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What Now? Fixing The Longhorn Offense, Part 1

So, now what?

We Texas fans find ourselves in quite the difficult situation: we have a problem which is relatively easy to diagnose, but, I'm afraid, tremendously difficult to fix. Let's start from the beginning, though.

Up and until the Vince Young Release Party, when the coaches shelved the offense they'd been running to unshackle the greatest player to ever don a collegiate uniform, Greg Davis, Mack Brown and the Longhorns employed a straightforward under-center attack. The results were mostly good, but often disastrous against opponents with good defenses. Bob Stoops reeled off five straight wins against the 'Horns from 2000-04, in large part because he succeeded in preventing Greg Davis from stretching the field. Dink, dunk. Hunt, peck. A yard here. Two there. Whoops, another loss.

When it became clear midway through 2004 that we were wasting Vince Young's strengths in that system, Davis and Brown made some significant changes. By 2005, they'd created an incredibly simple, but devastatingly effective package of plays to highlight Young. Texas ran virtually every play out of the same formation. The variations were reads for Young to make. Keep the ball, hand it off, or, on the pass plays, freeze six guys who are petrified he might take off at any second.

We won a national championship with Vince Young. And we wouldn't have if Davis and Brown hadn't properly utilized him. Mack Brown and Greg Davis will always get a lot of love from me for that reason alone. They did it. We won it. It was freaking glorious...

But Vince is gone and things have unraveled as quickly as they came together. With Saturday's embarrassing loss to Kansas State, the Vince Young honeymoon officially ends and we've got to start figuring out what to do next.

The McCoy Conjecture

Way back in June of this year, I took a look at Texas' 2006 body of work and concluded that Texas would sink or swim with Colt McCoy's health and effectiveness. The operating theory was based on a look at how McCoy valiantly resurrected the team - beginning with OU - with a flurry of outstanding passing performances. Moreover, when McCoy went down against Kansas State, the wheels of the team came off.

I think I was right that McCoy's strong play last year was the reason for our offensive success and that his injury killed our high hopes for the season. But my prediction for 2007 turned out to be quite wrong: In applying the lessons of last year to speculating how we might be effective in 2007, I wrote:

All told, I'm sold on the idea that the wins will come to the degree that Colt performs well. Which means that the pass blocking in general, and Tony Hills in particular, are far more important than anything else. That, and Greg Davis' willingness not to get overly-caught up in an "establish the run at all costs" mindset. If he sees thinks like I do (and the evidence from last year indicates he does), his gameplan will work quite the opposite - spreading the field, using Colt-to-Quan/Finley as his running game of sorts, while stretching the field with Sweed and Shipley. Once teams get tired of that particular form of punishment, there ought to be ample room for Charles and Co. to scamper about.

That's a fine idea in theory, but we've encountered several ugly problems in application so far this year:

  1. Texas has failed to stretch the field with the vertical passing game.
  1. McCoy has been neither healthy nor effective.

The first point is a long-standing complaint about Greg Davis among Longhorn fans. When the tough teams come to town, the Texas offensive gameplan retreats to a predictable, conservative, mess of timidity.

The second point, though, is far more complicated. I'm not surprised, then, that the Sunday Morning Quarterback foreshadowed this way back in July:

McCoy, out of necessity and opportunity (his receivers are a pretty first-rate group), has evolved into the role of primary playmaker, who is now expected to make hay of adverse situations. This can be a very good development, and almost certainly will be if Charles' slightly diminished star is in fact back on the rise. Or it could be too much to put on a competitor who reached his physical ceiling very quickly and needs a degree of balance. Nobody seems to have given a lot of thought to the latter case...

And indeed we did not.

What's was awkwardly obvious to Texas fans through the Longhorns' four non-conference games in 2007 was painfully, fatally exposed for the rest of the world on Saturday in Austin: teams have made adjustments to the McCoy-based offense, and Texas has failed to make proper counter-adjustments.

Greg Davis abandoned a successful running game in the first quarter Saturday with his decision to start rolling Colt McCoy out of a pocket that was holding strong. The result? Disaster. McCoy started getting hammered by K-State defenders on the perimeter. He suffered a concussion. He threw interceptions. Davis just couldn't get away from it, though. At one point, Davis called 11 straight pass plays, none of them more than 15 yards down the field.

It was an unmitigated disaster, and Texas lost.

In Part 2 we'll discuss where to go from here.