7 touchdowns; Baylor ran 44 times for 255 yards and 4 trips to the end zone. Nick Florence connected on 30-41 passes for 352 yards and 2 scores, while David Ash hit 19 of his 31 attempts for 274 yards and 1 TD.
If you count Texas' final possession in which it ran out the clock, both teams had 14 drives, and the difference in the game was that all 8 of Texas' scores went for touchdowns whereas Baylor's 9 scores included 3 field goals.
*I'm counting Texas' botched punt as a turnover
It wasn't a dominant win, nor was it the kind of win anyone envisioned in the preseason. It was just a win. A win that the team desperately needed, and had to fight hard to secure. After last week, that's a step in the right direction, at least.
After an atrocious performance last week, the Texas offense showed again this week that it's perfectly capable of carving up a bad defense. Some of what we saw makes the no-show last week all the more confusing and disappointing, but it was encouraging to see this unit bounce back with a strong performance.
The offensive line had its best game of the season -- best game in years, really. Baylor's provides very little resistance, but it was still great to see us dominate the point of attack to open up huge holes for our running backs with crisply executed and well-coordinated blocks. Whether running inside zone, Power O, the stretch play -- on pretty much everything Texas' linemen knew their assignments, executed well, and imposed their will.
Continued development of our offense against stronger teams is all about developing the offensive line to be able to block at a high level against everyone; it's the key to unleashing the strengths of the Bryan Harsin offense. For now, it's encouraging to see us running explosive offense against lesser defenses, and considering where we were starting from when Harsin arrived, the progress is real, substantial, and on track for where Harsin, Applewhite, Searels, and Wyatt are trying to take it.
Wide Receiver & Tight End
Mike Davis apparently saw some of the eulogies written for him this offseason and decided he didn't like how they read. He's been excellent from the get-go this season, and through 7 games Davis ranks in the Top 10 in the Big 12 with his 30 receptions (10th), 500 receiving yards (5th), 4 touchdowns (7th), and16.7 yards-per-reception average (7th) -- numbers made all the more impressive when you consider that he only had 4 catches for 40 yards in the opener against Wyoming, when Texas didn't even attempt to throw the ball downfield.
Davis' top-end speed is shy of elite, but his acceleration allows him to reach it quickly. He isn't a receiver who dominates with one elite skill, but is highly effective by way of possessing a dangerous blend of strong attributes, with good speed and athleticism, great acceleration, and enough agility and wiggle to be able to create separation, beat defenders to the spot, and avoid a tackle or two. All of those were on display against Baylor, as Davis made the most of his 6 receptions to set a new career high with 148 receiving yards -- among them a 67-yard reception that was the longest of his career -- and caught the only David Ash touchdown pass of the game. Not a bad day's work.
The rest of the receiving corps was relatively quiet, as Ash targeted Davis on his deep throws and wasn't as crisp as he had been earlier in the season. Marquis Goodwin was targeted 5 times and caught 3 for 27 yards, including a key 11-yard reception on 3rd and 9. If teams start jumping Goodwin's underneath routes on 3rd down, as Baylor started to do in the second half, there should be opportunities there over the top.
Ash only targeted Jaxon Shipley once as a receiver, connecting with him for 15 yards, while Harsin targeted him twice each as a rusher (a pair of sweeps that totaled 13 yards) and running point on the Wildcat (handed it off both times). Davis' re-emergence has lessened the importance of Shipley shining game in and out, but I liked that Harsin was making a conscious effort to get involve Shipley by putting the ball in his hands directly.
As for our tight ends, they joined the offensive line in having their best game of the season as blockers, and helped to set the tone early by sealing the edge to spring Daje on his 84-yard touchdown run on the stretch play. There's more receiving talent in this group than we're actually seeing, but it's a function of where our offense is developmentally right now as much as anything. MJ McFarland continues to show progress and would have had a pair of 20+ yard gains but for poor throws by Ash.
We missed Malcolm Brown against both West Virginia and OU, but if he continues to miss many more games, by the time he does return he may be a lot more redundant than he was a month ago, and if there's a silver lining to Brown's injury, it's all the reps that have gone to Daje Johnson and Jonathan Gray while he's been out. They certainly had no trouble running wild on Saturday night, combining with Bergeron to carve up Baylor for 263 yards on 34 carries (7.7 average) and a ridiculous 7 touchdowns.
That Daje Johnson possesses elite speed is obvious, but it's his toughness that catches you by surprise. He's not a power rusher, but he won't be arm tackled, he's fearless, and his body is strong as hell. He's an impressive, competitive kid whose attitude is infectious. I'm a bigger fan than I thought I'd be.
