I'm going to do that sandwich thing where I alternate positives and negatives. Like you do with children who have confidence issues but also need discipline.
- Our offense did basically everything I expected against ULM's defense. Yes, the two interceptions were killers early, especially the first, but overall they showed an attack that should send shivers up the spines of Big XII defensive coordinators. Baylor finished with 544 yards on 88 plays, the ninth time in a row the team topped 500 yards. Our offense is the most known of known quantities. And it appears we will go as far as they take us.
- Because our defense is an abomination. ULM had 560 yards tonight on 85 plays. They were able to be almost completely balanced, something I never expected to see, and dominated the point of attack through most of the game. Moreover, when we had a chance to make a play, our defenders blew so many tackles that the number isn't even calculable by modern mathematicians. We had linebackers missing tackles in the backfield, safeties being blown by after first getting caught out of place, and at least one play per ULM drive where Phil Bennett called the perfect defense to put his players in position to make a play only for Benny Hill-style hijinks to ensue. Make no mistake, the better offenses in the Big XII like WVU and OU are going to punish us. Cheery news, I know.
- The strength of this team is undoubtedly its receivers. Led by an oustanding game from Tevin Reese (8 catches for 145 yards and 2 TDs) and solid performances from Terrance Williams (4 for 84, 2 TDs) and Lanear Sampson (9 for 93), they were everything we needed them to be. An exceptionally difficult group to plan for and execute against because all three have the ability to beat you on any given play. The crazy part is that Lanear missed several opportunities to turn a merely solid game into a great one by dropping passes, going out of bounds inexplicably, and dropping more passes.
- We've got to figure out our rushing game because it is not what we've come to expect. We averaged 3.5 yards per carry on 47 attempts tonight, an average brought down by Jarred Salubi's abysmal 2.6. At this point I don't know if it was that our OL couldn't handle ULM's run blitzes or our RBs weren't finding the holes. I do know we had at least 2 running plays blown up 4 yards deep in the backfield. That shouldn't happen. If this play breakdown* provided by Baylor is correct, we absolutely could not run up the middle. That's where we should be at our best behind Ivory Wade, Cyril Richardson, and Cameron Kaufhold. Until Glasco Martin's last run, we had nothing up the middle. Nothing. And we went to that well time and time again on first down. *I've never seen this information before. It's amazing.
- Somehow, we managed to continue our streak of games with a positive turnover differential (+1). The last one was a clinic in how turnovers can destroy a team's chances and the final nail in ULM's coffin. As Browning drove the Warhawks into the red zone with Baylor up by only 5 points, a botched snap hit the turf and took with it all reasonable chance ULM had to pull off the upset.
- As proud as I am of nailing our offensive production and what ULM would do on defense, boy was I off the mark about what would happen on the other side of the ball. I said they were one-dimensional and hated running the ball, so they rack up 262 yards rushing on 43 carries, one more than they had passing attempts. Of course, I'd have run at us, too, with a defensive line as poor as ours. If you gave me enough time, I might be able to come up with two or three teams that are worse up front. Altogether, they scored 42 points, 12 more than my predicted output for them. Mea culpa.
- We managed to cut our penalty total almost in half over the first two games and only had one (I think) false start! Put me in the camp that thinks the early PI on Goodson, who didn't have a good game whatsoever, was completely undeserved, and there were multiple penalties that should have been called on ULM but weren't. This started as a positive paragraph in the format but now all I can think about is how many blatant calls the officials just missed, often with an accompanying "explanation" from Rod Gilmore of a rule he completely fabricated. Someone tell Phil Bennett his defenders are allowed to go through receivers to get to the ball. That's something he'd probably like to know.
- That play where Florence pitched to Levi Norwood was positively Brett Favrian. I also have fewer doubts about Florence's raw arm strength than I used to; he just doesn't always make the best decision about the type of throw a particular situation requires. I was very interested to see several tunnel screens make their way back into the playbook as it became clear we needed them. Briles was clearly saving those for conference play.
- I can't say enough about the resilience of an offensive unit that knew about 10 minutes into the game that if the Bears were going to win, it would be in a shootout. Undeterred by the fact that they had basically zero margin for error, the offense responded by throwing up 47 points in the last three quarters of the game. Points are not going to be a problem this year except to the extent that we don't have enough to outscore teams torching our defense like Sherman through Georgia.
- Speaking of the defense, there were flashes-- just flashes-- of what it seems like this team could be. You saw it on Ahmad Dixon's fantastic interception and the sack on fourth down where Gary Mason, Jr. kept contain on the near side and Terrance Lloyd finished him off. The great play in the endzone where Joe Williams broke up a touchdown pass was another. We had numerous opportunities with a player in the right spot who just couldn't get it done. Most of those were in the backfield or near the line of scrimmage.
- ULM threw every kind of blitz possible at our offensive line to try to get to Nick Florence, and though they managed to pressure him several times and cause the second interception, they never sacked him. Chalk up another clean sheet in that regard to our young tackles.
- When the going got tough early on, Briles finally heeded our calls to Free Lache in the second quarter! But then we never saw him again. I'm not looking forward to his tweets about that at all. He's got to be frustrated seeing Salubi misfire time and time again while he languishes on the sideline. I know I am.
Overall, I don't really know yet what to think about our defense's performance in this game. Clearly, ULM's offense was better than I gave them credit for. Browning in particular is a really, really good player. He made several throws on the run that were extremely impressive and kept the chains moving even when it looked like the play was over. He also made us pay with his legs as part of ULM's surprising rushing attack. The 2 QB attack ULM used in the second quarter was also very clever and clearly confused our defense. I actually don't know why they didn't keep doing it, to be honest. I was petrified that they might.
That said, we did a lot of things really poorly in this game that are correctable. Our tackling, for example, was an absolute disaster. It wasn't that way in the first two weeks and probably won't be again. That's one thing we can change in practice this week. We've got an extra day to do it after all.
Speaking of that, I wonder how much the short week took a toll on us (they had the same week, I know) in terms of preparation and what kind of effect the home crowd had for ULM. There's probably no easy answer to either of those issues if there is an answer at all, but I do wonder. I also wonder how willing we were to open the playbook defensively knowing that we Big XII offenses coming up. We saw Briles and Montgomery dig a little deeper into the bag when we needed it; perhaps Bennett was just unwilling to do the same thing?
I guess the best news of all is that I really do think we have a good shot at being ranked on Monday at 3-0 with a win in Monroe over the media's latest darling. Of course, I could be wrong and the final margin might be enough to deter voters into giving Tennessee or Virginia Tech another bite at the rankings apple.