September 19, 2010

The grades are in - Texas Tech report card

Grading scale

A - All-American level
B - All-Conference level
C - Average
D - Below average
F - Complete failure

Quarterback - There are a couple of ways we can look at sophomore Garrett Gilbert's performance. Let's start with the numbers - 21 of 36 for 227 yards, two touchdown and three interceptions. If we're going with just the stat sheet, it would appear on the surface that the kid making his third career start gave a shaky, lack-luster performance.

But, stat sheets can't tell you the entire story of a football game. It can't tell you that all three of Gilbert's turnovers were byproducts of tipped or dropped passes. One came on a screen play when a defensive end made a tremendous play. Another came when a rush into his face caused a deep pass to helicopter into the hands of a defender. Another came after Malcolm Williams channeled his inner-Featherstone. How much responsibility does Gilbert own? Hey, I'm a buck stops here kind of guy, so he certainly owns some of the blame, but we'll get stuck in a rhetorical argument if we keep the debate focused on the wrong things.

More alarming than the turnovers was the fact that Gilbert blinked pretty bad at the end of the first half after the three turnovers. If there was a reason for concern, it wasn't any of the ticky-tack quibbles that many have about the young quarterback - it was this. Heading into half-time, you had to wonder how the shell-shocking bad luck would impact his second-half performance.

So, what does the kid do? He goes out with a shaky offensive line, no resemblance of a running game, and with two of his top receivers out of the line-up (one for the entire game), and he finds a way to play mistake-free, turnover-less football for the final 30 minutes, while helping his team win on the road by 10 points.

Is the kid a finished product? No. Not even close. There are all kinds of things he can polish up, but once again I need to remind everyone to check their filters. He doesn't need to be the first pick of the 2013 Draft today, he simply needs to be a player that gives his team every chance to win every game they play, and he more than did that on Saturday. In fact, they couldn't have won this game without him.

Frankly, the Longhorns needed him to go through this kind of adversity and survive with a win. It's a big part of the developmental process of a quarterback. This team has some serious offensive issues, but this kid isn't one of them. Bottom line - he was at least as good on Saturday in Lubbock as Colt McCoy was against the same team last year at home.

Grade: B-

Running backs -Here's the good news - not all of Saturday was awful. Starting tailback Fozzy Whittaker had a few nice moments in a 55-yard/one touchdown night, but his third quarter fumble was a critical mistake that simply can't happen in that situation.

Tre' Newton never really had a chance to get going on Saturday after an early 13-yard run and Cody Johnson was two yards and a cloud of dust on all 17 of his carries. In fact, Johnson touched the ball 17 times in the running game and never had a run of more than five yards. Overall, the big three at this position carried the ball 33 times for 103 yards (3.1 ypc), while catching a single pass for four games.

Perhaps the biggest spark off the bench - sophomore D.J. Monroe - gave the team one of the few explosives in the running game on the first drive and then he went back to his perch on the bench.

Through the first quarter of this season, we either know everything or we know nothing about this position and either answer should concern the staff greatly.

Grade: D

Wide receivers - Like the rest of the offense, this group had a little bit of an uneven night. With John Chiles out and Marquise Goodwin banged up, the position was forced to rely on older, inconsistent players and a bunch of young guys. The results were mixed.

There were too many drops and the one that Malcolm Williams gift-wrapped into an interception for the Red Raiders was a demoralizing back-breaker. That being said, there were some things you had to love as well.

Senior James Kirkendoll might have played the best game of his career with six receptions for 122 yards. More than the numbers, Kirkendoll played like a man on a mission and he went after yardage like it was life support. Give that kid a game ball.

Meanwhile, true freshman Mike Davis battled the nerves on Saturday, but he still finished tied for the team lead with six receptions for 45 yards and a huge first quarter touchdown. If you would have told me before the game that Goodwin and Williams would combine for six catches for 70 yards, I wouldn't have Texas would win. Those 12 catches for 167 yards from the Kirkendoll/Davis duo were huge.

