Erich Schlegel - Getty Images
Manny Diaz faces adversity for the first time, Bryan Harsin and Dana Holgorsen battle to control the style of the game, and the Longhorns defense looks to slow down the hottest quarterback in the country.
Texas is ranked in the Top 10 at 4-0, it's a genuinely exciting time to be a Longhorns fan again, and the importance of last Saturday's gutty win in Stillwater simply cannot be overstated... but watching this team has been like a season of Curb Your Enthusiasm: an over-the-top farce that's brilliant at times, cringe-inducing at others, and consistent only in providing the unexpected.
Who knows what's in store for us this week, but if the first four games are any indication, it should be damn exciting to find out. Let's dive into this week's key match ups.
Manny Diaz vs Adversity
Wescott is right: it's far too soon to conclude Manny Diaz is in over his head. But neither is there any sense in pretending there's nothing worrying about the way this defense is performing. After the Pokes gouged this group for a ridiculous 8.6 yards per play -- the third time in four games the Longhorns D has allowed an opponent at least 6.0 yards per play -- the word that comes to mind isn't 'struggling'... but 'broken'.
Again, whether or not the defense needs to undergo a serious operation is a separate question from whether Manny Diaz is capable of performing the surgery, but part of what makes this both bewildering and concerning is that we're in uncharted territory here. Manny Diaz has been nothing less than exceptional at every stage of his young career, but while one conclusion his track record suggests is that what we're seeing is anomalous (and thus something we can reasonably expect to improve), the other is that we're seeing the first wave of successful counterattacks to Diaz's approach to defense.
If that's the case, the question is whether or not Diaz can and will make successful adjustments of his own. And we simply don't know the answer to that question yet, because Diaz has never faced anything like this before -- we literally have no data on his ability to adjust after having his ass whipped. It's uncharted territory, but to the extent there's any good news, it's that everything we do know about Diaz provides reason to believe he's intelligent, analytical, and capable enough to make adjustments and successfully navigate a new course, as needed.
Whatever lies ahead, the other thing we know for sure is that Manny Diaz's honeymoon is officially over. It's always fun while it lasts.
Texas' Front Four vs Three Mississippi
One Mississippi + Two Mississippi + Three Mississippi = Touchdown
What's that? That's Geno's Law, and it's science.
A key feature of Dana Holgorsen's "basketball on grass" is the quick-hitting and underneath passing game that punishes both the defense that sells out to create pressure, as well as the one that schemes to deny opportunities in the vertical passing game. As a junior and now senior, Geno Smith has proven adept at recognizing both before the ball is snapped, and knows exactly where to go with the ball each time that he does. But what makes this version of Holgorsoen's offense so dangerous is is Smith's ability to dominate downfield. He's got a premier big play receiver in Tavon Austin, throws the best deep ball in the country (just a notch below RGIII, the best we've seen in a long time), and is absolutely lethal when he has time and space to step into a throw.
Whatever else a defense does defensively against West Virginia, the single most effective counter-measure to Holgorsen's offense is consistently disruptive play from the front four. Smith and his receivers have grown remarkably adept at punishing defenses that attempt to create pressure with a numbers advantage, and the better bet -- for anyone, but especially this Texas defense right now -- is to structure your alignments aiming to keep everything in front of your safeties, play your corners up, load the back seven with defenders who can tackle in space, and look to your front four to be a disruptive force. To the extent you're able to do all of that successfully, you force the Mountaineers to slow themselves down by committing bodies to blocking or to gamble on Geno Smith beating you with a superhuman performance under pressure.
But that's much easier said than done, of course, and although Texas will need to excel in each of those regards, none may make as decisive a difference as the play of Texas' front four. Because if West Virginia could win that battle without compromising what it wants to do, or the time and space with which Smith has to do it? Geno's Law says we don't want to find out.
Dana Holgorsen vs The Ghost of Mike Leach
Pop quiz: when was the last time that Texas Tech scored a rushing touchdown in Austin? You have to go back five full games, all the way back to 2003, when Taurean Henderson punched in three rushing touchdowns in a 43-40 loss. The '03 game was also the last time the Red Raiders rushed for over 100 yards in Austin and -- not coincidentally -- the closest they've come to stealing a win at DKR. In the four games since, Texas Tech has nearly been doubled up by the Longhorns on the scoreboard (182 to 98) and managed just 1.5 yards per rush, having gained an abysmal 34 yards on 62 carries since '07.
Dana Holgorsen and West Virginia face the same challenge: when they can pop a defense on the ground to keep it honest, the offense is at its most explosive and enormously difficult to slow down, but the system often meets its limitations when that effectiveness on the ground disappears. The Mountaineers were feeling good about their rushing attack heading into the season and opened up 2012 by shredding Marshall for 331 rushing yards on 35 carries, but coinciding with an injury to starting tailback Shane Alston in the first half of West Virginia's second game, the production of the ground game has dried up considerably -- including a 25 yards on 25 carries showing against Maryland.
