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Shooting From The Hip: Texas 45 (52), Texas Tech 37 (30)

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Texas v Texas Tech Photo by John Weast/Getty Images

OK, I need two glasses of whiskey and a Xanax.

But that beats the four glasses of whiskey and bottle of Vicodin I’d have opted for had we lost.

Let’s get our collective heart rate under control and dive in to a big road win.

OFFENSE

D’Onta Foreman should unleash hell on the Red Raiders and threaten Chris Warren’s 2015 rushing totals.

Yeop - although I had actually meant to type “Ricky Williams’ all-time single game rushing record” but got screwed by autocorrect.

Downhill D’Onta was a full-grown man who put the Longhorns on his back and may well have earned himself an invite to the Downtown Athletic Club with a 341-yard obliteration of the Red Raider D. Foreman was pure murder when he was able to run behind Williams and McMillon on the left side, who were collapsing Tech’s DL like a singularity. Aided and abetted by some good backside pulls from Perkins and Hodges, some devastating in-line displacements from Caleb Blueitt and Andrew Beck’s best game by far as a lead blocker, Foreman was able to more or less eat Tech alive - his unsuccessful carries were going for three yards, and the successful ones were going for six points.

Unfortunately, one of those carries went for six points the other way when he turned a 3rd-and-24 Brett Robin draw into a Brett The Dark Knight Returns draw, kicking the asses of every man in front of him until, in his final effort in stretching the ball across the goal line - which he accomplished, by the way - it got stripped and returned for 98 yards a 101-yard TD the other way that could have absolutely deflated the Longhorns. That play’s fingerprints stayed on the contest the rest of the way, turning a laugher into a nail-biter. And hilariously enough, it’s barely worth discussing from an officiating standpoint since, even though anyone with a rudimentary understanding of three-dimensional space could understand that at least the nose of the ball broke the plane of the goal line, it was at least theoretically debatable. While it was the most impactful of the the day’s litany of officiating errors, it was only about the fourteenth-most egregious.

But instead of laying down after that steel-toed kick to the cock, the Longhorns rose up. Texas scored a field goal or touchdown on five of their next seven possessions while the defense surrendered one score on Tech’s next seven drives. That staked the Longhorns to a 45-30 lead (which should have been 52-23 without the 14-point fumble swing or even 59-23 had Jerrod Heard not had a 70+ yard TD drop through his breadbasket like the Sweet Meteor O’ Death ripping through...well, a breadbasket, I guess.

Then...Sterlin Gilbert took some advice from the wrong guy:

And managed to turn a laugher into a heart-stopper.

D’Onta got knicked up on the next possession, and Kyle Porter came in to promptly get divested of the ball. He got driven a yard and a half backwards with no whistle because Big XII (compare and contrast with the Malik-Seth Russell play a week ago,) but the guys who hit him bench a combined 405 and you’ve got to wrap the hell out of the ball rather than taking a page from the Swervin’ Curvin Richards clock-killing playbook.

That ensured we’d see plenty more of a slightly-gimped but still game Foreman in the closeout effort...or did it?

It did on the next drive, at least, as Foreman got four straight handoffs but got behind the chains on a first-down stuff when the Longhorns inexplicably went away from the power/counter game that had been eviscerating Tech for an A gap run that gave your only bad matchup on the line - Shackelford versus their NT - the chance to bite you in the butt. It did, and after a deflected Buechele pass on third down it was punting time.

The next two series, though...hoo boy.

I’m fine with at least assigning half the blame to Buechele on a dreadful keep decision to start the next drive, but keeping things simple with a designated handoff - and following up with another on second down, regardless of circumstances - would have been the wiser move. Instead we got another deflection and an uncalled grab on Armanti Foreman down the right sideline to kill the drive and keep things in nail-bitin’ territory.

And then...the next drive.

Foreman powered Texas to 3rd and two inside the Tech 30 before giving way to Swoopes and the 18-Wheeler. Now if you’re running the variant that we saw at the start of the season, with two receivers split out and Foreman as a handoff option in the backfield - or ANY OTHER VARIANT WITH FOREMAN AS A HANDOFF OPTION IN THE BACKFIELD - we could have run whatever we wanted. Instead we had Foreman and Beck lined up as lead blockers and Tech, knowing Swoopes lacks the lateral quicks to threaten outside and correctly guessing that we’d turtle up and not attempt another pop pass, got to crash first motion and pull an Iowa State:

...since the only real chance Tech has of slowing the run game is slamming bodies inside like the Soviets at Stalingrad (or the Cyclones at DKR) and hope that we’ll be too stubborn to outflank them.

and managed to throw enough bodies at the point of attack to stymie Swoopes and make Longhorn fans apoplectic.

Gilbert is still learning as a play caller, and once he smooths out the too-predictable and the too-cute-by-half stretches he’ll be aces. The too-predictable element was addressed nicely today as the Longhorns showed plenty of good run-pass mix in the run-up to 45 points and showed the most offensive diversity (slants! corner routes! fake-screen-and-slants!) that we’ve seen all season. Chalk the last couple of series up to a teachable moment in a win and hope he learns from the teachability.