Grade: C+

Tight ends- Let's start with the good news - Barrett Matthews caught the game-clinching touchdown. That's a big deal, as is the fact that he has to hurdle over some traffic at his feet just to get himself into a position to make a huge third and goal play. Kudos.

Outside of that… ugh. Here's just no other way to say it - this group has to keep getting better by any means necessary. The position is such an important one in this offense this year and the blocking from this group is just too inconsistent. Both Matthews and Greg Smith were put into one-on-one situations at various times that led to costly mistakes. On Whittaker's fumble in the third quarter, it was Smith that allowed the back-side defensive end to come all the way down the line for the big hit and forced fumble.

The position was mostly a non-factor in the passing game, which means that if they are going to be on the field every play, the tight ends have to be a plus in the running game and that's not consistently happening.

Grade: C-

Offensive line -I've been trying for 12 hours to think of some positives for this group before we get to the negatives. Here's what I've come up with. First, penalties aside, Kyle Hix had a great game against Brian Duncan, who was mostly a non-factor. When you consider that he's Tech's best defensive player by a mile - that's a pretty big deal. Also, you have to give the group some credit for coming out and protecting Gilbert much better over the final 30 minutes. Like Gilbert, that group had some confidence issues at the end of the half and they fought through it in the end.

Those are the positives. Let's move to the other side of the coin.

The right side of the offensive line remains a major area of concern and there's no way to get around the fact that Brit Mitchell had a rough night. He's a guy that plays pretty well at times, but his level of play must get better because better players await him than Scott Smith. Meanwhile, the middle of the line had trouble blocking Colby Whitlock all day. Yes, the guy has a chance to be an NFL player, but there were times when he completely busted up plays and it happened when he went right through the supposed strength of the line.

At no point on Saturday did the line control the line of scrimmage in the running game.

Meanwhile, the penalties. Oh good grief, the penalties. Every week it's the same thing - Hix, Michael Huey and Mitchell were all guilty, as the line was responsible for three holding calls and a false start. The first two penalties were drive killers. Amazingly enough, the Longhorns were able to survive two holding calls on their 22-play, 80-yard, game-clinching drive.

The only thing that saves this group from a lower grade is the improved second-half pass protection, which was a pretty big deal when you consider the end of the first half.

Grade: C-

Offensive game plan -If I had a dollar for every time I'd heard fans complain about the lack of creativity in a Greg Davis game-plan, I'd be a rich man. So, wouldn't you know that on a night when Davis went to a number of different tricks (reverses deep in his own territory and the not-ready-for-prime-time wide receiver pass), none of them worked. The irony of the night is that this really was the kind of game when the Longhorns got a little too cute for their own good on a few times when they didn't need to.

Outside of the panicked final drive of the first half, this was an offense that did fairly well when they weren't dropping passes, committing penalties and missing blocks. No, I'm not being a total smart-ass.

This was a unit that did put together drives of 79, 80 and 81 yards. Two of the three finished in touchdowns and the other was a freaky little turnover. That was kind of the story of this night.

Although the game-plan itself was pretty sound and focused on letting Gilbert guide the team with his strengths, the execution of this unit is consistently inconsistent. The play is just too sloppy across the board at almost every position. That kind of stuff falls on the coaches as much as the players.

Grade: C

Defensive line -Hand out game balls to everyone up-front for the Longhorns because they were really and truly the difference in the game. This group's ability to dominate the line of scrimmage, while generating an intimidating pass rush without the need of any blitz help allowed the Longhorns to suck the life out of the Texas Tech offense.

As far as individuals are concerned, true freshman Jackson Jeffcoat gets a "Holy cow!" from me after completely blowing up on his first game on a national stage. From the very first defensive snap of the game, his fingerprints on this one were everywhere. The same is true of Eddie Jones, who is very quietly having a terrific senior season. Those two just couldn't be blocked.

