October 12, 2008

The grades are in - OU report card

Heading into Saturday's game against No.1 Oklahoma, there seemed to be a couple of different formulas that the Texas Longhorns could use in an effort to pull off one of the biggest wins in the history of Mack Brown's tenure at Texas. However, the one that might have seemed the most unlikely was Texas beating the Sooners in a frenzied offensive shootout. Nevertheless, that's exactly what happened in the Cotton Bowl, as Colt McCoy and Co. defied all odds in stunning the Sooners. Here's a position-by-position breakdown of the historic win.

Grading scale

A - All-American level
B - All-Conference level
C - Average
D - Below average
F - Complete failure

Quarterback - There was a time (like three or four weeks ago) when there was still a feeling among many of the burnt orange faithful that this Texas program would never be able to successfully transition away from the Vince Young Era under Mack Brown. Yet, over the course of the last few weeks, junior quarterback Colt McCoy has been able to not only lift his play to an elite level, but he's also emphatically proven that this new era of Texas football - the Colt McCoy Era - might end up being every bit as memorable and historic as the one that proceeded him. On a chamber of commerce Saturday on the Cotton Bowl, McCoy led the Longhorns to the program to one of its greatest regular season victories. Take all of the great quarterbacks in UT history and you'll find that none of them have a victory of Oklahoma that looks quite like this. With OU's Sam Bradford playing at an incredibly high level, McCoy never blinked in the face of the biggest challenge ever presented to him. Instead, he learned that he can be the star on college football's biggest and brightest stage, as he completed 28 of 35 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown. While those might represent his most pedestrian numbers of the season thus far, nobody will ever suggest that it wasn't his finest moment as a Longhorn to date. On this day there was no room for error and McCoy was virtually perfect. Every time Oklahoma landed an upper-cut, McCoy would lead his team back down the field and answer with a right hook and a body-blow. The baby-faced kid from West Texas might not have a lot of things in common with Young, but his thirst for greatness and his will to win is every the same and that's why the Longhorns the Longhorns were able to keep coming back, time and time again against the Sooners. Perhaps the best compliment I can give McCoy today is that I feel like I'm running out of things to say about him.

Grade: A+

Running backs - If you had told me before the game that fifth-year senior Chris Ogbonnaya would follow up last week's game with an even more memorable performance against the Sooners, I would have told you that it was unlikely. If you had suggested at halftime of Saturday's game, I would have called you crazy. After the first 30 minutes, Ogbonnaya had eight yards in six carries, but he must have eaten some spinach while the bands were playing because he came out in the second half and performed like an All-Big 12 running back, finishing the game with 127 yards on 15 carries (8.5 average), including the back-breaking 62-yard run in the fourth quarter that clinched the game for the Longhorns. The biggest indicators in this game over the last ten years have been turnovers and rushing yards, with the team that wins those two categories almost always emerging victorious. Ogbonnaya made sure that on this day he would lead the way in one of those categories and there can be little question now that the starting running back position is his and his alone. The Sooners respected front seven (allowing only 97.2 rushing yards per game) was supposed to dominate the Longhorns in this phase of the game, but Texas finished with 161 yards on the day. In addition to that, Cody Johnson added three touchdowns in his role as goal-line back, which added to the team's impressive numbers. It took a while for things to get going in the running game, but once Texas found their grove, they broke Oklahoma's will in the process.

Grades: A

Wide receivers - Don't ever let anyone, especially ME, ever tell you that Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley can't carry the passing game by themselves. For months I've bemoaned the fact that Texas would not be able to succeed against the Sooners unless one of the young receivers in the program stepped up and gave the offense more big-play fire than either Cosby or Shipley could provide. The only problem is that the point turned out to not be a fact, but a misguided opinion. The facts are that Cosby and Shipley are proving week-in and week-out that they can do whatever task Greg Davis puts in front of them. Against the Sooners, the pair teamed up to torture OU's young corners, combining to catch 20 passes (yes, they caught 20 passes) for 234 yards and a touchdown. Their ability to run great routes, create separation and catch every ball thrown their way, despite the fact that everyone in the Cotton Bowl knew that McCoy was looking for both of them on every single pass attempt was just amazing. If you look at each, I think they both possess similar qualities, but the one that has made them great college players is their tenacity. Both players step on the field each week with the ferociousness of a junkyard dog and they haven't faced an opponent this season that can match their focus and desire to win. That block that Cosby made on OU's Lendy Holmes on Shipley's 37-yard catch in the fourth quarter was one of the most devastating hits I've seen from a Texas player this decade. Seriously, if you were going to pick a pair of players on this offense that would come out of a knife-fight in a telephone booth without any marks on their body, you'd start with this pair. Also, let's not forget to give Brandon Collins and James Kirkendoll a little love, as the pair combined to catch four passes, with one of Collins' catches providing a first down on their first second-half scoring drive. Overall, this group caught 24 passes for 250 yards and a touchdown. This group might not have a cool nickname like The Big Three, but Cosby and Shipley each have three wins over the Sooners and will have a lasting legacy in this rivalry.

