January 6, 2009

Ketch's final report card - Horns win a thriller

It wasn't exactly the best case that the No.3 Texas Longhorns could have made for a possible split national championship, but it will go down as one of the all-time bowl classics and perhaps the lasting memory from this year's bowl season. If Texas fans wanted domination, they had to settle for high-drama, as the Longhorns narrowly edged No.10 Ohio State 24-21 on Monday night. Here's a position-by-position report card on the Longhorns.

Grading scale

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

Quarterback - Forget about everything that happened in the first 58 minutes of the game. All that matters is that with two minutes to go in the game, the ball was in the hands of Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and the Longhorns were 78 yards away from glory. With the weight of the college football world on his shoulders, McCoy did what he did in every single game this season - he delivered in the clutch. There's nothing else that even needs to be said. I could mention that he completed 41 of a staggering 59 passes for 414 yards and two touchdowns, but those numbers don't matter. I could mention the spinning touchdown run to kick-start the third quarter or the incredibly poor decision he made in the final seconds of the first half that led to an interception and took points off the scoreboard, but those plays don't matter. No, great quarterbacks are defined by their performance under the brightest spotlight. Therefore, all that mattered about the Longhorn quarterback position on this night was what happened in the one final drive to victory. It was in the final two minutes that McCoy led the team down the field 78 yards, completing seven of 10 passes for 76 yards. There was the game-saving fourth and three conversions with less than a minute to play and there was the game-winning touchdown pass to Quan Cosby with 16 seconds remaining. It was all there for the world to see. McCoy wasn't perfect in this game by a long stretch, but when he absolutely had to, he was able to channel that part of him that has made him the nation's best college football player this season. Considering the stakes, it might have been his shining moment as a Longhorn to date.

Grade: A+

Running backs - Let's focus on the good for a moment. The Longhorns were able to run the ball much better in the second half and actually did a decent job of mixing up the running game with the passing game over those final 30 minutes. The bad news is that the Longhorn running game was abysmal in the first half and the inability for it to pose as any threat at all really hampered the Texas offense for the first 30 minutes of the game, as the Longhorns managed three points and those sure as heck weren't aided by a strong running game. When it was all said and done, senior Chris Ogbonnaya led the way with 42 yards on 11 carries, along with four receptions for 56 yards. It wasn't that Ogbonnaya didn't have a few nice moments, but his play wasn't at an above-average starting running back level and that's been the story of the position for most of the year. It's been pretty good at times, but that's about as far as you can go and it was certainly the case again against the Buckeyes. Reserves Fozzy Whittaker and Cody Johnson deserve credit for picking up some tough yards and first-down conversions in the second half. Overall, the final numbers saw the position produce 67 yards on 20 carries on the ground, along with Ogbonnaya's four catches in the passing game.

Grades: C-

Wide receivers - With the running backs failing to give the offense a big-time game and the tight end position being an afterthought, this group needed to have a huge might. Boy, did they ever. Cosby was simply brilliant all night, catching 14 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns. Cosby doesn't always get a ton of credit, but he makes his living going across the middle of the field without fear and when the Longhorns had to have plays on this night, he was there time and time again. While Cosby was busy making a case for the game's MVP, his partner in crime Jordan Shipley put in a workmanlike effort with 10 catches for 78 yards. The real surprise on this night was the contributions made by sophomores Brandon Collins and James Kirkendoll. Although both have seen a lot of snaps this season, they weren't always heavily used in the game plan. Well, that was not the case tonight and it allowed us all to get a glimpse of what next season might look like for both players. Both players became important go-to-guys for McCoy, as the combined to catch 12 passes for 121 yards. Cosby will get the glory for scoring the final touchdown, but it was Kirkendoll's fourth-down conversion that saved the night and Collin's catch afterwards that helped set up the final play. Overall, these guys caught 36 passes for 350 yards and two touchdowns. Huge night, indeed.

