Turnovers in critical moments. Defensive breakdowns. Dumb penalties. Questionable play calling. Offensive line struggles.
Despite another offseason full of rhetoric, the worst elements of head coach Tom Herman’s first Texas Longhorns team were on display once again as the Horns fumbled and bumbled at FedEx Field on Saturday to lose to the Maryland Terrapins, 34-29.
The third loss to open the season in the last four years was roughly as crushing as the other two, as sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger overcame a slow start to turn in a strong performance until his arm was hit late in the fourth quarter, resulting in an interception.
When the defense got the ball back to the offense for a second attempted march towards the end zone to win the game, graduate transfer running back Tre Watson caught a swing pass and picked up the first down. He appeared to lose and then regain the ball as he hit the ground before a Maryland player pulled it loose, but the call was overturned and the Terrapins got the football back.
The defense provided yet another opportunity for the offense, which again picked up some yardage, but Ehlinger ended the game with a forced pass into coverage that resulted in his second interception. After an offseason spend discussing his need to avoid those type of plays, it happened again.
Those were the only three turnovers in the game, as the Longhorns defense was not able to force any big mistakes by the Terrapins offense beyond a safety.
Many of the other Texas mistakes looked familiar, too. Maryland scored 13 points largely as a result of needless defensive penalties. Longhorns players hit the Terrapins quarterback late multiple times and senior cornerback Kris Boyd picked up a key pass interference penalty on 3rd and long. One drive featured three 15-yard penalties, including a targeting call on senior linebacker Gary Johnson that resulted in his justified ejection.
All told, Texas committed 10 penalties for 102 yards, continuing the disturbing trend from last season.
And is the offensive line better this season? The Longhorns struggled mightily to run the football early in the game, and while the running game eventually did find some footing, but that point Texas was already down in the game. So it was hardly a heartening performance in offensive line coach Herb Hand’s debut.
Defensively, Todd Orlando’s group did enough to give the offense a chance to win late in the game, even without Johnson and senior cornerback Davante Davis for long stretches of the game. Davis left in the first half with a neck injury.
The jet sweep game of Maryland interim head coach Matt Canada was particularly devastating, producing multiple touchdowns and playing a large role in the Terrapins running for two touchdowns. Canada was rather conservative at times and took a risk on a fourth-down play in his own territory, but also produced a touchdown with a trick play and made full use of freshman standout Jeshaun Jones, who debuted with touchdowns passing, running, and receiving.
In front of a crowd with a significant burnt orange tinge, the game started with the Terrapins lining up with 10 men on the field to honor their late teammate, Jordan McNair. Maryland took the delay of game and Texas declined the penalty.
It was about as well as things went for the Horns on the opening possession, as Canada’s offense used its typical dose of motions, shifts, and misdirection to confuse the defense.
The jet sweep game was a big part of, as wide receiver Taivon Jacobs gained 13 yards on the first play before Jeshaun Jones found a seam on a similar play for a 28-yard touchdown. In between, Jacobs caught a pass over the middle for a 23-yard catch and run — the Horns simply got gashed on the first series.
The offense continued the poor start, drawing a delay of game on the first play and then seeing freshman wide receiver Brennan Eagles run the wrong route on the second. A pass-interference penalty got Texas a first down on third and long, but the unit once again got behind the chains when freshman wide receiver D’Shawn Jamison was dropped behind the line of scrimmage on his own jet sweep.
The only positive news through the first four and a half minutes? A booming 56-yard punt by freshman Ryan Bucjevski, to ease any initial concerns about how well he can live up to the standard set by his cousin Michael Dickson.
And then, in a heartbeat, the momentum swung.
Back on punt return, junior safety Brandon Jones broke a tackle and took the edge for an electric 33-yard return to the Maryland 39-yard line following a three and out forced by the Texas defense.
The offense wasted no time attacking — on the first play in the shot zone, sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger dropped back and found a streaking Devin Duvernay over the deep middle. The throw was nearly too long, but Duvernay’s diving, twisting effort hauled in the pass for a 39-yard touchdown catch and massive swing of momentum in favor of the visiting team.
Throughout the offseason, head coach Tom Herman wondered how his team would respond to adversity. And though the start to the game was hardly ideal, each phase of the game provided a response to knot the game at 7-7.
A big missed opportunity shaped the next drive. On second down, a poorly-thrown ball from Maryland quarterback Kasim Hill floated into and out of the hands of Texas senior cornerback Kris Boyd. The Terrapins only needed once chance to take advantage, as Hill found Jones down the middle for a 65-yard touchdown that was nearly called back for taunting as Jones neared the end zone.
