It was a trying first year for Charlie Strong as he began his tenure as the Texas football coach. The Longhorns struggled to a 6-6 record, far from acceptable at the school with its own network and the most popular program in a football-mad state. But Texas showed some strides at the end of the season and that makes Monday night’s bowl game with Arkansasall the more important for Strong to continue building momentum for his program.
Texas lost five of their first eight games. The only wins were over North Texas (who finished 4-8), over Kansas (one week after KU fired Charlie Weis) and the Longhorns barely survived Iowa State (who went winless in Big 12 play). In the meantime, the lost the following five games, listed in sequential order… *BYU 41-7–Texas gave up 28 third-quarter points. BYU quarterback Taysom Hill outrushed the entire Texas team.
*UCLA 20-17—It was a close game in Dallas, but the Bruins lost quarterback Brett Hundley early in the game. Texas still gave up over 200 yards rushing and allowed backup QB Jerry Neuheisel to lead a late game-winning drive.
*Baylor 28-7—The defense stepped up in this game, holding Bryce Petty to 7/22 for 111 yards, but the rush defense was again pounded, as the Bears rushed for 278 yards.
*Oklahoma 31-26—Quarterback Tyrone Swoopes played his best game, throwing for 334 yards, but 11 penalties did the ‘Horns in.
*Kansas State 23-0—Texas was simply dismantled in Manhattan
Texas got off the mat with a win over lowly Texas Tech, and with the record at 4-5, it set up two big games with West Virginia and Oklahoma State. Both teams are bowl-bound, and with TCU as the opponent in the finale, the Longhorns needed to win both if they wanted to get bowl-eligible. It’s here that the signs of hope began to show.
*They beat West Virginia 33-16, with a good two-pronged rushing attack, as Jonathan Gray ran for 101 yards and Malcolm Brown rushed for 90.
*Then Texas went on the road and beat Oklahoma State 28-7, with the rush defense showing how far they had come, holding Okie State to 34 rush yards. Swoopes went 24/35 for 305 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
The game with TCU went as expected, and Texas lost 48-10, as the Horned Frogs were gunning for a spot in the College Football Playoff. That’s why that game doesn’t have to be too alarming…if Texas can play well in their bowl game.
Strong’s specialty is defense, and this unit came on strong as the season went on. They were the best in the Big 12 at yards-per-play and point-per-drive in conference games. The Longhorns have a tough defensive front that can match up with Arkansas’ physical running style.
It’s the offense that’s the issue. Texas ranks 88th in the nation in rushing and 83rd in passing. Swoopes’ season-long numbers aren’t pretty. Just 6.55 yards-per-pass, a 59% completion rate and a woeful 13-10 TD/INT ratio. The fact he played well in the wins over WVA and Oklahoma State gives hope that his development is coming along. Like the rest of the team, we need to see it in the bowl game.
I don’t want to imply that a win over Arkansas means everything is destined to roll onward and upward for Strong in Austin, or that a loss means it’s all over. But consider that’s in an opponent from a neighboring state, the game will be played in Houston and the credibility of the late-season sparks of life are at stake—if nothing else, Monday night sets the tone for the offseason for Strong.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
The Big 12 got the headlines on Saturday with the thrilling win by Texas over Oklahoma State, and the electrifying performance put up by West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, as he marked himself the clear frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy, but both the Longhorns and Mountaineers have plenty of reasons to be concerned as they look ahead on the rest of the season and consider their hopes of a major bowl game.
Smith threw for a stunning 656 yards against Baylor and for the season his TD/INT ratio is 20-zip. But when the final score of a home win over Baylor is 70-63, is it pointing out the obvious to say this team has defensive problems. Yes, Baylor quarterback Nick Florence has done a tremendous job of stepping in for Robert Griffin III and thinking WVA would shut down the Bears was not realistic. But Florence isn’t the multi-dimensional threat that RG3 was. Florence is not supported by a good running game—even on Saturday, Baylor averaged just 2.6 yards per carry on the ground. He does not have a well-developed receivers’ corps. The whole of Baylor’s offense was Florence hooking up with Terrance Williams, something he did 17 times and it resulted in 314 of the 581 yards Florence threw for. Is it at all concerning that WVA could not even slow down an offense that was a pitch-and-catch between two people?
Texas won on the road in Stillwater and given how tough an environment that is, especially in prime-time, I don’t want to find too many flaws. But I am also concerned with the Longhorn defense, an area I thought would be their strength. Oklahoma State muscled them up front, getting 199 yards on the ground from Joseph Randle. If you’re a UT backer how does that make you feel about playing Kansas State when John Hubert and Collin Klein come running at you? Freshman quarterback J.W. Walsh was both efficient, completing 18/27 passes, and spectacular, turning those into 301 yards. How does that make you feel about going up against Landry Jones or, even worse, Smith and West Virginia?
