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In the Trenches - The Evolution of a Quarterback

The period of mourning is over and it's time to take a hard look at the MNC game and discover the truths about what happened so we can make honest appraisals about the Horns' prospects for 2010 and beyond. The positive story of the game for the Horns was hands down the "discovery" that Garrett Gilbert will likely be an excellent quarterback. However, in reading the nearly 1000 comments posted in the days since the game, I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about how Gilbert performed, how much or little his teammates helped him, and how Greg Davis called the game. In the process of charting the offensive plays, a different pattern emerges than that related by the quick and thoughtless columns from the mainstream media. Frankly it resembled one of those cartoons by which a fish climbs out of the water to walk on land, becoming a frog, and then a lizard, and then a mammal, and then an ape, and then a human - a rapid transformation that most football fans expect to take years, but happened in the course of 66 plays last Thursday night.

Myth #1. Greg Davis waited until late in the third quarter to open up the playbook and let Gilbert try to win the game. Truth #1. While Davis did call a conservative game for the first couple of series for Gilbert, it wasn't just running the same play over and over - there was still some scheming and a clear attempt to give Gilbert a chance to make a play. By the middle of the second quarter, GD was going for it with middle and deep routes to Shipley, Williams and Buckner.

Myth #2. If Colt had stayed in the game, our offense would have overpowered Alabama for sure. Truth #2. Mistakes by offensive linemen and receivers that have occurred all year were repeated multiply in the MNC, and field position might have led to many of the same play calls and likely outcomes for McCoy. The offense might overall have performed better, but if Colt had to deal with the same mistakes, there's no guarantee that the offense would have flourished all game. There's also no guarantee that Colt wouldn't have stared down Shipley as much as Garrett did, since Colt had a bad habit of that all season as well.

Myth #3. Gilbert was "jittery" and inaccurate until late in the third quarter, and then gained confidence. Truth #3. Gilbert's throws were accurate enough to be caught unless he was throwing into coverage, in which he almost always seemed to put the ball where only a Texas receiver could catch it. It is true he didn't always catch people in stride, but frankly he didn't deliver the ball any less accurately than Colt did in the first half of this season.

Myth #4. The collapse in the final 3 minutes of the game was due to Texas' failures in the offensive line or the playcalling. Truth #4. Give Alabama credit - they actually threw in some new defensive wrinkles that led directly to the sack and fumble and then the interception on the subsequent drive, and I'm not sure whether Colt would/could have handled these any better than Gilbert.

To back this up, I thought that after the jump I would walk through each series so we could all take a detailed look at the evolution of Garrett Gilbert and the happiness I feel in never having to watch this offensive line play again.

Drive 1. Gilbert comes in amid rampant confusion, and rather than call for a simple handoff to get Garrett in the game, Davis calls for the jet sweep, which requires the QB to catch the shotgun snap and immediately hand the ball to a full speed DJ Monroe. It's not rocket science, but it's not the safest play either. After Monroe's run to the 1, the penalty for having too many men in the backfield negates the QB sneak TD. I wouldn't blame Gilbert for that, as I've never seen a Texas formation where three receivers on the same side of the field are all in the backfield, and one of them should have realized it and made an adjustment. It was just the beginning of an overall bad game for Texas receivers not named Jordan Shipley. It was also certainly trusting of GD to assume that Gilbert could run a hurry-up offense 2 plays into the game. After two failed tries to punch it in with Cody Johnson, Davis calls play action and a rollout for Garrett. Antwan Cobb, the primary receiver is double-covered, and Gilbert makes his first real mistake when he doesn't even look for Greg Smith, who is wide open by ten yards in the back middle of the end zone.

