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September 13, 2009

The grades are in - The Wyoming report card

A punch in the mouth. That's what the second-ranked Texas Longhorns received on Saturday in their first road game of the season from the Wyoming Cowboys. The Cowboys might be light years away from Texas as a program, but they came into yesterday's game ready for a fight. In taking the game to the Longhorns for two quarters, the Cowboys were able to expose a few of Texas' problem areas heading into next week's big showdown with Texas Tech. Here's a look at a position-by-position review of Saturday's season opener.

Grading scale

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

Quarterback - There were a lot of bad surprises for the Longhorns on Saturday, but nobody could have envisioned Colt McCoy making mental mistakes that reminded of his turnover-prone season from 2007. The bottom line is that the offense couldn't get untracked in the first half and McCoy started pressing a little too much. In a three-play sequence, he was called for intentionally grounding (while nearly fumbling), missed a wide-open receiver in the back of the end-zone while crossing the line of scrimmage before he released the ball and was intercepted when trying to force the situation with his favorite target Jordan Shipley. That's the bad news.

The good news is that McCoy was able to find his rhythm in the team's two-minute offense right before the half and as soon as James Kirkendoll released a huge pressure valve for the entire Longhorn Nation with his 25-yard touchdown reception, McCoy started to step into his comfort zone. When it was all said and done, McCoy led the Longhorns on four scoring drives in the second half and finished the day by completing 30 of 47 passes for 337 yards and three touchdowns (along with the interception).

Perhaps the most important layer to his performance from this game was the impact that his legs had on the offense. Once Greg Davis started to turn him loose with true run options, the entire offense seemed to come together. Those 44 yards on nine carries might not seem like much, but it gave the rushing offense some much-needed juice. Overall, it certainly wasn't one of McCoy's signature games, but that's only because the bar is at a place where completing nearly 65% of your passes for 381 yards offense and four touchdowns is par for the course. I said it last week and I'll say it again, not even Vince Young was held to such a high statistical standard.

Garrett Gilbert looked solid on his series of action, completing two of three passes for 16 yards, but he learned a lesson about tempo because the delay of game penalty might have cost the second-team offense a scoring opportunity.

Grade: B

Running backs - This position is turning into a regular episode of Days of Our Lives. For the second straight game, junior Vondrell McGee was given the early staring role, especially with sophomore Foswhitt Whittaker back in Austin nursing an injury, but he was never able to truly get on a roll, even if he did rush for 5.5 yards per carry on 11 attempts. It's not that McGee wasn't solid against the Cowboys because he ran much stronger than he did against La-Monroe last week, but the offense never seemed to get going while he was the featured runner.

Instead, the Longhorns seemed to really hit their stride on the offensive side of the ball in the final 32 minutes of the game when Tre' Newton (62 yards and a touchdown on eight carries) filled in for a hobbled McGee. Although it would be wrong to suggest that Newton get the credit for second half offensive surge, there's little doubt that he ran with the kind of authority that had previous been missing from the offense in the first six quarters of action this season. In addition to running through tacklers and finishing runs betters than any Texas back all season, Newton didn't waste time in getting North/South. His ability to quickly hit the hole and get up-field meant that the Texas linemen didn't have to hold their blocks for as long as they had been previously. It might be premature to think he'll be placed in a starting role next week against Texas Tech, but he's certainly earned the right to compete for it and he'll likely receive a heavier workload next week.

Sophomore Cody Johnson and redshirt freshman D.J. Monroe were non-factors in the offense this week and that wasn't a complete surprise, as Johnson is running behind the other backs and it was hard to imagine that Mack Brown would give Monroe a huge offensive role in his first road game.

Overall, the running backs combined to rush for 142 yards, a touchdown and four explosive runs (plays of 12 or more yards) on 25 carries. Considering the inconsistent commitment to the running game from Greg Davis in the first half, those numbers are actually fairly strong. The McGee/Newton combo averaged 6.5 yards per carry.

