November 28, 2008

The grades are in - A&M report card

All you needed to know about this year's Texas/Texas A&M match-up was seen on the faces of the Aggie players as they headed into the locker room at halftime, with the Longhorns leading 21-3. Dejected and exhausted, this team of Aggies didn't look anything like the team that had stolen the souls of the Longhorns the previous two seasons. In this dream season of 2008, the No.2 Texas Longhorns righted some wrongs from the previous two campaigns with a 49-9 thrashing of their in-state rivals. In the process, they reminded the faithful from College Station that the last two seasons were an anomaly in this series and the gap between the two programs is as vast as the team's play in this game. Here's a position-by-position review of Texas' statement making performance against the Aggies.

Grading scale

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

Quarterback - With blood, grass and mud all caked into his uniform on Thursday night, junior Colt McCoy showed the entire nation why his resume has to be viewed with even tighter scrutiny when it comes to the Heisman race because he's not some pretty boy passer in a cute spread offense that never gets his fingernails dirty. This kid is a football player in the sort of ways that all fans long for their quarterbacks to be. On a night when McCoy completed 23 of 28 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns, he took helmet-to-helmet shots and was constantly hit by the A&M defense, yet McCoy flew through the end zone for a score, outran the defense for key first downs and basically did it all for his team. When the Texas running game took time getting established, McCoy put the offense on is shoulders by running for 68 gained yards (he lost 18 yards on three sacks) on eight carries. By the end of three quarters, McCoy's night was basically done - 360 yards of offense and four touchdowns with no turnovers. Heisman-worthy, indeed.

Grade: A+

Running backs - It was a good news/bad news situation for the running backs this week. The good news is that Cody Johnson punished the Aggies with 102 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries in the second half. The bad news is that when the Longhorns were trying to establish the running game extensively in the first half with Foswhitt Whittaker and Vondrell McGee against one of the worst run defenses in the nation, they couldn't get going. The Whittaker-McGee combo combined for 64 yards on 19 carries over the course of three quarters. The biggest play of the night from this position might have come from senior Chris Ogbonnaya when he caught an 18-yard pass along the sideline that kept a touchdown drive alive when the game was still on the line. Overall, none of the running backs had an explosive run until the game was out of reach and the Aggie defense had seen its best part of the day. The final numbers (164 yards rushing, six receptions for 30 yards and two touchdowns) were good, but a bit deceiving because the team didn't get above-average play from this position through the first three quarters. Johnson gets an A+ for his play and that's the only thing that keeps this position from getting a C.

Grades: B-

Wide receivers - For the first time all season, sophomore Brandon Collins played the role of star in the Texas passing game and it provided a serious glimpse of what we might see from the former Brenham star in 2009, as he tied for the team lead with six receptions, while leading the team with 103 yards and a touchdown. Of course, Collins had the biggest night, but seniors Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley were not to be outdone and they performed at their usual tremendous level, combining to catch 10 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown in three quarters of action. Mix in a key third down grab by Malcolm Williams and Montre Webber's first catch of the season, and you've got a great all-around performance for this group with a combined 18 catches for 290 yards and three scores. Only Cosby's inability to make what would have been a spectacular catch along the sidelines (pass went off his hands), kept this group from getting a grade to match McCoy's.

Grade: A

Tight ends - This position had a pretty limited role within the game-plan this week, as they were replaced in the line quite a bit, as the Longhorns played with more four-receiver sets in this game than we've seen in recent weeks. There were times when the Longhorns kept a tight end on the field to help in pass protection and in the running game, but the position as a whole didn't really play a huge role in this one. It's just too hard to grade this position on the same grading system as the other positions. The good news is that when Peter Ullman and Greg Smith were in the game, they didn't have any noticeable errors that had to sacks or negative plays in the backfield.

Grade: Incomplete

Offensive line - This group was the most disappointing unit of the night. Against an A&M defense that has been horrible all season the Texas offensive line struggled to control the line of scrimmage in the running game and there were too many times when they allowed the Aggies to put McCoy on the ground by simply losing one-on-one battles. Both tackles struggled at times with the speed of the A&M rushers off the edge and it helped lead to two early sacks. This group eventually started to impose their will in the second half, but that was only after the Aggies had lost hope because of the scoreboard. This group has to be better and they can be better because they've faced better defensive lines, front sevens and overall units this season done better.

