An argument can be made that Texas' otherwise outstanding 2008 campaign can be divided between the way the team played in games prior to halftime of the Missouri game and the way it has performed since then. Some Horn fans fear their team might have peaked with its 35-3 lead at intermission against the Tigers. UT hasn't looked quite the same since, some insist.
The caliber of opponent has something to do with it. The Horns beat the stuffing out of the lesser-lights that filled out its non-conference slate. The team almost always saves its best for Oklahoma and, this year, rode the wave of its Cotton Bowl triumph to a lightning-fast start against visiting Missouri. Since then, Texas was outscored 28-21 in the final 30 minutes against the Tigers, survived Oklahoma State 28-24, lost control of its destiny with a 39-33 heart-breaker in Lubbock and looked rather nondescript in dispatching Baylor, 45-21.
"Coach (Will) Muschamp tells us every game to get a full 60 minutes in," WLB Roddrick Muckelroy told Inside Texas, "but we still haven't put a full 60 minutes in. We have errors here and there, but we're capable of putting together a full, 60-minute game. I'm excited to put one together. I feel like we can put one together this week."
This week would suit Horn fans just fine, given the fact that bowl-bound Kansas (which can still win the Big 12 North with a couple of upsets) represents the last road game of the regular season for Texas.
Whether it's the level of execution or level of energy, whether the team is increasingly uptight given the significance of its post-season possibilities or if the team is simply exhausted following the most grueling stretch in program history, it can be argued that Texas is not performing as soundly or as optimally as it did prior to halftime against Missouri.
"We've played with a great effort all year," Muschamp said. "We've played with emotion. We haven't always played as well as we would have wanted to play but, in a year of transition and with new terminology, the kids have bought in to what we're doing. We've faced some outstanding offenses this year and our guys have taken some positive steps. It's not what we want. It's not where we want to be. We're not satisfied, but our kids have competed and have played hard. They play with passion. I've told them from the beginning: the effort is from them, the execution is on me. As long as they give us good effort, it gives us a chance to win games. We've played 10, and we've had an opportunity to win all ten."
There's no consoling Muschamp for the last-second loss in Lubbock. "I still feel like we let one slip away," he said this week. Head coach Mack Brown was so convinced his team got shoved around at Texas Tech that, last week, he announced tougher, more physical practices with emphases on fundamentals and attention to detail. In other words, there was no rest for the weary as Brown sought to restore the level of play that punctuated his team's grip on the top spot during most of October. Brown, and several of his players, believe that Texas' dominating performance on both sides of the ball in the first half against Missouri is the best the team has played in recent memory. Now, they want to double-up that type of outing and extend to a full 60 minutes.
"We have yet to play a full, 60-minute game", MLB Rashad Bobino told Inside Texas. "That game will come soon. We're still trying to get it. When we get that 60-minute game, it's going to be a pretty picture."
Texas' pass defense remains u-g-l-y, yielding 266.9 yards per game (NCAA No. 109). Yet, the unit is encouraged that it limited Baylor to 71 yards passing on freshman QB Robert Griffin's 6-of-20 afternoon. The Horns lead the league in rushing defense (86.0 ypg., NCAA No. 6) and scoring defense (20.7 ppg, No. 37 nationally). It underscores the fact that Texas' secondary is littered with youth, listing six freshmen and two sophomores on its three-deep chart. As such, the breakdowns are glaring while improvement has been gradual and not as detectable. A prime example is the way the young pups have learned to adjust on the fly, Muschamp believes.
"Our kids have been able to switch gears from what we've done in the first half (of games) and being able to adjust," Muschamp said. "We've certainly been able to handle more on the back end. Those kids have been more adept at being able to make changes in mid-quarter, making adjustments and going on to something else."
Coaches are loathe to use injuries as an excuse, either for a loss or substandard play. Yet, the Horns have been without key frontline players during one, or both, of the past two games, including DE Brian Orakpo, DT Lamarr Houston, LCB Chykie Brown, MLB Jared Norton, WR Quan Cosby and LT Adam Ulatoski. RB Chris Ogbonnaya and RCB Ryan Palmer have played through nagging ankle injuries and, of course, TE Blaine Irby was lost for the season against Rice.
Offensively, it has translated into dropped footballs and busted blocking assignments. As such, Colt McCoy has taken a licking the past few weeks and, for the first time this season, looks as physically beat down as he did throughout the roller coaster 2007 campaign. The blame has been disproportionately placed on the offensive line because most of McCoy's hits can be attributed to a missed assigned by either a TE or a RB.
"We've had some technical areas that have created some hits (on McCoy)," offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. "A big part of coaching is asking your kids to do only what they can do."
A broader perspective may be in order: the Horns are following a script typical of the stretch-drive of recent seasons. Texas is always in a dogfight with Oklahoma State, Texas has gone 3-3 in Lubbock during the Mack Brown era and Texas has not played particularly well against Baylor since Vince Young hung up his collegiate cleats. What's more, the Horns have played poorly against Texas A&M for three straight years and have had to rally from double-digit deficits during each of its past two trips to Kansas.
That's why McCoy ("I'm sick of these 10-win seasons") and company are determined that the team finish stronger than it has the past couple of years. It's also why Muschamp does not bracket individual games, or even stretches of games, as more critical than others.
"When you start emphasizing one more than the others," Muschamp said, "the players start to notice. They start to think that ol' coach is tight. You can't have that happen. Each game counts for one, and we're going to play the next week regardless of what happens. Let's get this one and move to the next week."
'This one', of course, is Kansas. It's also Texas' next chance to show the best is yet to come.