This week we continue (after a brief hiatus since Our Daily Bears was too busy practicing fly patterns to answer our questions) our Staring Down The Musket... series with a look at the Texas Longhorns. WVU certainly has a stern test in front of them this week as they go on the road for the first time in the Big XII to play in front of what is expected to be the largest crowd to ever see a Mountaineer team play. To help us break down the matchup, Jason Chilton of the Texas blog Barking Carnival stepped up to answer some questions about the Longhorns. Make sure to stop by Barking Carnival (and the other Texas blog, Burnt Orange Nation, who will be featuring a more informal Q&A with me and Peter Bean later on) for more on the Longhorns.
Country Roads: This is the third year in a row the Longhorns have started hot out of the gate. But in 2010 and 2011, the team stumbled in the second half and finished the season on a disappointing note. Is this the year that Texas football is officially "back"? What are some aspects that make you hopeful for a Big XII championship? What areas of concern do you have that might hold the team back from reaching that goal?
Jason Chilton: Expectations have done a near-complete 180 in terms of the demonstrated strengths of this Texas team and the way it's winning games. On offense, we thought we'd be seeing a strong-to-quite-strong run game and a passing attack that could hopefully pick up a few third downs and generally proceed in fits and starts. On defense, we were looking forward to a rock-ribbed unit full of athletes who could fly around and generally make life hell on all manner of spread offenses.
What we've gotten on offense has been a run game that's pretty close to expectations, but a passing attack that is far more precise, efficient and lethal than anyone could have hoped for four games in. What we've gotten on defense has looked like a rock-headed unit full of athletes who fly around in essentially random directions - at times our guys have tackled like they're wearing straitjackets, and some folks are ready to fit our DC with one of his own.
Our best reason for optimism on the Big XII Title front is, to put it simply, David Ash. His growth and command of the offense have been tremendous and a real joy for Texas fans to watch. (Well, for SOME Texas fans to watch - others are too consumed with the fact that we haven't gotten to 4-0 in quite the MANNER they expected, so they've taken no joy from anything for the entire month). The way the offense is functioning as an integrated whole is very important, but going into the season taking the Big XII Title was a stretch goal and Ash's performance has stretched the farthest.
The biggest area of concern right now has to be the defense. Probably 70% of the problems we've seen on the unit to date are fixable with some adjustments in scheme, assignments and one or two personnel changes. Whether they'll be fixed IN TIME with two tough opponents back to back is entirely open for question.
CR: Last year, David Ash split time with Case McCoy and finished the year passing for 1079 yards with 4 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. So far this year, he has led the team to a 4-0 start to the tune of 1007 yards, 10 touchdowns and only one interception plus a critical game winning drive (including a HUGE fourth down conversion on a well-thrown crossing route). What's the biggest reason for Ash's improvement? Who are his main weapons in the passing game that WVU fans need to be wary of on Saturday?
JC: When someone steps out as far in front of their projected growth curve as Ash has this season (the last two games in particular), it's hard to attribute that kind of leap to a single thing. In order, I'd say the biggest factors in his degree of improvement are:
1) His situation last year was baaaaaad. He was supposed to be a change of pace/Wildcat-type guy going into the season, and Garrett Gilbert's BYU meltdown thrust him into the starting role way ahead of schedule and with a pittance of practice reps under his belt. He had some up-and-down moments as you'd expect from any freshman, but really hit a wall from the Mizzou game onward once the entire run game was derailed by injury. He found himself behind an OL that was still just starting to dig out of a deep hole caused by years of neglect and outright incompetence by the prior offensive regime. He had no run game to lean on, no TEs of any use whatsoever, one dinged freshman receiver (Jaxon Shipley) and a soph whose head was nowhere near the game all season (Mike Davis).
2) The kid's got real talent. A lot of it was hidden last season due to the factors in #1, but we saw some glimpses in the Holiday Bowl and it's really coming to the fore now. He started the season doing the little things very well, from executing play fakes to checking into good plays to hitting guys in stride on swings and screens so they could get every available yard. He started hitting some intermediate stuff with regularity, and in the last two games his deep ball velocity and touch have been on full display. He can add a bit with his legs, but thusfar defenses have been overplaying the run and he's made them pay through the air at every level of the field.
3) Brian Harsin is a QB's best friend. His work with Ash in the offseason to refine his technique and rekindle his confidence was key, and his offense forces the D to account for a ton while keeping them off-balance, punishing teams that sell out on the pass rush and providing plenty of one-on-one opportunities for Ash's weapons to thrive.
4) His guys are making plays for him. Whether it's Mike Davis fighting for contested balls for the first time in his career or Daje Johnson housing swing passes or DJ Grant hanging onto a clutch dart on 4th and 6, the playmakers on UT's offense are making it happen when Ash tees them up. We spent 2004 and 2005 watching Vince Young singlehandedly disembowel defenses. We spent the majority of 2006-2009 watching Colt McCoy hit shoebox-sized passing windows. And we spent 2010 and a lot of 2011 watching a shell of an offense that had been rotted out thanks to previous offensive staff basically retiring on the job after the '05 title. It was easy to forget that sometimes an offense has non-QB playmakers who can win contested balls and get something extra through individual effort, but this season has been a happy reminder on that score.
CR: Jackson Jeffcoat. Alex Okafor. Carrington Byndom. Kenny Vaccaro. 576 yards of total offense and 36 points from an Oklahoma State offense led by a backup quarterback. Texas' defense was billed to be the conference's best (and may very well still be) appeared to show some cracks in Stillwater. Heck, even Ole Miss scored 31. Obviously you heard about the fireworks display Geno Smith and company put on against Baylor. Any reason for concern about stopping the Mountaineers' offense? What do you think is a reasonable point total that Texas can realistically hope to hold WVU to?
