Mack Brown at his best after being at his worst
The high water mark of the 2010 Texas football season -- the only high water mark -- came in the resounding victory against Nebraska, the culmination of a series that the Longhorns dominated during the Husker stay in the Big 12 and one that turned increasingly acrimonious following the close victory in the 2009 Big 12 championship game.
The low water mark of the 2010 Texas football season -- one of many low water marks -- arguably came the following weekend when a scrappy Iowa State team came into Austin in front of a listless and mostly absent crowd at the Library and out-coached, out-played, and simply out-wanted Texas, according to Mack Brown and anyone with a combination of functioning eyes and brains:
Even though it doesn't show up in the official transcripts of the post-game press conference (thanks John Bianco, you're the best!), Mack Brown tore into his coaches and his players, saying that he couldn't trust either group. And he couldn't.
On Monday, Brown reflected on those comments, which he apparently actually did make:
And they outcoached us and outhit us. They outplayed us. I thought the score was not as bad as the game because they really got after us. Paul (Rhoads) is a risk taker. He gets an onside kick, and we've got guys running backwards. We're not even close. It was an awful day of coaching by me.
And then, of course, I told the team afterward I didn't trust em, and I told the coaches I didn't trust them. I really meant it. I guess I shouldn't have said it. You're not supposed to be honest anymore. But I didn't trust me, either, because what I was doing wasn't affecting the coaches or players in a positive way.
And that's my job. So I think I was mad at me more than anyone else. I couldn't trust them because I couldn't get them to do what I wanted them to do.
If you play really hard and mess some things up, I can handle that. But I just can't handle not being excited and ready to play. I understand fans don't always get excited for a game. Coaches don't always get excited for a game because you think it's one you're going to win, and it's really stupid.
You only have 12 games. You have 12 games that you work all year for. And you can't get excited for 12? That makes you want to throw up. And I think that's where I was because we had already had two (UCLA and Iowa State).
But part of what makes Mack Brown such a successful coach, despite his lack of X's and O's prowess, despite an occasional excess of loyalty to those close to him, is his ability to make productive, forward-thinking decisions when he finally does find his back against the wall.
Mack Brown won't win or lose the football game on Saturday in Ames based on anything that he does during the game. The greatest impact on the program happened last fall when he finally made the decision to let his longtime friend Greg Davis go. When he forced out three assistant coaches without having to fire any of them. When he turned a potential disaster in the loss of Will Muschamp into one of the brightest defensive minds in the country. When he turned the unimaginative, dowdy GDGD into one of the brightest offensive minds in the country. When he hired young, hungry coaches to back them up. When he helped to hold together one of the best recruiting classes in the program's history because every one of those kids recruited save one bled burnt orange and almost every one of those kids who made it to campus will be proud lifetime Longhorns.
Between the whistles, Brown won't win or lose the game for Texas. But in all likelihood, Texas will win that game because of the difficult decisions and subsequently outstanding decisions that he made during the offseason.
Let's look at the ways that those new coordinators will impact the game after considering what Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads might want to do on defense.
The Rhoads approach
The Iowa State defense will provide an interesting test for both Case McCoy and the running game. First, let's take a look at the running game, because that's not only where Harsin will want to start the game strong, but it's the facet of the Longhorn offense that Cyclone head coach Paul Rhoads and his defensive coordinator will want to shut down first and foremost.
Against teams intent on executing the type of power running game that is the backbone of Harsin's strategy every week, Rhoads has and will respond with extra players in the box and also features linebackers Jake Knott and AJ Klein, the type of tough run pluggers who can clean up at the second level and aren't afraid of taking on blockers, as well as being capable of dropping into coverage and coming up with interceptions.
That's not to say that the matchup of the Texas running game against the Iowa State run defense will be strength against strength because the Texas offensive line still has run for improvement in keeping Malcolm Brown clean further down the field to help turn those three yards after contact into even more taking on defensive backs. Meanwhile, the defensive line for Iowa State is merely adequate, especially since Britt Mitchell is no longer around to turn defensive end Jake Lattimer into the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week.
