Before I get back to UT's scheme to keep Peppers in check, let's a take a look at the Horns' seeming propensity to run the ball on the first play of every game-opening offensive series. As described above, the Texas offense opened the Carolina game on the ground, just as it did against New Mexico State last week. Two games do not a trend make, so let's take a look back at last year's opening plays, working back from the Holiday Bowl: Chris Simms incomplete for Roy Williams (Oregon); Hodges Mitchell rush for three yards over right tackle (A&M); Mitchell rush for three yards (Kansas); Major Applewhite screen to B.J. Johnson for five yards (Tech); Major incomplete screen for Hodges (Baylor); Major incomplete over the middle for TE Mike Jones (Missouri); B.J. reverse for 11 yards (Colorado); Hodges rush for two yards (OU); Hodges rush left for two yards (Oklahoma State); Simms over the middle pass intercepted (Houston); Hodges rush for six yards (Stanford); and Hodges rush left for no gain. Last year, with Simms under center for the opening snap, the Horns ran the ball four times and passed twice. Add in this year's numbers and Greg Davis has called a rushing play six times in Simms' eight starts. With Major under center, the Horns ran three times (one of those a reverse) and passed three times. Overall, the trend seems to be less towards running (although with Simms at QB the likelihood of a run is far greater at this point than the likelihood of a pass) than towards simply being conservative. And the numbers show that conservative or no, the Horns simply are not productive on a game's opening offensive play. Including Ike's three-yard loss on the first play against NMSU, UT's O through its last 14 games is averaging a measly two yards on its game-opening play. For reference, Texas averages 5.7 yards per offensive play over that same span. The Horns have established a pattern for the opening offensive play of the third quarter, though: in the last 14 games, the coaches have called a simple running play 13 times! The only game in the last 14 that the Texas O did not run the ball to open the second half was against the Sooners in Dallas, with OU leading 42-7, when Major fired incomplete for Montrell Flowers. UT's average gain on those 14 plays? Just over two yards. Every defensive coordinator talks about putting a team behind the chains, and Texas, by lack of imagination or execution, allows opponents to do just that on its opening series (of both halves). Which leads me back to the game-opening series vs. UNC. After Ike's first-play, one-yard loss, the Texas tailback ran for seven yards up the middle behind a two tight end formation. On the day, the Horns didn't have quite as much success as last week in running from the two TE formation, gaining three, four, one, three, six and nine yards (the one and nine yarders were nullified because of penalties), but it did play a role in limiting the effectiveness of Peppers. On third-and-four, Simms attempted his first pass of the game, a quick hitter for Ike in the right flat, but the Tar Heels' other DE Joey Evans pushed Texas right tackle Mike Williams into the passing lane, where Evans swatted away the Simms attempt. Three-and-out. "We went into the game with the idea that North Carolina is very good on defense," Greg Davis said. "We told our offense that we were going to be very conservative in our approach, but we were maybe too conservative for too long." The offensive coordinator said a better mixture of plays and better execution eventually enabled the offense to have success.
That success would be a while in coming. With just over three minutes left in the first quarter, the Horns, up 14-7, took over at their own 45, great field position set up by Ike's 43-yard kickoff return. Up to that point, the Texas O had run just five plays for eight yards (the three plays on the opening drive and then the two plays it took to cover two yards to score a TD after a Nathan Vasher 59-yard, near-TD punt return). After picking up a quick first down (its first of the game) on an Ivan Williams run, the Longhorn offense backed up. A holding call forced the Horns into a first-and-20. Simms, pressured on the first down play, tried to dump the ball to Brett Robin but the pass fell incomplete. On second-and-20, Greg Davis called a draw to Ivan that gained just two yards, eliciting a smattering of boos from the DKR crowd because of the continued conservative play calling. On third-and-long, Simms tried to go over the middle, but UNC DT Ryan Sims batted away the pass attempt. Texas worked out of a three-wide, single-back, one-TE set the entire series.
