November 27, 2009

The grades are in - A&M report card

And that's why they play the games. Entering Thursday night's in-state showdown between the No.2 Texas Longhorns and unranked Texas A&M, the conventional thinking was that the Aggies would be hard-pressed to keep up with the Texas offense because of the match-up problems they'd face with one of the nation's top defensive units. Well… not so much. On a night when the Texas defense ran into their personal nightmare in Jerrod Johnson, the nation's top player carried the Longhorns to a 49-39 win. Here's a position-by-position breakdown of the win.

Grading scale

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

Quarterback - As college football's all-time winner at the quarterback position, senior Colt McCoy has enjoyed a career full of remarkable memories, but Thursday night might have topped them all as the Heisman runner-up from 2008 sent a statement that the hardware shouldn't escape him again in 2009. Whether he was scorching A&M through the air (24 of 40 for 304 yards and four touchdowns) or ripping out their heart with his legs (18 carries for 175 yards and a touchdown), McCoy was brilliant beyond his normal standard. From the 65-yard touchdown run off of a zone-read to the scoring drive right before halftime to moving the chains in the final minute to preserve the win, McCoy's fingerprints were all over this game. Perhaps the most important fact is that the Longhorns ran 79 offensive snaps on the road and McCoy helped make sure they didn't turn it over once. Bottom line - it was a performance for all-time.

Grade: A+

Running backs - Redshirt freshman Tre' Newton gave the Texas coaching staff exactly the kind of performance that they were hoping for when they sent him back to the top of the running back depth chart this week. The former Southlake Carroll star rushed for 107 yards and a key touchdown on 16 carries, while also providing terrific protection against the blitz for McCoy. Perhaps there was nothing jaw-dropping about Newton's evening, but if he gives the Longhorns anything close to that productivity for the rest of the season and beyond, he's not going to have to worry about where his game snaps come from ever again.

If Newton's stock is on the way up, the same probably isn't true for sophomores Cody Johnson and Fozzy Whittaker, who combined for 10 yards on three carries. Obviously, Johnson will continue to have a role within the offense as a short-yardage back, but Whittaker's tendency to bounce everything to the outside cost Texas some hidden yardage against the Aggies. Until he can trust his eyes and get up the field without hesitation, it's going to be hard for him to carve out a real niche. Overall, the Texas running backs 117 yards on 19 carries (6.2 average) and their work in pass protection was nearly flawless.

Grade: B+

Wide receivers - For the second straight week, the Longhorns wide receivers unit stepped up in a big way as a group, as the trio of Jordan Shipley, Malcolm Williams and James Kirkendoll combined to catch 21 passes for 283 yards and four touchdowns. Like the Kansas game, each receiver took a turn as the star go-to-guy in the game, as Shipley dominated in the first half before a foot injury limited his production in the second half, which meant that Williams and Kirkendoll needed to step up, which is exactly what they did.

With Shipley somewhat marginalized, Williams became the lead receiver and finished with a personal-best nine catches for 132 yards. Time and time again, Williams abused A&M cornerback Justin McQueen like he stole something from his momma. The knockout punch ended up coming from Kirkendoll, who converted a third and 12 situation into a backbreaking 47-yard catch and run for a touchdown. As the season winds down, this group is clearly playing its best football of the season, as the Texas wide receivers have accounted for nearly 700 yards of offense in the last two weeks.

Grade: A+

Tight ends

There's not an individual stat that junior Greg Smith can claim as his own because he didn't catch any passes and was only targeted once, but he played an important role for the offense as a sixth blocker on the line in the team's 11 personnel group. Smith continues to play better each week and he helped move the line of scrimmage around in College Station. Perhaps the lack of receptions makes it hard for this position to achieve an elite grade, but I thought Smith blocked at an all-conference level in this game, which means he earns his highest individual grade of the season for this group.

Grade: B

Offensive line - Easily this group's best performance of the season. In front of a boisterous crowd on the road, this group faced a million blitzes from a million different angles time and time again against Joe Kines' crew and the much-maligned Texas offensive line stood firm throughout. Senior left tackle Adam Ulatoski got called out by the announcing crew on ESPN after he was beaten once by Von Miller on a play in the third quarter, but the truth of the matter is that the senior tackle pretty much whipped Miller (three tackles) throughout the game, including a complete shutout in their one-on-one battles in the first half. There was an all-conference performance taking place in this game, but it was coming from the Texas side of the field. In addition to Ulatoski's strong play, the senior combination of Charlie Tanner and Chris Hall was excellent throughout. As good as Tanner has been in recent weeks, Hall might have played his best brand of football in weeks. Even the right side of the Texas line had some really strong moments and this is the right time of the year for the Michael Huey/Kyle Hix pairing to start gaining some confidence. For one of the few times all season, this group minimized the "terrible" plays and simply competed to their maximum ability all night long. On a night when they took every wild power punch A&M could muster, I think the group deserves a ton of credit.

