After an offseason that built a tremendous amount of hype, Week One against the Rice Owls left us a little less confident going into the trip to Tuscaloosa. The looming questions of whether the Texas Longhorns are back or ending their Big 12 tenure on the right note with a conference championship might need to be pushed off for a minute. Right now, the Horns need to focus on not having an embarrassing performance against the Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday.
There is no lack of attention on this year’s receiving corps. Adonai Mitchell from Georgia has tremendous hands and had three receptions for 26 yards and a touchdown in the season opener. Isaiah Neyor who transferred from Wyoming last year will be an excellent addition to the proven duo of Xavier Worthy and Jordan Whittington.
Worthy’s speed allows him to beat cornerbacks off the line and could be a serious deep ball threat. However, this past Saturday it didn’t seem like Quinn Ewers had improved his accuracy at that range. There were multiple looks where Worthy had his man beat, but balls were underthrown. Even with Worthy’s athleticism, contorting his body to adjust for the ball, the shallow throws allowed Rice’s defensive backs to catch up and interfere. Worthy finished the game with seven receptions for 90 yards.
Whittington, who had four receptions for 47 yards, will continue to be one of the best run-blocking receivers and his perseverance will surely be used in the short passing game, allowing him to capitalize on yards after the catch. Ja’Tavion Sanders returns and already showed he is an elite pass catcher at any level with two receptions for 44 yards and a touchdown.
Below are the 2022 PPA metrics gathered, split into passing and rushing downs. PPA, also sometimes listed as EPA is based off the expected points produced on a given play, given the down, distance to go, and field position. The measure is how many points above average a player produces.
A metric I have grown to be a fan of is success rate. A play is successful if any of the following happens:
- The offense scores
- 50 percent of yards are gained on a first down
- 70 percent of yards are gained on a second down
- Third or fourth down is converted
Below is a plot of rushing versus passing success rate from the 2022 season for Texas and all other teams in the conference. I have also included the non-conference opponents and teams that have debatably been in the top 10 so far this year, AP, Coaches Poll, or otherwise.
While the ground game is pushing towards the likes of the top teams in the country, we are left eagerly awaiting a growth in passing. Adjustments in the red zone were a major issue last year, especially in the back half of games. Below is a chart demonstrating the lack of production and success from Ewers in this area.
A big question mark in the Longhorns offense is the run game. Roschon Johnson and Bijan Robinson were not just juggernauts on the field, but they were class-act characters that strongly influenced how the rest of the team carried themselves. Sarkisian will point towards the permanent bell cow to also embody the identity of the team as well.
Keilan Robinson is used in more passing situations or outside zone, so I am looking elsewhere for the trucking ability of a three-down back. Johnathan Brooks has the most experience and saw the most carries on Saturday with 12 and ran for 52 yards. Jaydon Blue is undersized in comparison, but does have the ability to find the gap and put his head down for the inside running game. Blue was utilized more after CJ Baxter’s early exit, and had 55 yards on 10 carries. I was excited to see the five-star recruit CJ Baxter get early snaps as well, and it seems like the decision to not play the rest of the game was just a precautionary measure.
Sarkisian’s investment in the offensive line showed last year — left tackle Kelvin Banks and right tackle Christian Jones rank highly as a tackle duo. I thought this new and improved line would give some grace for the running backs. Center Jake Majors possesses great pass blocking ability but might be the weakest link when it comes to the run game. My confidence really plummeted watching this line then give up two sacks and eight tackles for loss to a Rice defensive unit that was ranked 123rd and 111th in rushing and passing defensive respectively last season.
The chart below breaks down their contribution to the run game this past year; I included all the same teams used in the first comparison. Line yards per rush is based on yards lost or gained within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Second level yards are within the 5-to-10 yard range after the line of scrimmage, and open field yards are after 10 yards. In the Sarkisian era, the total number of yards has steadily climbed, with more significant change coming from the second level and open field yards. During the 2018 and 19 seasons under Herman, these metrics were at 3, 1, and 0.6 yards respectively. Last Saturday against Rice these numbers were 2.5, 1.3, and 1.8.
