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December 6, 2009

The grades are in - Nebraska report card

"Only the strong survive. But even the strong get their ass kicked sometimes." Those words came from the mouth of Alabama head coach Nick Saban just a week ago when his Alabama Crimson Tide escaped with a narrow win over arch-rival Auburn, but they could have just as easily come from the lips of Texas head coach Mack Brown following Saturday's harrowing 13-12 win over Nebraska that not only gave Brown his second Big 12 title in the last five seasons, but also sent the Longhorns into the national championship game against … Saban's Crimson Tide. No, it wasn't pretty, but it wasn't disastrous, either. Click here for the gory details in our position-by-position review of the game..

Grading scale

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

Quarterback - This wasn't a repeat of the Oklahoma game. Yes, Colt McCoy threw three interceptions. Yes, the offense mustered only a single touchdown in 60 minutes of action. Yes, it looked like he lost his mind in the final 20 seconds of the game. And yes, he probably lost the Heisman Trophy after posting his second substandard game against the two toughest defensive teams on the Texas schedule. Yes, yes, yes and yes. Believe me, I get it. Wait for it … wait for it … BUT … McCoy gets a fairly decent grade from me in this game and you can chalk it up to me taking classes at the Tim Tebow School of Willing His Team to Victory. McCoy was beaten to a pulp by a Nebraska defense that had 11 different guys sporting that Charles Jefferson look in their eyes, but when push came to shove, he rolled with the punches and put his team in a position to win the game with that last-minute drive. Outside of his second interception of the first quarter, McCoy really didn't make a lot of mistakes in this game and he had some moments of success in completing 20 of 36 passes for 184 yards. Hell, just surviving was an accomplishment, but when you consider that he never committed a back-breaking mistake with a fumble on any of those sacks, I'll give him a mini-game ball. He didn't provide an all-American or all-Big 12 performance on this night, but Texas couldn't have won it without him.

Grade: C+

Running backs - Redshirt freshman Tre' Newton ran hard, but he never had a chance in this game. The Longhorns gave the former Southlake Carroll star 19 rushing attempts, but holes were hard to come by and his 36 yards on the ground served as a perfect symbol for what this part of the offense cannot repeat moving forward if there's national championship to be won. Newton also added five receptions for 43 yards (two for first downs) as a receiver and finished with a game-high 77 yards of offense. As bad as things were for the running backs in this one, Newton emerged as the most productive offensive player in the game. Still, the bottom line is that you have to get more out of this position than two yards per carry and zero touchdowns. I did give special consideration to this group's ball security and that helps them stay out of the Ds.

Grade: C-

Wide receivers - This group has performed at an all-star level the last two games, but some of the guys in this group really didn't bring their best stuff to the table against the Huskers and it nearly played a huge role in an upset. Before we get into the disappointing stuff, let's throw out a big kudos to Jordan Shipley, who wasn't at 100 percent and never broke loose against a Nebraska defense that was hell-bent on marginalizing him, but when this team needed him to make a play, he provided a 19-yard reception (that turned into a 34-yard gain) to set up the game-winning field goal. Those seven receptions for 71 yards were solid when you take into everything into consideration. Sophomore Malcolm Williams also continued to emerge as a strong No. 2 for McCoy as he caught three big passes for 52 yards, while also drawing a pass interference penalty. In fact, this group's top contribution outside of Shipley's big late-game catch was three pass interference penalties that they were able to draw. Now it's time to get down into some of the dirty laundry. Junior James Kirkendoll did not have a good game. Without pounding on him, there were just too many plays that he didn't finish and he played too many snaps in the game to find himself shut out at the end of it. Also, junior Dan Buckner caught the three passes and drew a huge PI that set up the only touchdown of the game, but it was the plays that he didn't make that really stood out. He simply must do a better job of protecting his quarterback and not allowing the other team to take the ball from him in traffic. The overall numbers for the position - 15 receptions for 141 yards - are not good enough.

Grade: D

Tight ends

There have been games this season when Greg Smith has made a pretty significant contribution in the offense as a blocker on the end of the line, but that wasn't really the case on Saturday night. He had a few nice seal-blocks, but it's hard to give the position a high grade when there's not any productivity to speak of, whether it's as a receiver or in the overall picture of the team's rushing attack.

Grade: D

Offensive line - True story. I was driving back from the game on Sunday morning and while cruising down I-35 through West I saw a dead raccoon on the side of the road. As I drove by, I actually wondered to myself who had the worse day - the raccoon or the Texas line? I finally decided that the raccoon had in fact been a little worse off in terms of collateral damage, but the victory wasn't one-sided. It was just that kind of a day for the guys up-front for the Longhorns. The Huskers did everything but take a steel chair to the face of the UT offensive linemen and it is what it is - an absolute disaster. One of the keys in this game was the trio of Charlie Tanner, Chris Hall and Michael Huey (or David Snow) being able to block the interior linemen from Nebraska with a 3-on-2 advantage. They didn't come within 100 miles of accomplishing that mission and they might have turned Ndamukong Suh into a Heisman winner in the way they Texas defense turned Rashaan Salaam into one back in 1994. Even senior Adam Ulatoski struggled more than I expected. If there was one positive on a day full of negatives, it was that right tackle Kyle Hix played pretty well at times and had fewer negatives than anyone else.

