After falling behind 20-0 in the first half, the Texas Longhorns battled back against the Oklahoma Sooners, but couldn’t complete the comeback in the 29-24 loss in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday.
Here’s three things we learned about the team from the performance.
The USC game wasn’t a fluke — the effort is there
In the last month, the team has proved one thing conclusively — it will compete with effort and it won’t give up. Against Kansas State that meant responding to first-half scores. Against Oklahoma, it was about the defense holding the Oklahoma offense to field goals in the first half when the game was threatening to get ugly. Cutting the deficit in half in the final several minutes of that half was crucial — it allowed the ‘Horns the opportunity to win the game in the second half.
“I was extremely proud — the issues are not effort. And that’s a start,” head coach Tom Herman said after the game.
“To be down 20-0 against one of the best teams in the country and battle back to be within 10 at halftime and then take the lead 24-23 in the fourth quarter says a lot about this team, and where we’re headed. Again, much like week three, there’s no moral victories, especially against this team.”
With games against top-10 teams Oklahoma State and TCU sandwiched around a trip to Waco to face Baylor, Texas will have to continue competing at a high level with the same type of effort the team has displayed in the last several weeks to make up for all the injuries on offense.
Now the question becomes whether the team can start finishing better and turn these close losses into a win that could significantly bolster the program towards becoming a contender once again.
The defense still has room for improvement
Despite giving up 515 yards of total offense to Oklahoma, the Texas defense still held the Sooners 60 yards under their season average, all while holding Lincoln Riley’s team 13 points under its season scoring average.
However, there were several disappointing elements of the performance because coordinator Todd Orlando expects more out of his talented players.
There were multiple coverage busts in the secondary that allowed long touchdowns, like the game-winning score to tight end Mark Andrews where the nickel failed to carry the wheel route down the field. Junior cornerback Kris Boyd was beat early and couldn’t quite make a play on an excellent pass from Baker Mayfield. All told Oklahoma had four completions of more than 40 yards.
The team as a whole struggled to play the counter that is Oklahoma’s favorite running play, consistently allowing creases behind the pulling blockers instead of spilling the running back outside. The linebackers especially struggled to beat blocks in giving up 174 rushing yards.
A bigger disappointment might have been the ability to finish plays — junior edge rusher Breckyn Hager couldn’t sack Mayfield when given an opportunity and had a potential interception hit him right in the chest. Junior Malik Jefferson also couldn’t always finish when given a shot at the elusive Oklahoma quarterback.
To be sure, the Sooners possess one of the best offenses in the country and stopping their most productive plays is a difficult proposition. To get where this team wants to be, however, the Longhorns defense needs to make a few more plays, especially when all it takes is finishing.
The offense is all Sam Ehlinger
The running backs for the Longhorns had 14 carries for 17 yards as Herman admitted to being too stubborn with the running game in the first half. The offensive line struggled with the big bodies up front for the Sooners, as well as the quick players off the edge.
Freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger accounted for most of the offense himself, running 22 times for 110 yards and a touchdown as the only reliable element of the broken Texas running game. He also threw for 278 yards and a touchdown through the air.
The toughness and running ability of the Austin product are carrying the ‘Horns on the ground right now. Unless Herman and offensive coordinator can find some answers where few seem likely to exist, that’s going to continue
The frustrating element of the Oklahoma game was the way in which Beck abandoned the short passing game that worked so well at Kansas State, especially on two drives late in the game. On both of those drives, Texas was in four-down territory, but tried to put up all the needed yardage on third down. Those throws failed, leaving the ‘Horns with little chance of converting on fourth down.
On longer routes, a beleaguered Oklahoma secondary was largely able to contain the Texas wide receivers, who just didn’t create enough separation. And two catches for sophomore Collin Johnson fails to maximize his significant talent — he has to be more physical coming off the line of scrimmage, but the coaches also have to continue to manufacture ways to get him the ball.
Ehlinger still has room for improvement, too, most notably in making sure that he can hit open wide receivers and give them a chance to run, as sophomore Devin Duvernay should have had a long touchdown catch. Instead, Ehlinger threw the ball right on the sideline, forcing Duverny out of bounds. Texas failed to convert a fourth down on that drive.
The expectations are high for Ehlinger after the strong start to his career. Regardless of whether or not that’s fair, the offense will largely go as he goes moving forward.