In a season where there have been more bad losses than anyone wants to think about, this is the one that is the worst of them all to date. But this one is not only the worst of this season; it's the worst of Charlie Strong's tenure as head coach of the Texas Longhorns.
The timing of this loss to the Iowa State Cyclones, the way Texas lost, and the opponent Texas lost to all combine together to make this the worst loss. It's a loss that is inexcusable and one that the Longhorns absolutely could not afford if they wanted to continue to build off of their two-game winning streak that included a huge win against rival Oklahoma and a much-needed follow-up win against Kansas State.
A loss like this is demoralizing. It's embarrassing. And it can also leave you scratching your head. It's a loss where there were far too many reasons why Texas lost. But a loss like this also exposes Texas for exactly the team that they still are. It exposes the offense for what it is. And it exposes redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard and junor quarterback Tyrone Swoopes for exactly the quarterbacks that they still are. It's alarming. And it shows us all how far this team still has to go before being back at the level that many have been desperate for and starved of for far too long.
The most frustrating part of last night's game, and really the story for Texas, was their inability to score points. Texas went down seven early in the game. And after that, Texas was never able to get anything going. It basically felt like it was over after that first touchdown. But to understand why Texas struggled as much as it did on offense, we need to take a look at exactly what type of offense the Longhorns have and the limitations that still remain.
1) Scheme -- The Texas offense is seemingly a one-trick pony right now. It really only works when it can execute the one way it knows how to. It's an offense that is largely, and almost entirely, built on running the football successfully. And it's one that cannot generate big plays easily. Because of that, it's an offense that has to work hard to put points on the board. And it's one that really only has a chance to help its team win if it can operate successfully with a lead or within one, maybe two scores of a lead. If the offense cannot run the football successfully and/or gets behind in a game, it basically means game over because Texas has no other reliable options or plays to turn to. In other words, it can't be relied upon to pass its way out of any struggles if the run game isn't working or if Jerrod Heard is being corralled. And that was on full display Halloween night in Ames.
Texas went down by seven points early and was never able to climb out of the hole. It was like a car getting stuck in the sand. As much as Texas tried to spin the tires, the car just kept sinking further and further into the sand until the tide eventually got to it ending any hope that the Longhorns would leave Ames with a win. Credit head coach Paul Rhoades and his team for playing Texas exactly how any opponent should try to. They were the more physical team. They were able to win the battle upfront. They bogged down Texas' run game. They bottled up Jerrod Heard. And they forced Texas to try to win this game through the air. It was an opposing game plan that was looming. And it was one that Texas should have been prepared for but was clearly not. And that falls on play caller Jay Norvell and Charlie Strong.
2) Horns need a new OC -- Speaking of Norvell, a loss like this reiterates the fact that Charlie Strong has to go out and find an elite offensive coordinator once this season is over. No, Norvell hasn't been terrible each week. And given the personnel and timetable he's had to work with, he's done a decent job. But unless this offense flips a huge switch, you're kidding yourself if you think Texas and Charlie Strong can continue to ride Norvell as the guy into next season.
I left this game with way too many questions for Jay Norvell. A few main ones being...
- Why didn't Texas take at least a couple shots down field to freshman wide receiver John Burt or senior wide receiver Marcus Johnson? Iowa State's secondary is easily in the bottom half of the conference.
- What is to be made of all the talk that Heard and the offense were making strides passing the ball well during practice? Why is that not translating over to games?
- Why is the ratio of carries between senior running back Johnathan Gray and D'Onta Foreman/Chris Warren still way too lopsided? How many times does Gray need to run straight into a clogged pile before Norvell/Strong feel it's time to give the better running backs more carries?
- Does Texas have a running back with speed/quickness (like a Kirk Johnson) it could implement into the scheme?
- Will Texas ever utilize throwing to a tight end out of this scheme?
- Is Texas really stuck with senior left guard Flowers and senior center Taylor Doyle in the middle? Are the other options that much worse?
