Holiday Bowl notes and analysis: defense

Notes and analysis on the Horns' defensive performance in their 47-43 win over Washington in the Holiday Bowl:

It's hard to even know where to begin given UT's defensive implosion in San Diego, but let's start with some depressing comparative numbers: the Horns came into the Holiday Bowl giving up just over 236 yards per game. Washington romped for 444. The UT D had held 12 previous '01 opponents to an average of 13.7 points per game. The Huskies more than tripled that figure, lighting the board for 43. Washington's offense scored on eight of its 17 possessions, including drives of 54, 76, 91, 65 and 80 yards. Husky tailback Willie Hurst averaged 8.2 yards per carry and tight end Jerramy Stevens ran free in the UT secondary most of the night, totaling 109 yards on nine catches. Every aspect of the defense -- run, pass, first down, third down, short yardage -- faltered at some point during the game.

The UT SIDs did not make either coordinator available to the media directly after the game, so I didn't get an opportunity to talk to Carl Reese and get his thoughts on his typically candid remarks and insights on his D's performance. Reese, though, is always one to discount statistics and focus on scoreboard results, which in San Diego had the Horns on top. In other words, Reese will take a 47-43 win in a heartbeat over a 3-zip loss. After a bit of celebration, though, you have to believe that the defensive coordinator will be back in the film room trying to determine what went wrong and how to ensure that it doesn't happen again.

Things didn't start badly for Reese's bunch. Matter of fact, the Texas D held the Huskies in check for most of the first half. On Washington's opening possession, the Horns forced a three-and-out. The Huskies drove to the UT 25 on their next series but the Texas D stiffened and kept Washington off the board when K John Anderson's field goal attempt sailed wide left. Another three-and-out series followed. On their fourth possession, straddling the end of the first and the beginning of the second quarter, the Huskies drove 54 yards but had to settle for a field goal when the Horns stuffed a third-and-short option keeper by UW QB Cody Pickett. The Washington O got the ball back for its fifth possession deep in UT territory after just one play when Major Applewhite threw his first INT of the game, but the Texas D did not allow a yard to the Husky offense, forcing another field goal. On possession No. 6, the D provided more of the same, limiting Washington to four plays and a punt. The Huskies put a seven-spot on the board four plays later, but through no fault of the UT defense. Washington DT Terry Johnson returned an picked Applewhite pass for a TD, giving the Huskies a 13-zip lead. After the Horns finally got on the board with a quick-strike 80-yard TD drive, the Texas D turned in its own big play with Nathan Vasher's midfield INT of Pickett on Washington's seventh offensive possession. The Longhorn O capitalized, scoring eight plays later to take a 14-13 lead. So let's recap: with 1:55 to play in the first half, Texas led 14-13 and the defense had given up six points and just 116 yards of total offense. That's when things fell apart. Washington scored on its next four possessions (three TDs and one field goal) to flip a 14-13 UT lead into a 36-17 Husky advantage. On those four drives, covering less than a quarter of game time, the UW offense totaled 251 yards on 29 plays, an average of almost nine yards per play. During that stretch, Washington averaged almost six yards per play on first down and also converted five of six third down attempts (on the sixth, they kicked a field goal on the last play of the first half) and the Huskies completed 14 of 21 pass attempts, many of them to wide open receivers, and ran the ball eight time for 90 yards.

