My trip to Lincoln would have been worthwhile even had the team failed to show up, but the performance our kids delivered made it truly exceptional.
The team tip toed into Lincoln on a two-game losing streak, double-digit underdogs, with a fan base disappointed in the coaching staff and players alike. We're not talented enough that we can just show up to the stadium and win, nor so talented that we can overcome poor execution and penalties. We needed a real game plan to take on Nebraska in Lincoln, and we needed our players to show us better than they have so far.
We got both, and I couldn't be prouder of this team. They didn't quit on this season, but rose to the occasion and delivered. Texas was the more disciplined and tougher team, and we executed in virtually all phases of the game.
Even if we'd lost, I was really proud of our effort. These guys earned it, and deserved it. I was one proud Longhorn fan this weekend in Lincoln.
On to the game, with a series of quick thoughts after the jump.
In each of my write ups about Nebraska this fall, I expressed my skepticism about Crick and Steinkuhler, and each time Huskers fans objected that both were better than I was giving them credit for. As I settled into my seat at Memorial Stadium, I was particularly eager to watch how well those two did against a Longhorns offensive line that had been struggling for much of the season.
And we absolutely dominated them. The Texas offensive line was just fantastic to watch on Saturday, and both Crick and Steinkuhler were more or less neutered all afternoon, by my count failing to register a single tackle behind the line. Crick was helpless when he got doubled, and decidedly average when working one-on-one. Steinkuhler made exactly one notable play, in the fourth quarter, when Texas had stopped throwing the ball entirely.
The left side of our line of Hix-Huey-Snow just bulldozed the Nebraska line at the point of attack, and both Walters and Mitchell delivered their best games of their careers on the right side. This is a group that's taken a lot of heat over the last few years, but I hope everyone at home stood and cheered for their effort, as we did. Phenomenal.
The wrinkles Greg Davis introduced that proved especially effective were the use of Gilbert as a rusher, bunch trips sets from the receivers, and well-conceived misdirection. Together they made for a smart counter to what Nebraska does defensively, gave us objective numbers advantages, and helped get our most important and talented offensive player on track.
For his part, I'd guess Gilbert was even more impressive live than he came across on TV. He was tough as nails, confident, decisive, and poised. His leadership on the sidelines is worth mentioning, and he appeared to have turned a corner mentally this week, evident from the get-go. I guess the best way to put it is that Gilbert looked like a player who was sick of hearing what he and his teammates couldn't do, and just went out to win-the-damn-game. He wasn't perfect, and made several ugly throws, but there was something different about him and the way he played.
Huge kudos to Gilbert, our offensive line, and the trio of tailbacks -- all of whom played solidly -- because they just got no help at all from our receivers, the only real disappointment in the game. It may or may not have come through on TV, but our receivers struggled mightily to get open, got pushed around trying to release, and of course dropped a pair of touchdowns.
And that's the only negative thing I can muster, because after all the criticism they've endured, this offense showed up and did what was asked of it. They gave us enough to win, and they did it taking it right to the Huskers. Kudos to these kids for a well-deserved road victory.
I said before the game that Kheeston Randall is the best tackle in the league. He was the best player on the field on Saturday, and forget All-Conference, we're talking about an All-American here. Nebraska's poor center got rag-dolled like Suh-on-Hall, and Randall just lived in Nebraska's backfield from start to finish.
The most impressive thing about our defense, though, was the assignment discipline. Oh my goodness was it pretty to watch from the stands. Time and time again, Nebraska would run that midline option (or some variation thereof) where - at least from the stands - you simply could not tell whether the running back or Martinez had the ball. Half the time, my eyes wound up following the right guy and I'd see two Texas defenders smothering the ball carrier. But the other half of the time my eyes wound up tracking the wrong guy, and I'd see two Texas defenders smothering the non-ball carrier. While two more enveloped the man who actually had the ball.
It simply didn't matter: on play after play, we had two guys on both options. We never guessed wrong, because we weren't doing any guessing. Just tackling our assignments, with or without the ball. So, so impressive, and beautiful to watch.