- And my last big question.... For the near future, why not let tight ends coach Jeff Traylor have a shot at calling plays and running practices? We've already likely seen Texas at its best and worst with Norvell calling the plays. Let's see what type of game Traylor can call. There's only one way to find out. And the time is now as Texas prepares for a bad Kansas team.
With the way this season is playing out offensively, Charlie Strong will likely be looking for at least three new coaches on offense at offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, offensive line, and wide receivers after this season. And it will likely be Charlie Strong's last opportunity to get it right before he himself is looking for a new job.
3) Jerrod Heard and Kai Locksley -- Before Jerrod Heard took over as the starting quarterback, we all knew he was a better runner than passer. And leading up to this game, we had continuously been reminded of that each week when we would see Heard scamper away from pressure and outrun defenders to gain positive yards for the offense. But what we still hadn't gotten a clear answer of was how big the gap was between his ability to run and throw. Unfortunately, we may have gotten the answer we were all dreading of Saturday night.
Jerrod Heard looked painfully uncomfortable throwing the few passes he did against the Cyclones. He ended the night with a quarterback rating of 2.4. And he passed for a total of 26 yards (that's two-six), zero touchdowns, and had one bad interception. It was about as lackluster of a night as there is.
I will say that in his defense, it's tough to get anything going when your offensive coordinator is having you throw most of your passes sideways. And when your offensive line isn't doing much to help keep pressure away either. But regardless, it did nothing but hurt Heard's case as the long-term answer at quarterback.
Given Heard's struggles, it's time to entertain a scenario that many thought I was crazy for talking about earlier this season. But that scenario involves freshman Kai Locksley.
I'm not necessarily going as far as saying it's time to yank Heard nor am I saying it's at all fair to close the book on him. The reality is he is still in his first year as a starter, and he is trying to run an offense Texas has learned on the fly after Week 1. And without a doubt, he should still start against Kansas. But I am saying that if I were the offensive coordinator, I would be giving Kai Locksley all of the second-team reps. And I'd be prepared to insert Locksley into the game to see what he can bring to the table if Heard were to continue to struggle.
In a perfect scenario, you would redshirt every quarterback that comes to campus. But Charlie Strong is nowhere close to being in a perfect scenario with his offense. And the reality is he's running out of time. One of his main jobs when he came to Teaxs was finding an answer at quarterback. And though one could argue that Heard is still the better option over Swoopes, no one can say that Heard is the clear answer to Texas' quarterback woes. And with that in mind, it's time for Charlie Strong to get the only scholarship quarterback he's recruited to Texas so far ready to play if it comes to that.
Let's think through this together. What if on Thanksgiving Day, Texas is sitting at 4-6. And what if during the Texas Tech game, Heard is again struggling to get anything going through the air? Why trot Swoopes back out there if we already know what he is and is not capable of. Why not let Kai Locksley have a shot to show what we can bring to the table through the air? He too may not be slinging it all over the field. But if he can manage a handful of throws throughout a drive, than would it not be worth making the change?
The issues at quarterback have really haunted Texas since Colt McCoy's last season in 2009. And it's a weakness that has continuously revealed itself during some embarrassing losses. I'm not saying it's time to write off Heard. He still could develop into a quarterback that can make plays with both his arm and legs. But I am saying Strong should absolutely get Locksley ready to go if Heard is not the answer. The time is now to figure out what Texas has and doesn't have at quarterback.
4) Thoughts on the rest of the team...
- The offensive line is still, well, the same struggling offensive line. The two best linemen (Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe) are freshmen. The two oldest veterans (Sedrick Flowers and Taylor Doyle) are still the two biggest liabilities. And the right tackle (Kent Perkins), when healthy, is a natural right guard playing out of position. It's definitely a less than ideal situation. And I can't figure out why other guys have not gotten more of a chance to play. Especially at left guard and center. I'm asking you, Joe Wickline.
