First, huge props to an amazing Longhorn crowd. I received numerous texts from the game about the atmosphere and the crowd noise was sallying through the announcer's mikes despite their best electronic dampeners. Y'all did your part and did Texas proud.
The Texas offense had (only) 11 possessions on the night with just 68 plays, but finished the game with five offensive touchdowns, two FG attempts (1-2 conversion), a three and out, a fumble, and two surrenders in West Virginia territory on downs. Against almost any other team, we'd be quite pleased with that performance, but the need to score 50+ to win and a vulnerable West Virginia defense had the Longhorn fan base wondering what might have been on a few key possessions.
When is 38 offensive points not enough? Last Saturday, I guess.
David Ash was a hyper efficient 22 of 29 for 269 yards and 1 touchdown and, along with pretty good OL protection and solid short yardage running, was a primary reason the Longhorns were 8 of 14 on 3rd down. There's no question that ball control was part of our game plan, but instead WVU ran that game on us in the first half and final quarter behind a dominating running game.
Factor in sacks, penalties, and scrambles and the Longhorn threw the ball 50% of the time. After talking to Longhorn fans who had been at the game, you'd swear that number was around 25% - partly because the running game never consistently took off, and partly because two of our last three drives of the game were highlighted by an inability to crack the anvil of the Mountaineer run defense.
Should we have thrown the ball more? I wish we had in retrospect, but we floundered running it at exactly the times it broke open last week against the Cowboys in Stillwater. It's hard to know which strike of the hammer makes the internal cracks visible.
And we also all remember the game wrong. Even though it just happened. Memory is a tricky thing.
We're not Baylor. And football is about match-ups.
Our passing game is built on creating mismatches and single coverage in play action. Can we roll out three to five wides and convert a 3rd and 6? Yes. Because this offense has grown up a lot. Is that a sustainable game plan for a whole game or several games? Probably not. We have a very clear identity. Faulting it or wishing it otherwise after taking massive steps forward in this offseason because our special teams and defense can't get their shit together isn't useful.
If you're a BC reader, you know our OL is more competent than physically dominating and our TEs and FBs are still striving for competence. That means the run takes time against solid fronts, particularly when they outnumber us. So do we stick with running the ball enough to set up our short game and play action shots or do we become a less efficient version of the spread run by Baylor and Oklahoma State?
Let's break down the two back-to-back Texas 4th quarter possessions that gave Longhorn fans the greatest visceral "Harsin was too conservative" recency bias (this must be the case - our prior four possessions from the late 2nd QTR and the entire 3rd QTR went for three touchdowns and a field goal: 32 plays, 229 yards, 7.1 yards per play).
After West Virginia scored to make it 41-38 in the opening possession of the 4th quarter, the Longhorn offense came out slinging. 1st and 10, David Ash hit Jaxon Shipley for 20 yards to put us at midfield. Harsin then ran Ash for 3 out of a pass package, attempting to exploit Mountaineer overplay on our running game. Ash threw again to Jaxon Shipley for 5 yards and Johnathan Gray converted 3rd and 2 with a 5 yard run out of the Wildcat. Gray runs again for 2 and we decide to throw the ball again on 2nd and 8. We're taking our shot for 6 here. Unfortunately, one downside of having the niftier, inexperienced Gray in our backfield is that West Virginia is blitzing quite a bit. Gray gives up a sack for -5 with otherwise good protection and the Horns are now behind the chains at 3rd and 13. Incompletion to Mike Davis. On 4th and 13 at the WVU 39, we go for it. I don't fault the call at all. Incomplete to Mike Davis.
Was Harsin too conservative on this series? No reasonable observer could contend that. Unless your input is of the "We should have called that pass play where we score, I like that one" variety. Bottom line: our freshman RB gave up a sack to one of the WVU's better players. Series over.
However, we get another chance, courtesy of our DEs. West Virginia's O gets a 1st down holding call, putting them into a predictable passing situation, we put in dime coverage (more on this later), Geno has to hold on to the ball due to that coverage, and Alex Okafor gives us the ball on the Mountaineer 12 yard line. Horns are back in business.
