October 24, 2010

The grades are in - Iowa State report card

Grading scale

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

Quarterback - There have been games this season when Garrett Gilbert's numbers haven't reflected the quality of performance that he's given, but Saturday the opposite was true. On paper, Gilbert had a career day by completing 34 of 57 passes for a career-high 344 yards and two touchdowns, but the truth of the matter is that you can take that piece of paper with the stats on it and toss it in the trash. On a day when he was facing one of the nation's worst defenses, Gilbert's evolution as a major college football player hit a major pothole.

It was beyond mystifying to watch Gilbert struggle with every part of the offense on Saturday because he looked very much like a player who is regressing and not a guy who is coming of age in his seventh of 12 regular-season starts. Whether it's the pressure of trying to carry this offense or just a bad day at the office for a young player or the looming possibility that Gilbert isn't the player that many of us thought him to be, he wasn't good on Saturday. There have been games when he's had some bad luck and had some players on his side let him down, but that wasn't the case against the Cyclones. Gilbert missed wide open receivers, made numerous arrant throws, turned the ball over in critical situations and generally looked like a player whose confidence was at an all-time low.

More than anything else, he didn't give the offense a chance to win on Saturday against a bad team and not even two fourth quarter touchdowns that made the score close than the game really was changes that. I'm one of those guys that judges quarterbacks by their ability to win and raise their level of play when the moments require them to be great. On this day, the team that Gilbert was quarterbacking was outclassed by Iowa State. There could only be one grade.

Grade: F

Running backs - Meh. Tre' Newton and Cody Johnson did the majority of the work for the running backs on Saturday and they weren't awful (a combined 67 yards on 16 carries) - they just made zero impact on the game. Only once all day did a UT running back provide an explosive play in the running game (12+ yards) and that was Newton's 13-yard run that helped set up Justin Tucker's second field goal. To Newton's credit, he also added a 21-yard reception on that drive, so he was chiefly responsible for those three points.

Of course, the mystery that is the D.J. Monroe situation continues. The guy that can't get on the field because he can't protect (that never stops linemen from playing), rushed for 10 yards on his only carry and then was banished to the bench. Makes total sense. Texas' best running back option and dynamic weapon can't get on the field because he can't block or they are worried about him fumbling, despite not dropping the ball on a single offensive touch in a game this season.

The bottom line is that the Longhorns were never able to establish the running game and maintain it, which is a real problem when the run defense that you're facing is among the worst in the nation, and they did nothing that would have helped this team escape an embarrassing loss.

Grade: F

Wide receivers - If there's any good news this week on offense, it's the fact that the wide receivers did raise their level of play this week after an abysmal afternoon in Lincoln. Not only were the drops gone, but there were times when receivers were actually getting open down the field. After battling a groin injury for weeks, senior John Chiles played like a guy that wanted to win, as he posted five catches for a career-high 117 yards and a touchdown. His performance on Saturday showed exactly what's been missing from the offense with his absence.

Meanwhile, Mike Davis and Marquise Goodwin combined for 15 receptions for 104 yards, but only one of those receptions registered as an explosive play (16+ yards). James Kirkendoll had a solid five receptions for 44 yards and even DeSean Hales was given a chance to play, and responded with three receptions for 27 yards.

All told, the receivers accounted for 30 receptions for 315 yards and two touchdowns, while a number of other players were left on the field because of Gilbert's inability to connect with open targets. On a day or bad play across the board, this group can hold its collective heads high.

Grade: B

Tight ends- The tight ends were essentially phased out of the offense again this week and it's possible that they won't have a heavy presence in the offense for the rest of the season. There's just not much to grade.

Grade: Incomplete.

Offensive line -The single biggest goal in my mind for this team coming into the game (outside of winning, of course) was finding a way to build on last week's performance from this group. In my mind, this unit had to find a way to take another step forward in establishing itself upfront as a unit that this program can start to depend on, especially against such a poor opponent.

Well, that never happened. Oh, this group pass protected well for much of the game, but they never owned control of the line of scrimmage and the critical errors that had disappeared for one day in Lincoln last week reappeared on Saturday with a vengeance. Senior Kyle Hix committed yet another critical pre-snap penalty and this one wiped away a touchdown opportunity that this team couldn't afford to give back.

Meanwhile, the play of the right tackle position continues to hurt the offense and for the third time in four conference games, the player playing opposite senior Britt Mitchell provided a performance that will likely qualify them for all-conference votes if they do nothing else all season. First, it was Texas Tech's Scott Smith. Then it was Oklahoma's Jeremy Beal. On Saturday, Iowa State's Jacob Lattimer recorded seven tackles, two sacks, four other hits on Gilbert and a forced fumble. In the seven games before playing the Longhorns, Lattimer had collected 17 tackles, one sack, no quarterback hits and no forced fumbles. Yes, that happened.

The interior of the Texas line played a solid game, but it doesn't matter if the overall group can't play together and win together. Too often in this game, the line was back to playing 60-80% worth of efficient football from play-to-play. Against a front seven that was regarded among the three worst in the Big 12, that's unacceptable.

Grade: F

Offensive game plan - There's no getting around the fact that the offensive coaching staff has failed this season in just about every way that a group of coaches can. The team is seven games into the season and there's still no identity and the coaches continue to look like they are picking random guesses out of a hat in an effort to fix what's not working.

After talking about needing to be more aggressive for weeks, Greg Davis came out and had his team attacking the Cyclones defense two and three feet at a time. I never once saw Davis in the press box on Saturday, but I envisioned that he was ramming his head into a wall in-between plays. Of course, Davis fell on the sword after the game and mentioned AGAIN that he had goofed up in not attacking from the start.

