There was no shadowboxing by the Texas Longhorns on Saturday in Waco, but the defense delivered plenty of proverbial blows to the still-winless Baylor Bears in a 38-7 victory that would have been an absolute blowout had the offense converted on more opportunities.
Still, it was a good performance against a team that has been competitive against good opponents in recent weeks — this was hardly a guaranteed victory, despite the poor record of the Bears.
The defense got the Longhorns off to a rare fast start on the first possession when a Zach Smith pass was tipped and landed in the arms of junior safety DeShon Elliott, who raced 43 yards for a touchdown. The midseason All-American now has six interceptions and two touchdown returns this season.
Week eight is still DeShon Elliott season. Here's the pick-six pic.twitter.com/QtjEXGjj9K— Ezra Siegel (@SiegelEzra) October 28, 2017
The other standout in the secondary, junior cornerback Holton Hill, also had an impressive game, forcing a fumble deep in Baylor territory, breaking up a pass, and making several open-field tackles.
Hill did leave the field to be evaluated for a head injury in the first half, but was able to return. Junior nickel back PJ Locke III suffered an ankle injury and was ruled out for the rest of the game. In the second half, junior defensive end Charles Omenihu left the game after an apparent leg injury.
Remaining in the Lightning package that worked so well against Oklahoma State last week, Texas was able to hold Baylor to 31 yards rushing on 37 carries, though a botched snap on a punt resulted in the Bears losing 18 yards on that play.
Unlike most of the first half, the offense was able to capitalize on that Baylor mistake, with sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele keeping a zone read and taking the ball 28 yards to the end zone after finding a crease.
As usual, the downfield passing game wasn’t working for the ‘Horns, but Buechele was efficient in completing 27-of-34 passes for 256 yards and a touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey on the run.
The best adjustment by offensive coordinator Tim Beck was using run-pass options that allowed Buechele to get the ball out quickly and benefit from conflicted defenders.
Other aspects of the game plan didn’t work as well, including a Wildcat package for freshman running back Toneil Carter and two attempted trick plays.
On one trick play, junior running back Chris Warren III completed his red-zone pass, but didn’t allow senior wide receiver Lorenzo Joe enough room to catch the ball in the end zone. On the other, Humphrey bounced a reverse pass well in front of his intended receiver.
Managing down-and-distance situations and making the correct calls on fourth down were also a problem. The second trick play came on a 2nd and 2, leading to a run for no gain by Humphrey and a throw to Humphrey that went incomplete. The Longhorns failed on another fourth down when Beck called a running play with two yards to gain, a difficult play to convert for this team.
With sophomore center Zach Shackelford out due to a concussion and senior Tristan Nickelson replacing sophomore Denzel Okafor at left tackle at times, the running game struggled to create holes for the young running backs in the early going.
Carter received eight carries in the first half and gained only 20 yards, while fellow freshman Daniel Young had four carries for 23 yards, his first efforts on the ground since the San Jose State game.
In the second half, penalties hurt the ‘Horns — Young had a false start penalty on a Wildcat run that eventually forced Herman send junior Josh Rowland out for an 18-yard field goal on 4th and goal from inside the 1-yard line. That decision put into sharp relief Herman’s lack of trust in his offensive line to create enough push to score.
It also cost Texas a chance to extend the lead following a forced fumble by junior defensive end Charles Omenihu.
A 28-yard run by Carter put the Longhorns in position to score again, but a holding call on Cuney negated a touchdown run by the freshman and led to an interception thrown by Buechele in the end zone.
That long run seemed to spark Carter and the running game, however, as the offensive line started to open more holes as the Baylor defense tired. In seemingly taking over the starting job, Carter finished with 15 carries for 70 yards. Young added seven carries for 60 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown run.
The emergence of the freshmen backs should afford both of them more playing time moving forward. Against better defensive fronts, that might not be enough to completely salvage the running game given the state of the offensive line, but it should give Texas the best chance of success.
Combined with more use of run-pass options and a stingy defense and bowl eligibility looks well within reach.
With some continued improvement and a little bit of luck, the rest of the season might even include that breakthrough victory the team needs.