This is the way the Charlie Strong era ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper — a pathetic 24-21 loss to the Kansas State Wildcats in Manhattan on Saturday.
Well, perhaps there was a bang. Trailing by three points, Texas Longhorns graduate transfer kicker Trent Domingue banged the crucial onside kick over the heads of the Kansas State Wildcats hands team and out of bounds.
It was a fitting end to a game that featured numerous squandered opportunities as fans were left to wonder whether the ‘Horns had even practiced onside kicks. It was a fitting end to any hopes that the Texas head coach will return for a fourth season, the botched onside kick a metaphor for how this job has flown over Strong’s capabilities.
Texas came up with three turnovers, but failed to score points on any of them and turned banged up Kansas State quarterback Jesse Ertz into a superstar with a game plan that was either clueless or poorly conveyed.
First, those turnovers — Texas scored only three points off of seven turnovers created in games against Oklahoma and Kansas State.
And now, Ertz. After leaving the game last week against Oklahoma with a shoulder injury, the Wildcats quarterback entered the game against the Longhorns with a completion percentage under 50 percent on the season.
Within two plays, he had already produced the fifth passing play of 30 or more yards for the Wildcats. And despite the fact Ertz was largely unable to push the ball down the field, he still finished with 20-of-27 passing for 171 yards and a touchdown, and added 18 carries for 78 yards and two touchdowns.
In the passing game, much of the yardage came because Strong insisted on giving the Kansas State wide receivers large cushions and continued to play cornerback John Bonney despite giving up a huge number of those completions.
Much of the rushing yardage for Ertz came on third down, often in long down-and-distance situations as the Texas defense was either unprepared for his scrambles or simply couldn’t execute. Whatever the case, there are no more excuses for Strong, as his defense allowed 19 of the 27 Wildcat first downs to come via the run.
Four more came via penalty, as Strong’s team was once again undisciplined, committing 10 for 72 yards on the day. Entering the road contest, the ‘Horns ranked tied for 97th in the country in average penalties per game at 7.3. Unacceptable.
The ‘Horns once again needed to overcome an early deficit, as the Wildcats mounted a nine-play, 68-yard drive that took 5:37 off the clock and featured the full arsenal of the Kansas State running game, including four variations of the option.
The defense also made a handful of mistakes, drawing four flags (three accepted), including three defensive offsides.
Special teams continued as the barely-mitigated disaster the units have been all season, as Armanti Foreman opted to bring the ball out of the end zone on the kickoff, ran sideways. A holding penalty set the ‘Horns back further.
Three runs of more than 10 yards by D’Onta Foreman helped the Texas offense get moving, but a shoestring tackle on 1st and 10 from the Kansas State 31-yard line led to another short run by Kyle Porter and a sack when the offensive line blew a pass protection.
Out of field goal range all of a sudden, the gentlemanly decision to let an extra Wildcats player run off the field preceded a punt that went in to the end zone when Boyd fell down attempting to field it near the goal line.
So it goes.
Having lost more than 40 yards of field position in the exchange of possessions due to mistakes on special teams, the Texas defense continued to struggle, as the Kansas State drive ran out the clock on the first quarter while converting
On one play, Ertz scrambled for a first down on 3rd and 8 as linebacker Malik Jefferson missed a sack and the specialty pass-rush package resulted in players losing their rushing lanes. On another, Bonney was driven past the first-down marker on 3rd and 5, allowing a completion in front of him to make the necessary yardage.
The Wildcats also took a risk on 4th and inches from the Texas 29-yard line and were able to get the necessary conversion.
Kansas State controlled the ball for 11:32 and gained 119 yards on 21 plays, ultimately finishing the 16-play, 80-yard drive with an 18-yard touchdown run by Ertz once again.
The 14-0 lead was an even worse omen for the ‘Horns than merely allowing the Wildcats to score first, as Texas is now 0-15 under Strong when trailing by that margin.
Fortunately for Strong’s tenuous job security, the defense responded to a three and out by the offense by forcing a three and out of their own, capped by a sack from Fox end Breckyn Hager.
The Texas offense, however, was once again sabotaged by an inability to convert in short-yardage situations. After getting stuffed on 3rd and 1 on the previous drive, the ‘Horns had a pass batted down at the line of scrimmage, then belatedly tried to use the 18-Wheeler package, but had multiple players false start.
More scrambles by Ertz continued to hurt the ‘Horns, but an unwillingness to take a hit to his injured shoulder resulted in the Wildcat quarterback giving himself up short of the first-down marker to give the ball back to Sterlin Gilbert’s offense.
Strong was late to adjust by putting a spy on Ertz, but when he did, linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch missed the quarterback in the backfield and he got loose again.
