Football coaches are fond of saying the most obvious improvement for a team each season comes between game one and game two. And specifically, Mack Brown said he wanted his team to make progress in five categories vs. UTEP Saturday night in El Paso.
Improved production from the young players, improved kickoff coverage, a 60-minute effort with no lapses, improved quarterback pressure with sacks and continued solid protection of Colt McCoy.
For the most part, anyway.
A post-game glance at Brown’s primary El Paso objectives results in an impressive passing grade for the Longhorns. But how the performance translates against a team of comparable talent – which the Miners are decidedly not – is anyone’s guess. For certain the Longhorns should face a stiffer test next week at home against Arkansas, though the Hogs have struggled mightily in both of their wins.
Improved production from the young players – This is a vitally important area for the Longhorns because they have so many young players in key positions. Against the Miners, several of the young ’uns produced. The most obvious of this group was running back Fozzy Whittaker, whose sheer speed was immediately displayed when he came into the game in the second quarter. Whittaker had three speed-burst-type runs on his first drive, setting up a short touchdown run by Cody Johnson, himself a young player as a redshirt freshman. Whittaker is clearly a home run hitter, and finished the game with 72 yards rushing on only 12 carries. And while you won’t see his name in the box score, true freshman Justin Tucker will have an invaluable impact for the Longhorns in 2008 – he produced booming kickoffs against the Miners, finishing the game with six touchbacks. The vision of Oklahoma home run hitter DeMarco Murray watching kickoffs sail over his head in the Cotton Bowl next month has to make Texas fans – and Brown – smile. Receiver Dan Buckner scored the first touchdown of his career, and sophomore tight end Blaine Irby found the end zone again as well. Brandon Collins recorded the first catch of his career with a nice 16-yard reception late in the third period.
Improved kickoff coverage – Justin Tucker, I love you. How much hair have I lost watching opposing teams catch kickoffs on the 15- or 20-yard-line in past years, thus beginning drives on the 30- or 40-yard line? And don’t even get me started about the dreaded “pooch” kickoff. Every time I see a pooch kick, I get an overwhelming urge to kick my pooch. It’s pretty easy to cover kicks when your kicker is knocking the ball into the Franklin Mountains. Have I mentioned that I love Justin Tucker?
60-minute effort with no lapses – The Longhorns’ first lapse of the game came in the opening minutes, when the Miners drove the ball smartly for a field goal on their first possession. Texas’ pass defense once again showed a tendency to blink now and again, and allowed a touchdown late in the first half. And the third quarter was just kind of muddled through – Longhorns lost rhythm and seemed out of synch. And, oh yeah, they didn’t score a point in the quarter, either.
Solid protection for Colt McCoy – McCoy was spot-on early in game two for the Longhorns, when his protection was just fine. The Miners managed to hurry McCoy significantly more in the third quarter, and not surprisingly, the quarterback’s numbers were not nearly as impressive. Still, for the game, McCoy completed 20-of-30 for 281 yards with four TDs and one INT, so this shouldn’t be a major concern for Brown and the Longhorns.
Continued pressure on the opposing quarterback – Brian Orakpo recorded the Longhorns’ first quarterback sack of the season with just under two minutes left to play in the third period. The Longhorns hit the quarterback a few times on Saturday night, but Brown and defensive coordinator Will Muschamp can’t be completely pleased with this phase of the game. With a bevy of big-time signal callers on the horizon, the Longhorns must establish more pressure.