Grade: A+

Tight ends - You know what? I'm going to grade these guys on a curve today because after this win, I'm feeling pretty generous. The tight ends were all but eliminated from the Texas passing game this week, but when you look at the interception that clanged off of Peter Ullman's hands last week at Colorado, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it eventually led to Davis' decision to move to a four-wide, one back set (no tight end on the field) for the first time in years. With the tight ends deemphasized this week, you have to look at the areas in which they wee asked to contribute and on this day it was on short-yardage runs. In that regard, this group did an excellent job, as the Longhorns were three-for-three in the red-zone when they went to their jumbo set, which featured Britt Mitchell, Peter Ullman and Greg Smith. Those guys played a big part in all three of Johnson's touchdowns, which made them valuable role players in this week's game.

Grade: A

Offensive line - They weren't perfect, but they weren't playing Rice, either. This was the big, bad Oklahoma Sooners front seven that caused most mere mortals to quiver in their boots. Yet by the time this game was over, this Texas offensive line imposed their will on the Sooners and by the end of the game, they had forced them to tap out. Yes, this group might have given up four sacks in this game, but for most of the game they allowed McCoy all the time he needed to find his favorite targets and by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, McCoy had enough time to make a ham sandwich on most throws and the running game really started to get cooking. Kudos to all of the linemen - Adam Ulatoski, Charlie Tanner, Chris Hall, Michael Huey, Cedric Dockery and Kyle Hix. These guys grew up a lot in this game.

Grade: A

Offensive game plan - Oh, I know there will be some that will scream bloody murder at this assertion, but Greg Davis really washed away all of his previous sins against the Sooners in this game for me. The job that he did on Saturday was perhaps the shining moment of his career in Austin, as he not only came into the game with some new ideas, but he completely out-schemed and out-coached the staff that is supposed to have him so figured out that they keep the key to his soul in Bob Stoops' back pocket. Not any more. There weren't a lot of tricky elements in the game-plan, although I'm sure he thought John Chiles might give them a little more than one yard on two carries, but Davis' decision to take the tight ends off the field in the passing game and switch to a four-wide receiver set that featured Shipley in the space once was reserved for the tight end was huge. That allowed Shipley to get matched up time and time again with an Oklahoma linebacker on a lot of occasions, which left Shipley open in the middle of the field all day. That Davis' tweak in the offense took a weakness (no viable tight ends in the passing game) and turned it into a strength this week is a credit to Davis, as is the fact that his play-calling led the Longhorns to scoring drives of 57, 80, 51, 89, 42, 74 and 80 yards. Also, you have to love how Davis never gave up on the running game, figuring that the payoffs would eventually come in the second half, which is exactly what happened. At the end of the day, the Longhorns were balanced (35 runs/35 passes) and averaged 4.6 yards per rush, while scoring on seven different drives.

Grade: A+

Defensive line - This group needed to get the best of Oklahoma' star-studded offensive line if this team was going to win on Saturday and that's exactly what they did. Senior defensive end Brian Orakpo made a lot of money on Saturday in abusing Phil Loadholt, "racking" up six tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble. Believe me when I tell you that nobody wanted the final seconds to tick off the scoreboard more than Loadholt. Of course, it wasn't just Orakpo that got the job done on Saturday, as Lamarr Houston (five tackles), Roy Miller (three tackles), Sam Acho, Henry Melton and Aaron Lewis teamed up to help shut down any hope that the Sooners had in establishing the run. In holding Oklahoma to 48 yards on 26 carries (1.8 yards per attempt), the front seven for the Longhorns were able to make the Sooners one-dimensional on offense and that might have been their undoing in the fourth quarter when they eventually couldn't answer the Longhorns score for score.

Grade: B+

Linebackers - With a front four that was more than holding their own against the Oklahoma offensive line, junior Roddrick Muckelroy was free to wreak havoc all over the field and he was nearly a one-man run-stopping force for the Longhorns. Any time Oklahoma tried to get something going with their running game, it seemed like Muckelroy was flying into the play like a missile to make one his team-high 14 tackles. While Muckelroy was playing sideline-to-sideline, junior Sergio Kindle was creating heat off the edge as a pass rusher. It was Kindle that out Bradford on the ground on Earl Thomas' second quarter interception and it was Kindle that later sacked Bradford in the fourth quarter to help snuff out a drive. Also, adding to the strong play from the linebacker position were Jared Norton and Rashad Bobino (six combined tackles). This group gave up some plays in the passing game, but the sum of all their gains greatly overshadowed any negatives.

