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2004 Season Review: Part 1 of 3

We?ve diligently worked our way through the Mack Brown era, breaking down the successes, the failures, and everything in between. Our last look, the 2003 season, highlighted the arrival of Vince Young and set the stage for the 2004 and 2005 seasons. In that breakdown I mentioned that Vince Young?s ascendancy to the top of the CFB mountain was defined by three games: OU 2003, Missouri 2004, and the Rose Bowl against Michigan. Today?s look at 2004, the first of a three part series, explores the offensive philosophical shift that unfolded over the course of the year.

Yesterday MGoBlog?s Brian published an interesting post that, along with making Hal Mumme look smart, made a very counterintuitive point.

You really would be best served to read Brian?s post in its entirety, as well as the article he?s discussing. But, to sum:

The idea here is that if your results from the running and passing are out of wack you should be adjusting your run-pass ratio in a counterintuitive fashion because the defense will be expecting you to do what you're good at. If your yards per play for both are approximately equal with the addition of a "passing premium" of about a yard per play, your offense is operating with the correct balance between run and pass: you've reached a Nash equilibrium that balances what your offense is good at with game theory considerations.

As relates to Texas and Vince Young, this is especially interesting, for a number of reasons. I?ve been trying to work through 2004 for a while now, as it marked a clear turning point for Vince Young, Greg Davis, and Mack Brown. It led to a national title, so I ?really- want to know: what happened, and why it worked.

First, take a look at these interesting numbers, broken down per Brian?s post (sacks are counted as pass attempts, the yards lost subtracted from passing totals, etc.)

Texas 2003-2005
Year Rushes Yards YPC -- Passes Yards YPP
2003 562 3202 5.69 -- 354 2507 7.08
2004 604 3881 6.43 -- 286 1898 6.63
2005 589 3676 6.24 -- 350 2981 8.52

The dip in passing productivity in 2004 immediately jumps out. Well, what happened? A couple things: some intuitive, some not.

Dem Receivers? Not so good

First, Roy Williams and BJ Johnson graduated. Do you remember the motley crew that Vince was passing to in 2004? Vince had two good tight ends (Scaife, Thomas) but virtually no reliable receivers. Sweed, a freshman, was getting pushed around. Tony Jeffrey played admirably, but was hardly a go-to guy that could create separation for himself. Ramonce Taylor, also a freshman, was used sparingly until late in the year. Nate Jones was merely adequate. You get the picture. Part of the blame goes to the quarterback, but dismissing the importance of quality wide receivers is foolish.

Consider the change between the 2004 and 2005 group. The ?05 unit had Billy Pittman, who is incredibly good at finding open space and creating separation (he was on the receiving end of four touchdowns of 60 yards or more). Limas Sweed wasn?t consistent enough, and was by means elite, but he was miles ahead of his freshman capabilities. By the end of the year, Vince had Pittman, Sweed, and a surging Quan Cosby to throw to, along with one of the nation?s best tight ends. While Vince certainly improved, the development of the receivers was as instrumental to the passing gains in 2005 as anything else. And, as pertains to 2004, as much of a part of the problem as anything else.

Cedric Bensonitis

The second problem gets in to what Brian was talking about, leads us through (another) OU loss, through the lousy Missouri game, and up to the ?turning point? for Vince Young, Greg Davis, and Mack Brown.

The 2004 loss to OU was spectacularly frustrating. The Greg Robinson coached defense kept OU in check (12 points allowed), despite a heroic effort from freshman Adrian Peterson. It was the offense that stalled.

Greg Davis and Mack Brown still didn?t trust opening up the game for Vince Young, which meant lots and lots of Cedric Benson, with overly-predictable Vince Young rushes. Texas rushed the ball 37 times for a lousy 4.7 average. The passing was miserable, too, to the tune of 26 pass plays (counting sacks) for a 2.53 average.

And now Brian?s numbers provide the Eureka! moment. Texas? strength was running the ball. The problem, though, was that everybody knew it. I knew it, you knew it, Mack Brown knew it, Bob Stoops knew it ? hell, the Heisman Pundit probably even knew it. The intuitive thought is: well, then rush the ball. Not so, however, as we?re learning. Greg Davis should have been throwing the ball against Oklahoma. They?re expecting you to zig? For God?s sake ? zag!

Texas needed to let out Vince Young?s inner Rico more often.

The article Brian linked to provided a few interesting examples, but I witnessed first hand the brilliance of this concept all January as Pittsburgh made a surprising run through the AFC playoffs.

Ken Wisenhunt, their offensive coordinator, found himself in a situation not unlike the one Texas was in. The Steeler offense was known for doing one thing exceptionally well ? pounding the pigskin down your throat on the ground. So what happened? Wisenhunt came out gunning with Roethlisberger, trusting him to throw more than he ever had. The results were astonishing ? the pass game exploded, opened up big leads, and the defense took care of the rest.

Well, something similar happened in Austin in 2004 after another lousy offensive performance, this time against Missouri. Mack Brown sat down with Greg Davis and Vince Young and effectively took off the reins. He told Vince to play like he was back on the playground. He told Greg Davis to let Vince loose throwing a little more. The old idea of playing conservatively, which had buried Texas through three years of Chris Simms and nearly two with Vince Young, was properly euthanized.

The results weren?t perfect right away, but by the end of the season, Vince Young had grown into an unstoppable force, and Texas had achieved that ideal balance. The Rose Bowl numbers? 45 rushes for 269 yards, a 5.97 average. And through the air? 29 pass plays for 175 yards, an average of 6.03.

In fact, the numbers for the 2004 season reflected a nice balance, but they only came about because Davis and Brown allowed Young to throw more. At the midpoint in the season, Texas? numbers were well out of wack. When they finally let Vince loose a little more, the passing numbers caught up with the rushing numbers. It was too late to get back the Oklahoma loss, but then again, that loss has preceded 20 straight victories. All?s well that ends well, right?

In Part 2 we?ll look at the 2004 defense, while Part 3 will conclude with a Rose Bowl tribute.