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Texas Gets the “W” in Stillwater, but the “A” Remains Elusive

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Tom Herman said earlier this week that his team hasn’t played an “A” game since the Alamo Bowl win over Utah hours before the ball dropped on New Year’s 2020. I don’t think Texas fans will be clamoring to get in line to disagree with him (though there might be that ONE fan who absolutely hates UTEP with the fire of one thousand Sun Bowls, and had the game of their life to start the season).

Since that bowl victory, the Longhorns have a 4-2 record and – again, subtracting the outclassed Miners – a combined point differential of +14 (6, -2, -8, 11, 7). They have basically played to the level of their conference opponents and you could just as easily “Butterfly Effect” your way in either direction to 3 or 4 plays being the difference between 6-0 and 2-4. On the other hand, an “A-game” is a game you feel in your chest at the end of four quarters that you have just whipped a worthy opponent in all phases of the game.

That last piece is important: all phases.

Against Texas Tech, the offense was probably an A-grade, but the defense played their worst game of the season and the special teams were atrocious. I don’t know if Texas has had a unit play an unquestionably “A game” since then (a few B or B+ from the defense). Texas special teams might be the unit that has evoked the most consistent ire. Against OU, they graded out terribly and though Baylor was a reset for all 3 units, it seemed that only perfection across all phases of the game would see Texas upset the undefeated, #6-ranked Cowboys on their own field in the

Texas certainly did not do that, but I would argue this is as close as they’ve come, with an “A” defense, “A” special teams and an offense that…didn’t turn the ball over. Let’s start with the positives:

 


Texas Special Teams: A

This was the most consistently excellent unit on the field. The obvious starting place is D’Shawn Jamison getting his 3rd career return touchdown. His kick return TD proved utterly crucial, and I tweeted at the time that it evoked Jordan Shipley against OU vibes.

The 100-yard TD is the 5th triple digit return in Texas’ history (oddly 3 of the 5 have come against OSU), and moved Jamison behind Shipley’s 4 career returns in a tie for second all-time with Aaron Ross, DJ Monroe, Selvin Young, Raymond Claiborn, and Jim Moore.

The kicking units followed closely behind with Dicker netting a touchback on every kickoff and converting on 2/2 field goals (though he did go 2/3 on extra points after Jamison was awarded one of the most bizarre 15-yard penalties for shushing a crowd, an act that happens a dozen times a week around the country). The much-maligned punt unit was a huge plus this week with 9 punts for an average of 47 yards per punt and 46 yards net. These often flipped the entire field for a Texas offense that struggled and a defense that just needed more chances to take the ball away.

The sneaky Bujcevski Play of the Game: handling a wild snap and getting it in place for Dicker to get Texas a field goal before halftime.

 


Texas Defense: A

For all of you folks who are a bit more old-school and liked winning your games 15-12 with 9 attempted passes between both teams: I would suggest watching ESPN Classic and keeping your “fire Chris Ash” takes of these here internets. Texas’ defense has been very good in more weeks than they haven’t this year. I know what you’re thinking “they gave up 530 yards, the fault lies with the defense” – so allow me to spend the next few paragraphs explaining why that is just simply an antiquated way to view the game and why Chris Ash actually executed a tactical masterclass.

Let’s start with the fact that this Oklahoma State offense is truly the most elite “three-headed monster” we have seen in years, and the main reason they were a trendy pick to upset the Big 12 status quo. The Texas Pregamer described this offense as having “more talent at the skill positions than the author of the Kama Sutra.” Tylan Wallace is a 1st-round graded wide receiver and Chuba Hubbard is the consensus #1 or #2 RB on NFL draft boards. They jointly decided to return to college this year after receiving strong draft grades for the 2020 draft for the explicit chance of playing on a playoff-caliber unit. The third threat is the running ability of Spencer Sanders, who in my opinion is the most dangerous mobile QB in the country this year.

Texas made the decision to allow the Wallace-Sanders pass combo to be the path of least resistance for the OSU offense, and it clearly showed.

Chuba Hubbard was swarmed in the running game, posting career low rushing numbers (72 yards, 2.9 yards per carry). You could see the defense visibly relax when anyone else was at running back, to the tune of averaging a full 1.8 yards more per carry on 9 carries between LD Brown and Braydon Johnson. Chuba had more success in the passing game, where he still only had a long of 12 yards on 4 catches. Texas was able to improve upon last year’s impressive showing, in which they shut the Heisman-contender down more than any defense to the tune of 37 carries for 3.3 per.

Sanders had 11 actual rushes for 48 yards, but because he took 5 sacks for -37, his final tally on the day was 16 for 11. If you break it down further and exclude the one 35-yard run to set up the second TD of the day (and I’m sure poor Juwan Mitchell would be happy to do so), Sanders was otherwise entirely contained on the ground with 10 rushing attempts for 13 yards! That’s incredible given his shiftiness and electric acceleration.

“Let Sanders beat you with his arm” was the poison Chris Ash ultimately picked, and the OSU QB took full advantage by throwing for 400 yards and 4 TDs, 187 yards and 2 of those TDs to Wallace. But it is the most volatile of paths from an Oklahoma State perspective – the Longhorn Republic podcast described it as “paying the Spencer Sanders tax.” You can think of it as ‘Sanders giveth and Sanders taketh away’. Keeping the ball in his hands as a passer directly led to 3 fumbles and an INT, returned for 82 Texas yards and giving incredible field position to the offense (drives starting on OSU’s 15, 8, 20 and UT’s 41 yard lines). There was also an additional dropped INT by Overshown (who probably also denied Jamison an INT on the play) and two downfield throws where Jamison and Chris Brown both covered perfectly in deep 1-on-1 coverage and got their hands on the ball. Ash’s strategy simply worked.