Grade: B+

Secondary - If it's possible to feel good about a secondary that gave up 387 yards through the air on Saturday, it happened in the Cotton Bowl. Yes, Bradford picked apart the Texas defense throughout the game, but don't thin for a minute that this group didn't contribute to the win. Although redshirt freshman Earl Thomas might have been responsible for the bust in coverage that allowed Jermaine Gresham's 52-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, he did intercept two passes, including one in the second quarter that set up Texas' late field goal that cut the lead to 21-20. He nearly added a third interception (that might have gone for a pick-six), forced a fumble and broke up another pass. The kid might have made mistakes, but he made them flying around the field and you'll take some of the bad because he's starting to really emerge as a playmaker for the defense. Fellow freshman safety Blake Gideon battled all day and was given some tough assignments. The things that you didn't get from Gideon were missed tackles and mental errors. If he gave up a reception, it usually went for minimal post-catch yardage. The kids were good enough on Saturday. As for the veteran group of corners that the Longhorns have, they definitely had some problems against OU's masterfully designed passing game. The Sooners ran Texas ragged at times with their screen game, but the thing that the Longhorns really never Oklahoma do was create plays in the vertical passing game. You can say what you want about this group, but they didn't give up vertical plays to Manuel Johnson and Juaquin Iglesias, and that was a major focal point coming into the game.

Grade: C

Defensive game plan - The irony of this week's defensive game plan is that there really wasn't as much elaborate new stuff for this game as everyone might have expected. A lot of Will Mushcamp's ability to mix to mix schemes and strategies was nullified when Oklahoma ran it's quick-paced offense, which forced Texas to stay in their same personnel from play-to-play and forced the Longhorns to focus on lining up in the right spot as much as anything else. The Longhorns spent a lot of the game rushing four and hoping that their athletes would create enough trouble for Bradford that they could afford to play it safe in the back-seven. Another irony of this game is that the Longhorns actually accomplished a couple of their biggest defensive initiatives that were obviously established before the game - stopping the run and keeping the Sooners receivers in front of them. If anything killed the Longhorns on Saturday it was often missed tackles and poor angles in tackling and coverage. Everything that Texas had done in their previous five games eventually propelled them to just enough defense that the Longhorns were able to get a couple of key stops when they needed to.

Grade: B-

Special teams - Outstanding. The play of the game occurred in the second quarter when Shipley and the kickoff return team (props to Eddie Jones for a key block) lifted the Longhorns back into the game with a 96-yard touchdown return. The other earth-shifting move in the kicking game occurred in the third quarter when Curtis Brown made the biggest play of his young career by refusing to give up on snuffing out Mike Knall's attempt to convert a fake punt into a first down. That play signaled that Oklahoma was indeed on the ropes and the Longhorns took advantage of that mistake by Bob Stoops when they took their first lead of the game moments later on Hunter Lawrence's 28-yard field goal. Oh yeah, let's not forget the work of the kickers in this game. Lawrence was perfect on three field goal attempts, Justin Tucker was very good on kickoffs and John Gold averaged 46.5 yards on his four punts. Meanwhile, the Sooners had pretty much nothing but miserable memories from this phase of the game. Bottom line - Texas doesn't win this game without this group's dominant play.

Grade: A+

Overall - In some ways this win is as important as any that Mack Brown has ever won in Austin. No longer can people suggest that this program is glued to the ghost of Vince Young because Mack Brown took back his program last December and imposed his will on it. This win was all about the baby steps that have been taken every day since last year's Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State. Brown has taught the principles of team, team and more team for more than two years now, but we are finally seeing the fruit of his vision. The Longhorns didn't just beat the No.1 team in the nation on Saturday, they destroyed a national image in the process. This group isn't soft like Howard Schnellenberger suggested back in August. This team will scratch and claw and punch their way out of any situation. This Texas team didn't just beat Oklahoma on Saturday. They outplayed them. They out-hit them. They out-coached them. They out-executed them. They out-wanted them. In a game that reminded me of the back and forth final scene of Every Which Way You Can, the Longhorns were Philo Beddoe standing over the lifeless body of Jack Wilson. While both fighters trading vicious blows for 60 minutes, it was the Longhorns who stood victorious over an opponent that had to eventually ask if he'd been knocked unconscious. If Bob Stoops is still wondering… yes, you were.

Grade: A+

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