Employment as a defensive coordinator in the Big 12 is a lonely existence. Appreciation and praise follows mostly after an exit – Will Muschamp – than at any time during a tenure. If the opposing team is kept under 40, that’s usually a successful Saturday. If they happen to break the barrier, then there’s always the hope that one facet, pass or rush, can be stopped.
Manny Diaz might as well live on an island in Austin, Texas.
The well-spoken son of a Miami politician and former ESPN production assistant had Longhorn fandom in his charismatic grasp prior to the 2012 season. Whispers he might be in the running to succeed Mack Brown didn’t seem absurd.
Then, the Texas Longhorns defense lined up away from the practice field and akin to ingesting moonshine, no one’s been the same since.
Dana Holgorsen had the quarterback and the ability to test the Longhorn secondary Saturday night in Austin. He could have relied on Heisman frontrunner Geno Smith (25/35, 268 yards, 4 touchdowns) and still walked out of DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium with a defining victory. Holgorsen, like any great offensive mind though, realized a weakness – his opponent’s incessant need to scheme for looks rather than sit in a base defense – and exploited it.
West Virginia Mountaineers running back Andrew Buie (31 carries, 207 yards, 2 touchdowns) marched down the field at ease, when the game was on the line, when everyone in the stadium knew West Virginia wanted to run to burn clock. What’s that they say about insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different response is exactly what Diaz asked of his unit. The defensive ends push up field, the linebackers choose incorrect gaps, Carrington Byndom goes from possible NFL pick to languishing corner.
When 45 points isn’t enough at home, the flaws are magnified and the expectations managed because this team isn’t besting a resurgent Oklahoma Sooners outfit without tangible improvement. They pressured Smith, forced turnovers but the West Virginia quarterback showed mettle and hit his spots – 5/5 on 4th down conversions – when the Big East transfers required them.
The offense isn’t without issue. I didn’t understand the consistent Joe Bergeron (17 carries, 2.6 YPC) touches on 1st and 2nd down with David Ash’s (22/29, 269 yards, 1 touchdown) ascendance. Bryan Harsin should take the kid gloves off the sophomore for good and trust him to find victories. Relying on an oversized runner with little wiggle instead of the signal-caller or Johnathan Gray (14 carries, 6.2 YPC) with the game still in doubt confounds.
Anthony Fera’s missed field goal didn’t help either but I’m having trouble putting the onus on him. On the first possession after halftime, the offense stalled and settled for three points. That can’t happen in a shootout. Then, with all the momentum in the world following a forced fumble at the Mountaineer 12-yard line and trailing by three, two negative plays and miscommunication on the snap took place.
Those are the mistakes that cost wins, conference title contention and provoke statistics like Texas losing their last eight games to ranked AP foes.
The program can soothe some of that missed opportunity by prevailing in Dallas. For Manny Diaz especially, a strong performance quiets those wondering whether his short BCS coordinator resume (one year at Mississippi State and halfway into his second season at Texas) is catching up to him.
Eyes on the Big 12 crown might have been focused a year early but expectations are fluid labels. Once the victory bug bites, no one is content with a return to mediocrity.
As a member of a political family, Diaz may understand that better than anyone. His race reaches a tipping point this weekend.