It’s also concerning that Texas did not run the ball effectively, with 42 carries producing a mediocre 136 yards. This has been transformed from a team that came into the year expecting good defense and a decent running game with questions at quarterback, into one where they can have full confidence in their quarterback (David Ash was a dazzling 30/37 for 304 yards in the biggest road win of his career), but has trouble running the ball and can’t stop anyone.
The Big 12 has a good shot at getting two teams into BCS bowl games. Texas and West Virginia have every right to be excited about the rest of the season and to think they have a real shot. But without fixing the problems outlined above, those bids will instead go to Kansas State and Oklahoma.
Around the rest of the country in college football Week 5…
SEC: Can now we finally accept that LSU is not a team that belongs in the national championship conversation? Furthermore, can we accept that it isn’t about the offense? The shockingly difficult 38-22 win over Towson at home—a game that was legitimately in doubt late midway through the third quarter) came about because Towson ran it down LSU’s throat, and it was the arm of Zach Mettenberg that eventually opened things up for the Tigers.
The SEC West is a very good Alabama team, a pretty good LSU team, okay teams in Mississippi State and Texas A&M and then a mix of bad to awful. It’s no longer the toughest entity in college football.
Pac-12: Two quarterbacks in the league’s middle class are starting to announce their arrivals, especially Oregon State’s Sean Mannion. The Beavers won on the road at Arizona, a win that now goes alongside victories over Wisconsin and UCLA. Mannion threw for 433 yards, working his fabulous receivers corps of Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks for most of that yardage and led a late touchdown drive to win 38-35.
Meanwhile, Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly is quietly gaining steam. He needs to be a little more efficient—26/45 in Saturday’s clutch win over Cal, but 292 yards and zero mistakes. The Sun Devils don’t have a great running game, so the sophomore QB is the main of the hour right now in Tempe for a surprisingly good 4-1 team.
Big East: There were no conference games this week—the Big East regular season extends to Championship Saturday on December 1, so the league schedule is stretched out—but there’s reason to be a little nervous in Louisville. I’m not concerned by the fact their win over Southern Miss was closer than expected, at 21-17 in come-from-behind fashion. The game was in a monsoon and even though Southern Miss is bad this year, it’s still a program with a decent history that would have some pride on its homefield.
What bothers is me that Louisville could not stop the run in conditions where everyone knew you had to run. The Cardinals are a good team, no doubt about it. But these narrow escapes in non-league play tell me they aren’t on a par with Rutgers.
ACC: When did Stephen Morris morph into an elite quarterback? We noted last week how the Miami signal-caller came up big in a win over Georgia Tech. Now the oft-inconsistent Morris delivers in a big way over N.C. State, throwing for over 560 yards, connecting on the game-winning pass in a 44-37 final and carrying a team that didn’t defend the run all afternoon. With Virginia Tech looking vulnerable—a loss to Cincinnati marked the Hokies’ second loss to a Big East team—and Georgia Tech looking awful in getting shaken down by Middle Tennessee, Miami’s playing the best football in the Coastal Division right now.
Big Ten: We knew the race in the Leaders Division was going to be watered down, with Ohio State and Penn State on probation. It gets worse for the credibility of the Big Ten championship game now, as it looks apparent that the Buckeyes and Lions are the best two teams in the division and all the hype about Urban Meyer aside, Penn State looks like the best. Matt McGloin played another efficient game in Saturday’s blowout win over Illinois, the defense shut down the run and got takeaways.
If we look at the overall arc of the PSU season, we see the Ohio loss isn’t all that bad and the Virginia loss came only because of four missed field goals. It remains to be seen how Penn State will do depth-wise over the next couple months, but they are playing very good football right now.
The Best Of The Rest…
*I mentioned further up in the part about Penn State, about how the Ohio loss might not be so bad. The other side of the coin is that the Bobcats looked less than impressive in a 37-34 win over UMass, a MAC program in its first year at the FBS level. Ohio surrendered 373 yards to passing to Minuteman quarterback Mike Wegzyn, who moved the ball to both the receivers and the backs with efficiency.
The Bobcats are still a favorite to win the MAC East—my preseason choice was Kent State, who had a nice league win over Ball State, but showed significant pass coverage problems of their own—but Ohio needs to improve defensively, and quickly, if they’re going to run the table between now and the league championship game on November 30.