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In the Trenches: A Strange Bowl of Rice for the Longhorns

Saturday's underwhelming performance by the Texas Longhorns against the Rice Owls was like a bad take-out Chinese dinner. The beef, soy sauce, veggies, and ginger were all in there, but the sauce was weird and the Rice was dry. In football terms, we saw the beef in tremendous overall team speed on defense, the veggies in great performances from critical people like Sam Acho, Kheeston Randall, Keenan Robinson, David Snow, and Malcolm Williams, and ginger in the promise of Kenny Vaccaro as a playmaker in the Big Nickel against spread offenses. The Horns finished dinner (got the win) but had a few too many burps afterward for my taste.

But the sauce? You know, that right mix of ingredients that pulls everything together? Not so much. Like a missing right side of the offensive line. Like LB's that took too many poor pursuit angles (but got away with it because hey, it's Rice), or played the zone read with insane devotion to the running back. Like wide receivers who couldn't beat Rice's Dean's List cornerbacks off the line, down the field, or pretty much anywhere for that matter. Throw in some gaffes in the punt return game, and a few lucky Rice bounces, and I was left wondering if I should try a new restaurant (like following the Horns next year), or hope that the kitchen (coaching) staff can go all Gordon Ramsay and spit that old sauce in the trash and get in the face of some underachievers.

Texas had a bad Chinese take-out taste in it's mouth after gulping down some dry Rice and strange sauce at Reliant Stadium. Looking forward to what DKR has to offer next week.


For some nice overviews see Peter's First Quarter Notes and Postgame React, and Ghost's Trends, and InDKR's analysis. My focus here (after the jump) is on evaluating three of the biggest question marks for the Longhorns going into the season

1. Is the offensive line an offense or an inspiration to the Garrett Gilbert era?

2. Can anyone play defensive tackle other than Kheeston Randall?

3. What up with the WR's?

4. Where is this team headed?

I think we have evidence of a very ADVENTUROUS season for the Horns with a high likelihood of unexpected heroes and goats to go with the bastions of predictably good performance (Sam Acho anyone?) The Horns could be anywhere from 9 to 14 wins, depending on how many players step up as the season progresses.

Offensive  Line - Is anything different?

So after re-watching the game, here is the breakdown on the offensive line, player by player, and overall.

Best performance. David Snow (number 78 if you're tracking at home). If he keeps this up he'll be the All Big 12 center for 2010. Snow had a few squirrelly snaps, but he got great leverage on almost every play, and had terrific timing getting off combo blocks and into LB's. Most of Texas' successful running plays were the new "lead draws" in which Snow and Mason Walters would crash the entire Rice line and LB's down the line, leaving Britt Mitchell to turn out the DE. When fronted by a nose tackle,Snow does an excellent job of getting his first step underneath the defender, which allows him to turn him in whatever direction he chooses. When not fronted, Snow does what he does best, which is get upfield quickly into the LB. The athleticism upgrade at center this year, compared to Chris Hall last year, is gigantic.

Worst performance. Britt Mitchell (number 72). Ever notice how there's always one guy on the offense running around at the end of every play, looking for someone to block, or barring that, trying to look involved. It seemed like every time I looked up, that GUY was Mitchell. In reviewing his performance, he just seemed to have problems holding his block against quicker DE's and/or LB's. When paired with a TE, he did OK, but for some reason he was isolated a lot by the play calls, and the vast majority of the time, the backside DE or LB would crash the line and close the hole before the back could get all the way through. Mitchell's inability to hold his blocks, mostly due to poor pad level and a general lack of intensity, was one reason Cody Johnson began to look less impressive as the game went on ( a sprained ankle was the other), as his slower acceleration among the top 3 Texas backs left him vulnerable to this lane closure issue. Mitchell handled his pass blocking assignments the few times that was required, so it's not like he was a disaster. But Texas has the potential for some serious smashmouth football if Mitchell can improve his technique against smaller defenders. If not, maybe the Horns should find out what Paden Kelley or Trey Hopkins can do at right tackle, because it seems clear (see my discussion of the wide receivers below) that Texas must run the ball to have an effective offense this year.

Young gun. Mason Walters had an up and down debut. He was absolutely awesome pulling on the trap/pseudo-counter Texas ran, especially at executing the required cut blocks in space against LB's (I don't remember a well-executed cut block by any Texas guard last year). He's good in space and in stiffing a 3 technique defensive tackle at the point of attack. He also did well in getting off combo blocks. So what were the problems? Pass-blocking. He's young and his head is still on a swivel in worrying about pass rushers. He didn't give up a sack, but nearly did so in the first quarter, which was averted only by Garrett Gilbert's ability to goosestep in reverse for 10 yards before throwing the ball away. I think he's athletic enough to handle the job - as he gains experience, he could team with David Snow to be a real strength for the Horns.