To his credit, Shawn Watson had drawn up some nice passing options off of their run game, and we at times found ourselves behind their drag man underneath, or the back sent out on a wheel. For the most part, however, we dictated everything, and from my seat in the stands that had something to do with the drops.
In any event, everyone showed up to play, and I do mean everyone, because we got banged up early and often, losing Robinson, Vaccaro, E-Acho, Curtis, and Jeffcoat for some amount of time. The most impressive fill-in was Hicks, who played like a third year player, and looked the part physically. Adrian Phillips had to be told where to be a time or two, but performed admirably in his first sustained action. On an afternoon when we lost Vaccaro and Curtis was clearly not right, the huge game from Aaron Williams and the solid play from Phillips were crucial to keeping Nebraska under wraps.
As for Gideon and Scott, they did their parts in the running game, but are a weakness in coverage, and we'll need Vaccaro, the Browns, and Williams all healthy to avoid a shoot-out with Oklahoma State. Scott was frequently a step behind, either because he started late or simply couldn't keep up. He's a long way from the sideline-to-sideline speed of Earl Thomas.
As always, Sam Acho was a terror, and like Randall I want to see him on some All-American teams. If we'd started the season better he probably would be. Alex Okafor looked his best yet, and at this point we probably shouldn't be surprised at anything Coach Tolly does. One after another, he delivers, and I'm starting to believe we could ask him to turn Patrick Nkwopara into a tackle and Tolly would find a way to make it work.
"Did he just crawl through the center's legs and cause a fumble?"
All in all, it was our best performance of the season, against the best rushing team on the schedule. That's been this unit's weakness the last two years, but on Saturday they nailed it. Nebraska could do absolutely nothing on the ground. And I don't think it's an accident that they subsequently flubbed to make it up through the air.
Regarding the pooch punt, I don't want to whack the lifeless horse... Oh, who am I kidding, pass me the damn club.
When we trotted out our field goal unit, I hissed at Jimmer, "This better be for a freaking field goal." And when Bo Pelini sent Eric Haag out to the goal line to field a pooch, I started screaming, "Timeout! Timeout!"
We all know what happened, and Mack knows that he got it wrong. On an otherwise stellar afternoon from our special teams, we absolutely blew it in the most nonsensical, self-defeating way possible. The thing is, we'd made the decision long ago that we were playing this thing to bleed out -- Texas didn't attempt a pass from the five-minute mark of the third quarter on. That's a debatable strategy, but in any case once you make it you've got to get the little parts of the small ball right. The one thing we couldn't have happen was a quick touchdown, and with timeouts in our pocket we gave them just that.
Personally? I would have preferred we kick the field goal. Tucker was nailing kicks left and right in warm up, had ample height on his ball, and was clearly comfortable. I say you go for the game-sealer right there, but Mack's decision to punt was certainly definsible. Again, though, even with that decision, I absolutely hate the pooch kick from the field goal position, even without a return man back. Just line up in the punt formation and kick it out of bounds, hopefully inside the 20.
There were other choices, too. Mack could have gone for the first down. He could have lined up in field goal formation and had a pooch option on, in which Tucker could pooch if no return man back, or kick it into the stands if there was one (or call a tiemout). Hell, we could have taken a knee.
Pretty much any of the available alternatives would have been superior, and they were superior not just in hindsight. In an otherwise good day of coaching, Mack flubbed that one, badly, and I can't resist piling on.
Briefly, I'll conclude by noting the excellent job our special teams did the rest of the way. Tucker was magnificent in running to his right and punting the ball back across the field to his left, taking away the return and maximizing the roll on his rugby-kicks. Malcolm Williams gets a game ball for his usual excellence hustling down the field to down balls. Our coverage teams were very solid, and Marquise made a picture-perfect snag-and-fall on the onsides recovery. Even our punt return game showed improvement, and looks poised to become a team strength again.
Minus the mental lapse on the pooch, an excellent rebound performance from our special teams, in line with the excellent preparation and execution we demonstrated in the other phases of the game.
Congratulations to these kids, on both sides of the ball, for a tremendous, season-defining win. They earned it, and you could tell they enjoyed it.