Texas beat Iowa State with the vertical passing game. This is a remarkable, but noteworthy fact. The Cyclones themselves were caught up in the Twister that is Case McCoy's remarkable moxie (luck) and ability to secure wins for Mack Brown.
The Hail Mary snagged by John Harris before halftime combined with the pass interference penalties that helped generate 118 penalty yards were key to this victory. Between the failure to adequately defend that improbable lob by Case McCoy, the bizarre fluke fumble that set Texas up for a field goal early in the game, and the uncalled fumble late, Iowa State's mastery over this game was squandered.
Let's begin with the end, the uncalled fumble that cost Iowa St. the game on the goal line. The ruling was that Gray's forward progress was stopped, which by rule means the play is dead regardless of whether the whistle has been blown. The trick here is that it's easy post-facto to argue that his forward progress was dead. If Gray had not fumbled, and instead had managed to stumble forward into the end zone what would have been the call?
If you consistently give the runner a chance to fight his way across the 1st down marker or End Zone line, it follows that you should also consistently give the defense a chance to strip the ball away. I believe the official's ruling was defensible, but it's hard to come away from the game without recognizing that Texas won this game by virtue of a great deal of luck. Had they ruled it a fumble on the field I'm fairly confident they would have upheld that ruling as well.
Let's also address Mike Davis' "block" on Deon Broomfield. That was a cheap shot that reminded me of when that Aggie DL found Colt McCoy unbuckling his helmet en route to the sideline after an interception in 2006 and lit him up to "block for the interception return."
It couldn't be more clear that Mike Davis saw an opportunity to take a cheap shot and did so, going after someone's knee. Fortunately, Davis isn't a particularly violent blocker even with bad intentions so Broomfield wasn't injured. It would have been bad enough had Davis simply shoved him over but the fact that he went for the knee made it difficult to wish for anything else than comeuppance for our star receiver down the stretch of the game.
Mack's delay in "reprimanding" Davis reeks of desperation to preserve Davis' status for our next contest.
The overall gameplans for the game were interesting, to say the least. In the first half, Major utilized the Zone run game and Case's ability to hit throws to the boundary and middle of the field to stretch out the Cyclones and find some room to operate. The Cyclones wised up and moved to take way those optoins. Texas' ability to stress defenses horizontally can't be understated. The OL are athletic and at their best reaching defenders on Outside Zone or a screen, Shipley is a master running routes underneath the deep coverage, and the team speed is exceptional.
That said, Major lost his mind in the 2nd half, beginning on 3rd and 2 on Texas' first drive when he lined our boys up in an EMPTY formation. In that instance, Case secured the first with a quick out to Shipley, but the trend was nearly ruinous for Texas down the stretch as Major abandoned a run game that had curtailed the Cyclone pass rush and already yielded a 45 yard TD run.
Additionally, Daje Johnson touched the ball only twice...perhaps to keep him healthy for next weekend when he'll be badly needed. The smarter play would have been to go heavy with Swaim and Daniels and eliminate the ISU benefit from stacking the box, as Texas did at times against the Wildcats. Instead, Major put the game on Case and played into Rhoads' hands.
On the defensive side of the ball, Greg Robinson didn't show anything new against the Cyclones, which was bizarre because the defense could have surely benefited from more reps in the "Palms" Cover-2 defense that was eviscerated by Ole Miss. By passing on the chance to rep that base defense, Robinson signaled that Texas will live and die with the Cover-3 and it's eight man front against the league's spread offenses.
Obviously this has it's fair share of risks, especially if Texas continues to play a lot press coverage in these looks and play Mykele Thompson back as the deep safety, where he is clearly uncomfortable:
While the Cover-3 technically plays to Texas strengths in man coverage while somewhat helping the linebackers and providing a sound base...Texas has now given up a five catch 137 yard game to Quenton Bundrage and a 13 catch, 237 yard game from Tyler Lockett. There are some other receivers in the B12 that could be mentioned in the same breath as Quenton Bundrage...
Now Sheroid Evans is out for the year, leaving Texas thinner at one of their only positions of strength on defense. For the future, Texas absolutely needs to drop this charade of "DBU" hubris and play some softer coverages, stop playing Thompson deep behind press coverage, and/or leave Byndom on opposing teams' number one outside WR threat.
