September 20, 2009

The grades are in - Tech report card

On a night when many expected a coronation for the nation's No.2 team, the Longhorn Nation was served a reminder on Saturday that trophies aren't handed out after three weeks into the season and if the Longhorns don't start to make some key improvements, there might not be a trophy waiting for them after week 12. There were a lot of great things that happened in Texas' 34-24 win, but there can be little question that Mack Brown's coaching staff still has a lot of work to do with this group because they are not hitting the bar that they've established. Here's a position-by-position breakdown of Saturday night's win.

Grading scale

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

Quarterback - Is it possible that the Longhorns have seen two extremes of Colt McCoy the last two seasons and the truth of his abilities rest somewhere between the inconsistencies of 2007 and the awesomeness of 2008?

I'm not sure if it was the flu that the school confirmed after the game had plagued him throughout the week, but McCoy was the second best quarterback on the field tonight and he never came close to looking like the Heisman runner-up that he last season.

Although he ended up completing 24 of 34 passes (70.6%) for 205 yards, McCoy never seemed to settle into a groove on Saturday night. He overthrew wide-open receivers and often missed wipe-open options because he was locking on Jordan Shipley for much of the night. In fact, McCoy seemed to have very little confidence in anyone not named Shipley or Dan Buckner, which is obviously a problem that needs to be addressed moving forward.

In addition to his struggles in the passing game, McCoy didn't have much of an impact with his feet, as his longest carry of the game went for six yards and he averaged 0.6 yards per carry on eight attempts.

After performing at Herculean standards in 2008, McCoy has established a very high bar for the entire 2009 season, but let's forget about him trying to be the best player in the country because McCoy wasn't one of the best quarterbacks in the Big 12 on this night. No matter the reason, McCoy just wasn't on his game and he didn't have a lot of help from his offensive teammates. The best news is that the Longhorns probably couldn't have won a game like this last season. It's also important to note that while McCoy might have had an off night, he did not make decisions or poor throws that put Texas in harm's way. Both of his interceptions came off of balls that bounced off of the hands of a receiver. It was kind of a bus driver performance by a guy that's better than that.

Grade: C-

Running backs - The running back debate is settled. If nothing else on the offense was worth remembering fondly, we at least have an answer to the starting running back issue. It's Tre' Newton's job. Period.

The redshirt freshman running back gained 88 tough yards and a touchdown on 20 carries (18 of them in the second half), while providing a steady hand for an offense that needed one. When the Longhorns desperately needed to turn to Newton in the third quarter, he was a rock for an offense that has zero stability in the first half. His 19-yard touchdown run was the offensive play of the night and it seemed to release a lot of the pressure off of the shoulders of McCoy.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that the offense netted three points without him as the featured back in the first half and 24 in the second half once they made the decision to turn the game over to No.23.

As for Vondrell McGee (nine yards on four carries), he's remains a personal favorite, but it's just not happening for him right now. The advantage of having Newton in the game is that he doesn't require the line to hold their blocks as long as McGee, which is a huge issue when you consider this current offensive line group.

Overall, this backs tallied 107 yards on 28 carries (3.8 yards per carry), while contributing only one reception in the passing game for three yards. Newton gets a B for his second-half performance, but the group's overall grade for 60 minutes was below the bar.

Grades: D+

Wide receivers - Before the season started, James Kirkendoll, Malcolm Williams and Brandon Collins represented three of the team's top four top receivers. On Saturday night, that trio combined for two catches, one suspension and one deflected pass that was intercepted.

If you want to know one of the problems with the Texas offense, here it is. For whatever reason, McCoy seems to have almost zero confidence in the two players that are eligible from the group, which is a shock when you consider he's been playing with each of these players for three games. There were times when Kirkendoll or Williams was open, but McCoy didn't appear to give the thought of throwing them the ball any consideration.

If it's not Shipley or Dan Buckner (and sometimes John Chiles), it doesn't seem like McCoy has much in-game confidence with his receivers. Shipley was solid with 11 catches for 73 yards, but Tech was intent on not giving up the big play. Four of Shipley's 11 catches moved the chains, but the ineffectiveness of the rest of the offense was a real handicap for his possible output.

Buckner not only caught six passes for 75 yards and a touchdown, but he also chipped in the team's three explosive plays from the wide receiver position. He deserves a game ball, along with Newton. Chiles had a couple of moments in the game, but if a ball hits you in the hands, it has to be caught and you certainly can't let a pass get intercepted because it bricked off your hands. That interception pretty much nullified whatever positive impact he made on the game, especially when you consider that it occurred after a Texas Tech turnover on their side of the field. True freshman Marquise Goodwin played a lot throughout the game, but didn't catch a pass and was only targeted once (on a brutally executed flea-flicker) in four quarters.