Drive 2. After the recovery of the unfielded kickoff, Texas started on the Alabama 30. In similar field position on the previous drive, Texas had run a zone read with Newton getting outside the Bama linebackers for 16 yards. GD makes the same call to the left, but Jordan Shipley cracking back and Adam Ulatoski combined could not seal the outside LB Eryk Anders, and Newton has to cut back inside for only 3 yards. Interestingly, Gilbert made the correct read to hand off, as the opposite side DE stayed home to stop the QB run. After the identical play on second down for 3 more yards, GD shifts from 4-wide receivers to the empty set with 5 wide receivers and no back on 3rd and 4. This formation invites or even requires a blitz from the defense in that down and distance, otherwise, it's pitch and catch for 5 yards and a first down to a receiver with single coverage. So GD is opening the playbook on Gilbert's first obvious passing down. Indeed, Bama brings two blitzers, including a safety. The play call negates the pressure by rolling Gilbert out and he delivered a strike to flex TE Dan Buckner, who promptly drops the ball (although if he had caught it there was no guarantee he would have made the first down). Again Gilbert makes all the correct reads on all three plays - it's his teammates who don't execute - and the drive stalls.

Drive 3. For the first time Texas is in poor field position at its own 20 following a Bama punt. GD uses the 3WR 11 personnel (3 wide receivers plus 1 running back (Newton) plus 1 TE (Smith) The call, again conservatively, but perhaps not given the field position and modicum of success from the first three times Texas ran it, is the zone read again on first down, and this time Gilbert makes the incorrect read, as the DE crashes down the line to help stop Newton for no gain. If Gilbert had kept the ball, he could have had a 5 yard gain and possibly more. The next play is the power (I think), where RG Michael Huey is pulled to attack the DE on the left side, but whiffs completely, while Ulatoski is free to attack the LB in front of him. Newton takes a bad angle from the point of the handoff that prevents him from cutting inside Huey, and is tackled for a 3 yard loss. Now facing 3rd and 13 from the Texas 17, GD shifts back to a 4-wide set and conservatively (but maybe not considering the field position) calls a screen to Newton. Gilbert delivers the ball on time and in good position, but unfortunately (or perhaps intelligently), Bama only rushes three linemen, and Chris Hall fails to get even a little finger on Rolando McClain, allowing him to blow up Newton for a 4 yard loss. Although Gilbert did not make the right read on first down, the blocking failures of Huey and Hall doom this series in a much bigger way.

Up to this point GD has called for two runs and a pass on each of these first two series, and the pattern is clearly conservative. However, he employed an empty backfield on one third down and called a play from the Texas 17 that he might have called even if Colt was in the game. But the predictability is beginning to have its effects.

Drive 4. With a first down at the Texas 26, the pressure is now higher as Alabama just completed their only long sustained drive of the game to lead 7-6. GD switches to the Ace formation (2 TEs with a single deep back and Gilbert is under center) by inserting Tray Allen as the second TE. This formation has been a useful change of pace and invigorator of the running game against several opponents this year (especially Texas Tech and Missouri). However, poor blocking by Hall, Huey, and Hix doom the first run, and a poorly executed cut block by Tanner on second down leads to a 15 yard penalty on the second play, and the Horns face 2nd and 23. At this point GD calls his only trick play of the night with a reverse to Chiles that nets 8 yards, leaving Gilbert to face 3rd and 15 from the Texas 21. Again, given the field position, the call with any QB would have been conservative, and GD keeps 11 personnel on the field and Smith and Newton back to protect against the blitz, which is indeed employed by Bama and picked up by CharlieTanner. It's all moot, however, as Hix fails to move his feet and is flat out beaten by Bama's Courtney Upshaw, who comes within an inch of ripping Garrett's arm out of his socket and causing a fumble instead of the incompletion that actually results.

Between Hall, Huey, and Hix, there were more missed or poorly executed blocks than I care to count all night long. It certainly was not a case of teammates being able to step up and help out the freshman QB.

Drive 5. After forcing yet another Alabama punt, which was fair caught by Jordan Shipley on the Texas 15, GD goes playaction out of 11 personnel - 3 WR formation, thus breaking the pattern of 2 runs and a pass by the middle of the second quarter. Protection is good, but Gilbert only has eyes for Shipley and throws a pass at Shipley's feet into double coverage. The Horns come back with the same formation in max protect on second down, but a blitz inside Shipley by Javier Arenas on the opposite side of Gilbert from Newton is ignored by Kyle Hix, leaving Hall no one to block and Gilbert scrambling for no gain. On third down, GD goes 4 wide with Buckner in the flex TE, and Buckner is indeed wide open, but the pass to him is deflected by a superman leap by McClain. On this series, Gilbert gets too fixated on Shipley (not for the last time, and not unlike Colt) on first down but makes the right read on third down.

