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Texas-Cal Holiday Bowl Post-Mortem: Offense

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I took a long weekend away to forget all my passwords, enjoy my family, remind myself why New Years Eve is so lame, and to experience the unseasonably awesome weather San Francisco has been experiencing.

I hate New Year's Eve.

The mental picture I have of New Year's Eve always involves a sobbing blonde in a little black dress sitting on a curb with heels in hand, mascara running down her face, processing the fight she and her boyfriend just had, against the backdrop of a $125 cover charge nightclub that's wall-to-wall strangers who are defying fire codes, listening to bad music (DJ Mothra Fokka all night, y'all!), drinking worse champagne (you get two free glasses of Korbel!), and pretending that this consistently over-promised and under-delivered false holiday isn't just a giant pain in the ass that we're all fooled into participating in every year. We all line up for it mostly because no one will speak up and voice their displeasure for fear of being labeled a Holiday curmudgeon, even though it lacks the real sweetness of Christmas, the awesome food payoff and nephew-delivered hand turkey tracings of Thanksgiving, or the brilliance of the Halloween I-can-dress-like-a-slut tonight-without-recriminations vibe. New Year's Eve rates well below Bastille Day. AND THAT SHIT IS FRENCH.

In high school, one of my groups of friends (I was a clique omnivore: jocks/cheerleaders/drill team, druggy hoodlums, wannabe thugs, honor students, Christian kids, skaters/burn-outs) was the Young Life Born-Again crowd. I would always spend NYE with them playing board games and eating pancakes at midnight. Easily the best NYEs ever. I entered every evening with little expectation and always had a legitimately great time. A real good time. Worthy of a bald, substandard British club rapper.

That's how I felt watching the Holiday Bowl. I had little expectation and had a great time. If you read my preview, I expected us to suck on offense - which we largely did - but I prayed to see flashes and hopes of a brighter New Year.

I did.

Let's fire up our kazoos, yell at our girlfriend, and punch an Armenian**

** Armenians are dynamic, hospitable people, but on NYE they like to hang out in clubs and pick fights, usually for perceived slights involving their Affliction shirts or unibrow. This racist characterization is well documented (happened once) and should not be seriously disputed by you, the reader.

Offense

I didn't think this was one of Harsin's better play calling efforts, though he had moments of real genius such as the rocket pitch call to Hills, the Shipley red zone pass, and some of the play action deep ball attempts. Obviously, that's an evaluation made in the context of an offense with some OL issues, a young QB, inconsistent WRs, not-healthy RBs. I still absolutely believe in our offensive structure and what we're doing philosophically. Harsin seemed to concede early that we couldn't run power, but when we actually did, the results were respectable. I'm not suggesting that we could line up and pound them, but I thought we had too much of a misdirection flavor before it was warranted and we put ourselves behind the chains against an active DL that we knew would be stunting rather than catching blocks.

This is a blog. Nits must be picked just as bitches must be kicked.

QB

David Ash's audition:

Just a few games ago, Ash could barely go the bathroom by himself, much less run our offense. The burden on a true freshman to run an entire offense was too much, Harsin's aggressive, punish all defensive overplay philosophy isn't designed to protect anyone, and whatever physical skills Ash possesses were operating at 25%, Kraken tentacled in mind-fuckery.

Fatigue makes cowards of us all, but indecision and a lack of confidence makes us scrubs of us all, too. You see, I would have played in the NFL, given more confidence. That's what I learned from reading The Secret. I just didn't put that energy out there, ya know?

After McCoy reconfirmed in the second half of the Baylor game that he has no physical upside and that his coach's kid attributes are probably exaggerated, our coaches were left with a bleak, awful mix of choices at QB against Cal and going in to 2012. That fog hung over us all, like stupid over the set of Nancy Grace.

Our coaches deserve huge props for putting the last game of the season (and, let's face it, next year) on the shoulders of the guy with the perceptible upside instead of a half-and-half exercise in risk mitigation with a McCoy/Ash shuttle system or, even worse, allowing McCoy to start. David Ash played every snap of the game and it's clear that there was no substitution plan unless he threw two pick 6s on audibles. I haven't seen anyone point out how ballsy this was. So let me do it now. This was kinda ballsy. Like throwing deep balls on 3rd and 18 from our end zone ballsy. I dug it.

As for Ash's performance itself, I was pleased. He has made tangible and noticeable progress. Those denying it strike me as odd. They gauge QB play by some Drew Brees gold standard that can't be asked of a college freshman who has never been exposed to television, much less big time college football. Ash has room for growth and though he may never be a star, our offense doesn't require it from every position to be effective. 14 of 23 for 142 with 1 TD, 0 interceptions and a TD reception may not be a stat line of the gods, but when you consider that he had three dropped balls, had no real "what the fuck?" throws, and two more long balls that missed by that much (best read in Maxwell Smart voice), that's a median probability realization I can live with.