Grade: A+

Tight ends - This position was really limited in this game because the Longhorns decided to play more empty sets in the second half, which means that there often wasn't a tight end on the field. Senior Peter Ullman did catch one pass for eight yards, but for the most part he had a very limited role in the game. The Longhorns have to hope that an infusion of talent from the current recruiting class, along with the return of Josh Marshall and the move over from receiver by D.J. Grant, will spice up the position a lot next year because it's amazing that Texas could finish the year 12-1 without above-average play for this position for almost the entire year..

Grade: Incomplete

Offensive line - This group is going to need to do some soul-searching in the off-season because there's another level that this group can get to and we've all been waiting for them to get there all season, but it never happened. This group was physically manhandled at times in this game. The left side of the line with Adam Ulatoski and Charlie Tanner really struggled with the speed and power combination of the OSU defensive line. It's not a good thing as an offensive lineman to spin all the way around in the backfield and that happened too much on this night. The pass protection was really good at times and it help up well enough for Texas to get the job done, but this group can and must be better. The inability to control the line of scrimmage really hampered this team all night and those breakdowns across the board ended potential scoring drives that could have made the final margin in this game much more comfortable. The Longhorns don't like to recruit big offensive linemen, but perhaps they should start because this current group just isn't very physical and they struggled mightily against the Buckeyes.

Grade: C-

Offensive game plan - It was the bets of times and the worst of times for Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis in this game. Davis was a little too patient and played things a little too close to the vest early on, while he tried to figure out exactly how the Buckeyes were going to defend his offense. Part of the problem was that there wasn't a strong running game to depend on and some of that probably had to do with the decision to start Ogbonnaya over Whittaker. As a pas protector and outlet receiver, Ogbonnaya was solid, but he just didn't have the suddenness or speed to separate from anyone on the Buckeyes defense. There's no certainty that Whittaker would have been more successful, but he was the best option and it took too long for the Longhorns to get him on the field. That being said, Davis did a masterful job of play-calling for much of this game, especially in the second half. When the Longhorns had some struggles, it had a lot more to do with simple execution than it did anything else. The Longhorns didn't always throw the ball down the field, but they were able to absolutely pick apart the Buckeyes secondary at will with the short and intermediate stuff. Also, the decision by Davis to push the tempo with a no-huddle attack completely caught the Buckeyes off-guard and led directly to points. Like I did with McCoy, I'm going to grade Davis on this night for his performance in the clutch because that's not an area that he's always given a lot of love for. Well, his play-calling was exceptional for most of the second half, especially in the final two minutes. When this team needed Davis' offense to be great, it was.

Grade: A

Defensive line - I thought this group actually did an outstanding job in this game of controlling the line of scrimmage and providing constant pressure on the quarterback. Their biggest problem was that they just weren't athletic enough to get a handle on Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor. If the best athlete on the field hadn't been playing quarterback for Ohio State, this group might have finished with ten sacks. As it was, they only finished with two. Senior Roy Miller has never been better, as he dominated the line of scrimmage in the second half. In the final half-hour of his Longhorn career, Miller simply could not be blocked, as he seemed to disrupt the Buckeyes offense on almost a play-by-play basis. Fellow seniors Brian Orakpo and Henry Melton also gave high quality performances. Melton was only credited with three tackles and two tackles for loss, but it seemed like he did a lot more than that. The same is true of Orakpo (one sack and one tackle for loss). Both players provided a steady pass rush for 60 minutes. Overall, I thought this group did a great job of stuffing the run and most of the rushing yards in this game arrived because of poor play in the back seven. The front four saved the defense's backside more times than not.

