Charlie Strong's defense and his young quarterback mostly acquitted themselves well on Saturday, looking for much of the game like the superior team to their rival. But continuing what has become a defining trend for this team, the Longhorns were their own worst enemy on Saturday, ultimately costing themselves an upset with penalties and -- yet again -- costly special teams play. The Sooners got 7 points on a kickoff return and the Longhorns left precious points on the board thanks to 11 penalties costing 80 yards, just enough for the Sooners to win a game in which they went 1-for-11 on 3rd down and were doubled up by Texas in first downs (24-11) and total yards (482-232).
Some observations on Texas' 31-26 loss to the Sooners:
Texas outgained OU by more than 250 yards, completely dominated the Sooners on 3rd down, ran 34 more plays and held the ball for an astonishing 38 minutes. The Sooners get the prize that counts, but make no mistake about it: Texas was well positioned to win this game had it not shot itself in the foot with penalties and allowed OU a special teams touchdown. As has been the emerging theme for this team and season, it was a promising performance to be proud of... that still managed to leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
Progress on the ground. We're not exactly the 2005 Longhorns, but at least as compared with where we were a month ago, we again saw meaningful progress in the running game. Texas found some success on the ground thanks to a solid effort from the offensive line, Watson-Wickline continuing to make productive adjustments, and Maclolm Brown quietly turning in one of the best performances of his Longhorn career.
I'm proud of Malcolm Brown, whose career probably hasn't gone as he had once hoped it would. After an unremarkable start to the year, Brown appears to have responded to Charlie Strong's challenge to fight through his previous limits, which Strong very bluntly described as "not good enough." Brown hasn't become Superman overnight, but he's running with much better vision and purpose, he's making cuts decisively, and he is fighting for every extra yard. It may not be game breaking stuff, but the difference is non-trivial, and helps our offense immensely. Malcolm Brown may not be a great running back, but we needed him to be a good one, and for the second consecutive game he was. Good stuff.
We're still a long way from where we want to be, but we're also a long way from the trainwreck we saw to open the season. It's progress, which is what we're looking for in a situation like this. The near-term progress is a cause for optimism about the longer-term rebuilding project. On the whole, I've seen a lot more to like than dislike from Watson-Wickline, and if you're displeased with the job they're doing, you might be evaluating with your emotions. Understandable, but I encourage you to not worry too much about the wins and losses this year and embrace the rebuild. We're doing it from the foundation up. That will show up in important ways later. Ways that will affect whether we're able to win games like we want to.
Elsewhere in encouraging trends... Building on what I said about the improvements we've seen from Malcolm Brown, one of my favorite things about Charlie Strong is the way we continue to see in the performances of players evidence that specific issues are (a) being identified and (b) coached for improvement. It's a reflection of the central role that accountability plays in Strong's coaching style. His approach is straightforward and consistent, and unequivocally directed towards a collective goal. And one of the beautiful things about defining accountability as a first principle of participating in the collective is that it crowds out the space for taking things personally.
To take that out of the abstract, at least to my eyes, I'm routinely seeing Texas players improve and develop in specific ways that clearly reflect this staff is doing a great job at evaluating problems and coaching them up. We've seen it from Malcolm Brown the past two games. We've seen it in the offensive line. We've even seen it in Steve Edmond. I'm not talking about magical transformations into All-Americans -- just meaningful progress. Again, while our issues run to deep to save this season, that progress is a critical indicator that this staff has a good grip on what it's working with and what it wants to do to rebuild the program.
Swoopes, there it is. Tyrone Swoopes made his fair share of mistakes -- and one really costly one -- but on the whole, considering it was his first start in the RRS, and especially as compared to his forgettable performance against Baylor a week ago, the sophomore signal caller had himself a hell of a game today. Swoopes is a great example of both what I was talking about with Charlie Strong and my previous comment regarding Watson-Wickline. A week ago, Swoopes was self-sacking, running at the wrong times, and missing opportunities because he was bailing on looking downfield at the first hint of pressure.
Today? Again, not by any means perfect, but he improved by leaps and bounds in the one area where he most needed to (and to be fair is perhaps the biggest challenge for quarterbacks) -- he (mostly) hung tight in the pocket, kept his head up, and looked for his receivers breaking open rather than bailing with his feet. The one-game improvement was about as substantial as it gets, and reflects well both on him and Shawn Watson.
Kudos to Swoopes and his coaches, as well, for starting to figure out when and how to use Swoopes in the running game. That is not to say that he is a running quarterback -- he's not -- but the quarterback can be (and in the college game today really needs to be) a component part of the running game, and both our coaches and Swoopes himself are getting a better feel for what that might look like. Vince Young he is not, but he's a mobile load who should make for a lot of easy decisions on 3rd- and 4th-and-short, as well as inside the 10. Those 245 pounds are going to find their way forward at least a yard or two as a principle of physics. And as we saw today on his 73-yarder that got called back, he takes a long time to get going, but once he's into his full stride, he's not what you would describe as slow. Those long legs cover a lot of ground with every stride.
Briefly in closing... Lightning round: Game balls on defense go to Maclom Brown and Jordan Hicks, both of whom played a truly spectacular game. They're not just succeeding as a result of an overabundance of talent; they're also playing really, really hard. It's fun to watch... Add Jaxon Shipley to the list of guys who elevated their game to a higher level today, too. He was on point, and it helped Swoopes and the offense a lot... Some of the woulda-been, coulda-been is on the coaching staff, who for all their great work preparing this team for the game struggled with some in-game tactical execution. I'm sure no one's more frustrated by it than Strong himself, but the announcers were rightfully confused by the repeated struggles Strong and his team had getting plays communicated and snapped in time -- costing us timeouts and delay of game penalties, and may well have had a role in one or more of the seventeen false start penalties we managed to rack up.
Fully embracing this rebuild has helped manage the inevitable sting of a loss, and though it's helped me focus mostly on positive signs that we're seeing from players and coaches alike, it's impossible to not care about losing to the Sooners. OU sucks. Yesterday, right now, tomorrow, and forever. And for the fourth time in five years, they won. I hate that. Immensely.
But it sure looked today like Charlie Strong is going to win his fair share of Red River Shootouts before it's all said and done.