- I've asked this a bazillion times and I will continue to ask it until I get an answer that makes sense. Why is Jonathan Gray getting a lopsided amount of carries when he's clearly the third-best running back on the roster? Foreman and Warren are more productive runners. There's no way around that. It's a fact. And it's driving me crazy watching Gray run into clogged piles time and time again.
- Why John Burt is not given a shot to win at least a couple passes downfield each game is beyond me. Good things happened earlier in the season when Texas would take shots down field to him. And for whatever reason, Norvell is shying away from that recently.
- I also wonder why Texas refuses to use tight ends in the passing game. You would think that passing to a tight end would be one of the best options for a quarterback that struggles to throw the ball down field.
- Finding more creative ways to get the ball into Daje Johnson hands has to be a main focus. He's the best shot Texas has at generating a big play.
- The defensive line was outplayed by Iowa State's offensive line. Don't get me wrong, the Texas defensive line has looked worse. But it's still a bad night when an opposing team rumbles for over 230 yards on you... In their defense, the offense did nothing to help give the defense any sort of reasonable time to rest. And the unit seemed to wear down as the game went on. But the defensive front lost more battles than it won Saturday night.
- Why Texas wasn't prepared for Lanning's mobility is inexcusable. All week, defensive coordinator Vance Bedford sounded like he would have the defense ready. He kept saying he was aware of the QB change. And come Saturday night, it took he and the defense far too long to beging spying and defending against Lanning's threat to run. That should have been happening from the opening play.
- Texas lacks "nasty" at defensive end right now and that hurts. Sure, some guys have shown some flashes of making plays from the outside. But there's no one that really scares opposing offenses on the outside (hence one reason why Texas is forced to blitz as much as that have been). And the defensive line also lost containment too often. It extended drives for Iowa state. Far too many drives.
- Remember when we talked about growing pains for the young corners? We saw some of that Saturday night between freshmen Holton Hill and Davante Davis. But those two are still clearly the best options Texas has on the outside and should start out there the rest of the season. They had a handful of really good plays as well.
- Why more teams haven't attacked Texas' two deep safeties is something that I've wondered all season. Sophomore Jason Hall is at his best coming up defending the run. But his weakness is defending against the pass. And though Haines may know the schemes well, he's still a liability due to his lack of athleticism. That's a reality that won't change. And weren't we supposed to see more of Kevin Vaccaro, PJ Locke, and DeShon Elliott anyways? What happened to that? Maybe I missed some of their plays? I'll have to go back and check.
- Like Hill and Davis, for as good as linebacker Malik Jefferson is, he will still have those freshman moments. But for the most part, he played well. And he's still a vital part of the Texas defense.
- Iowa State did a great job of punting the ball deep into Texas territory. And they also kept Texas special teams' returners pretty much in check the entire game.
- Credit Michael Dickson for punting well and for also making what was likely a touchdown-saving tackle in the open field after one of his punts. Important to remember he's a freshman playing American football for the first time in his life.
- Not much to say about Nick Rose because he never got a shot to attempt a field goal.
5) State of the Longhorns -- Right now, Texas is sitting at 3-5. A win last night would have given Texas a real shot at ending the season bowl eligible. Now, they'll have to win at least two of three between West Virginia, Texas Tech and Baylor if they still want to go bowling. And that's assuming they beat Kansas next week, which is no guarantee by any means at all (how pathetic is that?).
But if Texas does beat Kansas and then fail to win two more games, the Longhorns will end their 2015 season at 4-8 or 5-7. They'll miss out on a bowl game and the extra bowl game practices that come with it. And they'll limp into the offseason with a large uphill recruiting battle ahead of them. That's a thought that makes my brain hurt and stomach uneasy.
For now, all Texas can do is worry about each game one week at a time. It's silly to think Texas can overlook any game this season. And that still rings true for Texas' matchup against Kansas next week. A loss to the Jayhawks would ensue a complete burnt orange meltdown.