Grade: B

Linebackers - It was a tale of two halves for the linebackers. I won't go so far as to say that they were horrible in the first half because the Texas defense only allowed six points, but they were out of position, missed tackles and took atrocious angles at times and it led to some huge runs by Ohio State's Chris Wells. This group improved their play between the tackles in the second half and really helped limit the effectiveness of the OSU running game, but they were never able to find an answer for Pryor, who seemed to toy with the Longhorn in the open field. Strong-side linebacker Sergio Kindle was able to contribute three tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss, but he was not the presence off the edge that he's been most of the season because the Longhorns needed Melton to be on the field to give them size up-front against OSU's power running game. Jared Norton, Roddrick Muckelroy and Rashad Bobino had some nice plays throughout the game, but they never made any game-changing ones. Those plays define great defenses and there were almost zero to be found on this night.

Grade: C-

Secondary - I don't even know how to grade this group. On one hand, they helped limit the Ohio State passing game to 10 completions out of 25 attempts and outside of the great 48-yard diving catch by Terry Robiskie and the jump ball to Pryor in the end zone, the secondary was pretty much nails in coverage. Seriously, I don't remember Chykie Brown, Ryan Palmer or Deon Beasley giving up very much, and sophomore Curtis Brown only gave up a couple of receptions. The same was true with the coverage from the safety position. This was one area that Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon really did a nice job, with Gideon's coverage on Pryor's touchdown catch being one of the obvious exceptions. The area where everyone in this group seemed to struggle was in run support and with tackling. Both safeties were not good for most of the game in run defense, especially when Wells was in the game. They took bad angles, missed in space and were often holding on for dear life on the tackles they did make. The corners weren't much better, as they struggled to get Pryor down to the ground when they faced him in open space. Frankly, this was a game when the lack of physical development limited some of the younger players on the field. They'll be bigger and stronger in future years, but they often looked like teenagers playing against grown men in this one.

Grade: C

Defensive game plan - Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp's defensive game-plan had one simple flaw - there was no way to account for the off-schedule plays that Pryor could create. The Longhorns were in a position for sacks or big plays behind the line of scrimmage, but Pryor was just faster and more athletic than the Longhorn defenders. There's nothing that coaching can do for that. One of the things that Muschamp did that worked really well was to blitz the Buckeyes heavily when they brought in Todd Boeckman to play quarterback, while Pryor lined up at wide receiver. While some coaches might have attacked cautiously as they anticipated what OSU had up their sleeve with Pryor, Muschamp attacked aggressively and it really limited OSU's ability to have a lot of success with that offensive look. Overall, the scheme was in place, but the youth in the secondary and the inability to match-up with Pryor's athleticism was the team's biggest undoing.

Grade: B-

Special teams - Neither team got much out of their return games, which means that the coverage units played well. Redshirt freshman Keenan Robinson had two solo tackles on kickoffs and was an impact player with his play in that phase of the game. Junior Hunter Lawrence was good on his only field goal attempt, while converting all three PAT attempts. Freshman Justin Tucker averaged 46.8 yards per kick, but the team probably needed a little more touch on the kick in the second half that needed to pinned inside the 20-yard line, but instead went into the end Zone. Still, everything in this phase was really solid and when you add in Mack Brown's decision to run the fake punt on the opening series of the third quarter, the coaches are probably feeling pretty good about this unit as a whole.

Grade: B-

Overall - No, the Longhorns did not look like the nation's best team on this night, but that doesn't mean that the overall performance wasn't something to cherish and remember forever. As a team, this group just won the first BCS game under Mack Brown without Vince Young leading the way, and that's substantial. Yes, it was a flawed performance, but in the end, the players that have led this team all season were able to lead the Longhorns to one of the most memorable victories in the history of the program. Ohio State was a game dance partner for the Longhorns and as it turns out, they match-up very well with a Texas team that doesn't see many power running attacks, has a pair of undersized safeties and doesn't have a really running game. We are talking about the lunch pail Longhorns, aren't we? Nothing was supposed to come easy for this team and on this night it surely didn't, but these guys never stopped working all season and they didn't at any point in four quarters on Monday night. Brown's national title team in 2005 is the best team he's ever had, but in my mind, he's never coached a team that he can be prouder of than the 2008 group. That will be their ultimate legacy.

Grade: B+

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