The Horns first sustained drive of the game didn't come until mid-way through the third quarter. After Vasher fielded a UNC punt inside the 10 (one of a couple of mistakes interspersed among the great plays the sophomore punt returner made on the day), the Texas offense took over at the 11 and moved 89 yards in 11 plays to stretch the UT lead to 26-14. The Horns worked out of a three-wide, single-back, single-TE set for the first five plays of the drive (and seven of 11 total). For an offense that doesn't yet seem to have an identity, perhaps this will be it (much like last fall after the Dallas debacle). On the first play of the drive, Simms threw quickly left to Roy, and the sophomore wideout spun his defender and gained nine yards on the play. Ivan Williams got the running call on the following four plays, picking up four, 31, three and one on his four attempts. The 31-yarder came on a delayed handoff, one of the scheme methods the offensive coaches used to slow Peppers' outside pass rush. After Ivan's runs and a five-wide set where Roy gained an easy six on a right to left slant (the unstoppable play), the Horns returned to the three-wide set, this time with true freshman Cedric Benson in the backfield. Instead of the handoff to Benson, though, Simms tossed to TE Brock Edwards for eight yards. Simms tried to hit Benson with a little dump pass on the next play, but the freshman may have been looking to run before he caught the ball, because he flat dropped it. Benson quickly atoned for that play by rushing for seven yards, and, after a B.J. Johnson eight yard catch set the Horns up with a first-and-goal at the seven, taking his next attempt in untouched for his second TD in the Orange and White. Both of Benson's seven-yard runs came with the Horns in a two-wide, two-back, one-TE set. With a great sealing block, FB Matt Trissel cleared a path on the first run, and FB Chad Stevens and the OL all contributed fantastic blocking to create a running lane up the middle and into the end zone on the second run. After the lack of success we've seen so far from the goalline short-yardage set (no wides, two TEs, three backs, which bunches all 11 defenders up literally with a couple of steps of the ball), it won't be a surprise to see the Horns simply use a more traditional I formation, which has been relatively successful, near the goalline.
Cedric Benson, after carrying the ball 15 times for 64 yards last week, finished with nine carries for 27 yards (just three yards per attempt) vs. North Carolina. The true freshman saw his first action on the Horns' first drive of the second quarter with the game tied at 14. Benson had little early success, going for four yards on his first carry, then negative-three, two and zero on his next three, before breaking loose on his two seven yard, third quarter carries. Along with his pass drop, Benson also had a couple of protection breakdowns, failing to pick up DE Isaac Mooring on a third quarter play, giving the Heels their only sack of the day, and letting blitzing Carolina 'backer David Thornton free on a fourth quarter play, forcing Simms to hurriedly get rid of the ball. Call it a second-game slump. This week, sophomore Ivan Williams led the Horns all by himself with 75 yards on 10 carries. Ike had just 16 yards on six carries, although he did throw a beautiful block in the second quarter that allowed Simms to stay in the pocket and find B.J. down field for 17 yards.
Simms tried for the deep ball only three times, once for Roy on a go route from the UNC 41 on the first drive of the second quarter and twice for B.J. in the third quarter, once on a go and the other on a deep post. Williams simply could not get separation (more on that later on) from corner Michael Waddell, who batted down the attempt, while Johnson got free on both of his routes. Out of a five wide formation, Simms threw a little wide of Johnson on the middle of the field attempt and may have put a little too much air under the deep sideline toss, allowing beaten defender Errol Hood to get back in on the play. The UT quarterback essentially nickel-and-dimed Carolina to death, though, completing 17 of 35 attempts (for the second week in a row, the Texas receivers, particularly Sloan Thomas and B.J., dropped several very catchable balls) with a long of 19 yards. Last season, the Horns didn't have a single game where one of the two QBs did not throw a 20-plus-yard pass. Simms said the two defenses Texas has faced so far this fall have been "more concerned with not giving up the big play rather than stopping us." Last year, the Horns averaged over 8 yards per pass attempt. This year, that number is just over five per attempt.