Grades: B

Wide receivers - After registering as an afterthought in the opener against La-Monroe, Kirkendoll reminded everyone why many, including myself, projected him as the team's No.2 receiver this season. The former Round Rock star wasn't just the team's best receiver on Saturday, he was the ignition switch for the entire team. His 25-yard catch and run for a touchdown to give the Longhorns the lead late in the first half was the game's most important play. His seven receptions for 102 yards will serve as a huge reminder that if you place too much attention on Jordan Shipley, McCoy will find other options that are almost as dangerous.

Speaking of Shipley, he had a quiet seven receptions for 61 yards, but he received a lot of attention from a Wyoming defense that was determined to keep him bottled up with coverages aimed at surrounding him at all times. With Shipley contained, the Longhorns needed another receiver to step up as a playmaker and the Longhorns received two. Junior John Chiles caught five passes for a modest 49 yards, but it was his 26-yard touchdown catch and run that reminded everyone that he was once a five-star caliber prospect.

Meanwhile, sophomore Dan Buckner (six receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown) continues to emerge as the flex option for McCoy. If Shipley is one of McCoy's snuggle blankets, Buckner might be emerging as another, as his ability to sit down in the soft spots of the defense has made him a favorite on third down. His size and ball skills make him such a dangerous weapon when he gets the ball behind the second level of the defense and he puts it all on display during his 33-yard touchdown catch that opened up the game.

Overall, six different receivers combined to catch 28 passes for 322 yards and three touchdowns, which is obviously a number you'll take every week of the season.

Grade: A+

Tight ends - Junior Greg Smith was used quite a bit when the Longhorns used a tight end on the end of the line and he was solid in his role as a blocker. He has to finish blocks better if he wants to truly emerge as a plus-player when he's on the field for the Longhorns, but he certainly provided a solid contribution in the win.

Grade: Incomplete

Offensive line - This is such a hard group to evaluate because the offense's strong overall statistical day doesn't properly reflect how poorly the group played at times, especially in pass protection, which is the group's strength. Whether it was simply missing protection responsibilities with stunts or blitzes, or simply not holding up well at the point of attack - all five members of the line struggled in the first 30 minutes, although almost never at the same time. The good news for the group is that they responded with a very strong second half, along with the rest of the offense, and helped clean up a messy start.

If I had to pick an MVP from the group, I'd probably go with senior left tackle Adam Ulatoski, who did a good job of protecting McCoy's blindside all afternoon, and he even had a few strong moments in the running game as well. Still, he needs to continue to get better at the point of attack and finishing blocks. He also committed an unnecessary holding penalty that cost the Longhorns a first down in the third quarter.

Fellow tackle Kyle Hix wasn't as good as he was last week against La-Monroe, but he also wasn't working with junior Michael Huey at his side and that definitely had an impact on the effectiveness of the right side of the line. Still, that doesn't excuse the fact that Hix didn't finish his blocks with the same type of authority that he displayed in the opener and there were a few times when he caved in and just didn't win the battle versus his man.

Sophomore David Snow had a mixed day in his first start in place of Huey. There were times when he was late in recognizing what the defense was doing with its pressure packages, but he held up fairly well in the running game and in pass protection. He'll likely feel much more comfortable in his role in his second start against Texas Tech.

The two enigmas on the line in this game were seniors Charlie Tanner and Chris Hall. Both players allowed multiple near-sacks and had multiple mental errors in the first half, but they both had their share of highlight reel blocks, especially in the second half. For instance, Hall had a key block on Chiles' touchdown catch and if you go back and watch both of the Texas touchdown runs, their blocks were essential pieces to the puzzle. Overall, the pair performed like a roller coaster at Six Flags in the first half, but they really responded well in the second half.