Best of all, he looked like a QB. Or QBish. I saw a composed kid running real, if ineffective, offense. We aggressively took some shots downfield, Ash was asked to make some reads, and though we certainly turtled at times, I didn't find our game plan particularly vanilla. I also saw good body language, flirtations with real accuracy, eyes downfield, good decision making in the option game. I won't argue he's good right now, nor am I delusional enough to project a n of 1 into something it's not, but before the game I was miserable about our QB situation and after it, I raised an eyebrow, leaned back in my chair, and said, "Huh."

That's actually not true. I watched the game with Vasherized, BrickHorn, and Longhorn Scott at Cover 3 and after the most mundane successful play, I'd punch one of them in the ribs and yell, "We have a QB!"

OL

I predicted Dominic Espinosa would struggle with Tipoti and that we'd have trouble solving their middle 5 (I'll see you in the National Football League, Guyton and Kendricks) and that's how it played out. The OL gave up 9 tackles for loss (mostly on interior penetration and run blitzes), imposed their will infrequently, and struggled with Cal's active DL. Encouragingly, I thought we actually ran power plays better than is perceived (see Cody's runs, Brown's 19 yard gain) and many of our losses came on misdirection or outside zone.

We really struggled passing their DL off to the next guy on zone. Longhorn Scott made the in-game observation that we never really gave the power game a stubborn shot and I agree. He probably had other interesting observations, but he was darted in the 3rd quarter by a Bigfoot researcher and weighed on a field scale as Mexican bats picked garlic fries from his beard.

These guys are young, have a long way to go in the weight room, and were recruited as a bag of mismatched parts (we have a 6-6 guard and want to be a power running play action team? Our best guard plays tackle? We start four underclassmen?), but parsley, sage, and time always do a OL good.

Eliminate Ash's stat line and Goodwin's long run and our RBs averaged 3.4 yards per carry. We need at least a yard per carry on top of that if we're going to succeed on offense. And I want two yards per carry on top of that.

WR/TE

Mike Davis was a better player as a high school senior than he was against Cal. Hell, he was better in the first half of this season. I don't get it. I have zero insight into his head space. He's fighting the game right now and needs to change his tactics. Shipley was dinged, got extra attention in Cal's secondary, and played accordingly. He'll have a good offseason and be the man in 2012. The red zone reverse pass is now as much a staple of our offense as a power run.

Goodwin had a strong game. If he can become a viable #3 WR who can abuse single coverage or exploit safety match-ups when Shipley gets undue attention, this offense goes to another level. His 49 yards receiving (including an easy-as-you-please torching 47 yard TD) could have been 150 with better throws from Ash and a better understanding from Marquise that many go routes become de facto jump ball fades and that you need to give yourself an extra three feet outside in your initial release. His run to set us up on the game sealing TD was excellent and amusing all at once. Marquise doesn't really cut on a dime, but I guess a nickel will do.

Blaine Irby provided his obligatory "I'm open as hell" play action staple and I thought DJ Grant's 3-37 stat line was a glimmer of hope for the TE position going into Spring. Their blocking was often atrocious.

RB

They didn't show much and never really had a chance to do so. Bergeron (3-9) was not 100% and Brown seemed typical RB end-of-season healthy (13-35). This offseason will provide Applewhite with an excellent opportunity to review his game management of this position and the addition of James Gray into the Fozzy role will allow us a trinity of good runners, none requiring more than 20 carries per game. Cody Johnson finished his career strong with 21 yards on five hard carries and a touchdown. I'll miss the Big Guy and wish him well. He has a legit shot at catching on in the NFL if he'll focus on his blocking and hands.

Final

This 21-10 win was the ugly formula for how this team could and should have won games at Missouri and at home against Kansas State. Zero turnovers and a couple of opportunistic plays were all that was needed to protect a high level Diaz defense and get enough points on the scoreboard.

We will be better on offense and though I hope everyone will pump the brakes on the Alabama '09 comparisons (they had a dominant run-blocking OL for starters), this group has a real shot at improving at every position grouping.

I predicted a 8-4 record for us in the preseason and stressed that we should focus more on process than results. 2012 will be different. I want some results. Not a national title or demands for an undefeated year. Far too many unknowns for that kind of expectation. But 10+ wins, competing for a Big 12 title, and national relevance aren't inappropriate. It's time to get out of the rut and get back to Texas Football.

That's a New Year I can get behind.

Hook 'em.