It got so bad, so quickly, that Mack Brown turned to a guy watching tape on his couch in California. He had little choice, of course.
After BYU embarrassed Texas in Week 2, beating the Longhorns 40-21 and rushing for 550 yards, the roar of regents and ‘Horns supporters climbed to such audible levels that Brown had to do something. So out went defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and in was Greg Robinson, a former head coach and DC who Brown hired in the offseason to be a “personnel analyst” for Texas.
If Robinson was parsing through Texas’ problematic defense on film each day and filing his fixes back to Austin, he might as well come do it himself, right? If only that were enough.
Nobody gave Brown much of a chance, after the BYU loss, to keep his job past this season, and whatever benefit was granted to him seemed to detonate upon Texas’ D doing the same the following week at home against Ole Miss. When fans began wearing ‘Saban 2014’ shirts to tailgates, Brown’s future couldn’t have seemed more sure. He was, clearly, not going to be back in 2014.
What did Brown do? He prepared to brawl — (geez, he even does that politely. Click the image and see).
Since those Saban shirts showed up, Texas has gone 4-0, including a dominating win against rival Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry.
Now? Now Brown’s future at Texas looks better by the week. He may still be gone – the back end of the schedule probably decides that – but at 5-2 (4-0) and tied with Baylor atop the Big 12, he’s building a strong case to stay. What’s been the basis of that case? Let’s look.
Robinson’s hire as full-time DC was derided since his previous two high-profile jobs – head coach at Syracuse (’05-08) and Rich Rodriguez’s DC at Michigan (‘09-10) – didn’t go well, but the improvement in Texas’ defense in the last month has been substantial.
After the Cougars ripped through Texas’ run D, I asked one defensive coordinator how something like that can happen to a team with Texas’ physical talent (and by “that,” I don’t mean simply a bad game; I mean 550 yards rushing).
“You have to give BYU credit, but otherwise that’s just gap control and tackling,” the DC said.
The former has been addressed. The Horns’ run defense through its first four games ranked 113th nationally in yards per attempt at 5.39 – hi, Brigham Young – but has improved tremendously since, with Texas allowing 3.51 yards per rush in the last three weeks (30th in the nation during that span). For reference, Alabama is allowing 3.41 yards per rush on the season and Florida State’s salty D is at 3.47.
Texas’ defensive front has also increased its pressure. After only six sacks in their first four games, the ‘Horns have 12 in October alone – or more than the Crimson Tide have all season.
The engines of the improved defensive line churn from the ends. Jackson Jeffcoat leads the Big 12 with six sacks and also has 9.5 tackles for loss. Opposite Jeffcoat is Cedric Reed, an emerging steady edge rush force. Reed played in reserve last season before starting the final six games, racking up 46 tackles. He’s already matched that in 2013 and leads Texas tacklers.
Pass defense is more unsettling for the ‘Horns, with flaws exacerbated by the nature of their league.
“Pass defense in the Big 12 is difficult when everyone wants to be up-tempo,” one Big 12 defensive coach told me last week. “Defenses are more concerned with just lining up and finding coverages than attacking the quarterback.”
Texas’ secondary has splintered some, but its production has been quality, ranking 27th in the nation in yards allowed per attempt (6.4). There’s talent in cornerbacks Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom and strong safety Adrian Phillips, and Josh Turner has done fine replacing first-team All-Big 12 free safety Kenny Vaccaro. As SB Nation’s Wescott Eberts details in a good piece about the UT D, the secondary has been the primary culprit of poor tackling, and Robinson’s defense, by committing more to the box, naturally places more pressure on the rear.
That’s concerning, considering Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Baylor all remain on the ‘Horns schedule.
One other defensive improvement: Texas has become stronger in the red zone. In its first four games, it ranked 80th in touchdown percentage in the red zone at 65 percent. That’s improved to 11th in Texas’ last three games (37.5 percent).
Clarity at quarterback
David Ash suffered a head injury in the fourth quarter against BYU, wasn’t on the sideline the following week against Ole Miss because of “concussion-like symptoms” and came back against Kansas State only to leave at halftime with those same symptoms.
He hasn’t played in the three weeks since.
