A season-saver. That's exactly what the Texas Longhorns came up with on Thursday night in pummeling the Arizona State to the tune of a 52-34 beat-down. It was a terrific performance for sure, but who really stood out above the rest? That's what we're breaking down in our position-by-position report card.
A - All-American level
B - All-Conference level
C - Average
D - Below average
F - Complete failure
Quarterback - Has there ever been a game that encapsulates a player's season quite like Thursday night's performance by Colt McCoy did? On one hand, he was incredibly brilliant at times. On other occasions, his ball protection was awful that he left his team in a dangerous spot on a couple of occasions. It was almost as if McCoy was trying to account for all his touchdowns and turnovers in the same game. Yet, through it all, the plays that everyone will remember are McCoy's runs in the second half that ASU was completely unable to account for. As soon as McCoy started to run, you could just sense him taking the willpower away from the entire ASU side of the field. It will be tempting to remember his runs and forget about his throws, but let's not forget that McCoy did a great job of managing the game for four quarters and his best throws of the night often helped Texas move the chains while deep in his own territory and not necessarily in the end zone. Let's also not forget about the contributions of true freshman John Chiles, who easily turned in his most impressive performance of the season by scoring a touchdown and leading a few scoring drives. Had it not been for the four fumbles, this position would have gotten an A-grade.
Running backs - On the very first offensive play of the game, it was abundantly clear that junior running back Jamaal Charles had the ability to get to the corner against the ASU defense any time he wanted to. As the game went on, it became even clearer that Charles could pretty do whatever he wanted to, whenever he wanted to do it, as he finished with 161 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries. If you mix in Vondrell McGee's yardage and touchdown in the fourth quarter, you've got nearly 200 yards and three touchdowns from the running backs on the night. That's getting it done at a very, very high level.
Wide receivers - This group played a supporting role in this game and that surprisingly ended up not being a big storyline. Seriously, if I had told you that Quan Cosby would catch only one pass and that no Texas receiver would get into the end zone, that would have appeared to be a formula for disaster. Yet this group was able to get the job done against the Sun Devils, mostly behind the clutch work of Nate Jones and Jordan Shipley, who combined to catch 12 passes and helped convert a number of third downs. It wasn't their best performance of the season, but they got the job done all night when they needed to.
Tight ends - Really and truly, if third-year sophomore Jermichael Finley was looking for a showcase game for the NFL, he got the exact opposite. The Longhorns didn't involve Finley in the passing game, in part because he was asked to stay in help the offensive line in pass protection at times. Finley ended up catching two passes for 12 yards and made perhaps the most important play of the game when he fell on a McCoy fumble in the end zone that prevented a potential huge momentum shift, as Texas extended its lead to 35-13, rather than having ASU take over with the ball on the 20-yard line an d still down only two scores. It wasn't a showcase game, but Finley and true freshman Blaine Irby each contributed winning efforts.
Offensive line - I'm going to grade these guys on a curve, so just prepare yourself for it. Had you told me in October that the Longhorns would roll out an offensive line that consists of (from left to right) Adam Ulatoski, Charlie Tanner, Chris Hall, Cedric Dockery and Kyle Hix (with a little Michael Huey mixed in) and still dominate a top 40 defense, I would have called you crazy. Yet, there I was last night watching that very group steamroll the ASU front seven to the tune of a big, fat 300 yards rushing. Are you kidding me? Those guys didn't just control the line of scrimmage, they dominated it. The Sun Devils were able to get to McCoy a few times in pass protection and it led to a fumble that could have changed the complexion of the game. But, Texas doesn't win this game without those guys stepping up in a major way.
Offensive game plan - I'll be honest when I tell you that I didn't love everything about Greg Davis' game management in this game, but I loved the aggressive attitude in his play-calling because I think it had a very profound impact on the attitude of everyone on that side of the ball, especially in the first half. Davis didn't reinvent the wheel in this game, but he did something in this game that he had rarely gotten from his troops this season - tremendous execution. The 52 points scored in this game were created by incredible preparation before the game, as this group played like a finely tuned engine. There was simply a rhythm to the offense in this game that worked. Even when Chiles came into the game, there was symmetry to everything Texas did.
