1) This is another big win for Texas that probably should be getting more attention than it has and will. Yes, the Oklahoma win was huge. That's still the biggest win for Strong during his tenure at Texas so far. But this win against Kansas State was won by a Texas team that already looks very different than what we saw early on in the season.
Before the 2015 campaign began, I believed (and I know many of us did as well) that this team would look different in the second half of the season than the first. Well, we're now seeing that transformation happen. And it probably started a game sooner (against Oklahoma) than we thought (or at least I expected).
Though Texas is far from being a finished product on any side of the ball, the Longhorns are establishing a foundation and have a clear direction on offense. Largely due to the weather, Texas was forced to stick to running the ball all day against a team they likely would have liked to have pass against more. Kansas State has a weak secondary, and Texas apparently was passing the ball well in practice leading up to this game. When it was time for kickoff, however, the weather had other plans for the Texas offense. And the Horns forced to play a physical grind of a game.
But this win is important for just that reason -- it didn't take long for Kansas State and everyone watching to realize that Texas was going to run the ball all day. This was going to be an old-school, physical, messy, "who wants it more" type of game. And at the end of the day, Texas came together as the better team and forced their will on a usually tough Bill Snyder-led Kansas State team.
It wasn't pretty. It wasn't high scoring. I'm not sold the Texas squad from a month ago could have beaten Kansas State in those conditions on Saturday morning. But Kansas State wasn't playing Texas from a month ago -- they played a Longhorn team that has shown progress since then. And one that needs to continue to show progress moving forward if they want to play in a bowl game.
2) When Texas has success up front, good things happen. And we were reminded of that again Saturday morning.
Let's be clear. Texas still has a long ways to go with the offensive and defensive lines. And really, the performance in the trenches against the Wildcats still revealed areas that the Longhorns need to improve upon. But finally, Texas is showing more consistency regarding both of those position groups. And that's an important improvement from where this team was earlier in the season.
Offensively, Texas is clearly better at run-blocking than pass-blocking right now. And that won't change until Texas can insert some new blood into its offensive line. But the improved blocking when running the ball is largely due to the offensive line A) playing with more continuity, B) having a better understanding of the blocking schemes in this new offense, and C) playing with an improved collective effort. More and more, the offensive linemen look like they know where they want to go/who they want to block when they take their first step or two. In previous games, there were too many times when a lineman would take a step or two forward but wouldn't engage into a defender until the defender was already on top of him, when it was too late. That, plus improved effort to finish more blocks is paying off.
Let's also give credit to the wide receivers and guys like H-back Alex De La Torre who continue to come into the game almost strictly to block, and have done well when called upon. To be successful, a running offense like the one Texas has adopted needs good blocking from more than just its offensive linemen. And there's been a lot of good blocking coming from positions outside of the offensive line on offense.
Defensively, with the help of junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway's improved play, the middle of the line has been stronger as of late. And really, the issue was never that Texas had poor players in the middle. The group of defensive tackles was probably one of the better position groups the Horns had coming into the season. But the play there, similar to the offensive line, looked uninterested and lost early on in the season. Also, we do know injuries played a role in the struggles there as well.
In the early weeks of the season, the defensive linemen would get stuck on blocks and do little to shake off the opposing linemen to find the ball. Now, we're seeing more individual battles being won at those interior positions, and it's helping the rest of the defense play better.
Moving forward, Texas definitely needs to continue to improve the offensive and defensive line. But the only way Texas was winning this game Saturday was if they won the battles up front. In the trenches on Saturday, they won more battles than they lost. And it helped Texas win a grind of a game.
3) Good for junior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes. His career and perception at Texas has completely flipped directions. And he has Jay Norvell and that 18 Wheeler package that is almost identical to the Belldozer from Norvell's days at Oklahoma to thank.
Make no mistake about it -- Swoopes is a great weapon for the Texas offense to utilize. Did you ever think you would hear that statement as one that's true? I know I didn't.
But the emergence of Swoopes as a power-running option out of the 18 Wheeler package has given the Texas offense a much needed change of pace option and wrinkle that forces defenses to change how they defend the Longhorns in certain situations. When he's on the field in that package, Texas can basically run in any direction. And it forces opposing defenses into a position where they are having to make many quick decisions before and right after the ball is snapped. Then add a few pass plays into the mix, and this package really can be a nightmare of a package for any defense to face.
Also, credit Swoopes for engaging himself back into the offense. For this package to work, Swoopes has to want to run hard. He has to want to be out there for the pounding he will take every time he rumbles down the field. But he's brought a lot of energy to the package and looks like he's having fun with it.
It's also easy to tell he is clearly much more comfortable in this package running the ball than he ever was dropping back as a passer in Watson's style of offense. Credit Strong and Norvell for highlighting what Swoopes does best and using it to his and this team's advantage.
4) Welcome to football, Michael Dickson. That guy has already seen it all as a punter. Due to another bad snap by his long snapper, Kyle Ashby, Dickson was again forced to go chasing after the football. But this time, he corralled the football and was able to execute a near-perfect punt that was downed inside the 10-yard line on a play that easily could have been another special teams debacle.
Deservedly so, Dickson was awarded Big 12 Special Teams player of the week. And hopefully it's a sign of more good to come from him. That is if he gets good snaps...
5) Looking ahead to next week and beyond, there are a few things I'll be watching for.
a) Is the coaching staff comfortable enough with where Heard is passing to attempt at least 25-30 passes a game if the game calls for that? Heard has attempted more than 20 passes in a game only once so far all season (31 vs Cal).
b) Was sophomore running back D'Onta Foreman really a bit banged up against KSU? Or are the coaches really going to ride Gray more than Foreman at a ratio that is still too lopsided towards Gray?
c) When, if at all this season, will the coaches trust Elliott, Locke, and Boyd enough to play quality minutes on defense? The secondary will be a better unit when Texas has the athleticism of those guys on the field to go along with Hill and Davis.
d) Will Daje Johnson be able to get back on track where he left off before his injury? He didn't really have an opportunity to this week due to the weather and nature of this game.
e) Texas has five chances to win at least three games to end the season bowl eligible. Do we feel confident enough that this Texas team has turned a corner and can win at least three more (this means Texas almost certainly has to beat Iowa State and Kansas, and win at least one between West Virginia, Texas Tech, and Baylor)?
Texas still has much to improve upon. And this is definitely still a team that is on a week-to-week basis as far as what type of team it is and wants to be. But each week we learn something new about this year's Longhorns. And in a game that was largely more about will and being physical than anything else, the Longhorns showed that they are at a point where they aren't afraid to grind out a game if that's what it's going to take. And that's a good sign for a team that has needed to establish a foundation and confidence for a long, long time.