Perhaps the best news from this game for the offensive line was the performance of junior Tray Allen in limited second-half playing time. From the moment that he stepped on the field, Allen made a genuine impact. His clear-out block on the screen to Chiles that went for a touchdown was the best block of the day, as his athleticism and aggressiveness were on full display on the play. Also, it was just one play - Allen was really good in the second half. With the injuries to Huey and Mason Walters, his performance was much-needed.

The offensive stats would suggest that this group performed better than they did, but stats can be deceiving at times and this game was definitely one of those moments. For instance, the official stats only credit Wyoming with a single sack, but they probably had a dozen pressures out of a lot of four- and sometimes three-man fronts. This group has to be more consistent. This group has to be better.

Grade: C

Offensive game plan - Offensive coordinator Greg Davis had an interesting game. The Cowboys decided early on that the Longhorns were not going to beat the Longhorns with a lot of deep and intermediate passing, as they played six and seven men in the box and dropped their cornerbacks 10-12 yards off the line of scrimmage. If the Longhorns were going to score on 80-yard drives, the Cowboys were going to make the Longhorns take a patient approach to get there. Considering the strong pre-game desire to establish an improved running game, the recipe for success would have seemed to include a strong dose of the running game, but Davis seemed determined to force the action with McCoy and the pass, despite his early struggles.

Of course, the Longhorns pretty much ran the base Texas offense and the biggest problem in the first half was execution as much as anything else. The biggest adjustment that Davis made on Saturday centered on his decision to turn McCoy loose in the running game on a variety of different looks. After spending the first six quarters of the season trying to exist in the run game without having to depend on their senior All-American for serious contribution, that all changed in the third quarter and it could signal two things:

1. The running backs haven't completely delivered as hoped.
2. The Longhorns have to involve McCoy more in the running game if they want to maximize that area of the offense.

Overall, the Longhorns managed to roll up 544 yards of offense and 41 points, but there's a bar at Texas that Davis has set and his group didn't reach it on Saturday.

Grade: C

Defensive line - The Texas defensive line flat out dominated the trenches against an outmanned Wyoming offensive line. Senior Lamarr Houston was an impact player throughout, as he recorded four tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. There were times when Houston couldn't be blocked and he was able to dismantle whatever the Wyoming offense was trying to accomplish all by his lonesome. Another player in the starting line-up that enjoyed an all-star performance was junior Sam Acho, who was credited with five tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and his third fumble recovery in two games.

Senior All-America candidate Sergio Kindle had a quiet day on the stat sheet, but he was extremely active in the first quarter with three separate quarterback pressures that actually served as kill shots on the quarterback. Kindle is still struggling to diversify his pass rush skill, but he got to the quarterback four or five times and just missed a sack each time.

The biggest surprise on either side of the ball was senior Ben Alexander, who didn't just dominate the Wyoming offensive line in the second half, he manhandled them. Time and time again in the final 30 minutes, Alexander created penetration and blew up whatever the Cowboys were doing. He was credited with five tackles and a single tackle for loss, but those numbers don't even come close to showcasing the impact he had in this game. On an afternoon when sophomore Kheeston Randall was solid, but not spectacular, Alexander earned more playing time with this performance.

Overall, the defensive line helped limit the Cougars to 2.5 yards per carry, while contributing seven tackles for loss and three sacks.

Grade: A-

Linebackers - One of the things the Wyoming coaches noticed from the La-Monroe game is that the Texas linebackers were a little soft in the opener and they made every attempt to exploit the "weakness" throughout the game, but sophomore Keenan Robinson did a fantastic job of shutting down the action to the tight end and running backs in the flat. Whatever the Cowboys hoped to find, they never found it.

The best linebacker on the field on this day was Robinson, who was credited with the same number of tackles as Roddrick Muckelroy, but was much more active and had a much bigger impact. If the playing time between Robinson and Emmanuel Acho was fairly even last week, it wasn't this week and nobody should anticipate Robinson's role decreasing because he's really starting to come on.

