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Nebraska Positional Review: Offense

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We're going to switch it up this week and do the offensive and defensive report cards all at once, rather than in separate posts. It'll make it longer, but will help to tie everything in together.

Quarterback

Is Colt McCoy really a freshman? McCoy played like an upperclassman on Saturday, completing 25 of 39 passes for 220 yards, with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. What I like most about McCoy - and this may be one of those characteristics he's developed from being the son of a coach - is that he gets better as the game goes on, every single time. It was true again yesterday, as McCoy came out a little bit timid to explode for a monstrous second quarter.

Early in the game, I noted that McCoy was hanging back five yards deep instead of stepping into the nice open pocket that his line was creating. But by the second quarter, he was stepping into that pocket - and into his throws - to great results.

Perhaps most impressive about the young McCoy is his ability to hang in and deliver great passes in the face of oncoming blitzes. The 55 yard strike to Limas Sweed was, once again, delivered just as he took on a powerful blow from a blitzing defender. The ball arched high through the gusting Lincoln wind and dropped perfectly in front of Sweed for a catch-in-stride completion and, eventually, a touchdown. Those are not the throws of freshmen, ladies and gentlemen. You just don't see that kind of poise and accuracy from such young passers.

After a week in which he was both good and bad against Baylor, I thought McCoy was almost universally good on Saturday, and in a game in which there were a host of heroes for us to celebrate, none were more impressive, or critical, than McCoy. After Texas forced that one last, improbable turnover, it was no sure thing that Texas would get in field goal range. The Nebraska football gods seemed to throw all that they had left at him, amping up the wind and snow that would have stalled many of even the most seasoned quarterbacks. Not McCoy. He did what Texas needed him to do, and Ryan Bailey took care of the rest. The legend of McCoy grows each week. And anything short of a Grade: A would be an injustice to his first, nasty trip outside the state of Texas. Congratulations, young man.

Running Backs

For all the credit you must give Greg Davis and the Texas coaching staff for their work with McCoy, you have to wonder when and how they intend to fix the running game. The problem is not an ineffectiveness with the talent - both Young and Charles continue to look good out there. It is an ineffectiveness of scheme, wherein too many plays are running east-to-west, rather than vertically. As the talented runners dance about on the edges, defenses swarm to stop them before they can get any momentum.

The coaches have said that they are "phasing out" the zone read. I appreciate the sentiment, but it's time to accelerate the timetable here. Colt is a fine runner, and should be used on designed run plays from time to time. But the idea that the running game is best suited in a one-back, shotgun formation is becoming laughable. Davis did flash some of the new formations at times - to positive results, we note - but they were just that, flashes, an not the cornerstone of the attack. The time is nigh for Texas to make the full switch. McCoy has proven himself capable of running the offense from behind center, and the tailbacks are simply being underutilized by the current scheme.

As for their performance, I thought both Young and Charles ran the ball well yesterday. There's no doubt that they remain an elite 1-2 punch, whichever your preference for 1 or 2. The one area in which they struggled yesterday was in blitz pickups, notably in the first half. Young, in particular, missed blitzing defenders on three separate occasions in the first half. Adjustments were made, and both performed better in the second half, and for the season, both have been excellent in that regard. For yesterday, we'll simply give them a Grade: B and note that it's time to make some changes in scheme.

Receivers

Limas Sweed's making a case for All-American. He really is. The comfort he and McCoy have with each other is simply uncanny, and without his tremendous play yesterday, Texas probably loses. He came through with eight catches, 119 yards, and one of Texas' two offensive touchdowns. I don't know if I was more impressed with his 55 yard deep catch for a score, or his consistent ability to make the tough catches on third down that moved the chains. The latter catches are the ones that have made him an elite pass catcher, I think. He's learned to leverage that big frame of his to shield defenders and put himself in the position to make the drive-sustaining catches. He looks like Dwayne Jarret, frankly, and if he played for USC this season, he'd probably be getting more All American attention.

It wasn't just Sweed, of course. Pittman and Cosby each had solidd games, especially the latter. Cosby hauled in a touchdown, and had several huge catches at critical junctures of the game, including a third down catch and run that kept Texas alive in the final seconds. It was, incidentally, the only flanker screen that worked for the afternoon.

Jermichael Finley also had a very nice day, and it was really encouraging to see the emerging confidence McCoy has in trying to find him in the middle of the field. Finley caught four footballs Saturday, three for first downs. That's an element of the passing game that was, literally non-existent early in the season, and Finley's breakout is now officially on the cusp. Neale Tweedie, for his part, buried himself further in my doghouse with a maddening false start penalty inside the five yard line that probably cost the Horns a touchdown.