Grade: F-

Offensive game plan - I'm not sure that whatever game plan Greg Davis had on the books for Saturday ever got off the ground. Davis mentioned earlier in the week that Nebraska was a very low-percentage blitz team, but the Huskers showed more pressure fronts than they probably have at any point this season and the Longhorns never adjusted well to them. That's not to say that the Huskers blitzed every down because they didn't need to with a front four that dominated to such extremes. There were times when the Huskers seemed to dare the Longhorns to run the football, but Davis and Co. just couldn't get the genie to come out of the bottle. Davis tried a little bit of everything in terms of personnel groupings, but it was a guessing game and the problems with the line really made it hard for the offense to get into any kind of rhythm. In retrospect, he really needed to find a way to get the ball to Williams more in the screen- and short-passing games. He was the only real game-breaker on the field and he touched the ball three times. When they went to him, good things happened. The bottom line is that Davis' job is to have his offense ready to perform at a championship level and that didn't come close to happening this week - not on the field and not in the booth.

Grade: F

Defensive line - The Longhorns figured to have a dominant advantage up-front against the Nebraska offensive line coming into the game and that's exactly what transpired, as the front four absolutely whipped the Huskers in every fashion. The star of the night for the defense might have been junior defensive end Sam Acho, who had a team-best 10 tackles and a sack. When Acho wasn't making life miserable for the Huskers, fellow defensive end Sergio Kindle (four tackles and a tackle for loss) was. Both ends really brought their A-game and provided sideline-to-sideline pressure. Meanwhile, the interior play of Lamarr Houston, Kheeston Randall and Ben Alexander was as good as it has been all season. When you look at Husker offense's inability to get anything going all night, it begins and ends with this group.

Grade: A+

Linebackers - The last two games prior to the Big 12 Championship, this position had not performed at the level they had established earlier this season. That two-game trend stopped in a big way on Saturday night because Roddrick Muckelroy, Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho brought the thunder for 60 minutes. Robinson struggled at the point of attack against Texas A&M, but he did all of the physical stuff that was required against the Huskers and then some. Time and time again, he stepped up into a hole, took on a block and stuffed the run. It was exactly the kind of performance he needed to capable of having. Muckelroy also picked up his performance level, finishing with six tackles, a tackle for loss and a huge first-half interception. This group needed to win a physical brand of football, while contributing some big plays and they came through big. When this group is as active as they were on Saturday night, the defense is nearly impossible to break.

Grade: A+

Secondary - Aaron Williams, Earl Thomas, Blake Gideon, Earl Thomas, Chykie Brown, Nolan Brewster and Deon Beasley can all take a bow. Nebraska quarterback Zac Lee completed six passes all night for 39 yards and two of those receptions gained more than six yards. With the three interceptions and countless airtight pressure, the defensive backs provided about as dominant of a performance as a secondary can provide.

Grade: A+

Defensive game plan - The thing that you had to absolutely love about Will Muschamp's game-plan on Saturday night was its simplicity at times. There was nothing tricky about it. When the Huskers attempted to play power football with the running game, he stuffed the box and his guys won at the line of scrimmage. When the Huskers tried to spread the field, Muschamp mostly rushed four, while playing a lot of mixed coverages in the back seven - all combining to suffocate the Huskers' passing game. As dominant as the defense was, they didn't do anything they hadn't done all season. Muschamp won this game with his defense over the course of the last five months, not in the 60 minutes that were on the game clock. They played incredibly disciplined, hard-nose, swarming defense for 60 minutes. It was as dominant as any defensive performance in Big 12 title game history.

Grade: A+

Special teams - Hunter Lawrence for governor? I think he has a strong constituency after last night. The senior from Boerne created a chapter of Longhorn lore for himself with his game-winning 46-yard field goal as time expired, but let's not forget the snap from Smith, the hold from Shipley or the blocking up-front. All four of those pieces of the puzzle had to come together in order for that kick to go through the goal posts (and deep down who wasn't expecting Suh to block that kick?). The special teams get an A+ for that.

The rest of the special teams were hit or miss. The Longhorns pinned four of nine punts inside the Nebraska 20-yard line and that was a vital for field position, but the coverage units allowed returns of 42 and 43 yards. On top of that, there was the blocked punt and the Marquise Goodwin misplay that was a massive game-changer in the fourth quarter. Oh yeah, the Longhorns got nothing in the return game. When you think about it, there was clearly a lot more miss than hit, which is ironic because a million misses didn't outweigh the one make at the end.


Grade: C

Overall - Let's end where we started. "Only the strong survive. But even the strong get their ass kicked sometimes." Saban knew what he was talking about and even if his own team loomed as this dominant monster on the same day, they took an ass-kicking eight days prior. All that matters is that the Longhorns won. Period. The offense was a mess and the special teams were messy, but McCoy was money and schizophrenic at the same maddening time when it mattered. Lawrence was there when it mattered. The entire team came through at various times… even the offensive line, which is why a 13-12 win turned into a total team win. The souls of 12 other wins created a heavy burden, but the Longhorns were able to release that pressure in victory. Now they have five weeks to take a breath, heal up and rebuild some of the Humpty Dumpty parts of the team that need to be rebuilt. Mack Brown will find a way to turn what happened on Saturday into a positive and he'll get this team dialed in for the biggest game of their lives. All that was needed was a win and a win is what they got.

Grade: A


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