Old guns. Kyle Hix (number 64) and Michael Huey (number 63), as the elder statesmen of the line, should have dominated against the undersized Owls, and sometimes they did. However, Hix was just incredibly jittery in pass protection, with two false starts, though he never came close to giving up a sack against Cheta Ozougwu, who's not exactly DeMarcus Ware. As GhostofBigRoy pointed out in his column, Hix seemed to settle down when covered by a TE. But the offense clearly needs to spread the defense out with 3 WR in order to run, and there's only one TE to go around in helping out the Texas tackles. Michael Huey is a man in straight-ahead drive blocking, and a lost sheep in pulling and finding meaningful people to block.

Synopsis. There is considerable potential for improvement in the offensive line, as strength and footwork seemed to be strong across the board, at least against Rice. Most of the issues are mental such as Mitchell not being disciplined or focused in his technique, Walters' inexperience in pass-blocking and Huey's inability to be effective in pulling. Huey's lack of effectiveness as a pulling guard is critical, because it means that the Horns must use RG Walters to pull in the lead draw and trap plays, which leaves matador Britt Mitchell guarding the backside of the running play. It also means that teams will stack linebackers in the gaps on the left side of the offensive line with impunity, as did Rice in the second half. Huey needs to be able to pull so that Texas can show a run to the left and counter back to the right. Texas ran only one sweep, the ill-fated fourth and goal in the first quarter, and the one reverse to Goodwin, so it was tough to tell how well Hix or Mitchell would be at sealing defenders. It's still too soon to tell if the line will be good, but it seems like they will not be atrocious.

2. Somebody other than Kheeston. Anyone, anyone? A major storyline of the pre-season has been whether someone other than Kheeston Randall could make an impact at defensive tackle. Coming into the game, the three top candidates were Tyrell Higgins, Alex Okafor, and Calvin Howell. These three guys played a lot, especially after Randall had a minor shake-up on the first series, and Higgins had 3 tackles, Howell 1, and Okafor (apparently) none.Randall himself had only 3 tackles, but two were for losses, including one play where he "ate" two blockers on his way to stuffing Sam McGuffie for a loss. So what should we make of this?

A little background is in order. Muschamp likes to create penetration even with less talented linemen by slanting them into the gaps between the offensive linemen, and the opposing running backs nearly always are forced to cut back behind them. When the linebackers don't fill the right hole, as they often didn't during the first half, it looks as if the tackles are getting pushed around when they actually aren't. On the flipside, inexperienced tackles, like Lamarr Houston in 2008 and Randall last year, often run themselves out of plays.

On Saturday, I thought the Texas tackles played fairly well given Randall's limited minutes and the others' extreme inexperience. Higgins is clearly the number two guy, and, at least against Rice, fended off double teams well and got penetration about 1/3 of the time. However, he ran himself out of a few too many plays. Calvin Howell showed some athletic ability, as he twice chased Rice quarterbacks all the way to the sideline and closed down a running back sweep from behind another time. Okafor, unfortunately, looked confused much of the time, which isn't too unreasonable given that he's played the position for about 2 weeks. He showed good strength and his long arms will eventually give Texas an incredible end for a 3-4 defensive formation. But he's not ready yet.

Synopsis. Same tune, new year. Once again, barring injury, Texas will have an all-conference defensive tackle in Randall paired with a committee of up-and-comers, inserted at different points in the game for different purposes (power run defense, pass rushing, etc.). Texas might be at their best right now in a 3-4 with Randall at the nose, Higgins and Acho at ends and Eddie Jones or Jackson Jeffcoat at the Buck or outside linebacker position. Howell seems a year of increased strength from dominating, but with Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson backing up the number two tackle and getting better at filling the right gaps behind slants, there's no particular reason to worry about this group.

3. Receivers, receivers everywhere, and only one to write home about. Several bottles of Maalox and five gallons of ink have been spilled in agonizing over the prospects of Garrett Gilbert, the running backs, the offensive line and the defensive tackles. Much less attention has been given to the wide receivers, though I did write this back in May. Now that we've seen our first 2010 version? This is where the sauce on the Chinese take-out went really wrong for me, like salt on a birthday cake. Let's do this as The Cheers, the Yawns, and the Boos.

