Even after scoring only 21 points against the Kansas Jayhawks, the Texas Longhorns are now averaging 41.5 points per game on the season, good for eighth in the country. Included in that number are outbursts of 45 points twice (New Mexico and West Virginia), 56 points (Baylor), and 66 points (Ole Miss).
With the defense conceding 32.8 points overall (100th) and 42.8 points in conference play, there's tremendous pressure on the offense to put up big numbers every week, with little margin for error.
If many have given up hope for the defense -- it is what it is -- there are many who still see upside for the offense, and justifiably so. Another connected deep pass here, an executed block there, a handful more touches for DJ Monroe and Daje Johnson.
Against Kansas, however, the Longhorns were much less efficient than they were the week before against Baylor, when Texas scored touchdowns on eight out of 13 drives, taking out the final effort that was merely intent on killing the rest of the time on the clock in the fourth quarter.
So, what happened?
The killer play
On 2nd and 8 following Daje Johnson's only run of the day, Ash dropped back to pass and ended up having to throw the ball away under pressure. Some of the pressure came from a Kansas defensive end who had used an inside move to beat right tackle Luke Poehlmann, who opted to hold the defender, drawing a flag in the process.
On the next play, Ash sailed a pass over the head of MJ McFarland when the tight end had positioning on his defender, a play that would have picked up most of the yardage for a first down. On third down, Texas conceded the drive by running Jeremy Hills on a draw that might have gone for 18 or more had he done a better job of following his blockers.
The killer play
On the opening play of the drive, Kansas showed a linebacker on the edge pre-snap. Ash dropped back to pass, with the linebacker coming on a blitz that was the responsibility of running back Joe Bergeron to pick up. Bergeron stepped up, then whiffed, and Ash never had a chance to get the ball away.
The next play was the first of the second quarter and Harsin decided to try to pick up a chunk of it on a screen. Instead, Johnathan Gray dropped the pass. Under some pressure that was mostly self-generated on third down, Ash checked down to Hills in the flat, who was dropped immediately for a short gain.
The killer play
On first down, Harsin dialed up a pin-and-pull into the boundary for Bergeron, but instead of following his blockers to the outside, he tried to cut it back up inside, where the pursuit was waiting for him. Instead of a significant gain, Bergeron was limited to a single yard.
A three-step drop and delivery to Jaxon Shipley on a quick out route netted four yards to set up a manageable third down, but Ash stared down Marquise Goodwin on the play and nearly had a pass intercepted by a linebacker reading his eyes and undercutting the route in his zone coverage.
The killer play
After picking up a first down and then striking for seven yards with a Johnathan Gray run, the Longhorns tried to pass and left tackle Donald Hawkins, who missed the Baylor game with an ankle injury sustained against Oklahoma, got beat on an inside move from a blitzing linebacker, got a piece of the opposing player's facemask, then held him as he went by for good measure.
Fifteen yards on the penalty, making it worse than a simple hold.
Another out route to Jaxon Shipley picked up 13 to get into another manageable situation. From a four-wide set, Ash dropped back and opted to check down to Hills short of the first down, only to have the running back drop the pass, which would not have been enough with defenders closing.
In the coordinated ballet that is football, breakdowns in pass protection almost inevitably result in serious, drive-killing consequences, illustrated perfectly by the four drives that followed the initial touchdown scored by the Longhorns.
Mistakes by Joe Bergeron, Luke Poehlmann, and a potentially-still-dinged Donald Hawkins all essentially ended drives before they could even really get started, aided by the missed the missed hole by Bergeron that left yards on the field.
On Monday, both Brown and Harsin noted that Ash has not been relieved of his starting job because of his body of work, but also because some of the mistakes that happened on Saturday were due to circumstances out of his control.
The problem, though, is that as much as other players contributed to the stalled drives, Ash still bears some significant culpability.
The missed throw to McFarland could have given Texas a chance to extend the second drive with a good third-down play, and Ash wasn't able to find any receivers on two other third-down plays that he had a chance of converting.
Without being able to see the receivers downfield, it's impossible to say whether or not Ash missed open receivers on those two throws, but it was clear from watching him that he wasn't comfortable in the pocket. Against Oklahoma, Ash stood tall and took numerous big hits to deliver passes and he looked fine in that respect the next week against Baylor. It may have been his protection consistently breaking down around him, but Ash can do better and needs to do better this week against Texas Tech.
Is it merely Texas regressing to the mean on third down after leading the Big 12 going into the game? Even after the game, the 'Horns are still a percentage point behind Kansas State and even less than that from overtaking Texas Tech in the conference -- the offense has been extraordinary in that respect this season.
For the rest of the offense, the mistakes need to be corrected, especially with the offensive tackles being susceptible to inside moves in pass protection going against blitzers. There's no doubt that the Texas Tech defensive braintrust has watched those exact same plays and may have similar blitzes in the gameplan this coming Saturday.
Good offense is about avoiding negative plays that destroy momentum and get a team behind the chains. For the most part this season, Texas has been excellent in that respect, tied for 12th in the country in sacks allowed and tied for fourth in tackles for loss allowed.
If the Longhorns can get back to what has been the team's norm this season, both in terms of protection and Ash making the necessary plays on third down, Texas should be able to score some points against an improved Texas Tech defense.