Overall, the wide receiver position accounted for 22 receptions for 199 yards, a touchdown and two turnovers. Shipley and Buckner deserve strong individual grades, but the group seriously underperformed as a unit.

Grade: C

Offensive line/Tight ends - Mac McWhorter hands out the Boss Hogg Award each week to the team's best lineman, but if he wants to keep it real with his troops, he needs to retire the trophy until one of his troops warrants receiving such an honor. Despite facing an outmanned Texas Tech squad that was down to one healthy defensive end, the Texas line got whipped in every way imaginable at various points in this game.

The starting tackles Adam Ulatoski and Kyle Hix has to play better. Period. Both of those players are too talented to give away plays like they did at times last night. It didn't matter that Tech didn't have any healthy ends because they were able to get pressure off the edge against both of the Texas tackles with a hodgepodge collection of defensive tackles and inexperienced linebackers forced into defensive end duty.

The interior of the line wasn't much better, if any. Rather than point out every single inconsistency - let's point out a few bottom lines. The Texas line didn't pass protect well. The Texas line didn't control the line of scrimmage. This group is not playing well enough and you have to wonder if the coaches need to consider shaking things up a bit.

It's time for the excuses to end, as well as the soft play. This group has too much experience to be this inconsistent and if the group doesn't play at a higher level moving forward, Texas won't win the rest of its games.

Grade: D-

Offensive game plan - As president of the Greg Davis fan club, I nominate this as one of the most disjointed efforts by a Texas offense in the last five seasons. Like a prized-fighter taking on a southpaw that he can never figure out, Davis went 12 rounds with Texas Tech's Ruffin McNeil and never seemed to execute a working game plan.

Tech didn't really make it that hard on Texas. They played a deep cover two, kept everything in front of them and rushed mostly three or four players. The goal was to make Texas take methodical drives and they basically dared Texas to run the football on them. Well, you have to be able to run the football and the Longhorns never truly attempted to establish the run in the first half.

Let me say this again - you have to be able to run the football when a team is GIVING it to you. It's football 101 stuff and Davis knows it better than anyone, but the inability to establish that threat helped cripple the offense when McCoy struggled early.

Also, it might be time to put the quick-snap offense on the shelf. I'm not talking about the no-huddle - that's fine. I'm talking about this idea that somehow Texas is better off running up to the line and snapping the ball quickly into a run play because of the thought you'll catch the defense subbing or off-guard. As Bill Lumbergh might say, "Yeah, riiiiiiiight." I would venture to say that the Tech defensive line beat the Texas offensive line to the punch on at least 50% of the quick snap attempts. On top of that, when you're playing the Red Raiders, you have to be able to move the chains and rest your defense as much as possible. Even in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter when the Longhorns should have been running clock and resting the defense, Davis had his offense ineffectively rushing the pace and it helped leave a tired Texas defense hanging out to dry a little.

The Longhorns had plenty of exotics in the game plan, but if you don't have the basics down, the exotics aren't going to be very effective and that's what we saw last night, especially in the first half. Even after a strong second half, the Longhorns only averaged 3.3 yards per rush and 4.5 yards per play for the game, and it's tough to talk about the real bread and butter plays of the offense because I'm not sure that they very many right now.

Overall, the offense looked a lot like a menu at Chili's. There might have been 20 things on the menu that looked good before you ordered them, but there's nothing there will bring you back again a second time. That was the Texas offense in this game. It was a restaurant that ended up filling your stomach, but if you never visit the place again, it'll be too soon.

Grade: D

Defensive line - The Texas Tech offense can often marginalize an opposing defensive line because of their wide line splits and quickly-timed passing game, but that wasn't the case on Saturday night because the Longhorns front four flat out dominated Texas Tech up-front. After getting gashed for 100+ rushing yards in Lubbock last year, the Longhorns completely shut the Tech run game down to the tune of -6 yards on 18 attempts.

Senior defensive tackle Lamarr Houston was once again a beast in the interior, as he recorded five tackles, one tackle for loss, a fumble recovery and several quarterback pressures, while controlling whatever inside running game Tech wanted to establish. Mix in some solid play from Kheeston Randall (three tackles) and Ben Alexander, and you've got a defensive tackle position that gave Will Muschamp everything it wanted.

Senior defensive end Sergio Kindle was a game-changer. His fourth quarter sack of Taylor Potts effectively ended the game and even though the stat sheet didn't show it, Kindle's presence was felt all over the field in this game. Just ask Potts.

