In the midst of a four-game winning streak punctuated by dominant performances against Oklahoma and TCU, it's easy to forgive the Texas Longhorns a few warts here and there after the abominable stretch of games against BYU and Ole Miss.
Head coach Mack Brown, however, is not one of those, mentioning in his Wednesday media availability that he's excited about the team moving forward because he believes that is plenty of room for improvement.
"I'm excited about where we are and moving forward," Brown said. "The biggest excitement for me is that I don't t think we have even scratched the surface of how good this team could be. We have got five tough weeks here so we need to do that. We have got to improve and I want to see it this weekend."
Indeed, beating Baylor at the least will likely require consistent and substantive improvement over the next month.
But where does Brown think Texas needs to get better?
"We had two interceptions at the end of the game that we have got to get rid of," he said. "We had too many negative runs against TCU and put us in third-and-long way too many times. We had the trick play fool us."
"We aren't returning kickoffs like we should. We have got one of the best returners in the country with the ability. So if he can do it on punts, why can't he do it on kickoffs? We had an 80-something yard punt return called back. We aren't covering kickoffs properly. We are trying hard but we are taking poor angles and we are missing tackles. These are just a few things, all of which we can do better."
Let's address each of those issues one by one.
Case McCoy interceptions
McCoy's interception rate sits at 2.1% after the two interceptions against TCU, a number that is entirely acceptable overall -- consider that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has a 2.8% interception rate right now.
As far as the throws are concerned, the first interception came in a tempo situation after the long completion to Kendall Sanders down the sideline that got Texas out from the shadow of their own goal line. The Horns tried to take advantage of the big pass play by attempting another deep pass -- McCoy threw a post route to Mike Davis essentially on trust, even though he had not yet created separation from TCU cornerback Jason Verrett.
Give credit to Verrett on the play, because he didn't allow Davis to cross his face, so his positioning let him play the ball with Davis having no opportunity to break up the pass.
The game was already well in hand at that point and the pass essentially ended up being like a punt, which diminished the negative impact.
The second interception was much less excusable, as McCoy threw recklessly into heavy coverage. For the most part he has gotten away with that this year and did so earlier in the game on a similarly dangerous throw, but no matter the time and score, it was a pass that shouldn't have been thrown.
Play caller Major Applewhite can't completely protect McCoy from himself with a stubborn run game and most of the shot plays working down the sidelines where he throws an excellent fade route -- it's up to McCoy not to have those moments where he reverts to his old gunslinger ways.
The Horned Frogs registered eight tackles for loss against Texas, right below their season average of 8.5 per game. Currently sitting at No. 2 nationally with 68 on the season, TCU has had only two games with below eight tackles for loss -- LSU (six) and Oklahoma (seven).
Clearly, games against that defense will result in some negative plays.
As mentioned earlier in the week, the offensive line has done a much better job of avoiding missed blocks, so these tackles for loss weren't indicative of consistent massive failures in execution and were enabled to some extent by TCU keying on the run.
While the offensive line still has some room for improvement, the best way to reduce the type of negative plays made by TCU is to pass the ball more often, something that isn't likely to happen at this time with McCoy at quarterback.
The trick play
The only offensive play of any significance for the Horned Frogs in terms of damage to the Longhorn defense was the double pass from Cameron Echols-Luper to LaDarius Brown, with safety Josh Turner busting his coverage on Brown because he didn't have his eyes right, even though he should have noticed from the positioning of Echols-Luper deep behind the line of scrimmage that it was not a typical screen pass.
In defense of Turner, TCU had just run a screen and was using their tempo to allow for little alignment time.
Besides working on discipline, the fix that the coaches made to address these types of issues in the future was to make Leroy Scott the co-back up with Turner to give the South Houston product his first significant opportunity at playing time since he's been at Texas.
It's not easy to return kicks now as most teams have kickers that can put the ball into the end zone. However, there are teams in the country that manage to do it and Texas is not one of them, ranking tied for 56th nationally with an average of 21.75 per return, despite the presence of numerous explosive athletes in the team. Kendall Sanders had a long return against Ole Miss, but other than that, there hasn't been much.
Part of the problem has been returners taking the ball out from deep in the end zone, which has produced poor results, but the bottom line is that the Horns aren't blocking these plays well and besides several kick return touchdowns over the previous years from DJ Monroe and Marquise Goodwin, it's an area where Texas has failed to excel consistently despite having talented athletes all across the field.
The right players may not be on the kickoff return unit, but it's hard to untangle the struggles besides to say that the coaches and players simply aren't getting it done.
If the Horns have at least managed mediocrity on kickoff returns, kickoff coverage has been downright terrible, as it has been since 2011. Texas currently sits No. 121 nationally, giving up almost 28 yards per return.
Against Oklahoma, a long return from Brennan Clay set up the only offensive touchdown scored by the Sooners on the day and a play that could have seriously changed momentum in the game. Against TCU, there were two long returns, one of which was stopped by Scott just before the return man got to the kicker Nick Rose.
It's rather perplexing to see Rose fail to kick the ball deep into the end zone consistently given that he has the leg strength to do so -- he did put a ball into the stands in DKR during the spring game, for instance.
Getting the proper height on kicks may be the issue in terms of the lack of touchdbacks.
For the coverage team, poor angles, missed tackles, and an inability to beat blocks are the major culprits. The typical assessment of Texas is that the quality of athletes on the team is high enough that covering kicks shouldn't be a problem, conventional wisdom that doesn't exactly hold true when considering that some of the team's weakest athletes are on kick coverage -- players like Chet Moss, Alex De La Torre, and Tim Cole.
With Peter Jinkens not playing right now, why isn't he on the kick coverage team?
Special teams penalties
As Brown mentioned, the punt return touchdown by Daje Johnson was called back because of a block in the back by John Harris, a somewhat questionable call after TCU got away with a similar play on a return.
What's most distressing about the play is the lack of discipline -- Harris had to know that he was too close to the ball to attempt that block and the opposing player clearly had his back to Harris. It just wasn't necessary.
And then there's Bryson Echols, who is penalty waiting to happen with at least three on the season. Echols picked up another one last Saturday for interfering with a catch and helped turn the tide against Texas in the BYU game.
If Texas wants to stress accountability, why does Echols still hold down a gunner spot on punt coverage when he clearly can't be trusted to avoid penalties that change field position?
Brown likes to talk about coaching his players hard after victories and while the team is playing much improved football from earlier in the season, there are still multiple significant points of emphasis moving forward -- the team is surely getting some hard coaching regarding the above topics.
Fix those problems and the Horns will be much closer to fully realizing their upside as a team.