The awful truth of 2010 is that the coaching staff never had a good plan for this offense and once everything they had worked on in the off-season fell apart over the course of the first 60 minutes of football, they haven't been able to adjust with a plan B. It's been stunning to watch, but if you want to know how a team can get to this point in the season and not have any go-to-plays or go-to-players or anything to go to at all, this is how it happens. When you want to know why a talented young quarterback is regressing, this is how it happens.

The coaches can't get the best players on the field because they don't know who they want to be from week to week. One week after battering Nebraska with a physical offense and just days after hearing Mack Brown say that the game-plan for Nebraska had been the missing piece for the entire season, the Longhorns ran the ball with its backs an average of four times per quarter. The number was twice that last week.

Heading into this week's game against Baylor, this unit ranks as one of the most disappointing groups in the nation and I'm not sure it's going to get better until the coaches are able to go into the drawing room and come up with a scheme/plan that fits their personnel.

Grade: F

Defensive line - The shocker of all shockers in this game might have been with this group, which was controlled and kept at bay all afternoon by the Iowa State offensive line. After turning in an eye-opening performance against Nebraska, the interior linemen were locked up time after time by the Cyclones. Iowa State's Ben Lamaak got the best of Kheeston Randall in their match-up and sophomore Alex Okafor was a complete non-factor as well. The inability of the interior line to win the battle at line of scrimmage opened the door for rush for 199 yards. A lot of that came right up the gut.

While Sam Acho (eight tackles) and Eddie Jones (six tackles) flashed at end on occasion, the overall pass rush was a major disappointment and too often Iowa State quarterback Austen Arnaud had all the time he needed to pick and choose his receivers.

The pass rush wasn't a plus and the run defense was in shambles… against a team that didn't score last week against Oklahoma.

Grade: F

Linebackers -Never has a player looked more valuable to a defense than Emmanuel Acho did yesterday. With the junior linebacker out with a knee injury, the level of play at the position dropped significantly. Although senior Dustin Earnest led the team with nine tackles, he too often out of position to make plays and too often didn't finish plays he was in a position to make. The Cyclones clearly felt like the belly of the Texas defense was soft and they went right at earnest time and time again. Keenan Robinson was solid and the interception he made in the second half was a thing of beauty, but he wasn't as aggressive and did finish plays like he has for most of the season.

It's curious that with as much cross-training as the Longhorns linebackers go through that the coaches were unwilling to come up with a combination that would allow Jordan Hicks a place on the field. I was surprised that Will Muschamp never went with a Robinson/Hicks pairing because the other linebacker groupings used struggled.

Grade: D

Secondary -This is supposed to be the team's strongest position, but on a day when the Longhorns desperately needed a defender to step up and make a big play, this group was absent for roll call. Once again, this unit failed to create or get involved with a turnover or a tackle for loss or a sack or pretty much anything that would have swung momentum in Texas' favor.

Once again, the raw numbers would suggest that this group wasn't too bad because they only gave up 136 yards through the air, but that's only because Iowa State got a three-touchdown lead and didn't need to throw it much once they figured out that Texas couldn't stop the run. There were holes in the secondary in this game and Iowa State found them.

Bottom line - they gave up a number of plays and never made any.

Grade: D

Defensive game plan -The general consensus is that the Longhorns are a deep and talented team on the defensive side of the ball, but the injury to Emmanuel Acho had a negative impact on this unit in every way possible for most of 60 minutes. Texas defensive coordinator might have tried to hide his unit's weaknesses on Saturday, but Iowa State found them and found them in a big way. The most surprising thing about Saturday from the defense was that it never seemed like Muschamp dialed up anything that might have changed the momentum.

Whether he was afraid of Arnaud's scrambling ability or the loss of Acho, Muschamp too often relied on his front four to get pressure and too often it didn't arrive in a timely manner. Maybe there's nothing that could be done based on the personnel, but to the naked eye it appeared that the Longhorns were afraid to get aggressive, despite circumstances that were begging for aggressiveness.

Grade: F

Special teams - This group is the Yosemite Sam of college football. Nobody shoots themselves in the foot as consistently on this side of the ball as the Longhorns. On this day we had yet another punt return mishap that helped lead to a back-breaking 74-yard punt. There was another penalty that forced the offense to start inside the 10-yard line on its first possession. There was also a missed 37-yard field goal at the end of the half? Let's see what else are we forgetting? Oh yeah, how could we forget the 42-yard return that was allowed as soon as the Longhorns finally put seven points on the board?

Seriously, those are all plays where the Longhorns just beat themselves.

Yes, Justin Tucker had a good day punting. Yes, Curtis Brown had a 40-yard return. But, this team isn't good enough to play a game of one step forward, one step backwards on special teams, let alone one step forward and three steps backwards. The bottom line with this group isn't much different than the other two phases. Where are the big plays and playmakers to help this team win games?

Grade: D

Overall -It's pretty safe to say that this season spun off its axis on Saturday with the worst home loss of the Mack Brown era, although with all due respect to UCLA, that claim is becoming an increasingly competitive competition. From the players on all sides of the ball to the coaches that are supervising them, there was a systematic collapse among the ranks in this game and it shed a lot of light into just how poorly the program is playing as a whole in 2010.

Mad Mack returned after the game, but it rings a little hollow after he was quoted as saying that the UCLA/Oklahoma losses had been good for him. The problems that have haunted this team all season reared their ugly little heads all at once on this day and it created an embarrassing loss for a team that wasn't ready to play at all for the opening kickoff. That part is on Mack in a big, big way.

Nothing that happened was a surprise if you've watched this team all season, but it is shocking that the team is in this position. Mack doesn't need to get mad. The time to get mad was weeks ago. This is the time for Mack and the other coaches in that locker room to finally find some answers, both short-term and long-term. It remains to be seen whether it's apparent to Mack what questions truly need to be asked.

Grade: F

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