Grade: A+

Offensive game plan - Outside of a pair of questionable three-and-outs in the third quarter, Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis can claim one of his finest days as a Texas coach. The decision to take the shackles off of McCoy in the running game made the Texas offense nearly impossible to defend for the Aggies, as the threat of McCoy's legs led to a near 300-yard day on the ground to go along with another 300-yard game through the air. Davis also did am masterful job as a play-caller, mixing up the 11- and 10-personnel groups within the offense throughout the game. Again, the only real negative on the night occurred in the third quarter when the Longhorns had two separate chances to put the game out of reach, but instead they responded with back-to-back three-and-outs. All things considered - the Texas offense averaged better than seven yards per carry and play, nearly rolled up 600 yards of offense, was responsible for 42 points and zero turnovers.

Grade: A

Defensive line - There's some good news and bad news with this group. Let's start with the good, which centers on the group's ability to control the line of scrimmage and limit the effectiveness of A&M's traditional running game. Senior Lamarr Houston (seven tackles, one tackle for loss and a pass break-up) and sophomore Kheeston Randall (two sacks) played extremely well in the middle of the line, with Randall providing perhaps the best performance of his career. Don't look now, but Randall is starting to emerge as a true impact player for this defense and is starting to look like the kind of player that young can build around next season.

Ok, that's the good news, so let's get to the bad. The pass rush with the front four was completely underwhelming when you consider just how average the A&M line has been all season. Although the group finished with three sacks, the end play of Sam Acho, Sergio Kindle and Eddie Jones wasn't able to turn in consistent pressure and that allowed A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson to pick apart the Texas secondary.

The bottom line is that this group was expected to dominate and although they had some moments, they didn't reach the extremely high bar that they've established all season.

Grade: B-

Linebackers - For the second straight week, the Texas linebackers had an evening that they'd like to forget. Yes, Roddrick Muckelroy had 15 tackles, but that's a misleading stat because only one came behind the line of scrimmage and quite a few of them were down the field. Muckelroy and Keenan Robinson (six tackles) both struggled at getting off of blocks throughout the game, which led to a number of big runs for the Aggies offense. In order for this Texas defense to be an elite group, the second layer of the defense has to make an impact and that didn't happen. Zero turnovers. Zero sacks. Zero big plays. Lots of busted plays. When the defense gives up 39 points and 500+ yards, there aren't going to be a lot of good marks on the report card.

Grade: D

Secondary - This group has been among the best in school history all season, but they got knocked to the ground quite a nit over the course of this 15-round fight. In facing a white-hot quarterback in Johnson, the Texas defensive backs often found themselves in good position only to be beaten by a better throw and catch. When you start throwing in the coverage busts, missed tackles and other assorted mistakes, the problems of the day become obvious - it was everything and everybody. There were times when the secondary played very well, especially in light of the defense's inability to pressure or contain Johnson in the pocket, but you can't give up 342 yards and four touchdowns through the air and expect great marks. Oh, Duane Akina's boys will have better days moving forward, but on this night they were the ones that got worked over.

Grade: D

Defensive game plan - Let's just be honest - Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp just didn't have a very good handle on how to bottle up Johnson and the rest of the Texas A&M offense. Not only could they not muster a consistent pass rush with their four for most of the night, but Johnson made Muschamp pay dearly when he did blitz, often times making the perfect read and throw into the teeth of the blitz. Even more frustrating than those issues is the fact that the Longhorns weren't able to contain Johnson, despite not having an aggressive, dominating pass rush. It would have been one thing if Johnson was picking up huge chunks of yards because the ends were getting up-field so quickly and creating so much havoc that Johnson had to scramble for his life, but that's not what happened at all. The defense deserves credit for getting a key stop in the final minutes that led to the missed field goal and a string of stops in the first half that allowed the Longhorns to create some separation, but it just wasn't a day anyone will be proud of. Momma always said there would be days like this and all Muschamp can do is get back to the drawing board and try to fix the errors from the night.

Grade: F

Special teams - I'm not sure how to properly give this unit a grade because they were an abomination for so much of the game, but there's no denying that Marquise Goodwin's kickoff return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter was the most important play of the game.

Outside of that, the return game was not very good, whether it was with punts or kickoffs. The unlucky bounce that resulted in a fumble on a punt return in the second quarter was a key moment in keeping the Longhorns from being able to run away with the game early on when it appeared they were gaining control of the game. Also, Goodwin was largely ineffective on his first five returns of the game (15.6 yard average).

In addition to the problems in the return game, the Longhorns took bad angles and missed numerous tackles on kick coverage, which allowed A&M to control the field position battle throughout the game. Once you mix in a few costly penalties, you really start to cringe.

Still, the punting game with Justin Tucker and Colt McCoy was solid and the game's biggest play came from this group. I'm sure if you asked the Aggies, they'd prefer to have the kick return over everything else combined.

Grade: C-

Overall - The best thing about a flawed win is that 24 hours later it still counts exactly the same as a masterpiece. The Aggies deserve a lot of credit for playing at as high of a level as they've played all season (if they played like this each week they wouldn't be 6-6), but the Longhorns had a lot to do with struggles as well. The sloppy execution on defense and special teams seemed to indicate that there were some tired legs, but the bottom line is that this team continues to win by any means necessary this season. If the defense needed to save the day against Oklahoma, then the offense was due for a return performance before the season ended and they got it in a big way. Perhaps this game wasn't a thing of beauty for a team trying to play to the highest of standards, but the flawed play made for a Heisman showcase and an all-time classic in the series.

Grade: B

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