That was a tough one.
It's tough to put a tidy bow on the nature of this offensive performance. On the one hand, Texas rolled up over 500 yards of offense and outgained WVU by 150. On the other hand, there were a litany of individual mistakes. Some of them resulted in turnovers outright and others simply highlighted the Glass Cannon nature of this O against reasonable defenses - a ton of firepower, but prone to shatter at the slightest misstep (or missed block, or dropped pass, or killer penalty [holding on a run is unforgivable], or dubious penalty [Vahe gets an illegal man downfield for being at maximum 3.0001 yards past the line IN THE BIG XII] and die when it gets behind the chains. On the third hand, Texas faced the best D it saw all season and as good a D as it’s likely to see in the foreseeable future in the Big XII as long as nepotism rules in Norman and Gary Patterson battles to integrate his D principles with his own hurry-up O. On the fourth hand...OK, before this turns into Goro from Mortal Kombat, let’s just say it was a mixed bag.
If the offense is a Glass Cannon, D’Onta Foreman is made of iron. Foreman scrapped and battled his way to 167 yards behind an OL that underwent more cast changes than Menudo. He was a pair of patented JGray ankle grabs from a 200-yard outing and a likely Texas win. He battled for every yard between the tackles and rarely if ever ran outside them as he didn't seem to get a lot of help in the ground game creativity department - if we ran a single backside pull counter, I missed it. The Mountaineer defense was game for tackling as often as we were game for handing it off, and the game-deciding D’Onta dash for a long TD never materialized.
Buechele played more or less as well as you can expect for a true freshman against an upper tier defense, but rarely did he give the impression that he was a refined Junior playing against an upper tier defense. While his one interception on the day was 100% on #1, he got away with several other scary throws that found Mountaineers’ hands. His pocket presence remains a work in progress and he still feels too much phantom pressure from guys who are still blocked, but he also faced a number of free runners who probably ran the gamut from bad protection calls to bad blitz pick ups to simple player error. He still stood and delivered plenty of quality balls, though, punctuated by some picture perfect fades to Dorian Leonard. Buechele also sharpened up the read portion of his Read Option game, consistently making the right decision with the ball and turning his carries into some crucial yards. Every time he was high, wide or late stings a little more in a one score loss, but you can still credit him with a solid showing against a robust defense.
Speaking of Dorian Leonard, he was a revelation in this one while looking like Theoretical John Burt and making you wonder what might have been had he stayed on the field in place of Actual John Burt. He outran, outjumped and outmuscled WVU’s veteran secondary to the tune of 120+ yards while relegating his early-season dropsises to the ash heap of history. He looked as ready as anyone to claim the mantle of the Longhorns’ go-to receiver, though in this O that mantle tends to get passed around by series and even by play. Collin Johnson stood out with a reasonably refined showing that demonstrated that he’s already more than a pure run-and-jump guy, but his failure to run a fourth quarter fourth down route to the sticks was one of a baker’s dozen of individual errors that put an L in the Longhorn ledger. There wasn’t much on the stat sheet across the rest of the corps, with D’Onta Foreman (finally) utilized out of the backfield to outpace guys like Duvernay, Oliver and Warrick while seeing his brother turn in a goose egg. You’ve got to have all eleven guys executing at a high level to consistently beat a D as solid as WVU’s with a limited route tree, and the overall O wasn’t quite up the task today - though the diversity and interested blocking in the bubble screen game was a nice change of pace.
It was tough to pick out particularly good or bad performers along the OL from the seats, but Williams looked to have a solid game on the left side while I caught multiple hide-your-eyes moments from Rodriguez, Shackelford, Perkins and Nickelson. It was definitely the wrong game to not roll in with your five best OL for a combined 20 quarters of play.
The primary reason that Texas got a paltry return on its offensive yardage investment was its predilection for self-inflicted wounds. Penalties shot the wheels off of multiple drives, and if there’s a cardinal sin for an in-line player that outweighs holding on a run then I’m unaware of it - you cannot lose ten yards on a running play. Ever. Caleb Blueitt played a solid game and Connor Williams was even better, but allowing themselves to get beat by and grab inferior athletes was murder on the O in a game where getting behind the chains held the offense to four scores on fourteen drives.
The real back breakers, though, were the turnovers. If you tell me that Buechele fumbled on that sack on the TV, I'll believe you, but there was nothing in the stadium to show that he did and if the standard Is indisputable visual evidence, a five minute review sure makes you think something was being disputed. But the real killer was John Burt riffing on the old volleyball set INT by instead bobbling the ball and slipping it surreptitiously to the DB like an ACL Festival weed deal. The Burt reclamation project proved costly today, and for my money we can just go ahead and wait until spring ball to take it up again – or if he chooses to run track this spring, forego it altogether.