Buechele played like...a very talented freshman QB for the second week in a row (as opposed to the savvy junior who he’s impersonated for long stretches of the season). The deep ball had its typical on-the-money moments (sadly, his prettiest throw of the day was the aforementioned stone drop from Heard), and he zipped slants with authority while hitting the first and second of what promise to be many, many fade/corner TDs to Collin Johnson. He also self-sacked some, was dangerously late on a couple of hitches, failed to find his throwing windows a couple of times and was low on a few other throws (one of which still should have been hauled in by Armanti). But when a semi-sharp effort still would have gone over 300 yards and three TDs without the drops, you’re more than happy to live with it.

Johnson was the day’s biggest hero among the receiving corps, Oliver had a longer white-person run than M*A*S*H enjoyed on CBS and Armanti Foreman was money on a number of slants and hitch routes. Caleb Blueitt missed his shot at pop-pass glory thanks to a poorly-timed chop block (which looked accidental since a guy came across Shack’s face and forced him to make contact high as Perkins dove low, but why are you running a chop on a pop pass call to begin with?) but it will still live forever in our hearts.

Even when grading on the Tech Defense Curve and factoring in a few self-inflicted wounds on the field and from the booth, this was a fine road showing. They’ll need to raise their game even further to break 30 against Tony Gibson’s stout bunch of Mountaineer defenders next week - and will have an even tougher row to hoe if Jake McMillon misses the game - but if D’Onta is rested and ready then they’ve got a good shot to keep the train a-rollin’.

DEFENSE

While Kliff Kingsbury tends to get a warm, heroin-like rush any time he utterly abandons the run and calls nineteen straight passes, Tech has occasionally stuck with the ground game in tough circumstances this season and they’re capable of doing some damage on the ground against light or poorly-coached (uh oh) boxes.

Even though ol’ KK didn’t entirely abandon the run in this one, he called plenty of passes against 3-3 and 3-2-6 looks even after it became clear that he wasn’t dealing with the Texas secondary of Cal and OU. The broad strategic decision to play with three down DL - or maybe as few as one when you consider that Puma Forward was frequently Fox-flanked by Hager and Roach - paid off in spades as Texas easily absorbed a few soft jabs from the Red Raider ground game to keep eight fast dudes on the field and avoid the Mahomes haymaker. Mahomes’ own ability to throw body blows on the ground was sharply curtailed by a fantastic effort from Malik Jefferson in an almost-pure “stop that man” role as a frequent spy, occasional blitzer and all-around pain in Tech’s ass.

The good ol’ delay blitz (bafflingly) hasn’t been seen ‘round Austin parts since it bagged DeShone Kizer against Notre Dame, but it’s alive and well in the hoots and hollers of West Virginia.

Charlie brought the delay blitz back to good effect in this one, and Malik forced several throw-aways when he went into chase mode once the blockers were otherwise committed. He also ran down Mahomes from the middle of the field on multiple scrambles and gave us another look at the late-game interior-blitz physicality that he flashed against Baylor, again failing to draw a BLATANT holding call but forcing a crucial intentional grounding penalty to snuff one of Tech’s final possessions.

Hell of a job, 46.

Puma Forward led the charge from nose tackle in this one with Chris Nelson and Paul Boyette also mixing in quality snaps. It was thankless work anchoring a wildly under-weight front against the run game and facing frequent double teams with plenty of weighty contain responsibility on the pass rush, but all three dudes acquitted themselves well.

Strong has been pretty successful with five-man pressures, though they haven’t shown the degree of creativity that Gibson employs and hurt for the lack of a Peter Jinkens-caliber interior blitzer among the ILB crew. The Longhorn LBs have better wheels than West Virginia’s bunch, and we’ve also got a couple of unique WDE/Fox weapons in Roach and Hager that the Mountaineers can’t match.

Strong certainly got plenty of mileage out of Hager and Roach, primarily using them to man the end spots in a look we’ll call “Please, Please Run On Us HAHAHAHA You Aren’t!” When Tech DID deign to hand the ball off they fought the good fight against guys 50-60 pounds heavier. I couldn’t have been more off on the five/six man pressure prediction, though, as Charlie elected to play things safe and STILL got plenty of flushes and hurries out of a three-man rush that maintained admirable discipline throughout. Hats off to the young Foxes, and to Charlie for being foxy enough to realize that Kingsbury’s inherent impatience would doom him against even the lightest of fronts.

Freeman, Cole and Shark McCulloch got plenty of run with Anthony Wheeler missing the game to attend his grandfather’s funeral (RIP, Grandpa Wheeler) and while they had their individual ups and downs they each contributed some nice moments. You just don’t want Cole in pass coverage - EVER - but he managed a nice stick or two in the run game. Freeman got downhill in a hurry on a couple of runs (and was fortunate to have a dreadful coverage angle wiped out by a penalty) while McCulloch had a couple of dubious moments in contain but otherwise flew around well, didn’t get picked on and looked like he belonged.