For a third straight week, wide receiver Devin Duvernay came up big — a pump fake from quarterback Shane Buechele gave him all the space he needed and 80 yards later the deficit was cut to seven.
Duvernay gets deep again. #Hookem pic.twitter.com/Lmd8Rq4L5f— Hookem Football (@hornsfootball) October 22, 2016
Then the defense collapsed once again, courtesy of typically stupid plays — a roughing the passer penalty to move Kansas State inside the Texas 10-yard line — and more completions allowed by Bonney, who was absolutely atrocious in the first half.
The nine-play, 75-yard drive also featured a pass interference penalty on Bonney and an eight-yard touchdown pass when Bonney once again showed zero awareness in coverage:
Pringle was so open. How do you get that much clearance from the 10 going in?— Michael Felder (@InTheBleachers) October 22, 2016
HE RAN A SLANT! A SLANT! FROM 8! Why are you not sitting hard on slant & playing to fade? That's goal line defense 101. Don't let him inside— Michael Felder (@InTheBleachers) October 22, 2016
I don't understand how you can put 24 back in the game if you're Texas unless, as a staff, you didn't teach him to sit slant & play to fade.— Michael Felder (@InTheBleachers) October 22, 2016
If you didn't teach it, then your staff screwed him over & he's wearing your problems. If you taught it & he just didn't do it? Next man up.— Michael Felder (@InTheBleachers) October 22, 2016
So, yeah, Texas football in 2016, everyone.
In possessing the ball for more than 23 minutes of the first half, the Wildcats sent Texas to some new lows:
Texas' time of possession: 6:42— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 22, 2016
It's the least for Texas since at least 2004 & 3rd-lowest TOP in the 1st half for any FBS team this season.
The opening drive of the second half summed up the game for the ‘Horns — Buechele narrowly escaped a sack after right tackle Tristan Nickelson got pushed into him, but he dove to avoid a hit just short of the first down.
Kansas State looked like it pushed the lead to three touchdowns, but linebacker Anthony Wheeler helped force a Charles Jones fumble just short of the goal line and the ‘Horns recovered in the end zone to grant Strong a temporarily reprieve from an impending termination.
It was the first time in 57 red-zone possessions that Kansas State failed to score, a streak that dated back to last season and led the FBS.
Texas scored a touchdown by finally deciding to use the 18-Wheeler package in a short-yardage situation and then secured a potentially important interception on a floated pass by Ertz that linebacker Edwin Freeman corralled and returned. Unfortunately, the odd play-calling decisions from Gilbert continued.
In sudden-change situations in the shot zone — around the opponent’s 40-yard line — offensive coordinator often dial up play-action passes or other downfield throws. Instead, Gilbert called two runs that went for only four yards combined.
Then things got even more weird.
Facing a 3rd and 6, Texas dropped back to pass and Buechele fumbled the football. Kansas State couldn’t recover and the freshman quarterback eventually fell on the ball. Faced with a 4th and 16, the ‘Horns decided to go for it, a decision that was perhaps necessary, but was completely untied to the third-down play call.
In another telling moment, Texas nearly pulled out a miraculous play when Buechele put a pass on to the fingertips of Foreman. An initial bobble and rake at the football by the Wildcats defensive back forced the incomplete pass and a turnover on downs.
Instead of a touchdown to cut the 10-point deficit to three pending the extra point, the defense once again had to come up with a crucial stop. Freeman came up big again, forcing a fumble, but the offense couldn’t respond.
Gilbert finally made a good call on third down and the offense got into the red zone. Then the offense started to look confused, wasting time and ultimately leading to a fumbled snap and a missed field goal from 35 yards that essentially ended the game.
On the final drive for Texas, Gilbert called three consecutive running plays despite not having any timeouts left in a fit of questionable clock management. The Longhorns hung the defense out to dry with the tempo in the first half, then couldn’t get play calls made in an expeditious manner late in the game when clock management mattered the most?
Unacceptable. While Gilbert has done a lot of good in helping revive a long-dormant offense, his decision making in critical situations still leaves a lot to be desired and contributed to this loss.
The Longhorns ultimately scored a touchdown to set up the decisive onside kick, but it was too little, too late — Texas couldn’t even convert a third down until nearly 42 minutes of game time had expired, despite multiple opportunities in advantageous down-and-distance situations.
Though Kansas State mostly dominated, Texas had chances. A lack of discipline that resulted in penalties, a poor defensive game plan and execution, poor play calling on offense, dropped passes, and the inability to convert on third downs and convert turnovers into points doomed the ‘Horns in Manhattan once again.
Bad teams find ways to lose games.
Texas is a bad team, having lost four of the five games, and there’s only one ultimate culprit — Charlie Strong.
Time to move on.