Alabama has defensive stars in Sam linebacker Dallas Turner (37 tackles and four sacks last season) and CB Kool-Aid McKinstry (35, one) who always is a threat on punt returns as well. But LB Deontae Lawson (51, zero) had the best performance in their first game against Middle Tennessee, tallying seven total tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss. After the Horns struggled with 5-0 looks on offense, a loaded Bama box could be a guaranteed method to keep Texas from generating any momentum. Their defensive line consists of defensive ends Justin Eboigbe, (11, zero) and Jah-Marien Latham (four, zero), nose tackles Tim Keenan III and Damon Payne (seven, zero), DTs Jaheim Oatis (29, one) and Tim Smith (20, one), and Chris Braswell (21, three) at the Jack position.
Their passing defense ranked 16th in the nation last year allowing just 191.3 yards per game. Free safety Jaylen Key walked away with an interception in Week One as they kept Middle Tennessee to 133 yards through the air. They have the talent to match up with the Texas wide receiver corps, so Ewers’ accuracy will be imperative to capitalize on any opportunities.
The Texas defense is spearheaded by defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat and linebacker the year Jaylan Ford, each gathering five tackles on Saturday. The defensive line saw massive improvement last year underneath Pete Kwiatkowski and we saw them deliver yet again against Rice. The line also has returning members nose tackle Byron Murphy and defensive tackle Alfred Collins. Defensive tackle Trill Carter transferred from Minnesota where he was an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention last year. At defensive, Barryn Sorrell is always a constant threat on the strong side, and the weak side’s Ethan Burke was a menace last weekend (four total tackles, 1.5 sacks). Linebackers David Gbenda and Jett Bush were impactful, and it was exciting to see the energy freshman Anthony Hill brings. Their statistics for the 2022 season are displayed below.
As we move back, Ford and nickel back Austin Jordan each had an interception against Rice. Returning defensive backs Jerrin Thompson, Ryan Watts, and Jahdae Barron are joined by transfers Gavin Holmes (Wake Forest) and Jalen Catalon (Arkansas), and four-star recruit Malik Muhammad from South Oak Cliff.
The chart below shows success rate (2022 season) again but for the defensive side, thus look towards the bottom left quadrant for the best teams.
The last measure I wanted to investigate is havoc rate. It seems to be the separator between teams who more or less average the same number of points per game allowed. Havoc rate can be split into the front seven and defensive back units. It is the rate at which the defense causes a sack, tackle for loss, forced fumble, pass breakup, or interception. The ability to create pressure or make big plays, especially in crunch time, can distinguish the championship-level defenses versus those who might be carried by high-scoring offenses. Last year, Texas led in number of pressures created but as you will see here, translating those pressures into these major momentum-shifting plays will be what pushes Texas into the top 10.
The Texas defense deserves all the credit against Rice, boasting a havoc rate of 18.8% each for the front seven and defensive back units.
Alabama’s Jalen Milroe looked poised to finally take the reins as starting quarterback in their first game. He completed 13-of-18 passes for 194 yards and 3 touchdowns, culminating in a QBR of 94.4. He also works well using the RPO and had 48 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Starting running back Jase McClellan collected 39 yards on 10 carries. The Longhorn D-line was great in last year’s game in creating pressures, but the concern is sealing the edge against as mobile of a quarterback as Milroe.
Slot receiver Isaiah Bond racked up five receptions for 76 yards and a touchdown. Bama really loved using these quick out routes in the short passing game last week and Middle Tennessee’s man coverage was no match for it. Jermaine Burton, transfer from Georgia, started as a Z receiver and tallied three receptions, 62 yards and a touchdown.
The Texas defense will keep the Longhorns in this game just as they did before. If Sarkisian and Ewers can produce anything that resembles their first quarter against Bama last year, then we will be in for a great game. DraftKings’ current spread is at -7.5 for Bama and 55.5 for total points. I am tempted to take the under as this will be a slow, drawn-out defensive battle.