November 1, 2009

The grades are in - OSU report card

With one last major hurdle remaining in front of them in their quest to play for a national championship, Mack Brown's Texas Longhorns put together a dominant performance that clearly sent a message to the rest of the nation that screamed, "We're here to stay!" From a turnover-less offense to a playmaking, game-shifting defense, the 41-14 pounding over No.14 Oklahoma State was a sign that the 2009 version of the Longhorns will not peak in October. Here's a position-by-position review of Texas' most impressive performance of the season - the second week in a row that the statement is true.

Grading scale

A - All-American level
B - All-Conference level
C - Average
D - Below average
F - Complete failure

Quarterback - If you were going to cook up a recipe for an Oklahoma State upset, it had to include a turnover-marred performance from Colt McCoy. However, in the stiffest true road test of the season, McCoy was in vintage 2008 form for much of the game. In completing 16 of 21 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown, McCoy might not have earned a lot of headlines, but he managed the game nearly perfectly and never put the team in a danger with careless ball control. If there was ever a time to contribute his first interception-free performance of the season, this was the right game to dial it up.

In addition to his decision-making in the passing game, McCoy also helped the team out tremendously with his contributions in the ground game. His ability to pick up yards (34 yards on 11 carries) when the passing game was stoned was a huge story for the offense in the second half when the game was still in doubt. Those numbers might not jump out at you, but he had some key runs in the middle of the scoring drives created by offensive success that the Longhorns were able to muster.

The other thing that really stands out about the performance is the fact that McCoy was at his best right before the half when the Longhorns needed to march the length of the field to put points on the board and create separation between the two teams going into the break. Even though the offense was limited to four possessions in the first half and had a tough time getting into a groove, McCoy turned it on when it was needed the most. The same was also true in the third quarter when he led the offense down the field for points to begin the half. By the time the offense touched the ball again in the half, the game was more than out of control and the need for McCoy to do much of anything was gone.

Grade: A

Running backs - There's good news and bad news this week with the backs and let's just go ahead and get the bad stuff out of the way. If we're just being honest, the running game and the production of the running backs was below par. The Longhorns tried to establish the run early, but the inability to run the ball on first down helped contribute to the offense's somewhat sluggish start. Starter Foswhitt Whittaker gained only 15 yards on six carries (2.5 yards per rush) and was ineffective throughout, with his longest gain netting six yards. If he can't start faster and produce a little more, the Longhorns will have to consider tweaking the rotation again. The first guy in line to replace Whittaker might be sophomore Cody Johnson, who rushed for only 31 yards on nine carries, but he scored two touchdowns, moved the pile and provided a real spark for the offense.

There was a moment early in the season when the thought was that the Longhorns would be able to use the soft portion of the early schedule to identify their strengths in the running game and develop them before the Oklahoma game, which is when everyone felt like they would be needed. Although things haven't exactly unfolded as planned, the team will have the advantage of continuing the development for the next five weeks until it's truly needed in a big game environment once again - likely in a bowl game.

The final numbers for the position aren't pretty - 20 carries for 58 yards and the two touchdowns. On top of that, the only play made in the passing game was a -4-yard catch for Whittaker.

Grade: D

Wide receivers - This group was well on its way to putting up some really strong numbers before the game got out of hand early in the third quarter and the Texas staff decided to shut it down a little offensively. Jordan Shipley was a non-factor in the second half, but he had six huge catches for 64 yards in the first half that were vital to what the Longhorns were able to do offensively. Meanwhile, sophomore Malcolm Williams continues to emerge as a potential strong No.2 option for McCoy, as he caught two huge passes for 55 yards and a touchdown. His 11-yard touchdown catch in the final seconds of the second quarter was a nail in the coffin for the Cowboys and a genuine flash of his serious NFL talent. Once you mix in a combination of key catches from Marquise Goodwin, John Chiles and James Kirkendoll, you've got a unit that received a complete effort for the group when their skills were truly called on.