In the nasty weather, it would have been easy for the Texas receivers to have an anonymous afternoon, but they were as critical to the win as anyone else. Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The group was mostly good, especially in the middle, where Sendlein, Blalock, and Studdard were a brick wall against Nebraska's unceasing max-blitzes. The tackles did a reasonably good job with Nebraska's two outstanding defensive ends, though they were each beat more than once. Tony Hills, in particular, got eaten up by the quicker Jay Moore on several occasions.

Let's not forget, too, the fumble recoveries from the big fellas. Both Ulatoski and Studdard each had game saving recoveries in the fourth quarter, sustaining Texas' push to victory. I was a little bit concerned by Ced Dockery's season-ending injury, but as was noted at the time, it was the one guy Texas could afford to lose. Blalock has seemlessly transitioned to the guard spot, while Ulatoski has proven his readiness in back to back weeks. Grade: B+

Offensive Coaching

The temptation here is to crucify Davis for his play calling, and we're going to get into some of that momentarily. Still, let's take a moment to appreciate the other aspect of offensive coaching - preparation. If there's a better quarterbacks coach in the country, I'd love to meet him, because the job Davis has done in his tenure at Texas is unparalleled. From Applewhite to Simms to Vince to Colt, the Longhorns have enjoyed elite quarterback play every season. The rapid development of McCoy, in particular, illuminates Davis' immense QB coaching skills.

Still, as we all know, Davis can mystify at times with his play calling, and Saturday was no exception. What's odd is that Davis' greatest strength is play calling with a lead. And he failed miserably in that regard on Saturday. Up 16-7 at half, with all the momentum you could reasonably ask for, the Texas coaches made a very, very curious decision. Forced to kick off to Nebraska, who had deferred their option in the first half, Texas chose to take the wind. I guess the rationale was to make Nebraska start their offense into the wind, and there's some logic to that, but the logic was lost on me when, as Texas got the ball back, the Horns retreated into a very conservative play calling that one would assume to see from a team going into the wind.

To make a long story short, the biggest complaint I had with Davis' afternoon was his decision to retreat with a lead. There are times to protect a lead, but up nine, on the road, when your offense just came off a monster second quarter? Not one of them. Texas should have been going for the kill, but they played to survive. And as we all saw, we were lucky to.

The red zone offense was a disaster, in large part because we have no identity down there. The only time Davis trusted McCoy to throw it into the end zone was on a play when Texas was one down away from kicking a winning field goal.

Texas ran no fewer than six flanker screens, and only the last one of the day - to Cosby, on third down to keep Texas alive in its last, game-winning drive - saved the play from being "worst play on any one single day, ever." Nebraska just ate the play up. Between the eleventeen defenders surrounding the line of scrimmage, and Nebraska's two best defensive players (defensive ends), the play made no sense. What would have made more sense for Texas yesterday would have been a flurry of crossing routes. The Huskers were playing their corners deep, and bringing everyone else on blitzes or run support. The middle of the field was open.

We've also touched on the limited effectiveness of the running game. Charles and Young made the most of their opportunities, but they're really succeeding in spite of the scheme, not because of it. All told, it's time for Davis to 1) accelerate the phasing out of the shotgun, one-back, zone-read stuff, 2) implement a more pro-style attack, and 3) get more aggressive with his weapons. With McCoy playing the way he is now, there's little cover for Davis to hide behind. With each passing week, it's becoming harder and harder to say that you want to protect the young guy. At this point, it's time to use the young guy more. And to put those tailbacks in a position to get going north-south. Let's save our vitriol for next week and see how Davis adjusts. Call me optimistic, but I'd bet he gets it sooner rather than later. Grade: C-

Overall

The group proved itself quite capable on Saturday, all things considered. The offense has come a long way since September, when it was without identity. The key now is to adjust the offense to fit the developments of the players, and that will be on Mssr. Davis. Those that dislike him ought to watch closely how Texas finishes the season. If the unit stalls out, you'll be justified in your complaints. Those of us that are more cautiously optimistic, we'll also need to watch closely. If things amp up as we think they can, we'll be justified in our feelings that Davis is - though flawed, like everyone else - overall a good coach.

It was just an odd game for Texas. The Horns probably should have won by 20 points, truth be told. I was dead wrong about the weather being an advantage for the Horns; it was clearly an advantage for the Huskers. And though I understand keeping things limited to open up the game, McCoy and the gang proved themselves up to the task of moving the football, climate be damned. The red zone ineptitude was embarrassing, and nearly cost Texas a game. It's something we've got to improve, and immediately.

I'll take Saturday's win for what it was, though, and note the room to improve. I'll give credit to the guys for what they did well, and expect the coaches to learn from what they saw. Grade: B+

--PB--