A - All-American level
B - All-Conference level
C - Average
D - Below average
F - Complete failure
Quarterback - Let's just be honest. Garrett Gilbert needed a game like this. He needed a game where things just seem to go well and even when they don't, it's not a big deal because of so much having gone right, previously. Yes, Florida Atlantic is Florida Atlantic (and by that I mean a shade away from being completely terrible), but there's no question that Gilbert did a lot of impressive things and if he'd possessed a little more luck (one touchdown bobbled/ruled no catch and another pass completion brought down at the one-yard line), he probably enjoys his first four-touchdown performance of his career. As it was, he finished 15 of 21 for 263 yards and a pair of touchdown strikes, while also adding 60 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
More than the strong numbers, Gilbert made plays. He didn't miss James Kirkendoll today. Instead, he hit him in stride for a touchdown that really changed the tone of the game. He didn't make a lot of mistakes. Instead, he calmly made correct decision after correct decision, wisely choosing to take yards and first downs with his feet on plays when there weren't plays with his arm available. Of course, he wasn't perfect and those two fumbles (one of which was lost) are a reminder that ball security must forever be stressed. But, this was a good step forward for him. With a bowl game on the line, he was reminded on Saturday that he can play a little football and play it really well.
Running backs -Junior Cody Johnson is not a perfect starting running back option by anyone's design, but you have to give the kid a ton of credit because effort is never going to be a question and on a day when he was given the responsibility of carrying the entire load of the running game, he responded with perhaps the best performance of his career. In rushing for 124 yards on 28 carries, Johnson helped the Longhorns control down and distance throughout the game. While the big, explosive runs were not found in abundance, Johnson constantly grinded away at the defense, bludgeoning defenders when they weren't ready for contact.
While Johnson was the team's thunder, D.J. Monroe (hello!) dusted himself off, came off the bench and averaged seven yards per carry on six rushes to give the team a little greased chicken-action. Even Ryan Roberson came in for the final offensive series and churned out 23 yards and a score. All told, the position accounted for 190 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 38 carries (5.0 ypc), while also providing some nice protection for Gilbert at times in the pocket.
On a day when the depth was stripped down to the bone, Johnson and Co. played fumble-free football and productive football.
Wide receivers -This is a position that has taken some poundings this season, but they showed up ready to plat on Saturday. Kirkendoll turned in four receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown. John Chiles led the team with five receptions for 65 yards, with four of the five catches producing first downs. Even Malcolm Williams went up and made perhaps the play of the year with his 47-yard Hail Mary catch of a Gilbert pass to end the first half. Really and truly, this was a bunch that made the most of its opportunities on Saturday, with the exception of Marquise Goodwin's bobbled overturned touchdown in the second half. They group finished the day with 14 receptions for 250 yards and two score, while limiting their negative plays to a few.
Tight ends- I've long been a proponent of Dominique Jones as a tight end (going back to high school) and as the season starts to wind down, it appears that the Longhorns might have a little something cooking at the position long-term with the former Kilgore star. Although he's still learning the trade, Jones played well at the point of attack against the Owls, while also adding a 13-yard reception. In a year when the other pieces of the puzzle have remained mostly puzzled, he's emerged as a bright spot and a ray of sunshine down the road in 2011.
Offensive line -The Longhorns have an interesting dynamic occurring with the offensive line. As bad as things have been this season, this is another group that has some really positive things happening down the stretch, although it has to be completely taken in context of a 5-6 season through 11 games. Through a series of circumstances that might end up benefitting this team in the long-run, the Longhorns were forced to play again on Saturday with a line-up up-front that included Paden Kelley at left tackle, Trey Hopkins at guard, David Snow at center, Mason Walters at guard and Britt Mitchell at right tackle. For those counting at home, that's redshirt freshman, true freshman, junior, redshirt freshman and senior. Oh yeah, mix in a lot of redshirt freshman Garrett Porter as well as the top reserve at guard.
Regardless of the why, the Longhorns have been forced into a position of playing the kiddie cadets down the stretch and for the second straight week they responded pretty damn well. The pass protection was ridiculously good at times and their performance was a big reason for Gilbert enjoying the success that they did. The group might be extremely young, but all of the 2011 returning pieces give reason for real hope.
The only thing this group didn't do was consistently move and control the line of scrimmage in the running game, but that leads to the bigger message about this group - they need to get much stronger. Kelley, Hopkins, Walters, Porter and the rest need to live in the weight room this off-season like no Texas offensive line has lived in the weight room in an off-season. That's what this group is missing and it's not going to be developed in three days.