Drive 6. The pressure is really on now, as the comedy act known as Gideon and Robinson on the weakside of the Texas defense has just allowed Trent Richardson's 49 yard touchdown run and Bama leads 14-6. After a short kickoff, Texas has good field position on the Texas 40 for the first time in 3 series. GD goes to the jet sweep for the second time, and thanks to excellent blocks by Fozzy Whittaker and Malcolm Williams, Monroe almost breaks it for a TD and picks up 28 yards for his trouble to the Bama 32. GD then goes back to 11 personnel and the zone stretch play with Fozzy, who cuts back inside, for a change, for 5 yards. After two successful runs GD decides that the Horns are on a roll and calls playaction, with the target being Malcolm Williams. Protection is great, and Gilbert delivers a ball over and inside double coverage to where only Williams can get it. Unfortunately, Williams drops it, despite making identical catches twice against Nebraska at critical moments, and twice against A&M. More evidence that it just wasn't the Horns' night. On third down, Gilbert makes probably his second-worst play of the night, as he does not see a wide open Dan Buckner and instead tries to force the ball to Jordan Shipley. Javier Arenas reads his eyes and jumps the route, thus ending the Horns' only threat of the second quarter.

A freshman QB just can't be expected to make the right reads on third down every time - if Malcolm makes that catch, then the game changes. But clearly, even in the second quarter, GD is "going for it" with Gilbert, even in a way that he rarely did with Colt, who seldom threw the ball "up" for Williams to go and get.

Drive 7. Bama downs their punt on the Texas 2. Again, the playbook is likely reduced by field position more than Garrett's inexperience. Gilbert sneaks for 2 yards on first down (thereby to avoid the Texas Tech debacle from 2008 and the near-debacle in the Big 12 Championship game this year. Texas goes with the Ace package again and an inside power run for 3 yards, setting up 3rd and 5 at the Texas 7. Gilbert gets good protection finally and gives a great pump fake setting up Shipley's tremendous double move. Gilbert just overthrows Shipley, but his footwork and delivery were confident.

Drive 8. Getting the ball back with only 22 seconds left after Bama took the short Texas punt down for a field goal to make it 17-6, again the coaches believe in Gilbert and go for it. After Newton runs a zone stretch for 9 yards to the Texas 37, GD calls the now infamous shovel pass. A detailed look at the play in slow motion reveals that Gilbert threw the ball in the right way at the right time given the pressure, but Charlie Tanner failed to even slow DE B. Deaderick from getting into DJ Monroe's legs just as the ball got there, which led to the juggling act and Marcel Dareus' romp. Blame who you want, but don't blame Gilbert or his inexperience.

Drive 9. Mack Brown likes to get the ball to start the second half, and there is definitely a feeling that Gilbert has to get it going now, or the game could get ugly. Texas starts on their own 27 after a confused kickoff return. Newton cuts back a zone stretch play out of 4-wide formation, rather than 11 personnel, for 9 yards. GD runs the same play again and bad move, the DE crashes the cutback lane, and Newton suffers a 2-yard loss. However, Gilbert delivers on third down for 3 yards to Shipley after Marquise Goodwin ran off the coverage. This is the first converted third down of the game for the Longhorns. Hopped up on success, GD goes playaction on first down from the 37, but Ulatoski fails to even acknowledge a blitzing LB and Gilbert has to rush the throw. Malcolm Williams drops his second pass. On second down, Chris Hall finds himself out of position for perhaps the tenth time and gets called for a leg whip personal foul, giving Texas 2nd and 25 from their 22. Interestingly, Hall leaves the game permanently here and is replaced by David Snow. In the booth, Kirk Herbstreit warns of trouble with having a new center with a freshman QB - to Gilbert's and Snow's credit, this is never an issue. In any case, GD goes for it with an empty set, which induces a 3 on 2 blitz over Michael Huey from Rolando McClain and another pass batted down by the Bama line. On the seemingly impossible 3rd and 25, Gilbert delivers a beautifully timed and leading screen pass to Marquise Goodwin, who takes it 40 yards thanks to terrific blocking by Malcolm Williams. With a whole new lease on life, GD shifts back to 4-wide set and calls a zone stretch play, but Newton trips over Gilbert's feet getting the handoff. The bungling continues on second down with a false start penalty on Adam Ulatoski. On 2nd and 17 from the Bama 45, Gilbert tries to hang it up on another double move up route, this time to Goodwin, but the coverage is terrific and Gilbert just throws the ball away. GD goes to the empty set once again, but Gilbert's pass to a wide open James Kirkendoll is batted down by a blitzing safety coming free around Ulatoski's side because of the line shift to pickup the blitz by 2 LB's on either side of Michael Huey.

