Commentary: What Happened?

For awhile, Texas appeared headed for a superb follow-up to its magical national title season. Some were even starting to say "Vince who?" Well, not really, but the skeptical line of "it was all Vince Young" was beginning to lose a lot of impact.

Suffice to say this program was showing that, while VY was indeed the catalyst to a national title, it had plenty of weaponry remaining and was quite capable of at least vaulting to the top of the Big 12 conference. That being with a freshman quarterback hailing from a small-town school to boot.

While the Longhorns were not stampeding opponents in record fashion, as was the case under Vince in 2005, optimism nonetheless and justifiably abounded going into the last regular season road contest against a Bill Snyder-less Kansas State. The Wildcats caused more havoc for Mack Brown’s squads than any conference opponent besides Bob Stoops’ Sooners; certainly volumes greater than anyone else in the once-feared north division. Now, though, white-haired Snyder had drifted off to the homestead, hanging up his coaching cap, while a rookie head coach took over.

Meanwhile, the Longhorns’ own rookie–Colt McCoy–was setting all kinds of records of his own and no longer considered a green project, but a Heisman candidate. After a too-soon-to-handle test against Ohio State in early September, he’d led the ‘Horns to an eight-game winning streak, 9-1 record, and legitimate talk of a rematch in the national title tilt. Who would have thought the Vince-less ‘Horns would be this close to repeating the dream?

Unfortunately, some of the systemic problems under the surface of all those standout accomplishments blew open against that new coach with his own freshman signal-caller in Manhattan. Many say season-ending troubles began with Colt’s early-game injury on an overly difficult touchdown drive. While that’s the more obvious point, is it the most accurate?

Certainly a number believe that, based on bulletin boards and water cooler chatter. But imagine someone unknowingly asking: How many points did we score, then–14? No. Then, 21? No. How ‘bout 28? No. 35 then? No. Hmmm…get the point? The Wildcats, 6-4 entering the upset, but just 4-4 against I-A competition, produced their highest point total of the season (matched vs I-AA Florida Atlantic earlier).

All off-season, it was expected that the highly-accoladed Gene Chizik’s Longhorn defense would carry the bulk of the burden while Texas replaced a legend at quarterback. Inevitably, the defense would be a burden itself, at least this evening in the Little Apple. In the end, the 45-42 shocker snapped Mack Brown’s 21-game conference winning streak–a reminder still just how dominant his ‘Horns have been in recent times.

While a national title was now out of the question, many big goals remained. Additionally, Mack and the team would get an extra week to get the bad taste out of their system and prepare–physically and mentally–for the Aggies of Texas A&M. Mack, deservedly well-known for keeping the program on an even keel, hadn’t experienced back-to-back defeats at Texas since 1999! Quite a testament to that reputation. In addition, turning the title corner the prior year seemed to encourage further confidence. Surely, a home tilt for a conference championship berth against an in-state rival would result in yet another ‘W’ and continuation of Lone Star dominance that Mack has earned over eight years plus.

While the question of "how many points did the offense score" despite the loss applied to the K-State stunner, it was flipped fully the day after Thanksgiving. Imagine someone asking if you thought the Aggies–losers of six straight in this series-- had a chance to beat the ‘Horns on Senior Day in Austin, especially if they were held to their lowest point total of the season. I’m no longer a wagering man, but would have stunningly lost that one.

Amazingly, Texas, less than a month ago ranked in the top five and potentially setting up for a rematch with Ohio State for another Sears Trophy, suddenly watched while Oklahoma and Nebraska–two teams it already defeated–fought for the conference title. Still recently, the ‘Horns handled up on the Adrian Peterson-led Sooners by 18 points and upended the Cornhuskers in dramatically difficult conditions in Lincoln.

So, what happened to this team oozing with confidence and on the verge of being able to defend its crown on the field?

The departure of Colt McCoy’s health can only explain part of the problem. Even without him and the offense playing far from perfect, six touchdowns should be more than enough to defeat a mediocre opponent in a rebuilding mode (K-State proceeded to get walloped by fellow state weakling Kansas). Whether it being the loss to Ohio State the second week or yet another blowout of Baylor, this Longhorn defense frequently was felled by the big pass play.

Mentioned earlier was the obvious loss of Vince Young on the other side, but seeing early NFL pick Michael Huff graduate hurt the defense every bit as much. Even with some additional issues–such as injuries and Tarell Brown’s one-game suspension–Gene Chizik’s second season saw the secondary being burned far too consistently over the course of the season. The fact two of the backfield guys led the team in tackles perhaps indicated they relished run-stopping duties a bit overzealously. Why that was the case has been speculated considerably. Bottom line is the overall unit’s effectiveness inevitably falls on the coordinator. It’s largely him (to an extent, "them" at UT) who determines both schemes and personnel decisions.