Grade: C-

Offensive game plan - I really believe that the Longhorns tried too hard to run the football against the Aggies in the first half because they were able to shred the Aggies with ease with the pass. That being said, I understand the counter to that point, which involves trying to build enough balance that the opposing defenses can't just tee off on McCoy, especially when the offensive line already is having some issues in protection. The decision to force the run at the cost of pulling away quicker was about protecting the offensive line (and by extension McCoy) and attempting to take away the full-speed go at the quarterback attitude teams are approaching this offense with. Although it might have cost Texas some flashy style points, it served its purpose because in the second half all of those snaps started to add up and the Longhorns flat out wore A&M into submission. It was almost as if Davis knew that the dividends would come in the second half and that a 30-point beat-down was in the works as long as the turnovers were kept to a premium, and he was right. More than anything, I thought Davis' play-calling was exceptional on third downs, as the Longhorns just kept moving the chains for most of the night and when it was all said and done, the Longhorns accomplished everything that they wanted to.

Grade: B+

Defensive line - This group is going to savior this game for a long time, as they just humiliated an outmanned offensive line by holding A&M -24 yards rushing, while sacking A&M quarterbacks four times and hitting them 13more times. Senior Brian Orakpo was dominant with five tackles, three tackles for loss, 1 sacks, four quarterback hits and a forced fumble. Any list of top defensive players in the nation this year that doesn't include Orakpo is tremendously flawed. In my opinion, he's playing as well this year as Derrick Johnson did as a senior in 2004. When Orakpo wasn't blowing things up in the Aggies backfield, the rest of the defensive line was, as the entire group combined for 13 tackles, six tackles for loss, four sacks, a forced fumble, a recovered fumble, two pass break ups and 11 quarterback pressures. It was a dominant performance in every sense of the word.

Grade: A+

Linebackers - This group gets a boost this week because we're going to keep junior Sergio Kindle with the linebacker unit, although his only sack of the night did come with his hand on the ground. The junior from Dallas played better from sideline-to-sideline from his strong-side linebacker spot throughout the game and was a total difference maker with a stat sheet to reflect it - five tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack. Outside of Orakpo, there might not be another defender in the Big 12 with the ability to take over a game better when he really gets going. He was flat out sensational on Thursday night. Another player that played very well was junior Roddrick Muckelroy (six tackles, one tackle for loss and a quarterback hit). Frankly, that was probably Muckelroy's best game since early October. The inside linebackers had quiet nights, but I thought Jared Norton and Rashad Bobino did some nice things. Also, let's give some love to young redshirt freshman Keenan Robinson, who made three tackles in the second half and help set Orakpo up for his fumble-producing sack.

Grade: A

Secondary - Outside of the meaningless touchdown catch that Deon Beasley allowed in the fourth quarter, this group played outstanding, as they took an A&M passing game that ranks among the nation's top 25 and rendered it pretty much useless for the first three quarters of the game. The big down-field plays were kept to a minimum and so were the missed tackles for the most part. Earl Thomas led the way with six tackles and a touchdown-saving stop in the first half. Meanwhile, the foursome of Ryan Palmer, Curtis Brown, Chykie Brown and Beasley were strong in coverage, as made Jeff Fuller and Ryan Tannehill were mostly non-factors. The secondary ended up giving up 269 yards, but it was a strong performance.

Grade: B+

Defensive game plan - This was the Texas defense everyone had envision seeing the day that Will Muschamp was first hired as the defensive coordinator. The Longhorns looked like a group of men playing against boys last night, as all three levels of the defense played at a high level. Just like Davis with the offense, Muschamp seemed to have all the right calls in this game, as he called corner blitzes that struck gold on a couple of occasions and simply made a living in this game by creating constant pressure. There was a time when the Texas defense used to let the action come to them, but those days are long gone. The Longhorns have saved their two best defensive performances of the season for their last two regular season games. Muschamp and Co. are peaking at the right time.

Grade: A+

Special teams - It wasn't a great night for either team. Both teams missed field goals. Both teams had punts deflected. Both teams averaged 44.5 yards per punt. I suppose the biggest play of the night came from A&M return man Cyrus Gray, who ripped off a 62-yard return. Outside of that, there wasn't much to get excited about. It was mostly a push performance.

Grade: C

Overall - After two straight disappointing performances against the Aggies, the Longhorns finally found their swagger. Outside of an average performance from the special teams, everything about this performance screamed e-l-i-t-e from the rafters. Although it was slow-starting, the game served as a three hour and ten minute infomercial for Texas in this weekend's polls. It also served as a perfect showcase for McCoy's Heisman candidacy. At the same time, Texas head coach Mack Brown was able to get his style points without sacrificing any integrity. It was a perfect a near-performance for a near-perfect team.

Grade: A+


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