Why the monumental breakdown? First, Washington deserves much of the credit for the passing game success. The Huskies came into the Holiday Bowl with a very good aerial assault, averaging 279.5 yards per game, and the UW pass-catchers simply beat the UT defenders on several plays. Washington's true freshman stud wideout Reggie Williams looked every bit the equal of the (freshman year) R. Williams wearing the Orange and White, catching five balls for 62 yards by shaking loose from All-American corner Quentin Jammer multiple times, including for 22 and then seven on the Huskies go-ahead drive late in the second quarter. Jammer won his share of the battles as well, but Washington's Williams is the real deal. And, speaking of the real deal, the Huskies' monster TE Stevens will be playing on Sundays soon. During Washington's second and third quarter explosion, Stevens caught seven passes for 80 yards. He was also wide open on another play before slipping down on a ball tipped by Kalen Thornton at the line of scrimmage. The Texas defense did not have an answer for Stevens until late in the game when Reese put SS Vasher (and less so FS Ahmad Brooks) on the big TE and charged LBs Tyrone Jones and Derrick Johnson more with containing the rushing and receiving of the running backs and putting pressure on the QB rather than dropping into coverage on every two-TE set plays (which the Huskies used a good portion of the time). Johnson in particular responded with huge plays on consecutive fourth quarter series. After a Texas TD cut the Washington lead to 10 at 36-26 with just under 12 minutes to play, the true freshman 'backer stopped RB Hurst for no gain up the middle on first down, almost picked off a deflected pass intended for Hurst on second down, and then leveled QB Pickett as he looked downfield for a nine-yard loss on third down for the momentum builder, forcing a Husky punt from their own 11. The Texas O scored six plays later to close to within three at 36-33. On Washington's next series, Johnson came up big again, this time picking off a pass intended for Stevens. On the play, Cory Redding dropped into coverage and the ball bounced from Stevens off of the junior DE and into the hands of the freshman LB, who returned it to the nine, setting up the Horns' second of three go-ahead TDs on the game.

A third go-ahead TD would be needed by the UT O, though, because of another entire-possession defensive breakdown by the Horns. After stopping the Huskies for no gain and forcing a punt on UW's next possession, the Texas D allowed Washington to easily march down the field for its go-ahead TD on the next series. The Huskies took over at their own 20 with 3:27 to play and promptly covered 80 yards in just seven plays with nothing but token resistance from Reese's guys. Pass completions of 11, 15, 11 and nine yards (to Williams, Paul Arnold, Stevens and Wilbur Hooks, respectively) set up Hurst for his 34-yard, untouched TD scamper to put Washington back on top 43-40. With Johnson coming up the middle, Hurst bounced left and raced to the pylon. Earlier in the second half, Johnson overran the play where Hurst burst up the middle and into the secondary for a 42-yarder that set up the TD that gave the Huskies a 36-17 lead. The true freshman linebacker deserved the defensive MVP award for his two huge fourth quarter plays, but it's a testament to how poorly the entire defense played overall that its MVP probably missed more plays than he made.

Why so little Dakarai Pearson? That's a good question and one I would have liked to have asked Reese. In the first Colorado game, Buff TE Daniel Graham caught four passes for 53 yards in the first half, but a Reese adjustment put Pearson on the field as the UT D's fifth DB, often with the responsibility of shadowing Graham, and the all-Big 12 TE had just one grab for five yards after the break. Dakarai played some snaps in the first half vs. Washington but Reese stuck with the 4-3 defensive alignment for the vast majority of the Horns' defensive snaps. The Huskies penchant for two-TE and I formation sets (generally with one or two wideouts) probably played a part in that decision.

Marcus Tubbs and Maurice Gordon started in the middle of the D-line and Adam Doiron played quite a bit off the bench. Tubbs had two tackles and Gordon and Doiron totaled one each. Throughout the season, opposing offenses had success (relatively speaking, of course, given how good statistically the Longhorn D was in all areas) against the Horns up the middle and that continued in the Holiday Bowl with the running of Hurst. One of the off-season's biggest chores for Reese will be improving his D's run-stop up the middle. Gordon graduates, but juniors-to-be Tubbs and Doiron and sophomore-to-be Stevie Lee return. Tubbs potentially could be a dominator, but Doiron looks like a role player and Lee has yet to live up to his seemingly vast potential. Members of the great DL recruiting class that the Horns are now assembling will have every opportunity to earn early PT.

Senior Jermain Anderson started at right defensive end in place of Thornton, who has struggled with injuries since the Oklahoma game. Thornton missed most of the Big 12 Championship Game with an ankle injury but rotated some with Anderson throughout the Holiday Bowl. Anderson finished with four tackles and Thornton totaled one tackle and the batted pass mentioned above. The junior-to-be DE will be re-examined early in the off-season to see if he'll need reconstructive surgery on his right knee, injured back in October vs. the Sooners. Anderson's performance off the bench during the Big 12 Championship Game and as the starter in the Holiday Bowl highlight the importance of quality depth, which Mack Brown continues to build on both sides of the ball. Despite never achieving star status, role players like Anderson are crucial to the success of the team, as proven over the last two games.

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