You can put a lot on our corners scheme-wise without playing press-man and building on a house of cards.
Let's talk units:
The actual kicking has been very strong for Texas, a saving grace amidst the rest of our "special" performances by this unit. You can tell a lot about a team's culture and discipline by the play of their special teams. Oklahoma consistently ranks high in special teams' rankings while Snyder's squads steal games every year.
This unit is a microcosm of what's wrong with Texas in general. Mack has an abundance of talent and highly paid coaches to dedicate to ensuring that we have some of the best special teams in the nation. At times in the Mack Brown tenure, that's been the case.
Currently, we have horrendous kick coverage and a punt return team that routinely generates crushing penalties that sustain opponents' drives. Our overall lack of discipline has us squandering all our extra athletes on the roster and facing the possibility of losing a winnable game due to our uneven play here.
After the game Jeffcoat was quoted as saying that he was thinking TD return on his game clinching interception but went down thanks to Chris Whaley shouting "get down!" I find the fact that our NFL-raised star DE had to be told to make an obvious play to secure victory somewhat disconcerting.
In general, the DL often lost discipline, most notably in maintaining pass-rush lanes. Before accounting for sack yardage, ISU QB Sam Richardson had 104 rushing yards. Most of these you'll remember coming on scrambles when Texas' blitzed and rushed him with abandon, leaving sizable gaps for him to dart through on 3rd down after 3rd down.
Obviously this will need to be a priority in practice given the next opponent on the schedule.
On the other hand, lack of pass rush discipline was really the only way Iowa St could run up the middle. Texas' DT's absolutely dominated between the tackles. The DL overall combined for 6.5TFL's and three sacks. The shockingly poor play of our defensive backfield prevents us from fully seizing all the possibilities afforded by this unit.
Let me put it this way: there are some B12 defenses that could probably put up a fight against the Baylor Offense with our DL suiting up for them...our defense isn't one of them.
Shiro Davis and Hassan Ridgeway are continuing to play well in their snaps. The future is bright here and the next DC will inherit an embarrassment of riches on the DL.
Santos' had a big opportunity to relegate Steve Edmond to the bench for the rest of the year while Tim Cole had a similar opportunity to stake his claim to big time snaps. Somehow both were unsuccessful as the OU depth chart lists Santos at middle linebacker and Edmond on the weakside.
We'll try and parse that nonsense later in the week.
Santos really struggled in this game. Against the pulling blocks of the Cyclones' Pin'n'pull and Power-Read plays he was frequently cut blocked and cut off in pursuit. His improving awareness in the passing game disappeared and it became apparent that if forced to process multiple possibilities, our LB's slow down and struggle.
Cole was absent for much of the game, showing many of the traits of the rest of the linebacking corp. Playing blocks in space is a major weakness for this group and any kind of variety in run game concepts or run/pass responsibilities tends to freeze them up. They frequently fail to trust each other to be in the right spots and generally exhibit awful leverage.
Edmond's entrance into the game probably provided a slight upgrade. Don't listen if someone tries to convince you of Edmond or Santos' obvious superiority over the other. Either would qualify as "worst Mike backer in conference."
Texas' Cover-3 schemes enable the defense to pack the linebackers in the box, play the edges with Diggs and a safety, and take away the middle of the field. Yet in the passing game, the middle of the field has been wide open for opponents to attack. I'll be intensely curious to see how next year's linebacker coach does in trying to turn this group into a real unit rather than an Achilles heel.
When asked to play near the box, Mykele Thompson is fairly competent. If asked to play as the deep safety, he looks like a fish out of water. Adrian Phillips is a rare bright spot on this team with his consistently solid leverage and tackling. His ability to man the deep safety spot allows Thompson to play near the box where he can be an asset. Were it not for Phillips, I'm not sure if this defense could get stops.
Diggs is still learning the ropes at the nickel position, which probably won't be helped by the fact that Evans is done for the year and Diggs might be needed on the outside.
Byndom is playing hard every week but he needs to play smarter. Lowering your shoulder and firing your body as a missile at opposing ball carriers isn't necessarily going to generate positive results for your team. It appears he's trying to land physical hits but this team really needs his speed and eagerness to help in pursuit simply translate into tackles. He was victimized repeatedly by Aaron Wimberley's balance and tough running.
