I'll be brief, since I suffered three heart attacks, two strokes and an embolism during that one and should probably seek medical attention ASAP.
Like this Longhorn team as a whole, the O defied pat analysis in this one. By turns aggressive, fraidy-cat, sublime, inept, enervating and inspiring, at the end of the day you have to say that the offense answered the bell and bailed out the D to get Texas back to .500.
The story has to start with Tyrone Swoopes and his second consecutive 300-yard passing day, which is roughly two more than 90% of Longhorn Nation thought he'd ever tally at Texas. Swoopes wasn't perfect in this one, but he managed to play up his strengths - a big league arm, underrated running ability and decision making on read plays, and a rapidly improving sense of how to survive in the pocket - to overcome an INT and a few shaky moments to turn in a big-league night. Swoopes and Watson seem to be almost symbiotic at this point - when Watson goes conservative and plays not to lose, Swoopes seems to go into a shell, miss throws and generally look like an easily-rattled sophomore. When Watson says damn the torpedoes and opens things up, Swoopes rewards him with ballsy deep balls, impressive runs and the general look of a guy who can win a lot of games for Texas. Swoopes missed several throws, but he dropped in some on-the-money deep balls and was absolute nails in heading off OT by dropping balls on the dot to Shipley and John Harris to set up Nick Rose's game winner.
Of all the parts of the Longhorn program that inspired such pride against OU, Swoopes might have been the best bet to take a step back tonight. Instead, he stepped up and willed Texas to a win.
The run game was both diverse and effective early, but it went in a hole in the third quarter as Watson made some too-safe inside run calls against a run blitzing, pack-it-in approach from the Cyclones D. The OL has improved by absolute leaps and bounds since BYU, but we're not at a place where we can impose our will in those kinds of situations without attacking the edge and keeping the D off balance. Malcolm Brown ran pretty tough and Gray had some moments despite clearly not being all the way back from his Achilles tear, but on the whole we're at the mercy of our OL and playcalling to generate an above average run game. It's still a work in progress.
Fortunately, those vanilla calls were spiced up with some sprinkles, cookie dough bites and mini-M&M's thanks to Swoopes' increasing mastery of the Read Option game. His progression from hesitant handoff machine to decisive downfield attacker has been a pleasure to watch, and while he may never be truly dynamic in the open field he's more than capable of punishing soft corners and crashing DEs.
John Harris is no longer winning the Gaskamp - he's now winning the inaugural Harris Award as he's forced us to rename the fucking thing. Acrobatic grabs, long speed, manly blocking and tough running (along with his requisite facepalm moment on a jet sweep fumble that was returned for an ISU TD) set the standard for the Harris Award - a player who makes you scream yourself hoarse, at least 80% of the time in a good way. Shipley was nails on his usual possession stuff as well as some critical downfield successes, and Marcus Johnson got to show off his sixth gear and was a couple of misses away from a far bigger night. Geoff Swaim caught a ball and blocked every kind of defender from every type of alignment, and even Ales de la Torre got into the act with a crunching goal line wallop to spring Brown for a first half TD.
We didn't play a totally clean game, we didn't do it against the '85 Bears and the mid-game hiccups were made more aggravating by the closeness of the score, but you've got to mark tonight down as another step forward for the Longhorn offense.
Of course, no step forward for this team would be complete without a step back, and what looked like the conference's best defense raised a whole lot more questions than it answered against Mangino's bunch.
After eating lightning and crapping thunder for 90% of the snaps against Baylor and OU's potent attacks, Bedford's boys spent more time shitting the bed tonight. Thing started out well with a pair of forced punts, and it looked like Texas' defense would be able to answer just about any question Sam Richardson and company could pose. For much of the rest of the half, though, it seemed like Mangino had Bedford dancing on a string. Texas' Don't Get Beat Deep mantra got exploited by a ton of easy slants and in-breaking stuff, and just about every experiment with the 3-3 Stack look got exploited for solid runs whenever the Cyclones chose to hand off. Dylan Haines interrupted the party with a terrific Pick Six that was clearly born in the film room, but it was disconcerting to see Texas unable to force the issue against ISU's up-tempo attack.
We've got a depth problem on the DL that's just not easy to solve, even though we saw some good moments from Paul Boyette and Poona Ford tonight. We're rarely able to knock a true up-tempo attack off rhythm, and even the best conditioned guys are going to be sucking wind after sixteen plays in a four-minute span. For all our defensive strengths, we're very dependent on superhero plays from the DL as well as Bedford's calls beating the OC to get us off the field when other teams pick up the pace. ISU hurt us on a variety of runs and with an NFL TE in Bibbs, but the most consistent weapon was throwing it over our heads when they'd motion a WR or RB out for screen action and then throw it to the "blocker" for a major gain.
We had a great sequence in the second half when the DBs took inside leverage and forced Richardson to try NFL throws over their heads and to the sideline, and that coverage yielded what looked at the time to be a game-turning Duke Thomas INT. But Texas was slow to adjust to ISU's man-breaking routes (and yet another fake screen), and a mindless hands to the face penalty by Ced Reed came at the worse time to help tee up ISU's late tying score.
From an individual player standpoint, all our DBs gave up too much in-breaking stuff and the absence of a glue guy like Jason Hall was keenly felt despite some good plays from Haines and Adrian Colbert. Mykelle Thompson was in the neighborhood on most of his coverage tonight, but repeatedly failed to prevent catches despite tight coverage. Malcom Brown continued to cement his first round draft status, and while the linebackers contributed good stuff against run and pass they just aren't good enough to make the 3-3-5 stack look a legitimate option.
Things are never as good as they appear when you're up, and never as bad as you think when you're down. But after a pair of dynamic outings, the Texas defense put a lot of bad shit on tape tonight that Big XII OCs will be dying to exploit going forward. It'll be up to Strong and Bedford to regain the initiative in the weekly chess match.
Holy shit - did we break even here? Did we maybe even WIN this phase? It's clear that the coaching staff knuckled down and buckled down on the Third Phase this week, and it paid off - the kick and punt coverage was on point (outside of one outkick-the-coverage moment from Will Russ), Shipley had a steady night as the punt return man and Rod Bernard showed some KR speed that will hopefully pay off in short order. But the real kudos of the night belong to the SEC Swoop man himself, Nick Rose, who (partially) redeemed a nightmarish 2014 with a bevy of bombed kickoffs and a pair of absolutely vital FGs including the game winner.
THE BOTTOM LINE
This was no one's idea of a clean game, and in many ways Strong's bunch missed the chance to take a definitive step forward after their heroic effort in the Red River Shootout. But after a pair of inspiring losses, an ugly win isn't the worst thing in the world on a day that threw the Big XII race wide-ass open. Texas is still an extremely long shot in that race, but Strong and company are running a marathon that takes precedence over the short term. Getting to six wins and a bowl berth is a crucial leg of that race, and a baby step in that direction still beats the hell out of a step backwards.