Missing numerous starters, the Texas Longhorns managed to survive an up-and-down first half against the UTEP Miners with a 20-7 lead at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium thanks to a late touchdown pass by freshman quarterback Shane Buechele to senior wide receiver Jacorey Warrick.
Buechele finished the first half of his second start with 12-of-15 passing for 125 yards and two touchdowns.
On the second offensive possession for the Longhorns, a poor punt and hands-to-the-face penalty on the Miners set up a 29-yard touchdown pass from freshman quarterback Shane Buechele to sophomore quarterback-turned-wide-receiver Jerrod Heard, who used some special natural ball skills to secure a difficult catch on another on-target touch pass from Buechele.
Unfortunately for Heard, he wasn’t able to show his dance off to fans at home watching on the Longhorn Network, as the camera panned away from him right after his score.
With numerous injuries along the offensive line, Texas began the game with sophomore Elijah Rodriguez at left tackle, sophomore Alex Anderson at right guard, and junior Brandon Hodges at right tackle due to injuries to three starters, as well as starting tight end Caleb Bluiett.
By the end of the half, Anderson had given way to sophomore Terrell Cuney at right guard and freshman center Zach Shackelford had long since headed in to the locker room with his own recurring ankle injuries.
Junior running back D’Onta Foreman didn’t start or appear in the first half, either, reportedly because of a groin injury that the team doesn’t expect to cause him to miss the game against Cal.
The Longhorns did move down the field quickly on the opening drive, however, mostly using the running game with freshman quarterback Shane Buechele pulling the ball several times, something he didn’t do until the end of the game last week.
On 3rd and 7 from the UTEP 11-yard line, Texas set up a screen pass to senior wide receiver Jacorey Warrick. Behind a good block from junior tight end Andrew Beck, Warrick nearly scored, but fumbled the ball just before the goal line and out through the side of the end zone for a touchback.
Officials initially ruled the play a touchdown, then overturned it on replay to take the touchdown off the board.
The Texas defense held, however, for a second time — over the first two drives, UTEP gained only four yards on offense in going three and out twice. On the third play of the second drive, the Miners got called for two holding penalties that the ‘Horns declined since sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson knocked down the pass just off the hand of quarterback Kavika Johnson.
After another hold by the Texas defense, UTEP had gained only seven total yards — an average of .9 yards per play.
Other than the fumble by Warrick, there were several other sloppy plays by the ‘Horns, especially on punt returns, where sophomore cornerback Kris Boyd got caught for holding on the first two punts, both times when the ball bounced and there was no return.
The positive in that unit was that freshman safety Brandon Jones nearly blocked the second punt and forced a poor effort that would have resulted in excellent field position had Boyd not committed another penalty.
And then Boyd redeemed himself as a gunner on the punt team, getting to the goal line and then downing a bouncing punt inside the 1-yard line.
On the next punt by UTEP, Jones was able to break through once again, this time attacking the contact point and coming up with the block on a ball that went squirting sideways out of bounds at the 6-yard line.
For a second time in the red zone, the ‘Horns were unable to come up with a touchdown in the game’s first appearance by the 18-Wheeler package, having to settle for a field goal after three mostly unsuccessful runs. Heard even had his first “carry” of the season on a push pass, but only gained one yard.
The next possession, gained when sophomore cornerback Davante Davis forced a fumble following a third-and-long completion by UTEP, ended after two sacks allowed by Rodriguez.
And then the defense finally creased, as star Miners running back Aaron Jones found a seam and took advantage of a bad angle by sophomore safety DeShon Elliott to outrace the rest of the Longhorns pursuit en route to a 51-yard touchdown run, slicing the Texas lead to 10-7.
On the play, senior linebacker Tim Cole wandered aimlessly near the hole to allow Jones into the open field.
The poor play from Rodriguez continued into the following series — a holding penalty on a good run by freshman running back Kyle Porter put the team behind the chains, a situation only remedied by an undisciplined roughing-the-passer penalty as Buechele threw the ball away on third down.
However, a good run from Buechele landed the ‘Horns in field-goal range, where senior Trent Domingue hit from 43 yards away.
All told, Texas left a lot of points on the board — the touchdown taken away from Warrick since he fumbled just short of the goal line, then the drive that started only six yards away, but was unable to find the end zone. That’s 11 points, leading to an entirely different first half.
Fortunately for Texas, the tempo began to wear down the undersized UTEP defense on the last drive of the half for the ‘Horns, as big passing plays to sophomore wide receiver John Burt and Warrick helped set up another beautiful throw by Buechele.
Similar to the touchdown pass to open the game against Notre Dame, the fade to Warrick was right on the sideline in the perfect spot to allow the senior to drag his right foot and record the first touchdown pass of his collegiate career.
With the big throw and catch, Texas was able to salvage a mildly disappointing first half to lead 20-7 as the team tries to survive the game by a comfortable margin and head into a game week against Cal that will feature about 10 players trying to get healthy.