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Shooting Into the Foot: West Virginia 38, Texas 20

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Texas on The Road: A little John Denver and a lot more Cormac McCarthy

Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Sorry for the delay, folks - life intervened post-game yesterday, so we've got a special Sunday Morning edition of Shooting From the Hip.  Or Into the Foot, as it were.

Offense

There was a ground game that - with its best eleven on the field - absolutely laid waste to one of the country's toughest run defenses.

And then there were the turnovers.

There were moments of real growth and functionality in the passing game with some success at all three levels against one of the country's toughest pass defenses.

And then there were the turnovers.

There was a willingness to keep getting up off the mat, keep fighting and refusing to physically back down when prior road trips had seen the Horns hang their heads from the first deficit.

And then there were the turnovers.

Of course, there were also the penalties.

But most of all, there were the turnovers.

Texas brought a punishing ground attack that exceeded every reasonable road-effort expectation and then tried to exceed their season to date turnover total in one game.  A brutal botched exchange between Heard and D'Onta Foreman snuffed a promising drive and handed the Mountaineers their first score of the game.  The Eighteen Wheeler jumped the train tracks when Swoopes dropped the ball after an excuse-me bump from a WVU defender, preventing Texas from a shot at drawing within one and teeing up the eleven-point margin that the Longhorns would never overcome (though "points off turnovers" gets an asterisk any time the resultant drive covers 87 damn yards).  King Charles I thought Kris Boyd's ball security on a third quarter kick return was too cavalier, with the resultant drop ripping the wind from Texas' sails following another West Virginia score.  Heard's arm punt in the fourth quarter missed an open Armanti Foreman (and an even more open Andrew Beck, who never got a look), and his final vapor-lock pick to LB Nick Kwiatkoski - who did everything but claim prima nocte rights with Texas Pom in this one - planted a nice plot of Bermuda over the Texas coffin.

When the Longhorns weren't giving the ball away, they were giving an eagle-eyed officiating crew every excuse they needed to bury them with flags.  Connor Williams' Freshman Wall Game saw him draw a pair of run-play holds - one of which took a Heard TD run off the board - along with a brutal pass blocking whiff during Norvell's cute-everyone-to-death red zone series in the third quarter when we inexplicably decided that we needed to line him up as a borderline flexed tight end.  Marcus Johnson's alignment penalty gave him zero net yards on the day and helped force a first-quarter field goal, and Kent Perkins' third-and-one false start (which should have come on first and ten following an outright brutal spot) helped key the disastrous Swoopes fumble sequence.

Unfortunately, that four-quarter commitment to self-inflicted wounds turned plenty of other offensive positives into a matter of asking Mrs. Lincoln how she enjoyed the play.  The split-back misdirection run game that bamboozled OU brought out some new wrinkles that kept the Mountaineers off balance, with the highlight coming courtesy of a crunching Chris Warren lead block to spring D'Onta for his third 60+ yard jaunt of the season.  Foreman was all but unstoppable on the ground, and the run game suffered a serious hitch in its gitalong when shortness of breath or a mangled digit sent him to the sideline.  Unless Warren is nursing an unreported shotgun wound to the hamstring he looked like a position change waiting to happen with a couple of dramatically sluggish runs.  Johnathan Gray showed a good deal of patience, a dash of power and the same old limitations before going out with a lower leg injury.  In perhaps the crowning irony of the season, Gray's Swiss Army Corkscrew and Toothpick skill set were sorely missed as Warren completely bricked a drive-killing pass block while a touchdown throw sailed harmlessly between Foreman's maimed hands.

Heard is growing in fits and starts.  The downfield aggression on throws to Burt, Blueitt and most especially Daje was a welcome change from the Iowa State turtle-fest, and he had some nice moments picking up third downs with his feet on plays when WVU was forced out of the pure double-spy look that's become the de rigeur defense on Longhorn passing downs.  Heard even managed to hit a couple of the totally free-candy throws that open up when a pair of linebackers do nothing but bounce on their feet five yards past the LOS and burn holes in him with their eyes.  Unfortunately, Heard still tried to take off into that look on more than one occasion to no avail, and when West Virginia changed things up he burned the ball right into Kwiatkoski's chest for a first down INT that rated a solid 8 out of 10 on the You Can't Throw That Scale.  If you've been tearing your hair out that we don't attack the middle of the field in a more substantive way, there's your downside.

A solid all-around outing from Swoopes was badly marred by that fumble, and he didn't see much of the field thereafter.  He's got a serious role to play down the stretch, so hopefully a chat about ball security keeps his head in the game.