As good as Kindle was, give a game ball to Eddie Jones (three tackles, a sack and a forced fumble) because he might have been the best end on the team tonight. Jones is very quietly putting together one heck of a season as the team's third defensive end. He's brought quality play to the table in each game and he played as well as he ever has against the Red Raiders.

Overall, the defensive line accounted for two sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, a whole mess of quarterback pressures and they suffocated the Tech running game.

Grade: A+

Linebackers - One week after disappearing at times, senior Roddrick Muckelroy put together another big-time performance to go along with his opening game masterpiece against La-Monroe. The former Hallsville star was officially credited with seven tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and a pass break-up, but his numbers don't tell the entire story. Any time Tech tried to sneak in a run play, Muckelroy was there to snuff it out. He was violent and played without fear. It was a performance that Derrick Johnson would be proud of.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Acho had the best game of his young career, recording four tackles, two tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. When you add in the play of Keenan Robinson, you've got a group that tackled well and made a ton of big plays. This group is doing everything you could ask of them.

Grade: A+

Secondary - The Longhorns were hot and cold for most of the night against the Red Raiders. The important thing to remember is that the secondary was pretty stingy and even dominant at times in the first half when the Texas offense was playing kick the can all over the field.

It was a story of two games for the Texas secondary, especially in the second half. When the Longhorns were able to play aggressive, in-your-face coverage on the Tech receivers, the Tech passing game was held in check. When the legs tired a bit on the second half, the Longhorns were forced to play their corners in soft coverage and Potts picked them apart.

Junior Curtis Brown was picked on at times in the second half, but he was nails in the first half and the bottom line is that he gave a winning performance when you take everything into consideration. He might have taken some lumps, but he tackled well, made a few pass break-ups and was air-tight in his coverage before fatigue started to sink in.

Fellow junior Chykie Brown wasn't quite as good and the difference between the two if that he didn't always tackle well and wasn't quite as air-tight early in the game. On the other hand, sophomore Aaron Williams might be performing as well as any player on the team. He worked the slot for most of the night and Potts stayed away from him for 60 minutes. Even if Tech wasn't looking to work on him, he found a way to get involved, as he finished with seven tackles, two tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a pass break-up.

Sophomore safety Earl Thomas also had a solid night and his interception of Potts in the fourth quarter was one of the game's key plays. Outside of a few lost battles in coverage, Thomas gave the Longhorns a winning performance. The thing you love about Thomas is that he never stops playing hard and his memory is short.

Sophomore Blake Gideon was solid, but wasn't as strong in coverage as he'd been the previous two weeks and the Red Raiders were able to move the chains in the middle of the field in match-ups against Gideon on a few occasions.

Overall, this game could not have been won without the play of the secondary, even if their effectiveness weakened as the game went on. Perhaps I'm grading them with a curve, especially when you consider the busted assignment that resulted in a big-play touchdown, but that was a winning performance against a quarterback that played as well as anyone they'll likely face all season.

Grade: B-

Defensive game plan - Muschamp's defense won this game for the Longhorns. Holding Tech to three points in the first half is the story from this game and Muschamp's group was able to do it by playing very aggressive early with his corners and front seven. With the Longhorns in press coverage, Muschamp changed his looks up-front constantly, bringing occasional delayed blitzes with the linebackers, overloaded fronts and a bevy or twists and stunts with his linemen. Muschamp's aggressiveness kept Tech from settling into any kind of groove and the real success from Tech's passing attack occurred when Muschamp had to pull back a little with his defensive backs because of fatigue and the fear of giving up a quick, one-strike drive. Consider that a calculated gamble that he likely felt needed to be made with a two-score lead and a tired group.

Grade: B+

Special teams - If this group's coin landed on tails last week, it landed on heads this week. In addition to Shipley's game-changing punt return for a touchdown, the Longhorns got splendid punting from Justin Tucker (three punts downed inside the 20), dependable place-kicking from Hunter Lawrence and they even had some well-timed coverage on kickoffs late in the game. Outside of some holes in the kickoff coverage, this group helped win this game for the Longhorns.

Grade: B+

Overall - It's important to remember that his was a good win for the Longhorns. Is it a game that the Longhorns will point to as a signature win in their season? Hopefully not, but it was an important win. The important thing moving forward for this team is that everyone understands that championships are won in week three and this team isn't championship ready, even if they did go 12-1 last season and are ranked No.2 in the nation. If the offense being a work in progress is a disappointment, then a defense that can win games without a lot of help from their counterparts is a positive development. It's a long season, but this team is undefeated and has time to find answers to some of their problems. If they play like this later in the season, they'll likely lose a game (on the road), but this game could serve as a larger reminder that work remains to be done. Expect the players and coaches to understand that.

Grade: C

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