September 7, 2008

The grades are in - UTEP report card

In keeping with a recent Texas tradition, Mack Brown's Longhorns went into El Paso on Saturday night and came away with a runaway win, but much of the focus from the fans coming out of the game seems to be centered on the lack of style points. Truth be told, there's no question that it was an uneven performance at best, but let's not forget that by beating UTEP 42-13, the Longhorns did win by 29. Therefore, let's look at the good, all the bad and everything in-between in an effort to find out where the truth lies after an up and down night in El Paso on both sides of the ball.

Grading scale

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

Quarterback - Is there a quarterback in the country right now playing better football than junior quarterback Colt McCoy? Also, where would this team's offense be without him? After completing 20 of 29 passes for 282 yards and four touchdowns, it's safe to say that the answer to the first question is no and the answer to the follow up question is that Texas would be in real trouble without him. It was really a tale of two different games for McCoy, as he came out in the first half and played as efficiently as any player could at the position, completing 14 of 16 passes for 191 yards and three touchdowns. Things weren't nearly as rosy in the final two quarters, as he finished the night by completing six of 13 passes for 91 yards and a touchdown, along with an interception that wasn't his fault. Still, give McCoy credit for overcoming his second-half struggles and putting a knife in UTEP's heart with his final touchdown pass to Jordan Shipley on a beautiful pump and go. It would be impossible to give McCoy an A+ because of his inefficient second half, but when you look at his numbers, it's hard to be ticky-tacky with the grading because this kid was the best player on the field on Saturday night… again.

Grade: A-

Running backs - I'm really struggling to figure out what is going on with the guys at this position. After watching UTEP allow Buffalo to run for 250+ last week, the Longhorns seemed indifferent towards really establishing the run in this game and I'm not sure that any of the running backs ever got into a rhythm early on. Starter Vondrell McGee might not be the starter next week, after rushing for 18 yards on six carries. Honestly, I'll have to do the research, but it's hard to imagine that any starting running back in the nation had fewer attempts than McGee did last night without an injury being an issue. McGee's problem is that he's not doing anything when he gets the ball and you cannot simply say his problem is a lack of carries at this point. He has to be better and he has to start making some bigger plays because he's producing long runs at a very slow rate so far this season. In fact, the only positive at this position on Saturday came from redshirt sophomore Foswhitt Whittaker, who gained 72 yards on 12 carries to lead the group. Don't be surprised if he's your new starting running back next week. Overall, the Texas running backs combined for 104 yards and one touchdown on 24 carries (4.3 average), while adding three receptions for 35 yards. Some of the lack of production falls on the shoulders of Greg Davis, but that production just isn't good enough when you consider the competition. The best thing this group has going for them right now is the fact that they aren't putting the ball on the ground, which is the kind of thing that probably sounds good in Waco, but in locations like Austin, not being a liability is simply the starting point for all expectations.

Grades: C

Wide receivers - If McCoy wasn't the best player on the field on Saturday night, it might have been senior Quan Cosby, who went off to the tune of eight catches for 154 yards and a touchdown. The senior from Mart isn't going to run away from anyone, but he's a fighter and he gets results. He deserves a lot of credit for raising his level of player this weekend when so many others didn't. Outside of Cosby, none of the other receivers really had a huge impact. Shipley had that key late touchdown, but he finished with three catches for 30 yards, which means he was a total non-factor through the first three quarters of the game. Meanwhile, true freshman Dan Buckner emerged with a second quarter touchdown to take two steps forward, but then he took two steps back when he allowed a UTEP DB to push him completely off his route on a play that resulted in McCoy's only interception. Overall, this group finished with 16 receptions for 224 yards and two touchdowns, but when you take away Cosby's numbers, the group had eight catches for 70 yards. That's not good enough. Give Cosby an A+ on the night, but the rest of the group pulls the overall grade down.

Grade: C

Tight ends - The good news is that sophomore Blaine Irby caught a touchdown in his second straight game to start the season. The bad news is that he was an afterthought the rest of the night in the passing game. When you consider that the running game was in neutral all night and the receivers not named Cosby were not producing at high levels, that fact represents a real disappointment.

Grade: C

Offensive line - I'm going to give these guys some credit because I'm not sure that they are the ones where the focus needs to be this week. Given the amount of pressure that UTEP brought all night long, this group did a great job in pass protection for most of the night and McCoy's owes this group a steak dinner after helping keep him from ending up in a body bag by the end of the night. The running game could have been better, but some of that falls on the backs because there were holes to be had against the Miners, but there were few yards after contact on this night. Adam Ulatoski and Kyle Hix played outstanding games and are starting this season off in a very strong fashion. Give Chris Hall credit for putting the entire line in the right call in the face of the non-stop pressure. The offense had its problems on Saturday night, but it was mostly skill player related.

Grade: B

Offensive game plan - Yes, I know Texas scored 42 points and had 404 yards of total offense, but I thought this was one of Greg Davis' worst play-calling games in a while. For whatever reason, Davis decided very early on that he was going to abandon the ground game and put the hopes of the offense on McCoy playing perfect football. For much of the first half, McCoy was perfect and the offense didn't seem to miss a beat. However, as soon as McCoy cooled off, which had to be expected, the Longhorns offense stalled because it hadn't committed to the running game early on and they couldn't depend on it when they really needed those tough yards in the third and fourth quarters. This is a UTEP defense that was gutted last week by Buffalo and the Longhorns never once were able to impose their will in the running game, rushing for nearly 150 yards fewer yards than Buffalo was able to accumulate against the same defense. I kept waiting for the Longhorns to slow the game down, line up in two tight ends and just pound the rock, but it never happened. If Davis chooses to do that every week, that's going to put way too much pressure on McCoy and he's not going to be able to reach the elite level needed to win at some point. He needs help and Davis needs to give it to him and I'm not sure that happened a lot last night.

