"I know he's a good general, but is he lucky?"
- N. Bonaparte
"What if I told you that instead of gettin' older, I was gettin' younger than everybody else?"
- B. Button
On a Thanksgiving night when the Longhorns desperately needed to turn over a new leaf if they were going to hang on to bowl eligibility, a couple of familiar refrains forced their way to the fore.
The first was this year's strain of buzzard luck that blew past "somebody broke a mirror" and transcended "the staff angered an old Gypsy woman" to land firmly in the territory of "Charlie broke into one of those ancient, pointy Egyptian granaries and disturbed a Pharoah at rest."
The second was continuation of a tragicomic trend which ensured that outside of a few exceptions like Alex de la Torre and a quarter of Peter Jinkens (see Luck, Buzzard): the younger you were, the better you played.
In the Abortive Pregame Writeup Murdered By Travel And Turkey Prep, I posited an offensive gameplan that was heavy on Kirk Johnson (and a dash of Rod Bernard) attacking the C/D gaps with Swoopes and Heard hitting up inside if the D overplayed the edge. The thought was that even though Tech's run D was uniformly wretched, surely they could simply outnumber and out-blitz a between-the-tackles ground game that relied on Flowers, Doyle and Right Tackle du jour to all sustain competitive blocks for at least one second.
Early on, it seemed that Jay Norvell had a similar thought process.
Texas got tricky out of the gate to the point of dabbling with the Double Barrel Shotgun as Swoopes and Heard shared the field on an early drive. The run game huffed and puffed early on, and some OL penalties and drops (one iffy by Burt, one outright brutal from Daje) snuffed the Longhorns' early drives in their cribs.
Given the season-long prevalence of Refrain #2, you had good odds that Senior Night would be redolent with irony. But you could have dropped every fedora, man bun and pair of Buddy Holly specs and skinny jeans in East Austin into the Star Wars trash compactor (not a bad idea on its own merits, btw) and not come up with as much concentrated irony as the first quarter play where Taylor Doyle got driven into the backfield by a 280-pound dude while Sed Flowers staggered to the second level and split a pair of Tech defenders while touching neither.
Texas' only offensive spark in the first quarter and a half of football was a 32-yard edge run by Johnson that was sprung thanks to some solid reach blocking work from Tristan Nickelson...and then Johnson got hurt running into an eight-man front with six blockers and no evident read from Heard. Heard himself didn't have much longer to go, banging his head on a rollout sack where Chris Warren was lost in Bolivian with Mike Tyson and gave up an absolutely free runner. Swoopes took the helm and promptly missed a screaming open Lorenzo Joe before putting up a 50/50 ball down the left sideline that actually gets picked off about 5% of the time - unfortunately, Marcus Johnson's reaffirmed that his Gaskamp campaign used every drop of gas it had on his tightroping score against OU. With the quarterback looking lost and the Last Back Standing having shown next to nothing thusfar, it looked like the Longhorn O was about to turn in a dog-ugly evening.
Then, we got our first hint that The Last Back Standing might have other ideas.
In a play that will kick off Warren's personal highlight reel for the next 50 years, he ducked a tackler two yards in the back field and made contact with seven Tech defenders - seven more than his left guard on the play, as it turned out - en route to a 91-yard score that knotted things at 10 apiece. The O still wouldn't get rolling in earnest for a while longer, though - there was still a Caleb Blueitt fumble to tee up Tech with its first non-comedy TD of the first half, and the Longhorns' first drives of the third quarter got submarined by sacks and dodgy throws.
But for the next quarter and a half, the Warren & Swoopes Express would shovel coal into the boiler, blow the steam whistle and blaze a path down the highway.
The pair combined for roughly 775 rushing yards on Texas' next four drives, with Warren breaking off double digits on seemingly every carry while Swoopes chipped in some tough runs and a pair of scores that included a 46-yard gallop that gave Texas its first lead since the first quarter. Tackles were broken, shattered, splintered and outright erased from existence as the Raiders' run D hit the bottom of the D1 charts and underwent a fourth-quarter relegation to NAIA. The entire offensive front got itself in gear, but Alex de la Torre and Caleb Blueitt deserve special accolades for absolutely erasing everything in their path.
Unfortunately the Longhorns' own depleted D was suffering the depredations of Patrick Mahomes and DeAndre Washington, and the O wasn't able to answer the bell in the final round. Having spent most of the second half ahead of the chains, Texas landed behind them when the third illegal man downfield penalty in the history of the Big XII conference got called on Connor Williams. Second and fourteen became fourth and seven, and a covered slant route led to an ill-advised Swoopes heave to an ill-equipped Daje to turn the ball over on downs. The Longhorns managed one more quick TD following Tech's score, but once a five-bounce onside kick ended up in Red Raider hands there were no more last chances.
The Red Raiders entered the game ranked second in the conference - and the nation - in Offensive S&P+, but early on it looked like Strong and Bedford's bunch would be no more impressed than they were when The Unstoppable Bryce Petty rolled into town in 2014.
They started to roll out some vintage disguise and man/zone mix n' match, forcing Mahomes to hold the ball longer than he wanted to and allowing an array of five- and six-man pressures to get home. Texas forced an arm-punt pick on Tech's first drive and ended the first quarter having forced a pair of turnovers and a brace of punts. Malik turned in a vintage Derrick Johnson pursuit strip alongside another superhero play where he split a pair of pulling blockers to dump DeAndre Washington. With the secondary balling out and everyone from Bryce Cottrell to Paul Boyette to Naashon Hughes getting into the pass rush mix, Texas turned in its best defensive quarter of the season.