That’s macro-defense. On the micro level, Joseph Ossai put in one of the most incredible individual performances I’ve seen in decades; A++ level game: 12 tackles, 6 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 KO on Spencer Sanders (the play before the walk-off sack). This is a National PoTW level performance, an All-American, and totally unsurprising to anyone who’s been paying attention. He has played incredibly all season but been just a half-step from getting the sacks and TFLs he deserved.

Honestly the entire DL should grade out at A-level (especially: 3.5 TFLs and a fumble rumble for TQ, Sack and fumble recovery for Jacoby Jones). This was also the best game for a Texas linebacking unit in possibly a few years. DeMarvion Overshown is really growing in the position and he and Mitchell seemed to have finally gelled in the area that most agreed was the season’s most “success-dependent.” The DBs were at times less than perfect, but against the talent they faced and the scheme drawn to specifically put them on islands and entice Sanders to take shots deep, they get a passing grade. Jamison’s Hocus-Pocus takeaway and return was a definite highlight.

The entire defense played well on money downs, holding the OSU offense to only 3-of-12 on 3rd downs (though they allowed at least 3 conversions from heave-a-prayer pass interferences that could’ve gone either way).

So why isn’t this an elusive A-game for the entire team? For the third-consecutive week:

 


Texas Offense was…way less than an A.

There are so many specific ways to break down this section. It has become imminently clear that Texas doesn’t have an offensive identity. How much you attribute that to the offense failing to execute the plays called and how much you put squarely on the shoulders of the offensive staff, might have to do with if you’re rooting for a coaching change in Austin or not. Put simply, the gameplan is hindered in what it can do, and hasn’t consistently been able to maximize its assets. I’ve always argued that Gregg Popovich is a far superior coach to Phil Jackson because he re-engineered and tailored his entire scheme to the strengths he had on his team each season – Phil had (Tex Winter’s) Triangle offense, and you either fit the system or get out. I’m beginning to wonder where Herman and Yurcich fall on that continuum and where they honestly see their own strengths.

Starting from Baylor, there were about 6 quarters coming out of a bye-week (after a game where they abandoned the run entirely against OU) where it seemed they were trying to establish a power-zone run identity at all costs (my own curiosity if this has to do with Sam not being 100% and unable to pass 50 times in a game). But after Bijan Robinson got off to an electric start with 40 yards in the first quarter on 5 carries, the brain trust seemed laser-focused on turning that into play-action passing bombs. After a very balanced 7 play, 75 yard TD drive that ended with a beautifully schemed Eagles 41-yard go route TD, Texas had some struggles…to put it mildly.

Their next 18 plays netted 15 total yards. Then Jamison returned the kickoff for a touchdown; I cannot stress how timely that was for the Longhorn offense.

They punted twice more waiting for Texas’ most dangerous offensive weapon: the 4th quarter. They scored their first offensive touchdown since that Eagles bomb at the start of the 2nd quarter, but only on a gutsy, do-or-die drive that saw three 4th down conversions (counting the roughing the punter penalty). I think it’s important to note that they had more 4th down conversions on that drive alone than they had on 3rd down the entire game (2-of-15).

With Keontay Ingram hurt early in the first quarter, Bijan and Roschon Johnson handled the run game duties admirably going for over 100 yards combined on the game. However, in the critical 4th quarter, the RBs ran 8 times for 5 yards! How do you explain this? When the (quite talented) opposing defense knows Texas is trying to run, the Texas offensive line isn’t good enough to create a push. There may not be a bigger storyline for the success of the next 4 games/the season at large than if the offensive line that has featured mostly the same five for the entire season can take any steps forward. They allowed constant pressure on Sam Ehlinger and running backs were almost successful “in-spite of” rather than “because of” the OL.

To tie this thread completely: why was Texas so bad on 3rd downs? Because the line was horrendous on 1st downs: Texas was 4-of-8 passing on 1st down, averaging 3.5 per completion, and allowing 3 sacks. That’s 14 yards forward and 15 yards backward on 11 first down passing attempts!

If there was an A for the offense, it was probably the ever-reliable “Winning Time Sam.” The senior was 7-9 passing (almost 40% of his completions for the game) with 2 TDs in 4th quarter and OT. Sam now leads the country with eight 4th quarter and OT TDs. Say what you will about Sam’s accuracy and the WRs inability to get separation against man coverage, but when the game is on the line, there is another level that Ehlinger reaches that few in the country can emulate.

 


So no, this was not a team-wide A-game. But it was a win against a Top-10 team on the road and an example of a team gritting and rising to the occasion. Imperfect as they may’ve been, the offense capitalized on the defense allowing them to be in a position to win.

A few final miscellaneous notes that all blew my mind:

  • Both coaches struggled against the mask this week, but there is no greater offender in the nation than Mike Gundy. There were zero camera shots of Gundy in which his nose was covered and almost none of even his mouth covered. In one hilarious moment in the 4th quarter, Gundy was seen on camera actually pulling his mask DOWN when it encroached on covering his mouth
  • Not so spooky: Texas improved to 16-2-1 all time on the Hallowed Ween. Way more Treat than Trick, historically speaking
  • Texas ended regulation with 17 completions for 154 passing yards and 13 penalties for 142 yards! 92% as many penalty as passing yards! They were one more personal foul away from ignominy. For comparison, to the weak pass game numbers:
    • Defense accounted for 82 yards on turnover returns (53% as many yards)
    • Special teams accounted for 166 return yards (108%)
  • Gundy punted on 4th and inches and punted on 4th and short with 3:44 seconds left, down three points…if the OAN shirt didn’t do it, this game certified his credentials as incredibly conservative

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