It's clear that Gilbert throws a much better timed and placed ball on that screen pass to Goodwin than does Colt, in my opinion. But once again, a promising drive is stymied by offensive line mistakes.

Drive 10. After the Horns' defense holds Bama to a 3-and-out, Texas gets the ball back at their own 33. Using a 4-wide set with the flex TE, Gilbert scrambles for 4 yards on first down. Off playaction on second down, Malcolm Williams drops his third pass, one delivered low and outside to avoid coverage. Giving Bama a dose of their own medicine, Shipley runs a crossing pattern off a John Chiles "pick" and Gilbert delivers a strike for 12 yards and the first down. GD goes to the well once too often with the jet sweep, which a well-timed blitz takes down for -5 yards. Out of 3-wide 11 personnel, Gilbert delivers a bit high to an open Shipley, who drops the ball. GD keeps the same formation on 3rd and 15, and Gilbert throws a ump and go to Chiles, who gives up on the route and stops running.

Gilbert is handling himself well in the pocket and delivering decent balls, but as in so many other drives, the receivers are not making plays.

Drive 11. Another Bama 3-and-out, another Texas first down in decent field position at their 47. Texas runs their "pseudo-counter," which is stuffed because Tanner is too slow. On 2nd and 10, Gilbert finally tries to dump off to Newton, but the Tide have been waiting for this by spying Newton out of the backfield on every play. The pass is awkward and Newton drops it on purpose to avoid a loss. On 3rd down, GD goes to the empty set again, but Alabama only rushes three and Gilbert smartly throws the ball away.

At this point, despite the late hour and the score, I could see the growing maturity and patience of Gilbert. I commented to one of the friends I watched the game with, "If I was Alabama, I would be getting very worried about now."

Drive 12. After yet ANOTHER Bama 3-and-out, Texas once again has good field position at its 41. After two ineffective running plays and facing a 3rd and 6, GD went yet again to the empty set with 5 wide receivers, and Gilbert again made a perfectly timed pass on the WR screen to Goodwin for 13 yards. Perhaps because of Gilbert's huge success at throwing that screen, the middle of the field began to open up. After yet another pass batted down from a CB blitz on first down, GD went back to 4-wide, Newton and the line picked up an interior safety blitz and a delayed blitz by McClain, and Gilbert threw a beautiful ball in stride to Shipley for the 44 yard touchdown.

Wow. Our future. I'm not sure Colt has made that good of a throw on a deep ball in his career. Hope.

Drive 13. This drive should be labeled the "uncalled pass interference" drive. Twice Gilbert made good throws, one to Shipley on first down and the other to Malcolm Williams on third down, that might have been caught except for contact prior to the arrival of the ball. There was little to complain about on this drive other than the officiating.