Then, that pissed-off Pharoah stretched his withered, bandage-wrapped finger towards Austin and muttered,
"Tong'a benn carr sonn retardis Nubi tini round round. Moseh Ya'weh rana locusta bulire sangus tymcoul."
*Translated from ancient Egyptian: Disturb my granary at your peril, diminutive bald Nubian. I learned a few tricks when Moses' guy negotiated with us."
Pressure forced Mahomes to heave the ball into coverage, where Holton Hill rose up to nab an INT - and had it knocked out of his hands and directly to a streaking Jakeem Grant, who housed it for a mind-numbing 65-yard TD. It's the kind of play that has made this team drop its head in games past, but they still had a game effort in store through the rest of the first half. Texas forced three more punts, a fumble and a 51-yard field goal through the rest of the first half despite a decided lack of offensive support, and surrendered one short-field TD following a short kickoff that was set up by Armanti Foreman's celebration penalty on the Longhorns' only TD of the half.
That didn't mean the ol' Pharoah wasn't doing work in the background, though, as through the course of the first half Texas lost Peter Jinkens to a knee injury and then saw Malik hobble off the field with a turned ankle. And while the rains came early on Thursday, that pair of injuries conspired to open the second-half floodgates.
Texas was forced to spend the third and fourth quarters rolling with Anthony Wheeler at Mike and Tim Cole...on the field. Wheeler is toolsy, but currently hasn't the foggiest notion of how to use his hands to protect himself from getting cut out of plays by a climbing OL. And then there was Tim. As I'm still in the midst of a self-imposed five year penance for dropping an F-bomb on 2013 Steve Edmond in a postgame writeup, I'll limit myself to a brief list of Coles who we could have swapped into the lineup and knocked 75+ yards and 10 points off of Tech's ultimate totals:
- Cole Beasley
- The exhumed corpse of Nat King Cole
- The exhumed corpse of Cole Porter
- The ephemeral concept of Ol' King Cole
- A g*****n Kingsford briquette
When you play non-P5 talent against elite P5 competition - and the Tech offense has been elite by any measure - there's a price to be paid, and Texas paid it in full. Washington was constantly able to find room and keep Tech ahead of the chains, and the middle of the field was open for business on seams and in routes.
While comedy linebacking keyed a good bit of Texas' second-half shenanigans, there were breakdowns at all levels. A DL already lacking Tank Jackson battled injuries to Hassan Ridgeway and Poona Ford and was eventually unable to keep the heat on Mahomes. Bryce Cottrell and Shiro Davis each turned in a brutal contain failures on the edge, and Duke Thomas was late to his spot on a corner blitz rotation to free Devin Lauderdale for a 59-yard scamper. The rest of the secondary scrapped hard, but fake screens were consistent killers and we again saw John Bonney and Jason Hall's coverage limitations come to the fore (though Bonney did have a nice moment in forcing a third-quarter fumble).
While Jakeem Grant's fumblerooski scamper provided Tech's final score, the effective coup de grace came on the earlier drive after Texas had finally retaken the lead. Cottrell took an inside pass rush while Cole drifted lazily into a mass of bodies at the line, freeing Mahomes to float left and drop an All-American dart to Grant despite strong coverage downfield. A one yard TD plunge followed the next play, and a comically battered defense that never gave up had nevertheless given up too many points to overcome.
The first half was simply wretched. We saw the least surprising holding call ever to scuttle a nice Daje punt return, a kickoff out of bounds and a pair of kickoff returns that failed to cross the sixteen yard line. The return game finally came to life in the second half as Daje got some Senior Night shine with a pair of 40+ yard kick returns and a 22-yard punt return that all helped to set up Longhorn touchdowns - funny how that works. A last-ditch onside kick attempt could have set the unit up for real glory, but four or five bounces weren't enough to see it end up in Longhorn hands.
Rose's kickoffs were good and he gave Texas its first lead with a first-quarter FG, and Dickson largely avoided his frequent Down Under downside with an effective night punting the ball.
And ultimately, the game's winning margin was provided by Tech's 51-yard first-half field goal in the rain following a dicey snap. Because of course it was.
The Bottom Line
Following the West Virginia fumble-fest our own Dagga Roosta opined that while the season's last two games would hold a degree of intrigue, there wasn't a lot left to learn about this team that we didn't already know. They are a young, flawed, high-beta bunch with plenty of future promise and even more present-day potholes that can combine for a stirring win or mind-numbing defeat on any given Saturday (or Thursday). If you were looking to make judgments on Strong's fitness to lead this team into 2016 and beyond, there just wasn't a lot of new data to be gleaned.
I'll submit that despite the overall wisdom of that statement, we did learn something new about this bunch. We learned that the tendency to drop their collective heads was finally relegated to the trash heap. Despite an absurd flurry of game flow punches and game-changing injury punishment, they never quit on their coach or each other. Now come next Saturday, they may be so out of bodies and bereft of 2015 goals that they suffer a Brazos beating that makes the previous sentiment look like a lie.
But it was true enough last night, and come what may that's not a bad foundation for the future.