Grade: B

Tight ends

Although the Longhorns used quite a bit of their "11" personnel on the field, but Greg Smith was not much of a factor in the passing game as a receiver. The good news is that he had a pretty good night as a run blocker and enjoyed some sustained success in that department against the Oklahoma State defensive ends. His statistical impact on the game is hard to calculate, but the tight end position's presence on the field opened up some of the success with the play-action calls.

Grade: C+

Offensive line - This might be the hardest group on the team to measure because their inability to establish the run in the first half was countered with their play in pass protection. Even when the Longhorns didn't have any resemblance of a true running attack, the entire line did a pretty god job in giving McCoy as much time as he needed to find his open receivers when offense was still trying to keep the foot on the gas. Although McCoy was sacked twice, this group delivered in the pass protection department.

Of course, the ground attack was completely marginalized by the Oklahoma State defense and this group has to own that reality as well. Senior left tackle Adam Ulatoski has been playing at the highest level on the line in the last month, but he had a couple of play sequences that he would want to have back if possible.

The silver lining of the night might have been the improved by of the right side of the line. Juniors Michael Huey and Kyle Hix might have been targets of opposing defenses in recent weeks because of their inconsistent play, but the duo played much better this week and controlled the line of scrimmage on that side of the line, while also avoiding some of the mental breakdowns that have hurt them in the past.

Grade: C

Offensive game plan - It was a strange night for Greg Davis because it was extremely difficult for the Longhorns to stay in their preferred personnel package early in the game because of poor production on first down, which left the offense consistently in second and long situations. With the running game struggling early on, Davis mixed in a lot of four-receiver and some five-receiver sets in an effort to jumpstart things, but not much was working. Eventually, the Longhorns began to open their offensive series' with more four-wide sets and then they'd put the tight end back on the field once they got into the red zone or short-yardage situations.

It was pretty clear that the Longhorns entered this game with the intention of playing it a little safe offensively because of the strength of their own defense, and right around the time the offense seemed to start clicking a little towards the end of the second quarter and the beginning of the third, the game got out of hand and the need for more offense was gone. The final numbers aren't flashy, but I bet Davis and Brown would tell you that they got a lot of what they wanted from the offense with a safe attack that prioritized ball control and not putting the defense into a tight spot.

Grade: C

Defensive line - If you simply look at the rushing numbers by Oklahoma State and see that they rushed for 134 yards, you might think that the Longhorns struggled to defend the run after giving up less than half of that per game all season. Well, don't believe for a second that the front seven struggled, especially against the running game because the truth of the matter is that the Longhorns did just about everything they wanted in defending the run and it all started with the fantastic interior play by Lamarr Houston, Kheeston Randle and Ben Alexander.

The stat sheet only credited the trio with six combined tackles, but all three players controlled the line of scrimmage, made plays and life extremely difficult for the Oklahoma State offense. Of course, great play has become expected from Houston, but I'm not sure that Randle didn't have the best performance of his young career and Alexander wasn't far behind.

Not be outdone, the combo of Sam Acho (four tackles and a forced fumble) and Sergio Kindle (six tackles) played very well against the run. The only area where the line wasn't dominant was in pass rush, as the Oklahoma State offensive line did a good job of protecting Zac Robinson, as the Longhorns had occasions where sack opportunities were available, but for the most part the pass rush wasn't as strong as we've seen all season. Give a lot of credit for that to the Oklahoma State offensive line.

Grade: B

Linebackers - One of the major tasks for this group was limiting the effectiveness of Keith Toston - both as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. With Kendall Hunter limited because of the ankle injury, Toston represented the biggest and most important offensive threat for the Cowboys. Well, when it was all said and done, Toston averaged a below-average 3.7 yards per carry and the unit turned him into a non-factor as a receiver.

Senior Roddrick Muckelroy, who led the team with nine tackles and two tackles for loss, was all over the field in the second half after a modest start. The two guys that really elevated their level of play was Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson. The pair not only combined for 11 tackles and two tackle for loss, but they played the game with attitude and were greatly responsible for the Cowboys giving up on the perimeter running game.