It’s a scary situation, because all concussions are now scary and because of the unknown. Brown said Monday that Ash is “making progress” but is already ruled out this week against Kansas. Nobody, including Brown, seems to know if Ash will play again this year. Last week against TCU, Brown burned the redshirt of freshman QB Tyrone Swoopes by entering him into the game, a move clearly indicating Texas is operating with the assumption it won’t have Ash again in 2013.
So I don’t want to be insensitive to Ash’s condition by gloating about his replacement’s success, further digging the knife of his misfortune. But Case McCoy has been really good in Ash’s absence, as big a part of Texas’ turnaround as the defense, and we need to talk about him.
McCoy’s had an inconsistent career – Longhorns fans are yelling at the screen right now, “No, REALLY?” – but he was better last year in a backup role than given credit for. In eight games, he posted a 72.9 adjusted QBR compared to Ash’s 77.7. Since taking over as the starter in the second half against Kansas State this season, he’s provided, in general, much more than Texas could have hoped.
He threw for 244 yards and a TD at Iowa State and 190 and two TDs (with one pick) against Oklahoma. Also in that span, McCoy has an average adjusted QBR of 85. Over a full season, that’d rank eighth in the country, ahead of LSU’s Zach Mettenberger and Alabama’s AJ McCarron and only 1.3 points behind Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater. Most importantly, Texas is 4-0 in those games.
When Ash went down, the fear from Austin was Texas would lose potency in the pass game and the lack of a vertical threat. Those fears haven’t transpired. McCoy has completed 59.2 percent of his passes – compared to Ash’s 60. 9 percent – and has held Texas’ yards per attempt steady at 7.7 in the last month (it was 7.6 in September). That’s not a sterling figure, but remember UCLA is at 7.9 yards per pass attempt in the last month with Brett Hundley, one of college football’s most promising quarterbacks.
There’s enough around McCoy
Texas’ offensive line has produced admirably considering it’s taken a relative beating.
After fracturing his leg in spring practice, junior right tackle Josh Cochran suffered a shoulder injury in fall camp and reinjured it against Ole Miss. He’ll miss his fifth straight game this week, and there’s a sense he could require surgery and miss the rest of the season. Right guard Mason Walters is on the field but has battled a hip issue and might need knee surgery after the season; a senior, he’s now paying the taxes on 45 consecutive starts.
Given those nicks, Texas has allowed nine sacks (24th nationally) but only 48 tackles for loss (80th). They’ve allowed Texas’ playmakers to come through for McCoy, a makeshift group of sporadic stars formed around the steadiness of running back Johnathan Gray.
Gray has carried the ball 133 times for 656 yards (4.9 average), receiving reprieves from Malcolm Brown, who joined Gray in the dual ground thrashing of Oklahoma by contributing 120 yards.
You wouldn’t laud Texas’ receiving corps, but between Mike Davis, Marcus Johnson, Jaxon Shipley and Kendall Sanders, they’ve provided defenses enough of a concern that McCoy has options and Gray has running lanes. And, really, what more can Texas want from this year’s offensive unit?
A bit of luck
Oh yeah, the Iowa State game.
Yes, a very fortunate fumble call help Texas win on Oct. 3 and therefore kept Brown alive on the hot seat. Here’s the play if you want to revisit it.
Has Brown actually saved his job or just won a few games?
That question will likely be answered in the final three weeks of the season against the Cowboys, Red Raiders and Bears, but it’s amazing we can even consider it after how ugly things were in mid-September.
Some Texas fans probably don’t care how the season ends, they want Brown gone. But can you fire him if Texas goes, say, 9-3 and wins the Big 12?
One excuse the Texas Board of Regents doesn’t have at its disposal is claiming Brown has lost touch with this generation’s young talent and the school’s recruiting efforts have therefore suffered. That would be inaccurate. Rivals.com currently ranks Texas’ 2014 class No. 9, while Scout.com has it at No. 4 and Scout’s Inc. has the ‘Horns seventh. Despite job speculation, Brown has an elite class coming to Austin next fall.
Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, a big Brown supporter, will resign next summer, and reports have surfaced that West Virginia AD Oliver Luck is the front-runner to replace Dodds. Will Luck, or whomever, want to buy out Brown’s hefty contract and hire his own guy?
Perhaps, and that would be the new AD’s prerogative. But Brown’s year-end review should stand on a full season’s performance, for his fortune or misfortune.
Firing a coach in January just because your regents and the rioters wanted him out in September seems inadequate.