JC: There's a ton of concern throughout Longhorn-land about keeping Geno and company from going off at DKR, and a tremendous amount of frustration at the disparity between the defense's pre-season expectations and sub-par performance to date. Since I've got an affinity for making lists, here's a look at the biggest problems our defense has faced to date:
1) Calls and confusion - A lot of the defense, and most especially the linebackers, have been playing like their heads are in a fog so far this season. It seems like our schemes and playcalls are putting an enormous amount of complexity on our plates, and sometimes the calls themselves have bordered on self-defeating. The contrast in performance against OSU when we'd stunt/game our DTs and LBs versus when we'd play things straight up was absolutely startling.
2) Player processing - Even accounting for some confusion, a few players just haven't taken it upon themselves to get their assignments squared away. A couple of LBs and a safety in particular have really been a day late and a dollar short, and it's put them and the rest of the defense in some really bad positions.
3) Tackling, tackling, tackling. A good bit of our tackling miscues have happened when guys are a step slow or a step late due to the issues above, but we've also had far too many straight-up busts when our guys have had a ballcarrier dead to rights. Much has been made of Mack's refusal to let the defense tackle in scrimmage work - even during the two-week layoff after Ole Miss - and while that's likely a contributing factor guys have to start doing what they've learned since Pop Warner.
As to Saturday:
In theory, a spread-out and pass-first attack is just the kind of thing that Diaz' defense has been designed and schooled to combat. We've got 3 or 4 DE's and 3 or 4 DT's who can theoretically beat up single blocking and apply quick pressure, along with the heft and quickness to combat the run in nickel/dime looks. We'd have told you in the preseason that with a terrific pair of corners, two fast-as-lightning outside ‘backers and do-it-all eraser in Kenny Vaccaro that we'd match or exceed the challenges that 2011 LSU posed for Geno and company.
Right now, the DL is performing pretty well but our best LB is hurt and the other two have spent most of the time looking lost. We may go with 1 or 2 LBs at most in this one, but their inability to process can really slow down our DE rush if they're also having to worry about contain on sweep action to Tavon Austin and the like. The corner play has been up and down, and there's no real option for us but to put a couple of pretty green guys back deep at safety and hope they're up to the challenge.
Even on the high side of realistic improvement, I'd set my sights on 30 points as a best-case scenario for our defense in this one (net of any really short fields or scores set up by your special teams or defense). I think 40 or better gives us a solid chance to win. Anything beyond that, and in the words of Samuel L. Jackson in Jurassic Park, "Hold on to your butts."
CR: There are a number of WVU fans making the trek to Austin for the very first time to experience the Big XII up close and real personal-like. What can we expect to find from UT fans and Austin residents in general? Any particular restaurants or local watering holes folks should make sure to try out?
JC: In my experience, unless there's some deep-seated antipathy between two fan bases, you can usually expect to be treated well in any city where people are generally happy with their lives. That's more the case in Austin than most places, so I'd expect anybody in WVU gear not going out of their way to find trouble to find a friendly welcome.
In terms of cuisine, you owe it to yourself to get on some good Tex-Mex while you're in town. A few spots worth checking out:
Trudy's (409 West 30th Street ) - Right next to campus - try the Mexican Martini.
Chuy's (1728 Barton Springs Road) - Austin institution.
Curra's (614 E. Oltorf) - Nice patio, great tamales and the one and only Avocado Margarita - it's better than you'd think.
Whether Sunday finds you nursing a celebratory hangover or a disappointed hangover, there's no better place to do it than at Torchy's Tacos. The original is a trailer at 1311 South 1st street, and there's also a campus location at 2801 Guadalupe. You'll want to move to Austin.
In terms of getting out on the town, Austin has a lot of great places to check out. 6th street is of course legendary, but if you're over 23 and have an IQ over 90 you may well have more fun on west 6th or the Warehouse District (4th street). Little Woodrow's, The Dogwood and Kung Fu Saloon are all cool spots on West 6th, and the Warehouse District has some lively beer drinkin' spots (Lavaca St. Bar, The Gingerman) a cool Irish pub (Fado) along with a couple of happening dance spots (Oil Can Harry's, Rain).
CR: The Vegas oddsmakers set the early line at Texas -6.5 but it quickly jumped to -7. Where is your money, and if you're setting the over/under, what's your number?
JC: As a neutral bettor, I wouldn't touch this line as there' so much variability in play. A sufficiently hot Geno Smith can beat even great defense, while Texas' defense still has such a big gap between what I think they're capable of and what they've put out on the field to date. On the flip side, Texas' offense could simply run roughshod over WVU's D all day but it wouldn't take much in the way of mistakes or bad bounces to see us stall a couple of times and potentially be down 14.
As a Texas guy with some substantial pre-season action on Texas to get over 8.5 wins and at +500 to win the Big XII, I've got a pretty significant financial/emotional hedge down on WVU +7 with a shining vision of Texas 40 -WVU 37 giving me the best of all possible worlds.
For a total, let's go with that. 77 points is a lot less than you'll see if both offenses click the way they have and both defenses play down to their worst tendencies to date, but I have a feeling the game unfolds a little differently than that.
Thanks to Jason Chilton for taking the time to answer our questions. If you're making the trip to Austin, check out the places he recommended and make sure to report back to us!