Just as the issue with Leach was less the quantity of rushes as their quality, West Virginia doesn't -- and doesn't need to -- try to run the ball a lot, or seek run-pass balance, but it is Holgorsen's objective to be effective in spots, and particularly with the way that this Texas defense has played this season so far, he will surely be eager to take advantage of the ground-based opportunities that the Longhorns' last two opponents have exploited so well.
Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, it was reported yesterday that Alston remains injured and will not even make the trip with the team to Austin, which leaves Holgorsen hoping to get more from diminutive sophomores Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison, picking his spots to get Tavon Austin some touches on runs, and using short passes as effective rush plays.
Or, perhaps... Geno Smith. Although he's a true pocket-passer QB and Holgorsen surely won't be eager to submit his superstar to a pounding, after watching the film on the Texas defense it's going to be awfully hard not to work in at least some rushing plays for Smith, who is athletic enough to be a Colt McCoy-like rusher and would make an effective weapon directing the various QB-involved rushing plays that have given this Texas defense trouble.
WVU's Spread n Shred vs Texas' Ground n Pound
Saturday's match up will in part be a battle for stylistic control of the game. West Virginia wants Texas to have to win a shootout, to have to keep scoring and scoring -- and even better, to have to play from behind -- while Bryan Harsin will be interested in keeping Geno Smith parked on the sidelines watching Texas' offense methodically pound West Virginia down the field.
Less so last week than following the three previous games, quite a few Texas fans watched the Longhorns' offense each week grow more and more effective as the game wore on and -- though pleased with the overall results -- took to grumbling lightly about wanting to see Harsin start the ass kicking a lot sooner. Texas' relatively quiet first quarters deemed plays wasted to undue caution early in the game.
While I understand the sentiment, I think it's the wrong lens through which to evaluate what Harsin is actually doing. I've actually been most impressed with the impenetrable discipline Harsin demonstrates in methodically executing his game plan, start to finish. We all love the fireworks when they arrive, but the later plays are developed from earlier plays -- you can't, in other words, just start with the payoff... you need the set up, too.
I'd rather not be in a position to find out, but this week could test Harsin's commitment to the script if West Virginia puts up anything resembling what we saw last week in Morgantown against Baylor. God help us if we do, but at some point Harsin's plan would become incompatible with the situation on the field, and Texas would be forced to try to win the game West Virginia wants to play. Much better, of course, would be to see the Longhorns win that battle, with West Virginia struggling to play their style and forced to grind out a tough, physical win.
This is already running long and it's Friday afternoon, so let's finish out with this week's quick hitters:
Demarco Cobbs vs Playing Time
This was supposed to be precisely the type of opponent where Cobbs' speed would help him shine, but he's been so ineffective and looked so uncertain that Texas is literally wasting a defender if he continues to play without improvement. It's time for a big step forward, or the bench.
Steve Edmond vs His Limitations
By contrast, a fair amount of the struggles of Texas' middle linebacker are not nearly so discouraging, but rather the types you'd generally expect to see from a first-year starter -- and mixed in with strong plays that reflect Edmond's value and long-term upside. Part of his struggles, however, are the result of Edmond being deployed in ways that are beyond his limitations. That's on Manny Diaz, and West Virginia is an opponent who can and will both identify and take advantage of those kinds of vulnerabilities.
Manny Diaz vs Limited Options
If Cobbs remains ineffective, Edmond can't be asked to play a role of which he's incapable, and Hicks is injured and can't play, then... what? Dalton Santos has his uses, but is very green, very raw, and is similarly limited to Edmond. Kendall Thompson has flashed nicely at moments and increasingly looks like a player we'll be hoping to see develop quickly, on the field, this season, with hopes he can take on a bigger role. Depending how long Hicks remains out and/or Cobbs fails to improve, the same may be true of Tevin Jackson, as well. And if the other options don't look viable, Diaz may just turn to Kenny Vaccaro, and take what he can get from the young defensive backs like Evans and Thompson.
Anthony Fera's Health vs Mack Brown's Blood Pressure
How horrible a feeling was it last week to watch Texas embark on a game-winning drive, with absolutely zero confidence that a field goal attempt outside 30 yards would actually deliver the win?
Receiving Corps vs Receiving Corps
Two of the Big 12's most productive units in the early going just keep getting better and better each week. The way these defenses are playing, they may both continue that trend, but the explosiveness of the other guys puts pressure on each group to continue to excel on Saturday.
Texas Fans vs Habit
The Longhorn fan base is a fantastic one in so many amazing ways, but being raucous isn't one of them. At least not usually... But with the team at 4-0, back in the Top 10, playing West Virginia for the first time -- who's also ranked in the Top 10 -- I expect that this will be the loudest, most fired up crowd we've seen at DKR since the night game against Missouri in 2008. That one went fairly well for us, I'd say...
DJ Monroe vs The World
What, are you gonna bet against him?
Yeah, me neither.