An up-and-down first half for the Texas Longhorns gave way to a dominant performance in the final 30 minutes, as the ‘Horns pushed around and threw over the UTEP Miners on the way to a 41-7 victory on Saturday evening at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
Freshman quarterback Shane Buechele continued to show his superior touch in completing 22-of-27 passes for 243 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions, including three more sublime throws to add to his growing count.
The defense largely improved from some shaky moments in the opener to play a more fundamental game against an overmatched opponent in allowing only 208 total yards, 51 of which came on a single play; UTEP’s only score.
On that play, star running back Aaron Jones found a crease as a result of poor leverage from Texas senior linebacker Tim Cole and a poor angle by sophomore safety DeShon Elliott to allow the game’s only big play by the visiting offense.
Other than a drive late in the third quarter that featured two penalties to extend it — one of the unsportsmanlike variety courtesy of junior defensive tackle Poona Ford’s bow and sophomore cornerback Kris Boyd’s third penalty off the game, a facemask infraction — the Longhorns defense largely dominated.
In all, UTEP converted only 3 times in 15 attempts on third down, with the loss of starting quarterback Zack Greenlee likely looming large there, as back-up Kavika Johnson averaged only 2.8 yards per attempt.
A stretch from the second quarter into the second half created the separation for Texas.
Texas received the ball to start the second half and took advantage, using two important Buechele runs to convert a fourth down and then riding Warren into the end zone in the 18-Wheeler package. The sophomore had been dancing too much early in the game, but finally found some momentum at the end of the drive with a key 11-yard run to the 3-yard line.
It took three runs to make those final yards, but Warren finally did so from a yard out to mark a two-possession, two-touchdown stretch that created some separation from the Miners for the first time in the game.
The special teams and defense continued the momentum generated by the offense, as Boyd forced a fumble that UTEP ultimately recovered. A tackle for loss by sophomore defensive end Charles Omenihu helped force a third and long that sophomore linebacker Anthony Wheeler finished by taking the right angle to force Johnson out of bounds short of the marker.
Buechele’s touch took another starring turn as junior wide receiver Dorian Leonard created separation on the second play of the ensuing drive when the freshman passer dropped a pass right onto his hands for a 46-yard touchdown reception, the first of his Texas career.
With that throw, Buechele’s five touchdown passes had gone to five different receivers.
His next touchdown pass, in the fourth quarter, finally showed some favoritism in finding Heard on a fake screen double move that resulted in the latest of a growing line of well-weighted throws.
The Texas defense allowed only 15 yards in the third quarter, but an unsportsmanlike penalty on junior defensive tackle Poona Ford caused an automatic first down on a third-down sack.
The third penalty from Kris Boyd extended the drive once again when he earned a facemask penalty.
A disciplined, swarming defense held tough when given another opportunity, however, as junior cornerback Antwuan Davis made a textbook open-field tackle, freshman Fox end Malcolm Roach leveled an opposing wide receiver on a crossing route, and good coverage.
The first half started reasonably well, but then descended into a sloppy stretch characterized by penalties and breakdowns along the offensive line, most of them due to injury replacments.
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 early, 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 an earlier poor effort that would have resulted in excellent field position had Boyd not committed his second 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.
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 some 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 tried 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.
Despite the room for improvement, there are still plenty of positives beyond Buechele’s continued emergence and a key area where the scheme could improve offensively.
Senior wide receiver Jacorey Warrick finally looks like the player he hinted at on his high school film, showing some quickness, slipperiness, and playmaking ability in leading Texas with seven receptions for 73 yards and that touchdown, the first of his career.
Late in the game, freshman wide receiver Devin Duvernay was able to get on the field and had a 44-yard gain on a twisting adjustment to a pass from Swoopes negated on an offensive pass interference penalty. But so what? That’s not a call that will happen often and Texas fans got to see Duvernay’s speed and body control on action.
At running back, Porter feels like a better fit in the shotgun offense than Warren, who spent too much time dancing for most of the game and lacks the low center of gravity and leg drive of the former Katy star.
Can Gilbert put in a special running package for Warren that actually highlights his strengths by at least letting him play from the pistol?
Otherwise, his advantages as a running back get substantially minimized — 20 carries for 95 yards was a solid, but hardly spectacular performance against a defense that Foreman would have stressed in a different and likely more effective manner.
By the middle of the fourth quarter, six true freshmen defenders were on the field. On one play, Roach left a group shutting down a screen — showing better recognition as a unit than the first-team defense did last week against Notre Dame on several plays. On another, Roach missed a tackle near the line of scrimmage and the defense wasn’t able to get off the field on a third and long.
The Louisiana native with the high-running motor ultimately had another pressure to end the drive after some more strong work from the young defensive unit.
The young players got some run, the older players kept producing, Buechele had another great game, and the defense overall took some steps forward.
Texas now heads into game week against Cal needing to get healthy, but having avoided a letdown against UTEP and increased team depth in key areas.
Mission accomplished in nearly every respect.