In the second game of the season, the Texas Longhorns roared out of halftime with 21 second-half points against the UTEP Miners before playing reserves and walk ons for much of the fourth quarter.
In the two games since, offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s veer-and-shoot attack has only scored 16 points combined in the second half, both losses. Even in the victory against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the season opener, the ‘Horns got outscored 23-16 in third and fourth quarters.
Overall, Texas has scored less than a third of its points in the second half.
“We have as good of a game plan in the second half as we do in the first half,” junior Texas wide receiver Jake Oliver said this week, shrugging off the issues.
“We know defense makes adjustments as well. We’ve just got to go out with the same intensity that we do in the first half, and keep the ball rolling and try to score as much as possible.”
However, that my not entirely be the case — against the California Golden Bears, the ‘Horns averaged 15 seconds per play on the first touchdown drive and 13 seconds per play on the second touchdown drive.
The opening drive of the second half averaged more than 25 seconds per play and ended in a missed field goal.
When Gilbert was frequently substituting the quarterbacks, one drive in the fourth quarter averaged more than 26 seconds per play, failing to take advantage of a tired Cal defense and ultimately settling for a field goal.
The change in tempo may bear the fingerprints of head coach Charlie Strong in an attempt to protect the defense after allowing 35 points in the first half. In holding the Golden Bears to 15 points in the second half, the strategy was arguably effective, but how much did it hurt the offense?
Ultimately, the tempo wasn’t effective in doing anything more than shortening the game, an unfortunate decision when Texas ultimately gave up a late touchdown and then decided to punt with less than two minutes remaining in the game.
Penalties also played a large role in the second-half struggles in Berkeley.
A holding penalty by freshman center Zach Shackelford on the first drive of the third quarter for Texas negated a 21-yard gain by junior running back D’Onta Foreman to cost the ‘Horns 31 total yards, leading to a missed 49-yard field goal.
On the following drive, a false start by Shackelford turned a manageable 3rd and 3 into 3rd and 8, forcing a punt.
A first-down false start by sophomore guard Patrick Vahe put the Longhorns behind the chains on another drive, forcing a punt.
Given the fact that Gilbert slowed down the tempo during the third quarter and thereby forcing the offensive linemen to remain in their stances for long stretches before plays, it seems fair to wonder if that contributed to the false start penalties.
Against Oklahoma State, the combination of missing sophomore running back Chris Warren due to injury and the lack of a vertical passing game, apparently due to the rib injury suffered by freshman Shane Buechele against Cal, limited the Texas offense.
And, for as good as the Longhorns have been this year on offense overall, converting on third downs has been a struggle — Texas is No. 71 in the country at 39.3 percent, and sits at 26.7 percent in the second half of games.
Last weekend featured only one conversion on third down in the second half in five attempts, not to mention a turnover on downs after the ‘Horns only managed to gain seven yards on three runs before Oliver got in the way of a pass intended for freshman Devin Duvernay on fourth down.
One failed third down came on the interception by Buechele after two unsuccessful runs from the 18-Wheeler package. A similar scenario played out in the Notre Dame game, when senior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes entered the game backed up near the Texas goal-line and only managed to set up a third-and-long situation for Buechele that resulted in another interception.
At this point, it’s probably wise for Gilbert to use ditch the 18-Wheeler package as an option deep in Longhorns territory or be willing to come out and attempt a pass with it to gain chunk yardage. In fact, Swoopes hasn’t thrown a single pass out of the package all season, which defenses are certainly noting at this point.
Beyond the overall issues converting third downs in the second half, the biggest issue for the ‘Horns against the Cowboys was a suddenly stagnant running game.
The play that appeared to injure Foreman, a 62-yard touchdown run, accounted for roughly two thirds of the rushing yards in the second half leading in to the final drive — on all the other runs, Texas only managed 13 carries for 35 yards (2.7 yards per carry), including a six-yard run on a fake punt by sophomore Michael Dickson.
On the final drive, freshman running back Kyle Porter picked up 19 yards on a draw play before Buechele scrambled twice for a loss of four yards both times. He was also sacked for a loss of two yards to start the drive.
Losing Foreman with Warren already out was a big blow, as Porter hasn’t yet shown the same physicality and explosiveness of the two older players.
“It’s just missing some things here and there,” offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert said of the offense this week.
“Those are things we’ve identified and those are things we’ve already focused on and we addressed with our guys. They know and understand. It’s something that we’re encouraged about and motivated about making it get better.”
Typical coach speak from Gilbert, but he is correct in the sense that there isn’t necessarily one overwhelming factor creating second-half struggles, it’s a combination of things — penalties, issues with the running game, a lack of explosive plays in the passing game, poor use of tempo, and poor use of the 18-Wheeler package, all leading to difficult down-and-distance situations that are killing drives.
Improving the performance in the second half of games will require Gilbert to do a better job of finding the flow of the game in using Swoopes and showing more dedication to maintaining the tempo that could benefit the running game in the fourth quarter.
Of course, getting Buechele healthy to stretch the field wouldn’t hurt, either, as the offense depends on that element to allow room for the running game and short passing game.
Likewise, Foreman is the key piece in the running game, with touchdowns of 47 yards and 62 yards in the last two games — when he’s healthy, he’s accounting for a healthy percentage of the recent big plays in the the second half of games.