Meanwhile, Sam Acho, Kheeston Randall, Tyrell Higgins, Alex Okafor and the rest of the line just whipped Tech all night, unless limiting a team to -0.8 yards per rushing attempt isn't whipping. In my mind it most certainly is.

Everything about the play of this unit was tremendous.

Grade: A+

Linebackers -This group had a very quiet tremendous game. Coming in the key for the Tech offense was finding a way to get Baron Batch and Eric Stephens going in the run/screen game and on this night they combined for 56 total yards of offense - 44 rushing and 12 receiving.

So much of the defense's ability to limit those two hinged on the strong play of Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho and they came through with flying colors. Their ability to play sound, assignment-based football against the run and pass was a critical piece of this game that few will focus on.

Grade: A

Secondary -The Longhorn secondary was good enough to create a quarterback controversy for the Red Raiders this week, as they got their revenge on two years' worth of Texas Tech passing game torture with a damn-near masterpiece. Aaron Williams and Curtis Brown were both sensational at cornerback and outside of his one-per-game breakdown that led to a touchdown, Chykie Brown wasn't far behind. All three suffocated Tech receivers for 60 minutes.

Perhaps more important than the fact that the corners were great, the safety play in this game was incredible. Junior Blake Gideon had one of the best games of his career and although he will lose some battles with bigger running backs, he's creating a reputation as a big-hit hunter and he's sending a message each week that if you catch something in the middle of the field - you're going to pay for it. He was a total difference maker against Tech. Meanwhile, Christian Scott was light years better this week than he's been in the first two games and for the first time this season, he spread his wings a little in this game in getting downhill in the running game. That forced fumble that he caused should have been a big play for the defense because it was on the ground for the taking. Throw in the solid work by Kenny Vaccaro in the nickel defense and this was a tremendous week for the secondary.

Grade: A+

Defensive game plan -There was nothing fancy about this one because this game was won in August. This group's level of execution is so much higher than just about any unit on either side of the ball we've seen anywhere in the country this year. The Texas players were all over the Tech offense tonight in a way that border-lined on humiliating. They had every angle covered and by the end of the night, Tech tapped out because they knew that something bad was going to happen if they kept taking on this defense. In allowing only seven points all night and none in the second half, the Longhorns forced Tech into their worst offensive game in a generation of football.

Grade: A+

Special teams -Give Justin Tucker a game ball because his work on field goals, extra points, punting and kickoffs were critical to this victory. Three of his five punts were downed inside the 20-yard line, which allowed the team to control field position throughout much of the game.

Also, the coverage units were sensational tonight against a Tech return unit that features one of the best return men in the Big 12 in Eric Stephens and they gave him nothing all night and punished him for trying.

The return game was nothing special in return and the running into the kicker penalty by Vaccaro simply can't happen in a tied game when your team is desperate for some positive momentum. That being said, this group executed exceptionally well down the stretch of the game and the fake punt conversion helped send the Longhorns on the game-clinching drive.

Grade: B+

Overall -The defense was great, the special teams were very good and the offense was very uneven. We probably shouldn't be surprised, but that's what we got from the Longhorns on Saturday and that might be the recipe from this team all season. It might lead to a lot of wins in the process. The issue is whether it leads to 10, 11 or 12.

This team isn't ready to win the Big 12 today, but it doesn't have to be. It needed to be good enough to be 3-0 and they most certainly are that, and the truth of the matter is that they should have blown this Tech team away.

The issue this team is really battling is the slop and that extends over the defense as well, as they've allowed too many drives to extend because of bad penalties. So much of the stuff aching this team is preparation-based. Suddenly, the Longhorns are two weeks away from their judgment day and they have a long way to go, but the good news is that so does Oklahoma.

Both teams are still searching for answers in some areas. In two weeks, someone will take control of the Big 12 South. Texas has a lot of work to do.

In the meantime, this team overcame a ton of self-created adversity and they found a way to make a Tommy Tuberville team tap out at home. It was a 10-point win in a place that doesn't give away many of those. Ask Oklahoma. Ask Nebraska.

Grade: B

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