Ever meticulous, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman invests in an analytics company that provides him with a binder full of positive or negative feedback on whether to go for it on fourth down based on quarter, score, and field position.
Dark green is yes. Light green is think about it. Yellow is probably not. Red is don’t even think about it.
On Sunday against the Kansas State Wildcats, facing 4th and goal from the Kansas State three-yard line with the first quarter winding down and Texas facing a 3-0 deficit, Herman went for it, but on Monday he couldn’t recall what the binder had said — he’s sure that he was told by his assistants, he’d just already made up his mind.
“That was an early-in-the-game [decision], we were playing great defense for three weeks,” Herman said. “I think we held them to three-and-out or whatever we did on the first drive. Tone setter, gut, I don't even know.”
More than just factors like the defense’s early performance and the desire for seven points to finish the 14-play drive, Herman has an antipathy towards settling for three points less than 10 feet from the goal line.
“I hate 20-yard field goals, man,” Herman said. “They don't make a whole lot of sense to me in terms of cost benefit. So we've got to do better.”
The whole sequence of play calls that led to the fourth down attempt wasn’t quite good enough, though offensive coordinator Tim Beck arguably created and executed the best game plan of his short Longhorns tenure against the Wildcats.
On first down from the one-yard line, Beck dialed up a fade to senior wide receiver Dorian Leonard, but freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger left the pass a little bit low and the ball was knocked away. Besides the difficulty of executing that particular play, one might wonder why sophomore Collin Johnson wasn’t the target — aside from sophomore Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Johnson is the tallest wide receiver on the team and has the best ball skills.
The following play, Kansas State had an extra defender coming free and sophomore running back Kyle Porter was forced to leave his feet because freshman tight end Cade Brewer had left his feet to cut another defender. Porter’s run was initially ruled a touchdown, but eventually overturned.
From the one-yard line, Beck called a quarterback sweep that oddly features lateral movement by the offensive line. Somewhat predictably, the five defensive linemen of the Wildcats were able to get enough penetration to stop Ehlinger for a painful two-yard loss. Furthermore, the Texas offensive line hasn’t executed reach blocks consistently well in any of its iterations this year.
With the run-game options severely limited by the third-down call, Beck called a max protect sprint call to the right with only one player in the route — redshirt freshman wide receiver Reggie Hemphill-Mapps, who was open initially. Unfortunately, Ehlinger didn’t throw the ball on time and eventually completed it out of bounds.
Had he thrown it early, the play might not have stood anyway, as sophomore wide receiver Devin Duvernay, the other wide receiver lined up to the field on the play, was called for an illegal block. It marked the third time this season that a Texas wide receiver was called for an illegal block or pick play on a pass.
Scoring from three yards away against a five-man defensive front as good as Kansas State’s group is a difficult proposition in any situation.
But the overall play calling from Beck wasn’t particularly inspiring, with the ‘Horns scoring touchdowns on only 56.5 percent of its red zone-trips this season.
On fourth downs, the story is the same — Herman wants to remain aggressive, as he was at Houston, and will continue to hate 20-yard field goals. The problem is that there are issues with the calls or execution — or both — as the Longhorns have only converted 4-of-10 attempts on fourth down this season, ranking tied for 95th nationally in that category.
Texas has to do better, and it’s on Beck and Herman to put the players in better positions to succeed.