Special teams miscues. Penalties. Poor game management. Poor play calling in critical moments.
For everything that new head coach Tom Herman was supposed to be for the Texas Longhorns, the season opener against the Maryland Terrapins was an absolute disaster at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday in a 51-41 loss.
Junior college transfer Josh Rowland missed his first field goal before having another blocked and returned for a touchdown, the exact mistakes that Herman was supposed to correct with his attention to detail.
The Longhorns also left three points on the board by attempting to convert fourth and goal from the five-yard line early in the second half.
Herman went for it again in at the Maryland 44-yard line on a 4th and 2 after failing to convert a quarterback run. Since the Terrapins had just lost starting quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome, who went 9-of-12 passing for 175 yards and two touchdowns, along with 11 carries for 64 yards and a touchdown, the decision simply didn’t make sense.
Texas failed, as it did all day on fourth down.
To make things worse, Maryland backup quarterback Kasim Hill was able to convert a 3rd and 19 with a 40-yard completion. The freshman then finished the drive with a short touchdown run.
Texas had cut the lead to 37-34 and were back in the game, but the decision by Herman not to pin Maryland near its goal line was extremely costly — the ‘Horns never recovered.
The penalties didn’t help, as Herman’s team committed 11 infractions for 117 yards, including a touchdown pass that was called back for a hold and two other drive-killing penalties in the first half.
Execution was a major issue, as two penalties were for pass interference when Texas tried to utilize rub routes that justifiably drew flags.
Just to illustrate how badly things went off the rails for the ‘Horns, All-American junior left tackle Connor Williams committed two holding penalties on a critical drive late in the fourth quarter down by 10 points. The second negated a 24-yard gain on third and long by junior wide receiver John Burt, who had his earlier touchdown taken away due to a hold by senior right tackle Tristan Nickelson.
Herman wanted to see how his team would respond to adversity and it reverted to all of the bad habits and mistakes of the Charlie Strong era. Worst of all? The Mensa member was a big part of the problem with his game management.
Not having a functional tight end or an effective running game were also major problems — neither sophomore Kyle Porter nor junior Chris Warren III looked like a capable replacement for Doak Walker Award winner D’Onta Foreamn, combining for 52 yards on only 14 carries.
Ultimately, the deficit and the inability to run the football with any effectiveness contributed to sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele throwing the ball 52 times. Buechele looked more poised in the pocket, scored a rushing touchdown, and racked up 375 yards, but it seems clear that the running game could be a major issue this season.
While two passes went for more than 30 yards, the big-play ability that often defined Buechele last season just wasn’t there, even though the wide receiver corps returned almost entirely intact.
The offensive line didn’t help, either, failing to create clear running lanes for Porter and Warren, committing holding penalties, and turning blitzing defenders loose in the backfield.
So much for being a team strength.
The Herman era got off to a fast start as the ‘Horns contained the opening kickoff and then overwhelmed the Terps on the first possession.
Junior linebacker Malik Jefferson was in on the the first-down play and the second-down play, then classmate Holton Hill intercepted a deflected pass and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown.
The first score under Herman came a year after the ‘Horns failed to score a defensive touchdown. The last Texas defender to accomplish that feat? Hill against Oklahoma State on an interception return in 2015.
After the defense forced a three and out, the offense got off to a much more shaky start — Buechele held on to the ball too long on a designed rollout and took a sack near the end zone before throwing a long interception intended for sophomore wide receiver Devin Duvernay.
The positive take? Buechele got the ball out past midfield, saving the Longhorns from having to punt from the goal line.
The turnover came back to haunt Texas, however, as Maryland adjusted to the struggles of the first two possessions by inserting a second running back and then stretching the ‘Horns from sideline to sideline. Pigrome finished the drive with a 25-yard run to the perimeter to tie the game.
Texas responded with an 11-play, 55-yard drive that stalled following a holding call on senior wide receiver Dorian Leonard on a screen pass and ended with a missed 42-yard field goal attempt by Josh Rowland that went wide left from the right hash.
As the Terps offense found a rhythm, running back Ty Johnson gashed the Longhorns up the middle for 50 yards and Pigrome caught junior cornerback Kris Boyd biting on an inside move to throw a 20-yard touchdown pass.
Meanwhile, Texas quickly abandoned the tight end position and finished the first quarter with only four rushing yards. During that stretch, Buechele faced consistent pressure in the pocket, but was able to complete every pass he attempted after the interception.
Another drive stalled out with a penalty — shades of 2016 — and the special teams issues resurfaced when a low kick from Rowland was blocked and returned for a touchdown to put Texas in a 21-7 hole.
And so despite all the offseason rhetoric about improving on special teams, Rowland’s first two efforts were a disaster as Herman stood on the sideline contemplating the massive swing in momentum.
The offense wasn’t able to respond, as Buechele took a sack on 3rd and 2 when junior right guard Jake McMillon allowed a blitzer to come free.
The ‘Horns paid for it on the following possession, as a pass-rush package wasn’t able to stop Pigrome on his preferred read option up the middle. A shocked crowd then watched as the sophomore quarterback hit wide receiver Taivon Jacobs on a 46-yard post route that beat junior nickel back PJ Locke.
Once again, disaster struck on the kickoff, as freshman running back Daniel Young tried to catch the kick on a short hop, resulting in a turnover. Fortunately for the ‘Horns, sitting on the brink of destruction, the defense got a stop and senior defensive tackle Poona Ford blocked the ensuing field goal, which bounced to Hill dead in stride.
By the time that the junior cornerback raced 65 yards to the end zone, he was responsible for both Texas touchdowns.
For a second time in two possession, the Longhorns defense held when it mattered, but gave up enough yardage for the Terrapins to kick a short field goal, stretching the lead to 30-14.
When the first half ended, the story was more of the same — special teams mistakes, miscues in coverage, poor run defense, offensive line meltdowns, and an overall lack of discipline that resulted in five penalties for 59 yards.
In the second half, the mistakes continued. The opening drive went down near the goal line, but two runs from Chris Warren went nowhere and the third-down swing pass to junior tight end Garrett Gray was as ill-conceived as the decision to go for it on fourth down and throw it to Warren in the flat.
After Maryland shanked a punt, a touchdown was called back for a hold on senior right tackle Tristan Nickelson, but Buechele was able to convert a 3rd and 20 with a 33-yard touchdown strike to senior wide receiver Armanti Foreman.
Momentum swung more solidly in the favor of Texas when the defense got a stop and sophomore wide receiver Reggie Hemphill-Mapps broke a 91-yard punt return courtesy of a crunching block from Malik Jefferson.
PUNT RETURN TD ALERT pic.twitter.com/xMptA4iAMS— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 2, 2017
Maryland responded with a long kickoff return to add to the special teams woes for Texas and broke off another big run when the ‘Horns tried to get numbers in the box and a linebacker missed a run fit.
The tepid run game received a boost when wide receivers Jerrod Heard, the former quarterback, and Lil’Jordan Humphrey, the former high school running back, gained 25 yards on two carries. Those plays from the Wildcat set up a short touchdown run from Buechele.
Ultimately, however, the embarrassing loss illustrated exactly what Herman said when Texas was ranked in both major preseason polls — this is still a 5-7 team.
Despite all the rhetoric, despite the entire offseason, this team still made the same mistakes as last year, but did so without a credible running game or any ability to produce big plays in the passing game.
After one game, Herman hasn’t delivered on any of the improvements that were supposed to happen.
And that means that Texas isn’t back yet.
Far from it.