The rub, of course, will be whether Texas could even approach this degree of cohesion and capability in the secondary. Kris Boyd and PJ Locke are up for the challenge, and Dylan Haines can capably fill the “so deep you never see him on the broadcast footage” role in center field. Texas’ Achilles heel in this one may be the feet of John Bonney /Jason Hall and the heads of Holton Hill/Davante Davis/DeShon Elliott/Brandon Jones. If any of those four were mentally ready to sub in for the first two on a consistent basis, Texas would have the athletes on the field to hang with Tech’s receivers in man coverage when required and mix and match coverages to their heart’s content. But if you’re worried about Hall and Bonney getting worked, your options start to fall off in a hurry.

This game was always going to be won or lost on the basis of Texas’ DB play...and what a fucking win they laid down.

Boyd was a stallion, shaking off some early confusion on a goal-line switch route to frequently lock down his man with physical coverage and coming away with the game-clinching INT. He did throw in a damaging facemask penalty and played with more effort than technique on a fade-route breakup in the end zone, but his overall effort was aces. Early in the season I was worried that his penchant for wild and undisciplined play would turn his solid-gold talent into pyrite, but he’s been platinum since Strong installed him to be the lockdown guy in a rebuilt secondary. #bEastTexas, indeed.

Bonney acquitted himself admirably in this one - he just doesn’t have the athleticism to be a press/lockdown guy, but he made sure tackles, knew his assignment at all times and came through with a huge breakup in the end zone at the start of the fourth quarter.

Locke played the nasty nickel we’ve come to enjoy over the past few weeks, occasionally giving up some slants underneath and blowing one tackle but frequently denying Mahomes’ first read and nearly coming up as the hero with a diving INT the play before Boyd sealed the deal.

The unexpected surprise in this one was seeing 40+ quality snaps out of Holton Hill operating as a nickel/dime corner - he kept things in front of him while making sure tackles and looking like his head is out of the head shop and right with ball. If he’s ready to join the 2016 season in earnest, it will be a major talent boost for the backfield. We even saw a few snaps from Davante Davis and Sheroid Evans, with neither guy getting cooked and Evans getting his hand in for a nice sideline pass breakup in the second half.

Texas Corners: The UnFucking is a project that Charlie should never have been forced to engage in midway through the season, but if it continues apace

We survived rather than thrived with our safety play, as Dylan Haines got predictably cooked in space on the goal line (in a role he should never have been assigned to) and whiffed on several other tackles while Hall turned in a fairly flimsy tackling effort of his own. Texas did get some good snaps out of DeShon Elliott, while Brandon Jones had some disappointing failures to wrap up. He’s too good an athlete to let that kind of shit happen, and he knows it.

While there were plenty of solid individual performances, it was the play of the secondary AS A UNIT that was the real story. Tech hit some throws early, feasted on slants when we played too far off in coverage and got a few guys lost in zones over the middle - but when you’re playing the nation’s #7 S&P+ offense on the road, you make some allowances. The “Chinese Bandits” wholesale substitution on Tech’s second TD drive begged to be debated, as did the bizzare four-DL, two-fox, two-box LB look that forced Haines into slot coverage in the red zone, but by and large this unit turned in a performance that was strong by any measure and far-and-away their best collective showing of the season. Multiple switch routes were passed with aplomb, guys played with good aggression and better leverage and they looked like...most of the pass defenses Strong as fielded until Bedford, Jennings and the up-tempo offense install combined to launch the ill-fated Texas Corners: The Fucking project this Spring and Summer.

We weren’t the West Virginia secondary...but we weren’t that damn far off, either. 6.2 yards per attempt for Mahomes and punts or turnovers on nine of fourteen Tech drives in Lubbock with a couple of coverage sacks thrown in the mix is a fine job by any measure. Well done, gents.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Ball Catching Man finally caught enough hell in practice to realize that he should

when the damn ball goes into the end zone, and that coupled with a no-vision, hard-running return from Petey Warrick gave the Longhorns their best starting field position of the season. We got the ball into the end zone consistently on kickoffs (sometimes abetted by a lucky sideline roll), only gave up one rough punt return thanks to a couple of uncalled blocks in the back and got got on one well-designed fake punt featuring multiple pulling linemen while getting a little bit back with a blocked XP from The Puma.

And Michael Dickson continues to earn mating rights with New York City reporter Sue Charlton at the Outback watering hole of his choosing.

It was a breakeven effort at worst, which was enough to help Texas notch a win.

THE BOTTOM LINE

It wasn’t perfect and was frequently scary, but this is the kind of game you expected to see going into the season - an effective and well-coached secondary, a high-octane O that hit some off-and-on hiccups and a liberal dose of CharlieLuck(TM) (because it appears that shit is never going away) that presented the image of a young team on the rise. Charlie and the team dug themselves a hell of a hole in September and early October, but they seem to have every intention of rising out of it.

Keep rising, boys.

Hook ‘Em!