Grade: C-

Defensive line - The Longhorns got winning performances from three players on Saturday night along the defensive line against the Miners. Senior defensive end Brian Orakpo played his heart all and gave maximum effort, finishing with five tackles, two losses for loss, 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hits. Fellow defensive end Eddie Jones played a similar game and seemed to be all over the field at various times, even if the stat sheet didn't reward him with big numbers. In the interior, senior Roy Miller was active at times with his four tackles and two tackles for loss, but he's had better games against better competition. Still, at least those two made an impact because the group of Aaron Lewis (not on the stat sheet), Henry Melton (zero tackles) and Ben Alexander (two assisted tackles) did very little on this night and the inconsistency of the line played a big part in UTEP being able to get some big rushing yardage in the first half. This group has to dominate the line of scrimmage in order for Texas to be a great or even really good defense, but that didn't happen last night. Too few players were making plays and the majority of those that did make plays didn't do it consistently enough. Giving up 4.7 yards per rush and 145 total yards rushing to this group is almost a criminal offense.

Grade: C-

Linebackers - This position grades a little like the defensive line. On one hand, junior Roddrick Muckelroy was all over the field and it showed up in the stat sheet as he unofficially recorded 14 tackles and a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown. Yet if you look a little harder at those numbers, you'll see that none of those tackles occurred behind the line of scrimmage. There were also no forced fumbles, sacks or tackles for loss from Muckelroy, Jared Norton and Rashad Bobino. All three had their moments, but none made game-changing plays outside of Muckelroy's "Johnny on the Spot" routine in the fourth quarter. The one guy who did show a playmaking spark was junior Sergio Kindle, who recorded four tackles, a tackle for loss, half a sack and two quarterback pressures, but most of that came as a pass rusher off the edge in the second half. This has been a common theme over the years, but this group needs more impact plays and needs to be better. There's simply too much talent on the field at this position for there not to be more productivity.

Grade: C+

Secondary - Let's start with the good news - this group didn't have the backbreaking missed tackles like they did last week, which means that the yards after the catch by UTEP was much more limited than last week when things got a little out of control in the first half. Overall, I thought the play of the cornerbacks was strong. The trio of Ryan Palmer, Chykie Brown and Deon Beasley gave up a few plays, but they were rock solid most of the night. The real source of concern in the secondary right now has to be the fact that teams are seeking out redshirt freshman Earl Thomas and the game still seems like it's moving faster than he is through the first two games. Until he can get comfortable with the speed of things, he's going to have an X on his back. On the other hand, true freshman Blake Gideon played a rock solid brand of football last night.

Grade: C

Defensive game plan - The Longhorns tried to run as much of their base stuff early in the game as possible, which means you have to get a pass rush with the front four and through the first two quarters of the game, the Longhorns had zero sacks, although they sure liked flirting with them. It was almost as if they were convinced that they'd catch a virus if they completed the play. Coming out of the locker room, Will Muschamp played a much more aggressive style of play, bringing pressure off the edge with Kindle, while also throwing in a few safety blitzes to boot. Muschamp's problem on Saturday was that it seemed like UTEP was in the right play call for whatever the Longhorns were doing on a lot of occasions and it showed. On one play Muschamp flooded the left side of the UTEP line with what looked like two blitzers and UTEP not only picked the blitz up, but they rolled right on the play, which allowed their quarterback to easily take his time ands locate an open receiver. The bottom line is that UTEP only scored 13 points, but they allowed more than 400 yards of offense, although 100 or so came in garbage time in the final quarter. Momma always said there would be days like this.

Grade: C

Special teams - It was a mixed bag. Starting punter John Gold didn't look good on his first two attempts, but he rallied to finish with a couple of good punts in the second half to salvage his night. Freshman Justin Tucker keeps on doing a great job on kickoffs and through two games he looks like he might be the best kickoff guy Mack Brown has had in his 11-year tenure. The return game was mixed as well, as Shipley had one return for 16 yards on kickoffs, while Cosby had a 16-yard punt return. The Longhorns did block a kick, but it ended up being a decent net for the Miners. Finally, the play that everyone will remember is Cosby's return off of the missed long field goal attempt, but the decision to bring the ball out of the end zone was a huge risk when you consider that Texas was scheduled to get the ball on the 50-yard line. That was a 60-yard gamble on his part and the fact that he made it work doesn't mean that it was a smart decision by a guy who should have known better.

Grade: C

Overall - I think everyone can look at the group grades and realize that this team can play better across the board. The sloppiness of the game means that the Longhorn staff can take this game and turn it into a positive this week in practice because the coaches should one again have this team's position. It also looked like a team that might need to think about a couple of personnel changes before their next game against Arkansas. If this is the worst game Texas plays this season and they were able to still win by 29, this is going to be a good team. If they have more games like this inside of them, there won't be any celebrating at the end of the season when it's time to pack for a bowl destination.

Grade: C+

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