Setting aside their bludgeoning of simply outmatched squads like UTEP or Iowa State, this was the Longhorn Defense’s best and most well-rounded game of the season. Time will tell if they gave up four too many points for it to matter in the season’s ultimate calculus, but this was the kind of effort you expected to see from this unit all season long - despite the once-again absence of its putative top two corners and getting fewer than 20 snaps from Malik Jefferson in what looked in the first quarter to be a very Malik-heavy game plan.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first. For all the strides in guys’ ability to understand leverage and play as a unit over the past month, it was disappointing to see Kris Boyd (primarily) and PJ Locke (sometimes) surrender inside leverage time and time again to a QB who can barely walk and chew gum when it’s time to complete an out-breaking throw. Boyd had a spectacular failure to compete on a fade to Ka’Raun White for the Mountaineers’ second touchdown, but Texas would have been better served to make Skyler Howard prove he could make that kind of throw again and again rather than ceding the inside throw. Boyd’s surrender of slants and skinny posts got WVU out of multiple third and long jailhouse visits (maybe the starkest contrast between the two squads on the day) while Locke got beat repeatedly on drag routes (which, to be fair, should have gotten some help from a rat-in-the-hole linebacker that was never forthcoming). There was one OSU tackling flashback on a deep dig, the pass rush gave up a few too many 4+ second opportunities in the pocket, the Mountaineers sprung a few zone runs for decent yardage and Tim Cole...had his father undergo a medical emergency pre-game, so that’s all we’ll say about that.
But when Texas was bringing reasonable heat and forcing Howard to be a legitimate quarterback rather than a pitch-and-catch guy on in-breaking routes, they were nails.
Texas gave up 383 yards of offense and held the Mountaineers well below their season yardage and scoring averages while also forcing a trio of turnovers. Kris Boyd partially atoned for a dubious coverage day with a strip and recovery early in the game, and Dylan Haines bagged a pair of INTs brought about when Texas’ defenders actually DID play with inside leverage and forced Howard into tough throws that he’s not capable of making. Extra credit to Haines on the second INT - while Edwin Freeman’s outstanding coverage denied an easy throw, that’s typically a ball that bounces incomplete at Haines’ feet because he was 28 yards deep as the QB released the ball. On that one he played more aggressively, closed quickly and was in position to capitalize on Howard’s Howardness.
The defensive line played a solid game, turning in an acceptable-ish pass rush but largely hanging tough against the run despite a few pushed-around moments. Puma Forward was once again a stallion, while it didn’t seem like we got as much from Chris Nelson as you’d have liked to see. Charles Omenihu came up with a couple of big stops while Malcom Roach bagged Howard and derailed multiple Mountaineer runs with sturdy play at the point of attack. Breckyn Hager had a Peak Hager moment, running on the field late to launch himself into the backfield and drop the back without breaking stride while drawing a holding call on the next down.
An undermanned linebacking corps of Freeman, Cole and Shark McCulloch hung tough all game, sometimes failing to adequately protect the middle of the field but helping to ensure that the Mountaineers didn’t mount a run longer than 13 yards in the whole contest.
John Bonney probably played his best game in a Longhorn uniform while Locke scrapped and Jason Hall had a few nice run support moments and laid a punishing hit on a WVU hitch route. If Kris Boyd had played to the standard he set over the past few weeks it’s an A effort for the secondary - and a Longhorn win in spite of the offense’s frequent foibles. However frustrating it was to have to perform a full schematic rebuild on the secondary midway through the season - and how many install issues you’re willing to ascribe to the HUNH Effect - the execution of that rebuild has been impressive to watch.
In a game where Texas needed one more spark to put them over the top, they got a crucial net negative in the third phase. The primary driver of that negative was Trent Domingue’s blocked FG in the 3rd quarter that looked to be equal parts poor blocking by (whoever was left of center), a low kick and a setup that seemed at least a half yard shallower than it should have been.
The Longhorns could have broken straight even in the kick return game as Mitchell Becker continually put the eight ball in the corner pocket with kickoffs that bounced out just past the pylon. Unfortunately, the wisdom that the Ball Catching Man displayed in Lubbock went a-glimmering and we saw a trio of returns from the paint that failed to reach the 25 yard line. A this point we might as well start a random rotation of our returners and upbacks to see if the sensation of getting hit in the face because you got zero blocking could help inspire our upbacks to greater efforts. Or any efforts, really.
Michael Dickson continued to shine on special teams, but WVU’s guy had a fine day as well on the strength of his own leg and the Longhorns’ Zero Fucks Given approach to returner selection. Jacorey Warrick’s continued
fiascos unburdened by the barest sense of return instincts senior leadership featured the seldom-seen Willem Dafoe Method for fair-catching a punt:
which predictably resulted in a turnover that was fortunately bailed out by a fair catch interference call. While Texas dodged that particular bullet, the inability to return fire in the third phase rankles in yet another close loss.
THE BOTTOM LINE
This loss stings, but whether you see it as a hard-luck but encouraging defense-led effort or simply another woulda-coulda-shoulda depends on your ideological priors vis a vis Charlie. Four quarters of Malik and Texas probably wins. A healthy Jake McMillon and Texas probably wins. Leonard for Burt and Texas probably wins. If Texas doesn’t accrue the second of the Big XII’s cumulative three illegal man downfield penalties this season, Texas probably wins. But in the final analysis, the Longhorns made a few too many mistakes to come out on top and the win that could have come close to sealing Strong’s return in 2017 went a-glimmering. We’ll save the does-he-stay-or-does-he-go-at 7-and-5 debate for another day - Lord knows, we’ll all need something to distract us from family at Thanksgiving in a few days’ time.