As for Gray, he once again looked good running the ball, picking up 56 yards on 8 carries against Baylor and scoring his first touchdown as a Longhorn. After a record setting career getting into the end zone in high school, the seven games it took him to get his first in college must have seemed like an eternity, but he's been close, it was just a matter of time, and he's been damn impressive in the ways that lead to touchdowns -- whether by him or someone else. Touchdowns are like the RBI in baseball in being partly a measure of opportunity. Joe Bergeron waves hello.
Speaking of whom, Bergeron also had his strongest game of the season, gashing the Bears for 117 yards on 19 carries (6.2 average), and practically hogging the end zone for himself, with 5 touchdowns on the night -- nearly matching Ricky Williams' single-game mark of 6 touchdowns (which Williams did twice). Bergeron's big day was due in part to the gigantic holes he had to run through, but Bergeron also looked healthier than he has in weeks, running with acceleration and power that has been lacking in recent weeks when he's looked a step slow and hampered by minor injuries.
On the bright side for this unit, we saw some encouraging individual performances, they held Baylor to 3 of 12 on 3rd down, forced Baylor to kick some field goals, and generally improved as the game went on. After Baylor scored a touchdown on its fourth consecutive drive to take a 28-21 with 11:34 remaining in the second quarter, the Longhorns finally stopped the bleeding that began in the second half in Stillwater and continued more or less unabated for four straight weeks. After allowing Baylor to score 28 points and average 11.8 yards per play across its first 5 drives, the Longhorns defense held the Bears to 22 points and 5.7 yards per play over their final 9 drives, ending 4 possessions with a turnover or forced punt, and a field goal attempt on 3 more. That's a far cry from championship-caliber defense -- and let's be honest, this unit had nowhere to go but up -- but it was a desperately needed step in the right direction.
On the much darker side, the improvement was from Horrendous to Mediocre, and it didn't exactly suggest that Good -- let alone Very Good -- is right around the corner. We saw many of the same players make many of the same mistakes, which is why it was fair to say that this was a game between two evenly matched teams. As bad as the Baylor defense is -- and they are dreadful -- we've been right there with them this season.
This post is running long already and we've still got far enough to go that breaking down this unit by positions is of limited use anyway, so I'm just going to offer a few scattered thoughts and wrap this up.
* Josh Turner's size limits him in some important ways right now, but he certainly showed what he can do with his play on Saturday night, making a number of plays that were key to the Horns' improved second half. Turner looks like he has excellent instincts and a very natural feel for football, which is why he looked better out there than the more physically gifted than Myke Thompson or the flat-footed Adrian Phillips. It's hard to say what his upside is, but he flashed impressively in the second half in ways that have been lacking from his competitors on the two-deep.
* The linebackers were a liability once again, but they played the best their best game since Hicks went out. Talk about damning them with faint praise. Demarco Cobbs finally had some impressive moments making plays on the ball and finished with a season-high 7 tackles, including several that drew a double take from me as I checked to see: "Was that really No. 7?" Kendall Thompson still doesn't really know what he's doing out there, but continues to play athletically in ways that make me think -- or at least hope -- that a good football player is eventually going to emerge when the game slows down from experience. And the same is probably more true of Edmond than it often seems; he's progressing, notwithstanding my elevated expectations for where he should be on the development curve by now.
The reality is that this unit is going to be a liability the rest of the way this season. How much of one depends on whether Hicks returns to play, but looking forward beyond this season, the more important question is how much these guys can improve, and with that I include the ability of our linebackers coach and defensive coordinator to get them there. We saw some progress in the second half this week, but there remains a painfully long way to go.
* I haven't had a chance to rewatch the game and comment from a position of authority, but outside of Okafor the defensive line didn't seem to have a particularly good night. Their impact on the box score certainly seems to match my impression from the game: just 9 tackles, only 1 for a loss and a single QB Hurry. I thought Malcom Brown continued to flash impressively at times, and Cedric Reed did some nice things filling in for Jeffcoat at end, but for the most part this group seemed to get outplayed by their counterparts across the line.
Texas now hits the road for back-to-back road trips at improving Kansas and surging Texas Tech. The Jayhawks still struggle to move the football, but their defense is at least improved over last year's circus in Turner Gill's final year. If nothing else, it'll be a welcomed respite from the brutal run of strong offenses that have been carving up this defense; a good performance may not mean all that much, but for a unit that desperately needs repetition, experience, and improved fundamentals, it's a hugely helpful week if Texas is to improve and make any kind of run down the back stretch of the season.