What happened? Davis got hung up on senior cornerback PJ Locke III on a rub route and couldn’t recover against the speedy Jacobs, who scored two touchdowns on his first two touches in college.
Once the defense stopped giving up big plays, it started beating itself — senior defensive end Charles Omenihu drew a 15-yard penalty for an egregious roughing the passing penalty, then Davis ran into Jacobs for a pass interference penalty on a fluttering ball from Hill under pressure. Then the Horns suffered another big blow when Johnson was ejected for targeting on a play that already featured a hold by the Terps. Maryland settled for a short field goal to stretch the lead to 17-7.
The offense was a mess early, failing to convert on all four third-down attempts through the first 20 minutes of the game. Besides the 39-yard touchdown pass to Duvernay, the Horns only 11 yards on the other 14 offensive plays — an average of .79 yards per play.
Meanwhile, the Terps had racked up 226 yards of offense, wearing down an opposing defense that was constantly on the field and without both starting linebackers following Johnson’s ejection.
When Bucjevski shanked a 10-yard punt off the side of his foot from the Maryland end zone, Texas was in serious trouble, especially after a jet-sweep action pass from Jones to Jacobs went for a 20-yard touchdown, beating redshirt freshman cornerback Kobe Boyce, who was quickly targeted following the departure of Davis.
Down 24-7, the Longhorns were in trouble, but much-improved run blocking opened holes for Tre Watson and then Keaontay Ingram on the subsequent drive, producing 69 yards on six plays. Ingram capped it with a five-yard touchdown run, as Ehlinger only had to throw the ball once, a 23-yard completion to junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey.
Finally getting into a rhythm, the offense moved the ball well on the following drive, too, until a Tim Beck special that was not vetoed by Herman resulted in a five-yard loss on a reverse to Jamison. The drive stalled, but a strong effort by Bucjevski pinned Maryland deep in its own territory. On third down, the Longhorns forced a safety when the exchange was mishandled, cutting the Maryland lead to 24-16 and setting up another opportunity before halftime.
And the drive was all Ehlinger, even though a nice scramble by the sophomore was called back for a hold on the first play. A 17-yard pass to senior wide receiver Jerrod Heard and 15-yard run on a quarterback draw set up a 22-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Collin Johnson. Ehlinger looked off the safety on the play and came down to his big pass catcher in single coverage, with Johnson fighting through contact to finish the play.
The big finish to the half marked a stark turnaround from Ehlinger’s slow start. After completing only two of his first seven passes for 39 yards (all of it coming on Duvernay’s touchdown catch), Ehlinger went 7-of-8 for 108 yards and two touchdowns. The finish showed growth in two key areas — hanging in the pocket with confidence and his eyes down field and not putting the ball in danger.
A resurrected running game played a big role, too, as the line started opening up some holes for Watson and Ingram, who combined for 72 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries in the first half.
A questionable decision by Canada with Maryland winning the field position battle early in the second half quickly came back to hurt the Terrapins. After the right side of the Texas defensive line blew up a fourth-down play, Ehlinger took advantage on 3rd and 9 with a beautiful, point-perfect pass to Johnson for 33 yards. Going tempo, Texas was able to convert from two yards out, as junior running back Kyle Porter finished the drive and gave the Horns a lead for the first time.
The Terrapins responded with a long, grinding drive aided by a 15-yard hands to the face penalty on junior defensive tackle Gerald Wilbon. Besides another jet sweep touchdown run by Maryland, the most disappointing part of the drive was a 3rd and 19 converted by the Terps early on, aided by a 13-yard pass on third down and a 10-yard scramble by Hill to set up the touchdown. With the score, Maryland once again regained the lead.
And then a rain storm entered the Landover area, pushing the players off the field for an hour and a half. FS1 reported that Herman tried to buy pizza for his team before they prepared to retake a field soaked with rain.
When play resumed, Texas appeared to have some momentum until Johnson whiffed on the key block intended to spring a screen pass to Duvernay. Instead, the Longhorns lost yardage to remove any hope of going for it on fourth down.
More bone-headed penalties on the defense nearly put the game out of reach — a brief but noticeable grab by Boyd resulted in a pass interference penalty and freshman safety BJ Foster was penalized for roughing the passer. Fortunately for Texas, a big play by Jones to bring down Hill short of the goal line eventually forced a 19-yard field goal by Maryland that stretched the lead to five points.
Unfortunately, keeping the offense in the game wasn’t enough, as the turnover barrage commenced to solidify the flashbacks to 2017.
This game was closer than it was last season and the Longhorns had more opportunities, but too much of it was too similar. And the result was the same.