I just got home from the game and hope that everyone was able to see it one way or another. For those who missed it, Texas' 34-9 win over Rice (box score) mostly confirmed what we thought about this team heading into the season. At least as far I'm concerned, that's a good thing.
Although Texas led just 13-6 at half, the struggles were different in kind from a year ago. Texas wasn't executing particularly well, but the approach was sound and the team was engaged. By the second half, the Longhorns started to find a bit more rhythm, and wound up pulling away from the Owls for a solid, satisfying 34-9 win. The game seemed a bit like what we should expect from the season as a whole: some missteps and challenges in the early going, but steady improvement throughout, culminating in a stronger team that crescendos to finish the year.
A few assorted thoughts on the game:
Tantalizing tailbacks. Watching each of our tailbacks finish their runs was terrific. Cody Johnson hammered home a touchdown and picked up a big first down on determined effort alone. Malcolm Brown looks fantastic at his current playing weight and will have as few negative-yardage carries in his career as Cedric Benson. Joe Bergeron is more impressive live than I'd anticipated, and I was already high on the kid. And Fozzy Whittaker finished off the Owls with two touchdowns, both of which showcased what he brings to the table for this group: explosiveness. Honestly, I liked what we saw from every single one of our tailbacks tonight, and we're going to get a lot out of all of them. Those who will focus on who should start are missing the strength of this group. It doesn't matter who starts, and we'll use all of these guys to try to get what we want from the running game as a whole. Tonight was a great start for this group.
Garrett Gilbert, good and bad. Gilbert was frustrating to watch in the first half simply because he seemed to be operating so mechanically, like a pre-programmed machine. But even in his lackluster first half there were three things that were very encouraging to see: First, he avoided costly mistakes, which is of course a minimum requirement but still important. Second, Gilbert connected on a deep ball that he -- wait for it... put some air under! Touch has been one of the things missing from his passes, but he showed some tonight. And third, Gilbert steadily got more comfortable as the game went on, and along with it, a good bit better. Early in the game he was still alarmingly stiff and mechanical, but as he started to settle in he began flowing through the pocket more comfortably, and using the extra half-second to deliver completions. If I had game tape to review and present to you, I'd highlight a few plays: (1) His early misguided throws where he seemed to have decided where he seemed to have decided where he was going to pass it before the snap. (2) His deep balls that demonstrated improved touch. (3) A second half completion where he sidestepped pressure and used the extra time to throw a catchable ball on the sideline for a first down. Taken together they would show a performance that has plenty of room for improvement, but which was encouraging in ways that were so critical that we see. We'll see if he can keep progressing as the defenses stiffen, but my biggest worry in this game was a catastrophic performance from Gilbert. We just didn't need that, and for now I'm happy enough to have gotten what we did. Especially given his improvement as he got more comfortable throughout the game. Hopefully that suggests further improvement can and will follow.
Manny Diaz's mad science. Our defense assuredly has some exploitable weaknesses, but one of the neat things about taking in tonight's game was experiencing Manny Diaz's operating theories in action. Time and again it sure felt like Rice was getting it done against our defense, but they kept failing to produce the points to show for it. It's crucial to remember that's not an accident -- that is the very design of Manny Diaz's defense. It was cool to contemplate in theory, but it was even neater to experience it in action tonight. Rice was able to do some things against us on the ground, but they never really sniffed a big play and continually had to sustain drives if they wanted a touchdown to show for it. They never got one, and that's something to keep in mind as we go forward this season. Offenses are going to have to sustain drives, move the chains, and finish those drives. Rice had two nice drives of 10+ plays, but in both cases couldn't turn them into six points. This Texas defense isn't ready to be a dominant unit, but neither is it going to allow touchdowns easily. It's a simple thing, but so crucial nonetheless.
Malcolm Brown is primed to produce. I cautioned against getting too caught up in which tailback is starting, but feel free to get excited about what Malcolm Brown's going to do in this offense. We knew he was a powerful runner, but the more exciting news is that he's playing at 215 pounds, and it shows in the way he's cutting and in his lateral movement. He looks great and he's moving great, but the reason he's able to capitalize on his abilities is his patience and vision. It's the hardest skill to teach a tailback, and Brown has that "feel" for both timing and spacing that is the difference between great athletes and great rushers.
Jordan Shipley returns for a 7th year of Texas football. Okay, watching Jaxon Shipley play football for Texas wearing No. 8 is just weird. The similarities between him and his brother go well beyond resemblance; they're outright uncanny. If there's a difference, it's that Jaxon looks like his brother did as a junior already, as a true freshman. I'm not sure I've ever seen a more polished true freshman receiver in all my years of watching college football. One of the best parts about watching the game in the stadium was getting to see Jaxon run his routes. He's fast, crisp, technically sound, and creates separation from his defender exactly like his older brother did not so long ago.
The offensive line is improving. The performance of the offensive line was in lock step with the offensive unit as a whole, in that they started to really get going as the game went on. They kept Gilbert's jersey clean in pass protection and seemed to execute better and better in the running game as they began to get into a rhythm. The fun thing about it is that you can see how an offensive unit that's fully immersed in, and comfortable with, Bryan Harsin's system is primed to succeed. Texas's offensive line really started to work well together in the run game in the second half tonight, and you could see how they benefited from Harsin's systematic attacking of the defense over the course of the game.
Quick hits. Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs both impressed tonight and are going to be damn good by November.... Bryan Harsin used DJ Monroe purposefully more times in one drive than Greg Davis did over two years... Speaking of which, after the past few years, just about every instance of good old fashioned variance and diversity we saw tonight seemed like a trick play, didn't it? It's actually just quality football, but the difference sure is stark... John Harris will make the highlights for his touchdown throw, but his coaches will be even happier with his blocking on the edge... I thought Jordan Hicks came on stronger as the game went on, but my impression on first live view of the game was that our linebackers left something to be desired. I'm worried about teams that will pound us on the ground.
Wrapping these game night thoughts up, this was definitely a win to celebrate, Longhorns fans. Nevermind the opponent or final score; we saw the important things that confirm our reasons for believing that this team will continue to improve, and that this program is being coached in the right direction. It'd be nice if it all came together quickly, right away -- this season -- but more important is that this season starts us down the right path. What we saw tonight absolutely aligns with that view. And that's by far the most important thing.
Tonight provided a solid warm up for the team to find a rhythm, and next week we'll actually get tested, as a stout BYU team that won't be intimidated by us in the slightest comes to Austin. The Cougars feature a better defense than I'd anticipated, and an offense with similar to potential to our own.
Fun times, and tonight I hope you enjoyed the return of Texas football as much as I did.