This goes as well for the offensive side. Bringing Colt back for the A&M game has been questioned, even sharply criticized, since the slinger showed no zip by the end of that contest. But he appeared just fine in warm-ups and then proceeded to hit 13 of 15 for 131 yards (with a touchdown called back by a highly disputed call) before a late-half interception caused by a pass rusher’s hit. That’s approaching a 90% completion rate and nine yards per attempt–hardly indicative of someone hurt. Regarding the lack of deep passes, part of that could have been attributed to the A&M secondary laying back and disrespecting the running game. Colt may have been still hurt, but that wasn’t an issue in a goose egg first half for the ‘Horns. It took close to three quarters before DKR-Memorial stadium fans were able to applaud a score. They wouldn’t have another opportunity.

While the defense as a whole was expected to carry its weight this fall, the offense’s ground game figured to shoulder some burden before newcomer McCoy could figure out this Division-I stuff. Hailing from a 2A high school program and a town no one had heard of, it naturally figured a senior-laden offensive line coached by highly regarded Mac McWhorter, along with super blue backs, would ease his transition.

What Texas displayed virtually all of the season instead was a "touchy feely" rushing tone, one that perhaps prevented excessive pounding its somewhat smaller backs would take but also neutralized their home-run hitting capabilities.

Prior to the blazer’s first foot on campus, Mack Brown spoke in unusually glossy tones about Jamaal Charles. Blessed with great speed and running back’s instincts, as a true freshman he seemed to justify Mack’s gushing praise. He came up huge on the road versus Ohio State and then blitzed Oklahoma with an 80-yard touchdown run after the rival had scratched back into the game. Injuries spoiled some of the fabulous freshman’s year, but he regained health coming into 2006.

Meanwhile, after fighting through many injuries of his own, Selvin Young showed to be quicker, faster than at any time since his own freshman year. Yet, neither back broke even one run of at least forty yards all season.

Surely, the offensive line makeup couldn’t have been the problem. As noted, it had massive amounts of front-line experience, in the form of Lyle Sendlein (noted by offensive coordinator Greg Davis as his best center ever), Justin Blalock, an all-America performer, and the nasty-dispositioned Kasey Studdard, whose father played many seasons in the NFL trenches. Overall, this line was purported in all circles to be among the top in the country.

In the end, how does one excuse gaining a paltry 70 rushing yards on your own turf in the biggest game of the season? The loss of Derek Lokey as a lead-blocker in short yardage played a role, but it’s a stretch to say the standout defensive tackle’s absence from the offense negated all the edges this team should have had via the ground.

Like with the now-departed Gene Chizik’s defense (which also isn’t absolved from the last loss), Greg Davis must answer–at least somewhat–for that part of the offense’s failings. There is a number of "what in the world?" games from the pre-Vince Young era that understandably falls on his shoulders. Now that "Superman" has taken his act–impressive for a rookie, especially–to the NFL, some fans are anxious past frustrations have returned.

The full picture shows a more complex situation, because it’s that same offense that has produced all kinds of school records regardless of who has been the quarterback and that sometimes carried the defense this past fall with that new kid at the helm. It appears the quarterback coaching aspect deserves high marks. It’s some of the systemic and playcalling issues that warrant a more critical view.

The players will come and go, each with various talents and temperaments. The constants–generally at least–are the coaches. They are, naturally and inevitably, where the buck stops. It’s why you give a huge hand to Mack Brown for capturing the formerly elusive Sears Trophy last year and the victories under his watch that massively dwarf the defeats in numbers.

Though largely unforeseen trouble awaited this squad late in the year, the years under Mack have been outstanding in large part. The hope here is that schematic adjustments and prayers to the gridiron gods for the quarterback’s health are all that’s needed to reach BCS bowl territory again in the coming seasons.

Critics have said Texas was just a few points from losing a lot this fall. It could also be said the team was just a few points away from again playing for it all.

Bert Hancock has owned two college football-related web sites and was designated "Lead Writer" of one of the first independent web sites dedicated strictly to UT sports. At The University of Texas, where he received a Bachelor of Business degree, his area of specialty was in statistics and probabilities. His commentaries and his "Strength In Numbers" and "Old School" columns have appeared on and in the Inside Texas magazine.

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