Just as important will be how Rhoads decides to scheme for Case McCoy. For whatever reason, perhaps genetic -- Colt often did the same thing -- perhaps because his lack of height and his low release point make it difficult for him to step up into the pocket and deliver throws, McCoy likes to bail out to his right, even when he isn't under immediate pressure.
A reasonable way to attack McCoy contains two facets. First, use the left defensive end to get up field far enough to keep McCoy from being able to escape in his preferred direction while slanting the defensive tackle on that side to the left to force McCoy to step up into the pocket instead of vacating it, an area where he is infinitely less comfortable.
Then, in the secondary, force McCoy to make throws downfield by pressing the Texas wide receivers and counting on them to turn and run while committing an extra safety to the box to stop the running game. However, this is an area where Rhoads may well depart from the prescription provided here, as he prefers to play more zone defense, which could allow Jaxon Shipley to find some holes and hook up with his longtime friend McCoy.
As much as Garrett Gilbert struggled, at least he showed some ability to connect on deep passes on play action, something that McCoy simply doesn't have the arm strength to consistently do -- recall the near, should-have-been-interception by Sheldon Price that fortuitously ended up in the arms of Mike Davis against UCLA.
Will Iowa State force McCoy to make those passes downfield, or will they sit in a zone and allow him to find some openings in an attempt to minimize big plays?
The offensive maestro at work
It's the other packages that may provide the best big-play opportunities for the Longhorns and where Harsin shows his brilliance. DJ Monroe was used mostly as a decoy against the Bruins as the defense keyed in on the zone read game with David Ash. But he's still available on swing passes after coming in motion across the formation and that will still open up opportunities in the play-action passing game and on misdirection runs to the other side of the field.
Speaking of Ash, it will be interesting to see how much Harsin has developed his group of plays with two weeks to prepare. Rest assured that he will give Oklahoma some new wrinkles to think about. And don't forget, there are also the two Wildcat packages with Fozzy Whittaker and Jaxon Shipley taking the snaps, with the possibility of Miles Onyegbule and Mykkele Thompson joining the mix after taking snaps in Wildcat looks during practice this week. Don't be surprised to see Onyegbule throwing a pass this season, as he was the best passer among the former high school quarterbacks who switched to their more natural positions at Texas, while Thompson such an explosive athlete that the offensive coaches fought for the right to put the football in his hands.
Harsin has shown an impressive ability to seamlessly integrate those looks into the offense without disrupting the rhythm of the game, no small task and one for which the first-year coordinator at Texas deserves immense praise. It's something that few coordinators could manage, much less have the imagination and audacity to pull off and that's a large part of what makes Harsin such a phenomenal offensive coach.
In a lot of ways, the potential for so many different players to directly receive the football on the snap represents such an incredibly stark contrast to the Greg Davis approach, who preferred to show nothing before the Oklahoma game, which allowed simple preparation for Bob Stoops, Brent Venables, and the Sooner defense. The Sooners knew coming into the Cotton Bowl virtually every season that if they could stop the base plays in the Texas offense, they would win.
As important as winning the Iowa State game is to the Texas season, especially in avenging another terrible loss from last season and exorcising those lingering demons, Longhorn fans can rest assured that Brent Venables and Bob Stoops will have a tough week preparing for the Bryan Harsin offense, something they've likely never experienced in the history of Brown-Stoops matchups in the Cotton Bowl.
The Diaz defense
Manny Diaz made it pretty clear this week that more than recording sacks, keeping Steele Jantz in the pocket and not letting him make off-schedule plays will be a major part of the defensive gameplan. Even though Iowa State runs a lot of read-option, Jantz doesn't keep the ball much in those situations, so while he's not a high-volume carry type of threat in that aspect of the game, players like Jackson Jeffcoat will have to be cognizant of keeping contain on him, a struggle at times this season.