Thomas and Evans had respectable outings and our play at Corner will need to continue to improve to have a prayer at six wins.
Texas gave up three sacks to a quick and athletic Cyclone front, possibly because Major had them in pass protection about 50 times in front of one of the most pressure-able QB's in the conference.
On review, they handled ISU's stunts reasonably well and Estelle is growing into the job. The 29 rushing attempts against a front looking to stuff the run went for about four yards per carry. Not bad, although that sledding will be tougher in the two weeks to come.
Dominic Espinosa had a really solid day and is thriving when Texas runs variations of outside zone. Ask him to bully a nose tackle out of the hole and he'll struggle, ask him to step laterally around that same nose tackle and screen him away from the running lane and he thrives. Texas is still better when Hopkins-Espinosa-Walters mans the middle.
The infusion of Estelle at RT further upgrades the unit's athleticism and toughness but his ability to pick up stunts and blitzes is still somewhat in question. He's prone to youthful mistakes that can kill drives. As long as Case is at QB the spread sets will place a heavy burden on Estelle and the other youngsters to play a clean game.
Moving forward, Major needs to prioritize the run game and be willing to run against heavy fronts to protect Case and take advantage of a group that's actually improving from week to week.
I don't think Malcolm Brown is as comfortable with the Zone cuts as Gray, nor is he much as a blocker in the Pistol sets that pair him on the field with #32. His strengths running inside and receiving out of the backfield mean that he's yet another weapon on the roster who lacks the skills to allow him to be consistently plugged into the greater machine. Why do our players routinely pass on developing crucial skills that will serve the greater team?
Bergeron's cuts on inside zone have really improved since last year and his physicality running the ball is invaluable. His fumble caused Mack to pull him from the game, costing Texas the physical presence they needed to finish runs down the stretch of the game. I would have put him back in, especially on the goal line where Gray fumbled on consecutive plays.
Gray is absolutely devastating when he has any space to manipulate defenders with his eyes or fakes. He's great in the zone game and can threaten both the edge and the cutback on Outside Zone. Unfortunately he can't break tackles, so teams that aren't afraid enough of the Texas passing game to crowd the line can manage him.
Were Ash healthy and spraying the field with vertical strikes, I think Gray would break 1500 yards this season. If only...
Mike Davis gritted out a crucial performance in this game for Texas. Texas has no deep threat against good secondaries without either Davis or a combination of Ash and play-action.
His drops after big hits and disgusting cheap shot obscured the fact that he was Texas' best offensive player and player of the game against Iowa St.
Kendall Sanders and Jaxon Shipley have been very valuable as the perfect pair of spread offense possession receivers. Shipley offers the coverage-savvy player who can always find creases while Sanders is the guy who can turn simple screens and short routes into potential back-breakers.
Combined with Swaim or Daje Johnson that's a nice complement of players that can potentially threaten every part of the field. If...
It'd be silly to pile on Case here. The offense is limited when he's on the field, we've covered this quite well. Thursday night he was asked to carry the offense and he found a way to finish drives in the end zone through a combination of luck, occasional accuracy, and the right balance of aggression with caution.
Iowa St dared Texas to beat them by featuring Case and the spread passing game and Applewhite surprisingly obliged. The Cyclone secondary is a solid group, but they couldn't cover Mike Davis at all and still managed to hold Texas to 5.4 yards per pass attempt.
Credit to Case for somehow avoiding any interceptions or too many disastrous sacks. Major credit to Case for picking the scab with continued deep lobs down the sideline to Mike Davis which drew badly needed pass interference calls.
Texas is 2-0 in league play primarily because McCoy has avoided disastrous mistakes and maxed out his own skills (ability to make quick first read, throw with accuracy short and to the middle) to make use of Texas' multiple weapons on offense.
Of course, now the jig is up, and continued Case starts will see that conference record divebomb with guaranteed losses in the next two games. That said, credit to him for taking up the mantle and ensuring that Texas won two games that absolutely needed to be won.
Blame goes firmly on Mack who's been unable to develop or manage the QB depth chart since...has he ever done a good job here? Mack has generally depended on the health of the starter to avoid implosion and rarely managed to balance more than one real talent on the depth chart.
We'll talk about how the next game looks over the course of the week. Obviously we're going to lose, I hope that's not a shock to anyone.