The OL gave a largely good look on the first look - the run blocking looked good from start to finish and great when a runner capable of navigating first contact had the ball.  The pass pro was probably as good as it's been all season, with the major bonks coming courtesy of an out-of-position Connor Williams and an out-of-his-depth Chris Warren in blitz pickup.  Each penalty seemed more high-leverage than the last, but it was just that kind of day.

Defense

Strong and Bedford have biased towards clamping the pass over stuffing the run since their arrival in Austin, and by and large it's a solid strategic choice given the passing proclivities of the Big XII.  The 3-3-5 alignment gives you a ton of flexibility, but on days when the DL can't disrupt or stone double teams you either need Carl Banks and Pepper Johnson backing the line or you're going to get chewed up by a diverse and effective ground game.  That's what WVU brought to the table, and the results were predictable as Wendell Smallwood refused to play the Name Game and instead gave us the John Holmes treatment.  He's a more than capable runner, but when you hand a guy that many bubbles between the tackles and soft corners you're in for a long day.  Texas had more success when Bedford shifted to a four down linemen look, but by that point the damage had largely been done.

It's tough to pound the "just outnumber the run, man up and whip their ass" table TOO hard, though, when you get Freshman Field Corner Follies from Davante Davis.  I rewound this one five times and still wasn't 100% as to what coverage Texas was running there, but I'm leaning towards Cover Three based on Haines' drop into the curl/flat versus Cover One (which was suggested by Holton Hill's more aggressive coverage on the boundary side).  In Cover Three you just CANNOT lose depth when the receiver gives you a lazy hip shake at ten yards - that's a Day One install principle.  Hall could have provided better support - particularly since the middle of the field was utterly unthreatened, but in Cover Three the DGBD responsibility is the corner's first and foremost and Hall is no one's idea of a center field safety in any event.

Hall's culpability was much clearer on Skyler Howard's second TD pass, when he got cooked on a corner route.  That's a tough cover against an accurate throw (and Howard, outside of his opening drive INT, completely blew away his scouting report from a ball placement perspective) but it's tough to take a loss in the passing game matchup that we absolutely had to win handily.

The secondary did chip in a couple of coverage sacks, and Davis got on the positive side of the ledger early when he corralled Howard's lone off-target toss of the day.  Peter Jinkens was the best of the linebacking bunch on a day where they just weren't set up for success, and Paul Boyette was probably the standout performer on the DL with a couple of nice gap shots and a decent ability to hold his ground.

38 points sucks just about every time out.  When 28 of them come on drives of 0, 56, 56 and 48 yards (the last one taking place after hope was officially extinguished) on a five-turnover fiasco, you tend to look at the defensive effort in a more charitable light.  Widespread youth causes tough choices, and the strategic approach to concede runs between the 20's and prevent big plays would have looked better without the offensive giveaways and with a little better execution on the back end (and at least a COUPLE more disruptions up front).  In the context of this particular outcome, though, it was a frustrating watch.

Special Teams

For a while it looked like we'd just lose the special teams battle without making any real mistakes, as for what seemed like the fifth consecutive week the opposing punter started dropping Jordan Spieth wedge shots on us inside the ten.

Then, we started making our own mistakes.

Boyd's awful ball security was the most egregious and costly moment, but the return game had plenty to cringe about.  The blocking remained a vast wasteland, Daje casually allowed a post-penalty kickoff to bounce in front of him, and Kirk Johnson attempted to circumnavigate the Earth on a lateral jaunt from the 20 yard line all the way to the 21.  Tack on an awful block in the back penalty to tee up Texas inside their own ten on yet ANOTHER drive and the 2014 flashbacks were in full swing.

If you're willing to take personnel and context into account, you can explain the performance of just about every unit on this squad aside from return blocking.  It has been uniformly awful, and there are just no excuses to be had.

The Bottom Line

Luke:  What's in there?

Yoda:  Only what you take with you.

This was a game flexible enough to suit any pre-existing narrative.

Invested in the idea that this team is making strides?  The punishing performance on the ground speaks to better days ahead, as does the fact that a team who'd shown less road-game resistance than the average armadillo finally found their inner Max Rockatansky despite multiple invitations to drop their heads and pack it in.

Convinced Charlie has to go?  Just point to the score, point to the resultant 4-6 record and let everyone know that five-turnover games simply never happen to well-coached teams.

On the fence?  That's likely where you'll remain.

Ultimately this loss stung more for the fact that absolutely batters Texas' bowl game hopes than for the revelation of any unavoidable long-term doom.  But the strong likelihood of a second straight losing season casts its own pall on the staff's prospects going forward.

Prospects which could be greatly enhanced by handling Tech on Turkey Day.

Hook 'em.