Drive 14. This drive began on the Texas 35 after the missed Bama field goal, and proved to be the longest of the game. Playcalling was vintage Texas for this year, and Gilbert began to complete throws to more receivers than Shipley. Perhaps because of the long touchdown in the third quarter, the underneath routes opened up. 3 yards to Shipley, 6 to Newton, and another QB sneak out of the Ace formation for the first down. Gilbert displayed the pocket presence to scramble for no gain, then hit Shipley over the middle for 6. On 3rd and 4, the offensive line once again decided to be unhelpful as Michael Huey had a false start. But then Gilbert calmly hit Shipley in stride over the middle for 14 and a first down. 3rd down conversions were piling up. GD then went to the empty set again, but the blitz forced Gilbert to throw early to Williams. But Gilbert came right back in a 4-wide set and hit Shipley on yet another cross for 12 yards and the first down. A WR screen to Buckner was not blocked well and lost 4 yards. At this point, Gilbert had hit Shipley on 4 crossing patterns on the drive, and on second down, out of the empty set again, Shipley faked yet another cross but yanked out of it and headed for the end zone. The Bama safety was late getting over because he had bit on the inside route as well. Easy pickings for Gilbert, who showed great touch on the 22-yard TD pass. Then, in perhaps his finest bit of quarterbacking of the night, Gilbert shifted the pocket right, looked at Shipley right, and then came back to Dan Buckner in the middle of the end zone for the 2 point conversion to make it 24-21 and to begin acid reflux for the Bama faithful.

Gilbert was taking what the defense gave him, throwing away some balls to avoid sacks, hitting short routes to move the chains and finally delivering the knockout strike on the double move. Texas you have a quarterback.

Drive 15. Starting on the Texas 7 for the potential winning drive, Gilbert's strong play continued on first down with a 5 yard pass to Kirkendoll to get some breathing room. Feeling confident, GD dialed up the empty set again. For the first time in the game, Bama blitzed 3, which meant that every receiver had 1-on-1 coverage, but that someone was coming free. That turned out to be Eryk Anders off the edge. It looked like a mistake, but Texas chose to block the interior two blitzers, hoping that it would take Anders long enough to get to Gilbert that Gilbert could release the ball. Unfortunately, Gilbert watched Shipley too long because Bama decided to leave Goodwin uncovered and doubled Shipley. Too late, Anders arrived, and the rest is history.

Complain all you want, but the defense on that play was an all out gamble that, had Gilbert recognized Goodwin a half-second earlier, might have opened up the entire field. That gamble was created by using the empty set. It was an all-in wager at the poker table after which the river card turned up the fourth ace for the opponent. Maybe GD saw that he needed to generate a few big plays rather than assume that Gilbert could make all the correct decisions to move the football 93 yards in 3 minutes, 5 yards at a time. Sometimes you just have to go for it, and for my money, it was great to see the buttoned down GD throw his statistics out the window, win or lose.

So I totaled it up, in 40 pass plays, Gilbert made the wrong read or didn't have good pocket presence 8 times. His receivers dropped 5 balls, including a touchdown. Including those (and the interception Williams' TD catch would have prevented) with two bad official's calls and excluding his forced passes into coverage at the end would have given him a more respectable line: 21 of 37 for 2 touchdowns and 1 interception for a true freshman with no experience in the MNC game. GD built him up steadily and gradually, and tried to keep him out of trouble in bad field position until it was crunch time. 11 mistakes (missed blocks or penalties) by the offensive line put Gilbert in countless 2nd and 3rd and long situations and accounted for the shovel pass debacle. Of course any team will make some of those mistakes, but it seemed like Texas made way too many. Given the drops, penalties, and his inexperience, it was an incredible performance.

On a final note, I sincerely hope that the young offensive linemen recruited by the Horns last year are athletically better and mentally tougher than the returning starters Huey and Hix or it's going to be a frustrating season for Gilbert. As I see it now, Texas needs one of the newbies at left tackle because no one we've seen can fill the bill. Next year's starters will be Tray Allen at LG, David Snow at C, Huey at RG, and Hix at RT. If the coaches move Hix to left tackle, Connor Wood or Sherrod Harris better get warmed up, because Hix doesn't have quick enough feet to deal with blind side speed rushers. There's no point in even talking about depth because Luke Poehlman is not going to cut it, even if Britt Mitchell might function at right tackle. Still, I believe Allen and Snow are significant raw talent upgrades over Tanner and Hall, so there is hope.