On to the defense, where things were mostly excellent, but with some caveats.
There's not a single player in this group not playing good football. Frank Okam, Roy Miller, and Derek Lokey are utterly devastating football players on the interior. Even fifth-year senior Thomas Marshall chipped in some good football last night, deflecting a football which Rodderick Muckelroy intercepted.
The ends have been outstanding, as well. Aaron Lewis plays his position as solidly as you could ask for. It's nothing flashy - just a steady stream of good play. And how about Lamarr Houston? Rice simply could not deal with him last night. If he wasn't making a tackle, he was flushing Clement out of the pocket. He went around blocks and through blocks. He has better speed than it looks like he'd have. He's just an excellent football player.
Eddie Jones made a couple nice plays himself before leaving with a shoulder injury. No word yet on whether he'll be available next week.
Well... let's see. The starters were once again bad. If it were another team, and not our own, it would really be a pretty funny story. Since it's our team, though, we're left pulling our hair out. Rashaad Bobino is simply ineffective, running straight into blocks and never disengaging. Scott Derry isn't exactly inept, but he's merely adequate. Robert Killebrew hasn't made a play all season.
Last night was particularly painful, with Rice enjoying every single meaningful drive when the starters were on the field. All those three and outs? When the young crew was on the field.
That young crew - Rodderick Muckelroy, Jared Norton, and Sergio Kindle - played great football last night. They can really fly around the field, but they do so in a purposeful manner. They make blockers miss or, if a blocker arrives, figure out how to shed them. They're getting better and better about being patient, then using speed to close space and make plays. They hit hard. They have good instincts. They make the Texas defense a legitimate contender for the Big 12 title.
And I think it's that simple: either these guys get the vast majority of the snaps from here on out and Texas fields a strong defense, or the veterans keep playing and cost Texas (at least) a game or two. It was crystal clear watching live last night. It was crystal clear watching the replay this morning. The coaches cannot possibly miss this. Can they?
It was a mixed bag in the secondary. Let's start with the good stuff and Marcus Griffin, who's playing better and better football each week. He probably had the best game of his career last night, delivering big hits, covering well, and making an absolutely silly diving catch for an interception. You have to tip your hat to this young man, who's come a long way to become a great football player.
Elsewhere, Erick Jackson and Drew Kelson each played well enough, assisting nicely in run support and performing adequately in coverage support. Texas once again faced a subpar passing attack, however, so we don't know just yet what we've got here.
The cornerbacks remain a different story. Ryan Palmer was mostly good last night, making a couple nice plays on the football while continuing to tackle well. True sophomore Deion Beasley got the start over an injured Brandon Foster (quadriceps), with inconsistent results. Beasley's certainly got a lot of athletic ability, but he's getting all turned around with his footwork and finding himself with too much ground to make up to make a play on the ball.
Other youngsters saw the field last night as well, with both Chykie Brown and Curtis Brown getting second half snaps. Curtis got his Welcome to the NCAAs moment when he lost track of his man for a moment.
The cornerbacks remain a big question mark as this team heads into conference play. Once again, we have to ask: can we expect them to cover OU's outstanding WRs? It's going to be quite a test.
The defense literally looks ridiculous when those starting LBs are in the game. I say that because it's just so weird to watch Bobino blitz himself into a block over and over again, while Killebrew flops around like a fish out of water. I'm sure they're great guys and important team leaders and all, but they aren't good at the important thing - playing linebacker.
To his credit, Akina gave those young guys a lot more work this week. They looked great and gave the defense an instant, total makeover. It's not just what they do themselves, either. Our secondary needs some protecting this year, but they're up a creek with no paddle if they have to protect the subpar linebackers.
Think of it another way: a team might be able to hide three bad linebackers with a dominant front four and a shutdown secondary. Alternatively, a team might be able to hide a questionable secondary with a dominant front seven.
The solution here is obvious, of course. Insert the playmaking linebackers and work on developing the secondary. There's a lot of young CB talent on this roster, and Ryan Palmer looks like an adequate placeholder for 2007. Some of you are hopeful that Brandon Foster can be a good player, and though I'm more skeptical of that happening, I'm hopeful that Beasley's on-the-job training will lead to steady improvement. Ditto Chykie Brown, if we can get him some more work.
Besides the personnel, there's the issue of scheme, which was better this week. The first three Rice drives were a bit perplexing, with more of those incessant Here Comes The LB Blitz! series Akina's so fond of. But adjustments were steadily made after that, with Akina doing what he talked about doing this offseason - using the illusion of pressure as a weapon. This was especially effective with the younger LBs, who crept up to the line, showed blitz, then drifted back at the snap of the ball. They were free to make plays, and they made them. A better balance of blitz vs show blitz will continue to help this team. That front four can create a lot of problems on its own. Strategic blitzing is much wiser than the more kamikaze approach.
Overall, Akina did a lot of the things we hoped he'd do, both in terms of personnel and scheme. Those trends need to continue, of course, but he gets a high mark for Rice week.