After muzzling Kliff Kingsbury for three straight years, Reese employed such hapless strategies to stop him last Saturday it rekindled haunting memories of days against Houston's Run-and-Shoot of the 1980's. From Kingsbury: "You could tell they never got comfortable with the tempo. We no-huddled them and you could see in their eyes they didn't know what was going on." The Red Raiders' now-Heisman contender threw 60 times, yet the Longhorns failed to intercept a pass and rarely sacked or even hurried him. This despite blitzes on all but, as dejected LB Lee Jackson stated, "… about four or five plays."
Carl Reese has likely forgotten more football than many of us remember, but we're befuddled as to why (due to that blitz) he repeatedly evacuated the middle Kingsbury constantly exploited. Interviewed at halftime, Tech coach Mike Leach stated he'd continue doing what worked in the first half, and he did just that. Game announcer Bob Griese, an NFL Hall of Fame quarterback, wondered aloud why the Horns didn't just drop eight in coverage since the blitz constantly failed to reach the quarterback. On the day, Kingsbury amassed a staggering 473 yards passing and led Tech's offense to 606 total yards and 42 points against supposedly one of the top defenses in the nation. At least two Red Raiders reveled in career-high days, with Wes Welker putting up all-American numbers.
Earlier this year, Oklahoma's Quentin Griffin, who Reese has defensed–sort of–several times, burst on the Heisman scene with a career-high 248 yards rushing against Texas, including blowing past the century mark in the first quarter alone. Most of those yards came on essentially the same play which Reese had no answer for all game. Some UT fans proclaimed the defense stymied the diminutive Sooners' back in the middle of the game, but in reality he suffered cramps and missed much of that span. In "money time," Griffin ripped the Texas defense just like in the first quarter. If Reese's unit's defensive standings mean so much, why, in perhaps the most important game of 2002, did OU rush for its second biggest output of the season? The Sooners sure didn't stockpile that high total due to running out the clock, since they were behind much of the contest.
Against Oklahoma in 1999 (Stoops' first season), Texas looked confused and rapidly fell behind 17-0 in the first ten minutes of the game. [It should be noted that Mike Leach was the OU offensive coordinator.] But Reese and the Horns' defense made adjustments and held the Sooners' offense to just ten more points the last fifty minutes, seven of which came on a fake field goal attempt. Most of us assumed "Bull" had figured out this newfangled Sooner attack. But what happened in Dallas the very next year? Like with Texas Tech 2002, one got the feeling the UT defensive coordinator had never seen the offense he strapped so effectively just one year before. OU rolled up 245 yards rushing, 289 passing and 534 total yards (compared to just 330 the previous year), in route to a 63-14 blowout that could have been worse.
After Josh Heupel's graduation, the Sooners' offense struggled mightily, finishing ranked 66th (the bottom half of the NCAA), and the Longhorns smothered it. Unfortunately for Orangebloods, this year witnessed a comeback to confusion: 266 rushing yards allowed and 35 points in a third straight loss to their Red River rival.
Yet another area that confounds Texas fans is the defense's succession of regression in bowl games. Again, when facing offensive minds that utilize shrewd and sometimes tricky tactics, Reese wanders in the desert. In Texas' first bowl game under Mack Brown, Carl's defense blotted out Jackie Sherrill's Mississippi State, holding the Bulldogs below 100 yards rushing, under 300 total yards, and to just 11 points. But next year, after spiritedly fighting Arkansas for much of three quarters, Reese's group collapsed, as the Razorbacks ran for nearly 200 yards, piled up almost 400 total and tallied 27 points by the end. Next, during the first of two straight Holiday Bowls, Oregon gobbled up 420 yards and 35 points, while dumbfounding the Texas defense with misdirection and passes to the tight end. Washington, under Rick Neuheisel, continued the trend by ripping Reese and Texas for 444 yards and 43 points the following year. Again, the Longhorn defense allowed the tight end to roam uncovered throughout most of the contest.
For each post-season game, the UT defense has performed worse than the previous one, both in yards allowed and points. Sure, guys like Mike Bellotti (of Oregon) and Neuheisel possess better offensive minds than those coaching at Mississippi State and Arkansas, but then Reese also has procured more time to implement his own defense, and with his own personnel. It appears, at times, he got more out of the players left from John Mackovic's scrap heap units.
The Texas defensive coordinator's strongest allies will quickly fire numerous statistics that seem to indicate he's among the best in the country. Unquestionably, Longhorn fans have witnessed much worse coaching performances the past decade. But when inspected closely, it becomes apparent the bulk of those numbers are disproportionally accumulated against the weaker offenses in the nation.
Over the 2000 regular season, Texas faced eight offenses ranked in the bottom half in total yards. Two more of those opponents barely finished in the top half. Only Oklahoma, at 18th, ended with a high ranking, and Reese's group allowed 534 yards that game, over 100 yards more than the Sooners normally garnered. Oregon, with the 34th ranked unit, stupefied Texas, as noted above, in the bowl game. In 2001, the Horns benefited greatly from facing nine bottom-half offenses in their first 11 games, including four in the bottom ten percent! To be fair, Reese's troops played great against comparatively high-ranked offenses in Texas Tech and Colorado (first meeting) as well. But all eight of the opponents held to under 250 yards that season emerged from that bottom-half ranking.
This year, Texas has met more opposing offenses ranked in the top half, and slowed the likes of Kansas State and Iowa State. [Though allowing too many first half yards in the latter contest, Reese, after being pushed by Mack Brown at halftime, made necessary adjustments to slow down QB Seneca Wallace.] As is frequently the case though, the Texas defensive numbers are boosted dramatically by shutdowns of North Texas (held by UT to 128 yards below its average), Houston (237 yards below its decent average accumulated against generally poor defenses), and Baylor (contained 202 yards below its norm). But most impactful, in a negative way, three teams (Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas Tech) gained more against Texas than their normal season production, with two of those (and nearly a third) contributing to Longhorn losses.
Back for a moment specifically to the Texas Tech defeat–which killed any remaining shot at competing for a national title. Some blame injuries to linemen Kalen Thornton and Marcus Tubbs, but the victors suffered losses as well to their two best receivers. Even with the Longhorn defensive line healthy this fall, the pass rush has frequently failed to harass opposing quarterbacks. And if those injuries dramatically compromised the back seven's ability to cover Tech's receivers due to blitzing, why keep bringing it? Once again, few, if any, beneficial adjustments were made, and that (along with a red-hot Kingsbury) contributed more than anything to Texas losing the game.
While less embattled and erratic than his counterpart coordinator Greg Davis, Carl Reese, in many ways, is the opposite side of the same coin. It's a sobering thought to realize that after five years as a defensive coordinator at Texas and more than 30 years overall as one, the likelihood of any significant changes in coaching style appears negligible. For now, Longhorn fans are witnessing both high statistical rankings and inconceivably poor high-stakes performances. Unless changes are made, to paraphrase John Mackovic, Longhorn fans will just have to learn to live with those extremes.
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 "Strength In Numbers" column appears weekly on InsideTexas.com.
[Photo courtesy of UT Sports Photography]