Defensive line - I don't even know how to even begin to put this group's performance into words. If you took four young Mike Tyson's and put him in a football uniform, you'd have the Texas front four last night. I don't know if it was Mack Brown's cracking the whip or Rudy Carpenter running his mouth, but these guys channeled some serious anger in their play tonight and seemed intent on destroying anyone with the ball. Junior defensive tackle Roy Miller might have been the best player on the field at times in this game and fellow defensive tackles Frank Okam and Derek Lokey played inspired football. If Miller wasn't the most dominant player on the field, junior defensive end Brian Orakpo might have been. A suddenly 100% healthy Orakpo lived in the ASU backfield and made play after play, finishing with five tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. That was an NFL performance. Mix in a strong performance from Lamarr Houston and you have one heck of an effort for this group. When I saw that the Sun Devils had finished with 22 yards rushing, I channeled my inner Joe Riggins from the movie Bull Durham and asked, "How in the hell did they ever get 22?"
Linebackers - Well, the coaching staff certainly shook things up on defense by inserting Jared Norton and Roddrick Muckelroy into the starting line-up. Neither player had a dramatic performance, but it seemed to energize this group because the entire unit played with more aggressiveness and attitude than it had all season. There weren't many missed tackles or blown assignments from this much-maligned group on this night. Instead, you got a complete performance from everyone. Truth be told, the best linebacker on the night might have been Robert Killebrew in a supporting role off the bench. Heck, they all played well. It makes you wonder where that performance was all season.
Secondary - The Longhorns gave up some yards in the passing game, but they most inconsequential when you look at how the game played out. The big thing to take away from this game from this particular unit was the big plays that were created and the excellent play on balls from all of their defensive back. Senior Brandon Foster was all over the field, picking off a pass, forcing a fumble, recovering a fumble and recording seven tackles. Marcus Griffin added two interceptions, Ryan Palmer made a couple of big pass break-ups and Drew Kelson did a very good job as a linebacker in passing situations. Overall, the secondary intercepted numerous passes, forced a couple of fumbles, broke passes up in coverage, made plays in defending the run and had a very profound impact on this win.
Defensive game plan - Texas defensive coordinator had his guys breathing fire from the very first snap and they played with the kind of passion and discipline that has been missing all season. From and X's and O's standpoint, there were several things that Duane Akina gets a lot of credit for. First, he obviously realized that he struck gold with the late blitz packages that he used against Texas A&M because Muckelroy, Sergio Kindle and Kelson were coming off the edge all night with great success. It took a full season, but Texas found some creative ways to get to the quarterback against the Sun Devils. Akina and Co. also finally turned their defensive ends loose and let them get up-field in this game, which led to Orakpo having the best game of his career. When you throw in the changes in the starting line-up, the effective use of Kelson in the nickel and dime packages, and the constant flow of aggressive play-calling, you had a defensive performance to remember.
Special teams - One of the more overlooked plays of the game has been Lamarr Houston's opening kickoff return that put the Longhorns at midfield on their first series. That play was a tempo-setter if there ever was one. The Texas coverage units did a god job of limiting ASU's return game, which was important because the Sun Devils weren't getting anything easy on offense. Justin Moore had a tough night on punts, but that didn't prove to have any impact on the outcome.
Overall - Kudos to Mack Brown for getting this team in a position to play its best game since the 2006 Rose Bowl when I wasn't sure it was even possible. To truly understand how impressive performance was, you have to know the depths of some of the discontent in the program that existed after the Texas A&M loss. Players were grumbling, parents were complaining and Mack Brown was pretty pissed off at everything imaginable, including yours truly and the rest of the media. That Brown was able to get this team to play at an elite level when it looked like a near impossible task makes this one of the defining moments in his entire career at Texas. In fact, when I look at the turnaround that Brown was able to pull off this month, I think it is the single-best job of coaching I've ever seen from him.
At the end of this day, he willed this team to a win in a way I'm not sure I've ever seen him do. Now he suddenly has a program that is in the midst of one of the best stretches in NCAA history and not one that is seemingly heading south. At least, that's going to be the perception from everyone coming out of this game, especially on a national level. This game will have a dramatic impact on every element in the program, from recruiting to the off-season preparations. On this night, Mack Brown proved to be worth every bit of his multi-million dollar salary. On this night, he proved that when he enters the College Football Hall of Fame some day, he'll be more than just a guy that could recruit. On this night, he proved that he really is one of the very best in the business. On this night, the win was all about him, which meant it was about the program.
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