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Texas vs Oklahoma State: Reviewing the Longhorns Offense

You can read observations on the Texas defense here.

Bryan Harsin and the Texas offense came close to successfully executing their game plan, pounding the Pokes defense for 245 yards rushing (sack-adjusted), eating up the clock (39:18 of possession) and keeping the potent OSU offense on the sidelines. But the Longhorns were only able to manage 17 points on the scoreboard, done in by the inexperience of their quarterback and the lack of a downfield passing game. Although it was a decidedly improved performance from a week ago, in the end Texas' offense was hamstrung by the same fundamental deficiencies.

Horns_bullet_mediumDavid Ash's first career start.  The true freshman made his first career start and played the entire game, which would have been the right move even if Case McCoy weren't in the doghouse for attitude issues. Ash had a tough afternoon overall, and particularly when asked to try to bring Texas from behind in the second half, but there were definite improvements from last week in a number of regards.

Starting with the improvements, Ash managed much of the game pretty well, did a better job throwing the ball away when no play was available, mostly avoided throwing dangerous passes into coverage, and executed a statue of liberty that netted the Horns a touchdown. Making his first career start, Ash did some nice things and managed the offense well enough to keep us close throughout the game.

Still, Ash's effectiveness was hamstrung by three big problems, each of which are reflected in his final stat line: 22 of 40 passing for 139 yards, with a long of 20, 0 TDs, 2 INTs, 1 fumble, and 5 sacks. First, Ash struggled some with accuracy, completing just 55% of his passes and throwing tentatively at times -- no doubt in part because of his desire to avoid making costly mistakes. His most costly misfire came in the fourth quarter when on 4th and Goal from the 2 when he found Fozzy Whittaker open  but threw the ball short, forcing Fozzy to catch it short of the goal line. Second, although he took a couple shots down the field, Ash simply wasn't comfortable enough as a passer to produce any kind of meaningful deep threat, which meant Texas had to sustain long drives to score points. And third, Ash too often simply held on to the ball too long, lacking the experience required to develop that internal clock for getting the ball out.

The inconvenient truth is that these are things learned through experience -- and 99 times out of 100 the hard way. Rare is the true freshman that is ready and able to display mastery of these things from the get-go. Ash is taking his lumps now, out there learning the hard way out of necessity. It's far from ideal, but under the circumstances giving him the reins is the right decision and fans are simply going to have to be patient. My wise co-author Horn Brain said it perfectly:

Our problem is Ash’s incomplete command of the offense. He isn’t checking us out of bad plays and he’s struggling to catch up to the speed of the rush (he needs to lose about 0.5 seconds from his internal clock). To go with McCoy gives you the same sorts of problems, but you also lose Ash’s contributions to the running game, and add McCoy’s inability to stand in the pocket and deliver the ball. I think people want someone like VY or Colt to come in and bail us out of bad plays, but what we need is someone to stand in there and run the system. Ash has all the tools and he’s improving very rapidly.

That's pretty much it, even if some fans are unwilling or unable to accept that we are, in fact, in a rebuilding process. There's plenty to bemoan about how we got into this position in the first place, but there's no changing the past and given the situation there's no option other than to be patient and let Ash stumble through the fog.

Horns_bullet_mediumHello, running game.  On the bright side, Texas finally has a legitimately strong running game again. Fozzy Whittaker again ran his heart out and picked up 36 yards on 9 carries, while DJ Monroe contributed 33 on just 4 carries. And Malcolm Brown had his best performance to date, leading the team with 135 yards on just 19 carries (7.1 per carry) and scoring a pair of touchdowns, including this beauty on the Statue of Liberty play:

Horns_bullet_mediumDid we run enough? More than a few fans thought Texas didn't run the ball enough, and they're both right and wrong. On the one hand, I have to agree in thinking that Harsin abandoned the run too soon in the 4th quarter. Trailing by 12 with 11 minutes left in the game, Harsin pretty much asked David Ash to try and lead a comeback; the true freshman wasn't ready for that and there was enough time at that point to keep pounding it on the ground.

On the other hand, I disagree with those who thought Harsin wasn't running the ball enough up to that point. Oklahoma State's defensive game plan was to play Cover-2, prevent big plays, keep things in front of them, and concede yardage until they got that one negative-yardage play that put us in a down-and-distance situation we couldn't handle. As many positive runs as we had, a single negative-yardage running play was often enough to kill a drive.

Across four 1st quarter drives Texas rushed the ball 14 times, five of which went for 6 yards, 8 yards (twice), 14 yards, and 27 yards. The other seven rushes went for 4, 1, 2, -1, 2, 3, -1, and -5 yards. And we scored exactly 0 points.

Our first touchdown of the game came after an OSU mishap on a punt return gave us the ball at the Cowboys' 15 yard line. We ran the ball on our first play after taking over, and Malcolm Brown took it all 15 yards for the score. Our only other offensive touchdown came on a 3-play, 60-yard drive that was all big plays: a 21-yard reverse by DJ Monroe, a 15-yard pass interference penalty on Goodwin, and Malcolm Brown's 24-yard TD run on the Statue of Liberty.

In other words, Harsin had very good reason to believe that we were not going to score enough points without coming up with big plays and/or some help from the passing game. Unfortunately, the offense wasn't able to deliver that help, but Harsin was hardly mistaken in thinking he had to try.

Horns_bullet_mediumFinal thoughts.  I'm behind enough already with an enormously busy week and don't have time to rewatch the game right now, so I'm not going to go into much more detail than that. There are important observations to be made about the offensive line (how about Josh Cocran?!), tight ends, and wide receivers, but the big points above are the main story of Saturday's game. The bottom line right now is that we're a work-in-progress, and though we're showing some very encouraging signs of improvement, there's simply no way around the growing pains of starting a true freshman QB.

I will say this: those who are ready to bury Ash for his struggles against Oklahoma and OSU are pitifully foolish. There will come a time when making those kinds of judgments will be appropriate, but I just about tore my hair out when a few friends of mine proclaimed that Ash was Garrett Gilbert 2.0. It's beyond ignorant to say that right now, even if Ash never in fact develops into a quality starter.

Happily, the overwhelming majority of folks both here and that I've spoken to in person about the game came away encouraged by the overall performance against OSU, and optimistic about Ash's capacity to improve with experience. Indeed, as far as I'm concerned that's the story of this entire program at this point: we may be a ways from being a great team, but we're pretty good, getting better, and there are real reasons to feel optimistic about our capacity to continue developing. Importantly, that applies to just about everyone -- from the offensive line, to the young quarterback, to the coaches themselves. Harsin and Diaz have been far from perfect themselves, but I don't know how anyone could watch these first six games and not feel confident that they're willing and able to learn and adapt.

Like it or not, that's what this 2011 season is all about. Things could go well for us the rest of the way and we could finish with 8 or 9 wins. It's also conceivable that we finish the season with just 5 or 6 wins. But given that we're not winning the conference and not going to a BCS Bowl -- and never had a realistic prayer of doing so heading into this year, no matter what -- I'm entirely focused on whether and how we develop. There's plenty to gripe about in terms of how we got ourselves into this position, but in it we are, and what matters now is whether we do what's required to turn it around.

By that measure, Saturday's performance was a win. A joyless win for now, but unless and until you understand and accept what really matters about this season, you won't be able to avoid having the wrong conversation.

Hook 'em