After three consecutive unsuccessful pass calls to end our last series, we run Bergeron twice to put us on the West Virginia 8 yard line. Then, 3rd and 6, we let the play clock run down, Ash and Espinosa botch the snap, and we fumble away our chances for a touchdown. Fera then blows a 41 yarder. And Diaz's defense fully taps out to the West Virginia run game in pretty absurd fashion. Game over. Those last three events (botched snap, missed field goal, defense taps) have little to do with our offensive tactics. But they still color our perception.
Would I have liked to have seen us play action on 1st down on the 12 yard line? Yes. And that's really my only regret on the series. Is it nuts to think that West Virginia's D was tired and would fold against the run at that stage of the game with sudden change? No, not in my estimation. But I can't stop having visions of a power formation, a play fake to Bergeron, and an attempt to the TE going across the defense. Of course, WVU would have scored on the ensuing possessions, sooooo.....
I thought Ash was keyed up early and the adrenaline took some time to settle. Ash executed well, had only one egregious mistake which I simply can't fault any player for making - to me, that's just Shit Happening, and he continues to be our clear offensive MVP. He had two dropped balls that screwed us on key downs (Bergeron, Grant), could have thrown two balls better (one to a TE), threw a couple of absolute strikes, and continues to exhibit extraordinary growth. We're lucky to have him and I'm really proud of his play. 22 of 29 for 269, 1 TD, 0 ints. He averaged 9.2 yards per pass attempt and out-threw Geno Smith. I'd never have predicted that as part of a loss.
Texas went 38-160 and a 4.2 average once you take out our botched shotgun, but 49 of that was on one run by Gray. So the remaining three yards a carry isn't getting it done. They didn't get a lot of room to breathe. We missed Brown, particularly given the need for fresh legs late and his ability to pass protect capably and provide some cutting ability. Still, eliminate the longest runs for Bergeron and Gray and their rushing totals were pretty similar. Bergeron was limited to mostly ineffective inside zone and some very effective goal line and short yardage carries (mostly because we were evening up numbers), converting four touchdowns and another 3rd down and short on pure power. But he's not as likely to turn chicken shit into chicken salad as Brown. And Gray isn't strong enough to muscle through the last arm tackle. Yet.
Jeremy Hills was exceptional as a 3rd down back (6-67) and the chorus calling for Gray over him on 3rd down probably needs to re-watch the 2nd and 8 sack a few times. Hills is an asset.
Harsin identified some coverage errors in WVU's D (they were shading our WRs and singling up LBs on our motion and TEs) and exploited it with two easy pitch and catches to the TE position (combined 3-54) and Daje Johnson (1-46), but the Mountaineers cleaned that up to their credit. Mike Davis was held down and on the plays where we did try to get it out to him, he was covered pretty well all game. We need him to win most of his one-on-ones and assert himself on every snap, even when he's not seeing the ball consistently. Jaxon Shipley (5-58) looked he had something going on a few times and we would have benefitted from a couple more targets. Goodwin's fumble was totally excusable - when you get rocked like that, the ball will come out. I'm amazed he came back.
Overall, very pleased with their pass protection against a blitzing front, some of that abetted by max protection and our pounding of the rock. Unfortunately, as I observed against OSU, a solid front that outnumbers us will take away our inside zone and fly series pretty easily. We need to find some angles to wring productivity from our running game, even when outnumbered. Spread 'em out and lead draw? Throw it more on 1st down? It's a tough calculus - identity vs. opportunity - and it's made much easier when you're not required to score on every possession to be in a football game.
After any loss, we'll dissect our issues and problems a thousand different ways and anything less than perfection is subjected to withering scrutiny (there's still a regrettably sizable contingent of Longhorns fans who think we went 5-7 in 2010 because of our defense as much as our offense) but from the macro perspective, it's hard not to be generally pleased with our offense, particularly given that most of our key resources are 1-3 years from the heights of their powers and the 2013 NFL Draft will feature no Longhorns offensive personnel.
Onward and upward to Oklahoma, where the Sooners will be facing a very different Longhorn offense from the one the saw in 2011.