Jantz is an interesting study in that at times he can be extremely erratic and exercise poor decision-making. Against UCONN, the junior college transfer threw three interceptions in his first four passes and already has six through three games. Late in the game, however, Jantz settled down and began to pick apart the defense, a developing theme for him early in his Cyclone career.
Stopping the run will be the focal point as always, but taking advantage of slow starts by Jantz will be key, in tandem with a fast start on offense that could help put the Cyclones in a big enough hole that his customary late-game heroics won't be enough to pull off a fourth straight fourth-quarter comeback. To unsettle Jantz early, Texas will have to bring pressure and slow down his favorite target, Darius Reynolds, who already has four touchdowns this season, averages more than 18 yards per reception, and is a big, strong kid at 6-2, 210 pounds. Can the secondary continue the strong play that has been among the biggest surprises for this team early in the season?
The major question mark, however, is the personnel that Diaz will use after almost exclusively playing with three linebackers this season. It's difficult to take the talented Jordan Hicks off of the field, even if he failed to build on his strong BYU performance. Can Demarco Cobbs contribute as the SAM backer? He's the best option against the 11 personnel grouping that Iowa State uses as the base offense, but he hasn't played yet this season after fracturing his arm and it's questionable whether he will be available. Will Diaz opt to go nickel more often to combat the spread? It's possible that he could simply opt to stick with Jordan Hicks on the strongside. All questions that just haven't had a chance to get an answer this season.
Overall, the Cyclones have done a much better job of acquiring talent and speed throughout the roster, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. The tandem of running backs, Floridian Shontrelle Johnson -- averaging nearly five yards per carry -- and Skyline product James White are on the small side for backs and don't have breakaway speed, but both are shifty and can make sharp cuts in the hole.
In stopping the running game, this Diaz defense is markedly different from Will Muschamp philosophically. Where Muschamp was willing to sit back and let offensive linemen get to the second level and destroy his linebackers, Diaz rarely affords the opposing offense that opportunity, consistently sending his linebackers on run blitzes to create a wall at the line of scrimmage.
Considering that none of the three members of the Longhorn second level of defense feel comfortable with a 300-pound lineman in their face, the change in philosophy from Muschamp to Diaz is already benefiting the defense, especially as the group started to correct the poor run fits that allowed Rice to gash the defense in the first game.
Through three games, even the players were surprised to see their collective improvement from the contest against the Owls to the Rose Bowl trip, according to Diaz:
When the Rice game came on, they were like, 'Who are these guys? They really couldn't even believe who they were just based off of watching what they looked like three weeks ago."
The factor that will ultimately determine the upside to the defense against the run game ultimately depends on several disparate factors. There's a relatively high risk/reward to the types of run blitzes Diaz likes to run, as most of them leave one linebacker or no linebackers to clean up the mess if one of the six or so players heading into the line misses their fit.
But when Diaz sits back in a more passive Muschampian way -- and no offense intended to Coach Boom -- it's a unit capable of being gashed if defensive linemen don't beat their blocks, as the linebackers are much less likely to do so. It happened often last season and one of the major reasons Diaz has mostly eliminated that problem isn't because of player development, it's because of his scheme. Unless Steve Edmond can progress to the point in practice where Diaz trusts him in games, Texas just isn't going to have that middle linebacker capable of beating blockers.
But back to Iowa State. Those two small, shifty running backs won't run away from the Texas secondary -- most of it at least -- but their quick feet will put pressure on those run fits and particularly on the area where the Longhorn front seven needs the most improvement, which is beating blocks.
As Mack Brown said, there are only 12 games in the season, which makes every game a big game, especially for a team still trying to grow. But considering the debacle last season in Austin, this is probably the biggest Texas-Iowa State game the Longhorns have ever played.
It will be another opportunity for the team and coaches to show how far the program has come in the last year. It will be a chance for the trust that the coaches have in the players and the players have in the coaches and the coaches have in each other and the players have in each other to become manifest in a way that simply wasn't possible in 2010.