The Cheers. Malcolm Williams caught everything catchable that was thrown his way, and made a nice sliding catch on the deep post pattern in the second quarter. He caught a short hitch and bulled his way for a first down on Texas' third drive. John Chiles actually looked like a real, honest-to-gosh wide receiver on his one catch, the 31 yard skinny post from to the 2 yard line. Mr. Chiles WANTED that ball in a way that we haven't seen him want anything since he's been on the forty. Finally, The Gilbert to Marquise Goodwin connection on the WR jailbreak screen is a precision instrument. Counting the MNC game, that play hasn't gone for less than 10 yards.

That was quick...

The Blahs. Barrett Matthews was in for 80% of plays and was never thrown to. Part of it may have been Rice's coverage scheme (2 deep safeties) or Greg Davis' fear of damaging young Sir Gilbert's psyche with an over-the middle interception. Last year, the crossing route was Texas' bread and butter; either the Horns' receivers weren't open, or the offense chose to work on some other routes (see Boos below). Either way, Garret got no practice at hitting those routes in the seams between dropping LB's.

That was even quicker.... Which leaves us with...

The Boos. Where was James Kirkendoll, that leading light of progress from last year, as claimed Mack Brown? Mostly dancing the tango with the tiny, slow cornerbacks in purple. Kirkendoll could not get separation against Oklahoma, Nebraska or Alabama last year, and now seems worse. On one deep ball thrown to him off playaction, he could not pull away from the defender, could not find the ball, and whined to the ref about contact when the ball landed 10 yards away. Having Kirkendoll on the field is nothing but a decoy that encourages press coverage, and which is not good for the running game. Likewise, I saw little evidence that John Chiles could separate consistently either; on his one reception, he was released by the corner to the deep safety, and Gilbert put the throw in the gap between levels in the zone. Against underneath coverage, Gilbert either never found him open, or never looked for him.

Why are Captain Kirk and Chiles on the field you ask? They know better than the younger guys how to read defenses and where they are supposed to be on any given play. Doesn't seem to matter in the new offense, which now depends very little on altering routes in response to a particular coverage. Ostensibly, they are better blockers than some of the other options at WR, but that is only against out of position defenders; if DB's attack Kirkendoll, he melts like chocolate in a baby's hand. Greg Davis really doesn't like receivers who don't know where to line up or run, and so they remain  starters for Wyoming.

One route that Texas kept going to consistently against single coverage, when it did occur, was the back shoulder out pattern in which the WR runs hard up the field, stops, turns back to the inside and then catches a ball thrown before their break to their outside shoulder. This is a pass that is very difficult to execute, but is very safe. On Saturday, Gilbert looked like he had never thrown one, as his two best chances on that route decided to see how much artificial turf they could dig up. Greg Davis blamed Gilbert for poor throws, but Kirkendoll and Williams were both chickenfighting with defenders and looked to have their focus and concentration off, so I'm not sure I'm entirely drinking Davis' tea on that one.

In that same vein, Marquise Goodwin made plays (2 screens and a 20 yard reverse) but remains a liability as a blocker. The net result is 25-30 fewer plays in which his speed and opportunity is taken off the field. Yet there were several potentially big running plays that went for 3 yards rather than 10 because he looked like one of the people in the "Want to Get Away?" Orbitz commercials at the prospect of laying wood to a DB.

Synopsis. Fans decry the running back by committee approach the Horns use, but the WR by committee is almost as bad. What the Horns have is packages. For 3 WR sets, it's Williams/Chiles/Kirkendoll for running plays, Williams'/Chiles/Goodwin on obvious passing downs. Each receiver has a favorite, predictable route: Williams the post and back shoulder out, Goodwin the screen, Chiles, well we don't know yet, Kirkendoll, the 5 yard curl on 3rd and 4. These routes haven't changed from last year, and opposing DC's are likely more than happy to jump on those. Couple this predictability with a frustrating lack of ability to separate, and the Big 12 Championship game video starts replaying itself in your head. Greg Davis, you've got to get the TE in the passing game, or the opposition is going to press cover with two deep safeties your ass back to Austin.

4. The Divining Rod.

Many of the problems in the Rice game seem fixable with more playing time for some of the young players, a more open playbook, and better recognition by the linebackers. Two problems stand out to me as potentially chronic unless a younger player can step up: The left-handed listing of the leaky ship that is the Horns offensive line, and the lack of quickness, and thus ability to separate, in 3 of the top 4 Texas WR. Some chronic problems can be covered or compensated for but unfortunately these two complement each other in a very negative way. Struggles running the ball increases the dependence on WR that are possibly better blockers but that struggle to separate in their routes, which then bogs down options in the shotgun passing game. I'll call it right now that Texas struggles to score 30 offensive points in virtually every game this year, and struggles to score 17 against OU and Nebraska. Teams can be highly successful with offenses that weak, but it makes for adventurous watching.