I mentioned above that Roy Williams didn't get separation deep on Waddell, but he also didn't look to have the burst of speed that he showed last year on the end around play (although he did gain 25 on the play Saturday and may have turned in a 63 yard run if B.J. Johnson had been able to hold his block on CB Hood, who forced Roy to the sideline and allowed Waddell to make the defensive stop). Because of his long strides, Williams is still deceptively quick, but the bone spurs in his ankle could be slowing him slightly. He finished with four catches for 38 yards. After dropping a couple of catchable balls last week, Williams had one hit the turf this week that he arguably should have had. On a third-and-10 early in the third quarter, Simms rifled the ball to Roy in a downfield seam in the Carolina defense but the sophomore wideout didn't see the ball coming until the last second and couldn't reel in the low throw. Williams made a great catch, though, on a tall Simms toss on a right to left cross that he hauled in with arms fully extended above his head. The middle routes, particularly those where the pass is high, exposing Roy to a brutal hit from a corner or safety, are some of the plays that the true sophomore wideout wanted to improve upon during the off-season, and if that 19-yard second quarter catch is any indication, he's done just that.
Scheme played a part in the containment of Julius Peppers -- the TE alignment, the fullback help, the left guard help on his deadly inside move, the three-step drops and sprint outs from Simms, running the ball directly at him, etc. -- but don't discount the individual performance of Robbie Doane. The junior left tackle, after struggling at times last week against the Aggies of NMSU, played by far his best game as a Longhorn against one of the best defensive players in the country. "I asked Robbie after the game, Whatta ya think?" Greg Davis said post-game. "He said, I feel like I did pretty good, and he must have. Julius Peppers didn't take over the game, and he can do that." Doane said going in that he was nervous but also confident in his abilities. The OL said he'd have to watch the film to see how he grades out, but, he added, that wouldn't keep him from feeling "on top of the world right now." Deservedly so.
After a zero-catch performance from the position last week, the Texas TEs finally got in on the pass-catching action. Brock Edwards, who contributed to shutting down Peppers with his blocking, also hauled in two balls for 12 yards while Bo Scaife caught his first pass since '99 on a four-yarder late in the first half. As Greg Davis opens up the offense (which he will -- we saw baby steps Saturday after the extremely conservative first quarter, with the end around, the motion from five-wide into a four-wide, single-back set with the pitch then going to the wideout that lined up in the backfield, the quick handoff to the motioning wideout, etc.), look for the TEs to become more involved.
Major Applewhite received a HUGE ovation when he entered the game late in the fourth quarter. The senior tried to hook up with Mike Jones, a guy who more than anyone must understand Major's plight (one-time starter relegated to mop-up minutes because of injury and talented youngsters), but the Horns' all-time passing yardage leader overthrew the wide open tight end and finished zero-for-two.
Simms had just one near-INT against the Tar Heels after tossing several near the mitts of the NMSU defenders last week. On the play, the Texas QB fired right for a slanting Tony Jeffery, but either Jeffery's route was slightly off or Simms' pass was off the mark, because UNC CB Hood came closer to catching it than did Jeffery. Simms also had a couple of early attempts batted at the line of scrimmage, he put a little too much zip on a couple of short passes, resulting in incompletions, and he lost a fumble (and probably cost the team at least a field goal) when Tar Heel free safety Dexter Reid put his helmet on the football as the Texas QB lunged for extra yardage on an eight-yard scramble after a defense-freezing pump fake in UNC's end of the field. Regardless, Simms had his second consecutive INT-less game and maybe his best decision-making game as the Longhorn QB. Simms didn't appear to force any throws into coverage, he threw the ball away several times or simply dumped the ball off underneath when pressured and he moved around well in the pocket to avoid the pressure, generally playing a patient and poised game. He finished 17-35 for 167 yards and no TDs, but his numbers could have been approximately 50-plus yards better had B.J., Sloan and Cedric hung on to the balls that hit them in the hands and if a Carolina defender doesn't hold the back of Roy's jersey on a slant route that could have been a 21-yard TD (not as blatant, but just as un-called as the no-call on the Aggie DB clutching Kwame Cavil's jersey in the end zone on the Horns' opening drive in '99 during the Aberration in College Station game).
The Tar Heel D helped out the Longhorn O by jumping offsides four times. Three Texas gainers came back, though, because of illegal blocks and the Horns were also whistled for holding twice. Last week, the offense played an almost penalty-free game, but it faced off with a much tougher D this week (a probable explanation for the holding calls). The illegal block calls are a bit of a mystery, but probably came against wide receivers (I'll try to have more later this week). Knock on wood, but the Horns have yet to get an illegal motion or flase start penalty.