The outcome was: Outstanding. It was an ugly football game -- a choppy affair that seemed to last forever, featuring one turnover after another. It was also a football game in Lubbock, the Bermuda Triangle of college football... and Texas won.
Had we been told before the game that Texas would walk out the stadium winners of a 24-14 game, we all would have been delighted for the news. The way it played out, by the end I felt exhausted... and relieved. But I'm also delighted. And excited. And though certain aspects of our performance are worrisome for what's ahead, that's secondary. We won a wild, bizarre game in Lubbock despite turning the ball over 4 times.
Here's what I'm getting at: During Mack Brown's tenure we've lost three South Division championships at the hands of losses in Lubbock. Tonight, we won, and at this point that's what matters. We did it with an inspired defensive performance, something we hadn't had in any of our three previous losses at Tech.
This was an enormously important, gratifying win.
Offensive Quick Thoughts: On the bright side, I actually feel pretty good about our personnel. On the downside, our execution was often lacking and our approach from a play calling perspective was uninspired, to put it charitably. To be sure, this was a weird game without much rhythm, featuring a number of failures that are squarely on the players' shoulders; but as things unwound, so did our offensive coordinator. Our offensive approach for the bulk of the final three quarters of the game was disheartening.
I expected Texas Tech to bring lots of heat at Garrett Gilbert, but they seemed mostly to play things straight up, forcing us to execute, and daring us to make them pay over the top. We did neither.
The single most discouraging thing about the game was our inability to run the ball with any consistency, and it's here that Greg Davis stands out as a culprit. It's not his fault that Malcolm Williams drops a wide open ball that gets intercepted, but it is his fault when his attempt to soften up the defense is ill-timed, ill-conceived reverses on 1st and 10. As the game got wild and woolly, our offensive coordinator lost his bearings. It's not something we didn't know he's prone to do, but it's always disappointing to see it happen, and it hurt my heart to hear a friend I was watching the game with mutter, "Christ almighty, it's the Chris Simms offense all over again."
Is it? If tonight's any indication, it very well might be, with all the wasted offensive plays -- the aforementioned reverses, a half dozen awful wide receiver screens, and a generally random offensive approach that demonstrated no understanding of how to systematically attack and work on a defense. It's clear that we have a lot of talent on offense, but very much unclear that we're able to put together a full-throttle attack. This is a better-coached Texas Tech defense than we're used to, but it's not a deeply talented group.
A few player notes:
Gilbert: There's so much to like, and his talent is undeniable, but I'm waiting to see the light come on for him. He's still young and still inexperienced, so there's no reason for anyone to try to draw any ultimate conclusions about him, but in terms of what to watch for, it's not whether he has the talent to be good -- he easily does, and is already quite good -- but whether he's got a special gear. Vince Young had it, and to a lesser degree Colt McCoy had it. My instinct is that Gilbert has it, too, but we haven't seen it yet. He's still feeling his way around a bit. The good news is that he's making some damn fine plays already, but the bad news is that as far as this year is concerned, he's got just one more week before we'll need him to elevate to a higher gear.
Running Backs: I was thrilled by Fozzy Whittaker's start to the game, but my excitement quickly waned as the running lanes disappeared. He's clearly our best option, but the running game issues are not about the tailbacks. They're systemic, and Fozzy finding himself is exciting insofar as it goes, but as we saw, isn't a silver bullet all its own. After the first quarter, we were miserable running the football, and it didn't matter who was in the game. More on this in a moment.
Receivers: We haven't been the biggest James Kirkendoll fans, but obviously, he came through in a big way tonight, catching 6 balls for 122 yards, critically moving the chains on several occasions. My knock on him has been his performances against elite defenses, and while I don't know that tonight counts in that regard, it certainly did in terms of it being a big game in a high-pressure environment. He got it done, and we desperately needed it -- a ten gallon hat tip to the senior for coming through.
Mike Davis was good once again, and continued to impress with the skills he possesses. He took some of the short junk that would have probably gone to Chiles and handled it fine. I'm glad he didn't get hurt.
Malcolm Williams had a huge drop, but the bigger shame is how poorly we continue to use him. In the passing game, we mostly use him like a possession receiver without big play potential. Our lack of creativity and vision in terms of a systematic attack hurts Williams more than anyone.
We seem to understand that Marquise Goodwin has big play potential, but thus far we mostly seem to think we're likely to get it from running short stuff and letting him go. Of course, he dropped the big play last week against Wyoming, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be going back to it more often.
Greg Smith was Greg Smith.
Barrett Matthews had an up-and-down game, but the play he made on the touchdown reception made his night a success. Watch the tape and note the exceptionally athletic play he makes to leap over a Tech defender to free himself as the receiver on the play. Nine times out of ten, a tight end gets caught up in the mess there and the play breaks down; Matthews managed to escape into space, catching the game-clinching touchdown. Hopefully, that's a turning point for him, because we're underutilizing him. It's been part his fault, and part Gilbert's, but among the signs that point to us having room to get better as an offense, I count Matthews high among them.
Offensive Line: I'll again save commentary until I review the tape, but in terms of first impressions: a disappointing night. Britt Mitchell is a liability. Michael Huey is just not the caliber of lineman I thought he was/would be. Our pass protection is actually fine, but I'll be interested to review the tape to see how and where we broke down on the night overall. Our tailbacks were running into piles of Tech defenders. It'll be interesting to look more closely at the tape tomorrow morning and find out why.
