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Shooting From the Hip: Texas 28, West Virginia 14

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NCAA Football: Texas at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

THE LONGHORNS ARE GOING BOWLING, GUYS!

OFFENSE

The story of hope heading into this one was the return of Preseason All-Everything left tackle Connor Williams. Practice reports had him looking good, but would his knee hold up over a full four quarters after a nearly two-month layoff?

Yes. Yes, it would.

Williams’ return acted as an unquestioned catalyst for the Longhorn offense, enabling both a better play selection and better results in the ground game and a vastly upgraded sense of security on dropbacks. He looked as though he hadn’t missed a beat, toying with pass rushers and frequently collapsing his side on a Counter play that (combined with H-backs who actually played off the guard’s block) looked like a potential foundation for Texas’ down-the-stretch ground game.

Shane Buechele got the start and only made it through a pair of short-circuited drives (one by our continued inability to teach WRs to stay behind the LOS on drag screens, one by John Burt’s Roberto Duran impression on a deep curl) before ceding the field to Sam Ehlinger. After an initial three-and-out of his own, Ehlinger led an impressive 91-yard touchdown march keyed by his scrambling completion to Reggie Hemphill-Mapps (a great find by Ehlinger AND whoever’s running the WR rotation!) for a 50-yard gain on 3rd and four. The coaching staff looked like they wanted to manage Sam’s reps in the run game, but it was all hands on deck inside the 10 yard line as we saw some QB Power and Counter runs before a third-down play action flip to Kendall Moore that momentarily felt Derek-Lewis-versus-Nebraska big for this long-suffering offense.

Play action and RPO throws to guys whose defenders are actually influenced by the run action are good, good things, and Texas went back to the well to serve up a second passing TD to newly-minted H-back Chris Warren on the next drive. It was a nice Dumb and Dumber “...and then you TOTALLY REDEEMED YOURSELF!” moment for Warren, who had rocked forward into a four-point stance and then righted himself during the (admittedly lengthy) snap count on the prior play. Warren looked either more enthusiastic or more certain about his new role than he did against Kansas, frequently blocking with a will on leads and Counter pulls.

The combination of a couple of big(ish) and physical(esque) Extra Blocking Surface options combined with Williams’ return helped Texas employ more man/gap blocking than we’ve seen since San Jose State, with the best ground-game results we’ve seen...since San Jose State. While the West Virginia front is prone to man-handling, they’re still a step up in weight class from the Spartans and it was nice to see Texas break out the kind of bully-ball you want to employ against a lighter front. The mini-zone stretch and Inside Zone variants were much more hit or miss - particularly when Toneil Carter would miss cutback lanes and WVU hit on the notion that Ehlinger was NOT keeping on any of the reads - but all-around it was a nice mix of variety and success in the run game. Texas even used its allotment of one RPO attachment per game to the fullest with Ehlinger throwing a nice dart to Jerrod Heard behind Counter Action.

Heard returned the favor on a throwback pass to Ehlinger that was a nice wrinkle to get the same look that put Chris Warren in the end zone against KSU. Tom Herman has said that he thinks Tim Beck has been “tight” both here and with Ohio State, and whatever’s happening in the booth it feels like this staff is much better at playing loose and building off success with calls like that than in pulling a struggling offense out of a ditch.

Ehlinger only threw the ball 19 times and only one of them was one you’d want back, but hoo, boy...his third quarter INT on first and goal on THE SAME HIDEOUS HALF-ASSED PICK PLAY THAT ENDED THE GAME VERSUS OKIE STATE was an absolute howler. Put that bad boy on the shelf for good and have some more “settle down, Sam” chats in the red zone...and shit, let’s just not have him roll left any more at all while we’re at it - but that was the only real blemish on the offense’s day.

Daniel Young is this team’s best runner, and it’s nice to see him make continued contributions in the pass game. Kyle Porter’s patience on the Counter run could make him a viable offensive contributor, and Toneil Carter just needs to see and take advantage of his cutback lanes with more consistency.

What a difference a left tackle makes - we may only have Williams for one or two more games, but enjoy him while he’s here, folks.

DEFENSE

Brandon Jones may have made the defensive play of the year when he hit Will Grier to help dislodge both the ball and Grier’s finger and keep Texas out of an early 7-0 hole. Even though the Mountaineers had to roll with their backup the rest of the way, I’m not taking anything away from a defensive unit missing one of its own headliners holding Holgo to three points on the road (one of their TD’s came on defense and four points of the other drive get allocated to the refs for missing a trapped catch and a blatant facemask on Breckyn Hager).

The Mountaineers were doing an effective and annoying job on the ground early. It was frustrating to stone guys like Justice Hill and (outside of a few counter runs) Trey Sermon and then see Justin Crawford trucking Toyota Rav 4-ing guys for extra yards in the box, but this one was always about keeping the Mountaineer’s Three Musketeers trio of Gary Jennings, Ka’Raun White and David Sills from setting off multiple rounds of musket fire in the passing game. Even though Texas’ light boxes got punished on occasion, guys like Poona and Breckyn Hager made enough knifing stops to keep it from getting epidemic. Malik turned in his usual assortment of step-up solo tackles and Gary Johnson shook off some early-game struggles to turn in a solid showing of his own. Special recognition goes out to Jason Hall, who came out of the crypt against KU and looked like he was going to put a couple of Mountaineers into early graves with punishing hits. Replacing John Bonney as Texas’ preferred strong safety option now that DeShon Elliott is roving the middle in Dime, Hall acted like an extra linebacker for much of the game while chipping in a nice Cover Two pass breakup and even batting down a key third-down throw as a blitzer.

Antwaun Davis also did a nice job chasing down RPO throws and setting an edge from the nickel spot. Davante Davis had an up and down contest. On the bad side, he forgot to run with a wheel route that should have surrendered one TD and ended up surrendering another when he forgot the Third Commandment of Cornerbacking (Thou Shalt Not Let A Bad QB Beat You Inside In The Red Zone.) Fortunately, he evened the ledger by breaking up one sideline throw and coming up big in the fourth quarter on a deep shot to White where the receiver had a step - he could have panicked and interfered but instead he kept his head down, ran to get himself back in the play, turned around for the ball and looked like an actual well-coached defender. DeShon Elliott showed up against the run and even more crucially as a Cover Two safety, flying in to bat away a fourth down corner route that could have brought West Virginia back within a score. Brandon Jones gets plaudits for his game-changing goal line save on Grier, but had a couple of other bad moments with the ball in the air continues to beg for a little extra refinement.

The most fun play of the game on defense came when 270-pound Malcolm Roach came flying in on a slot blitz and drove the hapless fullback six yards back to lay a hand on the QB while Gary Johnson came in to force a fumble and big Chris Nelson fell on the ball to tee up the clinching score.

This unit is banged up a bit - hopefully Davante Davis’ late-game tweak doesn’t linger til’ next Friday - but an effort like this against Tech on T+1 will have this season sitting at a very sell-able 7-5. Keep up the good work, boys.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The play of the game for the specialty units came when Lorenzo Joe alertly pounced on a squirrelly onside kick that could have set the Mountaineers up in a scary spot after they scored to make it 21-14. Solid work by the lunchpail senior yet again.

Dickson punted well in the wind and rain, we fortunately weren’t tested in the field goal game, Reggie Hemphill-Mapps had a nifty punt return to help set up a score and we at least didn’t let them past the 30 on any kickoff returns.

THE BOTTOM LINE

To reiterate,