Offensive game plan - You could tell that the Longhorns were prepared for a four-quarter, close affair because they came out very conservative on offense, running the ball on 18 of the first 19 offensive snaps, which left the Longhorns plodding their way to a 7-0 lead. It wasn't until the Longhorns opened things up with play-action and started to take some shots down the field that things really began to open up. The 63-yard bomb from Gilbert to Kirkendoll changed the complexion of the game and seemed to lift the pressure off of the entire unit. From that moment on, the Longhorns remained diverse on offense, mixing in the run and pass well, while accumulating the kind of points and yardage totals that are standard around these parts. Outside of not getting Case McCoy some real work with nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter, there wasn't a ton to complain about on this afternoon.
Defensive line -When this group is playing well, the Longhorns can play some nasty defense. When they aren't, this group can be had in a big way. On Saturday, the Texas defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage in a way we haven't seen a lot of this season and it helped lead to a decisive victory, Senior Sam Acho was out-of-this-world good with six tackles, three sacks, four tackles for loss, a forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and four other quarterback pressures. That's National player of the Week stuff right there. The rest of the line was solid, but Acho was the difference in every way. Whether it was a coincidence or not, the return of Jackson Jeffcoat to the line-up seemed to add an extra dimension to the pass-rush and the group did a nice job all the way around in limiting FAU to 2.5 yards per carry.
The interior guys played well at the point of attack and Ashton Dorsey showed some flash inside in small doses that we hadn't seen much of through the first 10 games of the season.
Linebackers -It's pretty obvious that Emmanuel Acho is not 100% right now and if you saw him Fred Sanford his way down the sideline on his pick-six, you'd know that the entire Texas fan base should step up and tip their cap to the junior from Dallas because he's battling down the stretch to the least. The fact that he finished with six tackles and played a solid overall brand of football was important for the team. The same is true with Keenan Robinson (five tackles and a forced fumble) and Dustin Earnest (team-best nine tackles). You know how you can tell these guys played well? Texas' starting safeties each had two tackles.
Overall, this was the best group performance from this group in a month.
Secondary - The good news is that Carrington Byndom can play some football and the loss of Curtis Brown early in the game did not hurt this team at all. When looking into the future, his presence in the secondary is a definite bonus. Also, Blake Gideon's first quarter touchdown directly led to seven points and was the second-most important play of the game outside of the Gilbert touchdown pass to Kirkendoll.
The bad news is that the Longhorns once again allowed too many big plays in this game and there's no getting around that allowing 20 yards per completion against Florida Atlantic just isn't good enough. Florida Atlantic tight end Rob Housler beat Kenny Vaccaro and Aaron Williams for touchdowns, while Williams was also beaten down the field for a 49-yard catch that led to the touchdown he eventually allowed to Housler. To the junior All-American's credit, he came back with several pass deflections.
Overall, they limited FAU to 11 of 26 completions, but they have to tighten up or the Aggies will grill them on Thanksgiving.
Defensive game plan -It didn't look like the Longhorns did a lot outside of their norm. The difference this week is that the front seven, especially the Acho brothers, responded in a big way, which led to a big-play pass rush and stout defense of the run. More than a flashy game-plan, Will Muschamp simply had a group that was ready to play and executed the details of their trade in a fashion that has been missing for most of the season. Big plays in the passing game aside, they tackled better and made fewer mental errors across the board, while forcing a pair of turnovers and nearly two others.
Special teams - It was pretty much a push, although the Longhorns did block a field goal and got their hands on a couple of other punts, one that ended up resulting in a net of 53 yards. Neither team had much of a return game and it seems pretty clear that freshman Adrian Phillips doesn't have the green light on punt returns. FAU punter Mickey Groody might have been the best player on the field, as he bested Justin Tucker in the punting game with an average of 51.2 yards on six kicks. Of course, Tucker wasn't going to be completely outdone on his own field, so the team's MVP kicked three field goals and added three touchbacks. The kickoff coverage remains major area of concern and the coaches can't seem to decide whether they want to concede 40 yards of field position by kicking short or not. Either way, the ball usually ends up at around the 40-yard line.
Overall -A win is a win is a win, especially in a year when your record stands at 5-6 and a bowl game seems like a slight long-shot. More than anything, this Longhorn team needed a reason to feel good about itself again and Saturday's blowout win allowed for that to happen, in what might be the last possible chance for that to occur. Indeed, the game served as a springboard for hope in 2011 when you consider all of the positives that emerged from young players, especially along the offensive line. Still, it was just a one-day reprieve from what has been a miserable season and now the Longhorns have four more days to determine whether the season ends with a thud or continues on into December. For one night, all was well in Mudville.