Against the California Golden Bears, Texas Longhorns freshman quarterback Shane Buechele took several hard hits from Cal defenders in the first quarter, eventually leaving the game.
Though it initially appeared that Buechele suffered a head injury, head coach Charlie Strong later said that the Arlington product was dealing with a rib injury, one that required a protective vest underneath his jersey last week against the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
When Buechele returned to the game in Berkeley, he quickly hit senior wide receiver Jacorey Warrick on a 41-yard touchdown pass. However, since then Buechele hasn’t been able to hit downfield throws with the same accuracy that he displayed early in the season.
And while Buechele may simply be a victim of a small sample size in hitting big plays down the field, suggesting that the rib injury is impact his ability to get vertical in the passing game makes much more sense.
In fact, the longest passing play against the Cowboys was a 48-yard catch by junior wide receiver Dorian Leonard, but he was the one who had to do most the work, catching a hitch route and pivoting inside to beat his defender for the big gain.
The other long gains? A short pass over the middle to wide-open junior tight end Andrew Beck for a 39-yard touchdown, as 21-yard swing pass to junior running back D’Onta Foreman, and a 21-yard screen pass to sophomore wide receiver Jerrod Heard.
Eight receivers averaged less than 10 yards per reception against the Cowboys. Of Buechele’s 21 completions, 16 went for fewer than 10 yards.
Overall, the Texas passing game notably lacked the explosiveness and aggressiveness that characterized it early in the season, looking much like the infamous horizontal passing game of former offensive coordinator Greg Davis.
Since the veer-and-shoot offense relies primarily on four routes, a failure to attempt to throw the ball over the heads of defenders allows defensive backs to jump routes in the flat.
When Buechele stared down his receiver on a third down in the third quarter, that’s exactly what happened, resulting in an interception return to near the Texas goal line and the only touchdown allowed by the Longhorns defense in the second half.
It’s hard to believe that offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert suddenly decided to eschew the most critical part of the passing game, so whether or not Texas regains that willingness to keep defenses honest to relieve pressure on the running game and short passing game may depend on Buechele’s health.
Having allowed 10 passing plays of 30 or more yards this season (99th in the country), the Oklahoma Sooners are susceptible to giving up big plays through the air, largely a result of inexperience at the cornerback position.
If Buechele is healthy once again and can recover his touch on long passes, Texas should be able to exploit the Sooners secondary. If not, the running game will face numbers in the box without away to make the defense pay for that allocation of resources.
In the former scenario, the ‘Horns have a chance to pull off another upset. In the latter? Well, it could be a long and unpleasant day in the Cotton Bowl unless a lot of other things go right.