Defensive Quick Thoughts: All Hail William T. Muschamp! I don't know what Muschamp's middle name is, but I'm inclined to praise him with a middle initial, like the distinguished general that he is. In the form of Ulysses S. Grant, but with a tip of the cap to William Tecumseh Sherman, I'm from here forward referring to our fearless leader as William T. Muschamp. All Hail William T. Muschamp!
Needless to say, this game was won on the backs of the Longhorns defense, and if it can be harder to celebrate an "ugly" win carried by the defense, we should be no less excited about tonight's defensive triumph than we would have been had the offense carried us through to a 45-42 victory. The wins count all the same, and William T. Muschamp is the reason I'm not anywhere near thinking about the Chris Simms era. Whatever the fate of the offense, things are different. All Hail William T. Muschamp!
Defensive Line: Holt sh** these guys were amazing. Absolutely amazing. My game ball goes to Eddie Jones, who is about to start rocketing up NFL draft boards, if anyone's paying attention. He was absolutely brilliant: powerful, strong, technically superb, and faster-than-ever off the snap. He's been overshadowed by a slow to start to his career, and then the outstanding play of guys like Kindle and Sam Acho, but tonight he was the star of the show.
Tonight was a great example of the futility of getting hung up on the defensive depth chart. With Tech (sensibly) trying to pass their way to success against us, Muschamp heavily leaned on the quicker defensive line groupings, starting Jeffcoat opposite Jones, and using Sam Acho inside alongside Randall, plus heavy doses of Alex Okafor. It was strategically smart and worked exceptionally well. Okafor easily had his best game at his new position, performing well in a way that bodes well for the role we'll need him to play against Nebraska. His quickness is an important asset that Muschamp is going to be able to get a lot out of against the right opponents, and what we saw from Okafor tonight bodes well for his future inside.
Jeffcoat was again impressive, and it's just silly that he's a freshman. The blessing of having him right now is helping us to get the most out of a lot of other guys. Kheeston Randall continues to be an All-Big 12 performer, and is as important a player as any on the team heading forward.
Linebackers: Robinson and Acho played the vast majority of the snaps, and were mostly terrific throughout. Robinson was as good as we've come to expect him to be, and Acho continues to get closer and closer to being truly special. Emmanuel Acho's closing speed is just unfair, and with each passing game he's getting better and better at putting it to productive use. At times, he still gets somewhere too fast, taking himself out of the play, but more and more he's flowing to the right spots, and then finishing. As he perfects the practice, he's going to be exceptional.
Even when our front four isn't so dominant, we're a difficult team to run on because of these two. And the best is yet to come. That's exciting.
Secondary: My read of Tech's game plan was that after watching our first two games they felt their best chance to move the ball on us was through the short and intermediate passing game, spreading us out and forcing us to cover one-on-one, where we sometimes struggled with Chykie Brown and our safeties. Especially in the first half, that strategy found modest success, but on the whole -- and especially as the game wore on -- our secondary got the job done, in impressive fashion.
Curtis Brown and Aaron Williams were utterly phenomenal tonight, and Muschamp wisely used them to smother Potts' favorite targets, forcing Tech's quarterback to beat those two with great play or beat Texas with lesser talents. Overwhelmingly, Curtis Brown and Williams won those battles. Both should be considered for All-American votes.
Chykie was... Chykie. It's frustrating because of plays like the one he made in the fourth quarter, when he executed picture-perfect coverage on a deep ball, turned his hips, ran, looked back for the ball, and broke up the pass. Occam's Razor says it's mental, and hopefully that's a good sign for his ability to give us what we need heading forward; on the list of things that are correctable by a DB, that's surely the easiest.
Christian Scott was better in coverage tonight, playing passes more instinctively, as opposed to trying merely to keep things in front of him. Our safeties are still a point of relative weakness in the passing game, but our upcoming opponents aren't especially well-suited to make us pay for it. The '08 Sooners and Red Raiders would have presented a much tougher challenge.
Conclusion: It's an accident of history, but our defense under Muschamp is at this point still perpetually underrated. During last year's Red River Shootout, an ugly affair in which our defense was every bit as effective -- and probably more so -- than Oklahoma's, as the game wound down all Kirk Herbstret could talk about was the brilliance of the Sooners defense in shutting down the Texas attack. Tonight, Ron Franklin mentioned late in the fourth quarter, almost as an aside, that they hadn't paid much due to the performance of the Texas defense.
In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter, of course, but for various reasons Texas football has been associated with its offense more so than its defense. With Vince Young and Colt McCoy at quarterback, and the defense lagging behind the offense for most of that time, it's understandable that the rest of the world has been slow to recognize the leap forward Texas has made defensively in the past 2.5 years.
In truth, after the brilliant offense of Colt McCoy carried us through the first half of 2008, falling one tragic play in Lubbock short of a national title berth, since the defense hit its stride in the back half of '08, it's been William T. Muschamp's charges that have been the difference between Texas football as it is now, and as it was when Mack Brown was still trying to elevate us to that next level. It was the offense that broke us through to begin with, but it's now the defense that's keeping us at the top.
Outside observers may be slow to realize it, but Texas is fielding the fastest, and overall best, defense in the conference, one that would be hailed as an elite force in the SEC. It's not what we've been known for, but it might start to be, especially if our offense continues to plod along deliberately.
All told, I'm happy. And I'll suggest that you should be, too. While we saw that the offense may not progress fast enough to take us on a title run until 2011, we also saw that this defense may be great enough to get us there right now.
It's hard to divorce our expectations from the progress of the offense....
But maybe we should.