As for Muckelroy, it was disappointing to see his level of impact fall dramatically from game one to game two. The guy that played against La-Monroe was an All-Big 12 guy, but the guy that played against Wyoming yesterday wasn't quite at that level. In fact, you could make a strong case that the best middle linebacker on the field for the Longhorns was actually junior back-up Dustin Earnest, who led the linebackers with five tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss. Outside of his contributions, there wasn't officially another tackle for loss, sack or forced turnover from this group. This group played well, but they didn't create enough big plays, which is a stressing point for Will Muschamp.

Grade: B-

Secondary - The only thing this group is missing is more created turnovers because they are flat out locking down the opposition through the first two games of the season.

The trio of Aaron Williams, Curtis Brown and Chykie Brown were sensational from start-to-finish, as they limited the Wyoming passing game to nothing more than a series of underneath give-ups. By my count, those three were targeted in straight man-coverage 16 times and Wyoming was only able to turn that into four catches for 35 yards.

Williams is emerging as one of the best players on the team not named McCoy or Shipley. Although he was only credited with two tackles and a single tackle for loss, Williams was all over the field on Saturday and his forced fumble to begin the third quarter was the defensive play of the game. Of the five times Wyoming dared to throw at him, the completed one pass for five yards.

Both Brown's were almost equally as good, as Curtis was thrown at seven times and limited the Cowboys to two receptions for 18 yards, while Chykie allowed one reception for ten yards out of the four times he was targeted. Only a pair of penalties on the two muddied their afternoons.

Even true freshman Marcus Davis flashed a little in the fourth quarter with his blitz off the corner that resulted in a sack.

The safety play probably wasn't quite as strong as the cornerback play, but it was still very, very good. Sophomore Earl Thomas keeps coming as close as a player can without actually recording an interception, but he wasn't quite as active as the All-America candidate would normally be. Fellow sophomore Blake Gideon dropped a sure interception in the first half that likely would have been returned for a touchdown, but he held up well all day in coverage and led the team with six tackles.

Grade: A

Defensive game plan - Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp didn't pull all of the stops on Saturday because he didn't have to. The Longhorns mostly stayed in their nickel package all day long with four defensive linemen and they played their base defense to near perfection. Outside of a few well-timed blitzes, the Longhorns controlled the Wyoming offense with a front four that suffocated the Cowboys' offensive line and a back seven that gave up virtually nothing all game in pass defense. The Longhorns will likely have a game-plan against Texas Tech next week that includes a few more wrinkles, but the exotics weren't required on this day.

Grade: A

Special teams - As good as the special teams were in week one, they were equally bad in week two. Oh brother, where do you even begin? Actually, the only place where you can start is with the inexcusable fake punt that was adlibbed by sophomore Justin Tucker inside his own 10-yard line.

Ugh.

Then there was the blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown.

Double ugh.

On the bright side, Monroe had another huge kickoff return with his 41-yard effort to kickoff the third quarter, John Gold averaged 50.0 yards on his two punts that weren't blocked, Hunter Lawrence was perfect on both field goal attempts and Tucker not converted six of eight kickoffs into touchbacks, but he also had two punts downed inside the 20.

Obviously, it wasn't all bad, but the game-changing bad plays outweigh the good.

Grade: D

Overall - If everything came easy for the Longhorns against La-Monroe, then maybe this team needed a good wake-up call before they play a critical home game against Texas Tech next week. The offense's consistency is that side of the ball's biggest issue and it seems obvious that Greg Davis' troops are still trying to find their way as a unit. Ironically, the team's defense appears to be playing much more cohesively and that has everything to do with the high quality play of the linemen up-front and a secondary whose confidence is growing significantly each week. Mack Brown likes to say that teams grow the most between the first and second games, but in this case he needs to hope that the big boost comes between week's two and three because this performance left a little bit of an empty feeling when you consider the level of competition.

Grade: B-


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