When you add it all up, the big three for this group combined for 20 tackles and four tackles for loss, while achieving almost all of their objectives.

Grade: A-

Secondary - This group's match-up against Oklahoma State's young set of receivers looked like one of the biggest mismatches in this game on paper and that's exactly what materialized on the field, as the Texas secondary ranked as the single biggest difference maker in the game.

Junior Curtis Brown all but sealed the game with his 77-yard interception return for a touchdown, while Earl Thomas' 31-yard return for a score served as the cherry on top of the sundae. When it was all said and done, this group picked off Robinson four times and limited the OSU quarterback to 15 of 28 passing for 143 yards, with most of that production coming later in the game.

Also, let's not forget the contributions of safeties Blake Gideon and Nolan Brewster, who don't get enough credit for serving as the last line of defense for this defense on a weekly basis. Gideon was a big-play provider with an interception in the third quarter, a fumble recovery and a tackle for loss. Meanwhile, Brewster was rock solid in every phase and his ability to give the Longhorns a solid run stopper from that position is undervalued. Even with the loss of Aaron Williams early in the first half, this group performed at an other-worldly level.

Grade: A+

Defensive game plan - Will Muschamp put on a defensive clinic against a group that I think does as good of a job of offensively scheming for its players as anyone in the Big 12. He came into this game determined to suffocate the Oklahoma State running game in an effort to create advantageous down and distance situations. Over time, that's exactly what happened and as the Longhorns made a few on-the-fly adjustments in the first quarter and as the defensive line started to assert itself up-front, Muschamp was able to dig into his bag of tricks.

Although the Longhorns weren't able to find the right answers with a lot of the pressure tactics on Robinson, they constantly mixed up their coverages and pressure points. At no point in the game could Robinson get into a comfort zone because he couldn't solve the riddles that Muschamp gave him on a play-by-play basis. Even when Robinson had time, he seemed to look like a guy that was feeling a pressure and by the end of the game he was a shell of the all-conference quarterback a lot of people regard him to be. If you talked with Muschamp, he'd probably tell you this was a game that was won during the week because each player played his assignments in each scheme so perfectly. This side of the ball was so good that it didn't matter that the offense and special teams were sputtering early on. They simply took the game into their own hands and ran away with it.

Grade: A+

Special teams - For one of the few times this season, the Longhorns didn't really perform to their standard on special teams. In addition to Shipley's fumble, which came at what seemed like a pivotal moment when it occurred, the punt game with Justin Tucker wasn't clicking well at all times in the first half.

Still, it wasn't all bad as Hunter Lawrence continued his strong play at place-kicker with field goals of 25 and 40 yards. Don't look now, but Lawrence has emerged as a legitimate Groza Award nominee. Also, the kick coverage was outstanding for most of the game and I'm not sure when I've seen anyone perform as well on coverage teams as true freshman Kenny Vaccaro did on Saturday night. His hustle and desire made him into an impact player in the game.

Outside of Lawrence's field goals, the only difference making play from this group was the fumble, which represents disappointment on a couple of different levels.

Grade: C

Overall - I think Mack Brown deserves a lot of credit for the win this week, especially when you consider that he took it upon himself this week to say that it wasn't the players that needed to step it up this week as much as he needed to. He took ownership of last year's loss at Texas Tech, so much so that he stressed this game's importance to his entire team all week. His demand was for this team to take this game by any means necessary because with a win, the Longhorns not only continue to control their BCS title game fate in the palm of their hands, but they would suddenly possess a stranglehold on their lead in the Big 12 South. Not only did his team meet those demands, but they played with such focus and determinedness that they ended up blowing out a team that might have represented their biggest challenge all season. It was the kind of stuff that caused everyone across the nation to take notice off and it if it's an indicator of where this team is headed… watch out.

Grade: A

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