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Texas hurt by special teams play against Tulsa

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From a blocked punt to a negative yardage punt return, the Horns weren’t sharp in the third phase on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Texas Jamie Harms-USA TODAY Sports

For a second straight week, the Texas Longhorns experienced some significant difficulties on special teams, including a blocked punt, two poor subsequent punts that led to Tulsa Golden Hurricane touchdowns, a punt return that went for negative yardage, and a holding penalty on the team’s only kickoff return.

The blocked punt came in the second quarter after the curious decision to throw a pass downfield on 3rd and 2 in Tulsa territory and continued a trend of dubious punt protection efforts going back to the opener against Maryland. As clearly demonstrated in both games, freshman punter Ryan Bujcevski, who has now played two games of American football in his entire life, simply isn’t comfortable enough with pressure to execute consistently.

On the blocked punt, Tulsa quickly got three rushers through the line of scrimmage — one in the middle, one on the left side of the Texas formation, and one on the right side of the Texas formation. With only two protectors in front of Bujcevski, the Golden Hurricane quickly achieved a numbers advantage.

Senior tight end Andrew Beck made his block to keep protect Bujcevski’s right side, but senior linebacker Anthony Wheeler was slow to recognize Deven Lamp burst through the middle and missed his block. Lamp was able to block the kick, but the Tulsa rusher from the left side of the Texas formation also got close enough to impact the punt.

Instead of pinning the Golden Hurricane near their own goal line, Tulsa took possession of the football at the Texas 45-yard line, so when seven plays only managed to produce 33 yards of offense, Tulsa was still able to attempt a short field goal. Fortunately for the Horns, the Golden Hurricane were abysmal on field-goal attempts and missed the 29-yard effort.

It was one of three missed field goals on the day for Tulsa, not including another miss that was retried due to a Texas penalty, which amounted to another mistake on special teams. And it was committed by senior cornerback Kris Boyd, no less.

Bujcevski initially recovered well enough to boot his next attempt 52 yards to start the second half, but his next two efforts were extremely poor.

Backed up against the goal line when a run of more than 20 yards by graduate transfer Tre Watson was negated by a holding call on Cade Brewer, Bujcevski had to punt out of the Texas end zone late in the third quarter. With Beck and Wheeler focused on stopping penetration up the middle, a free edge rusher from the left once again pressured Bujcevski, nearly blocking the punt. The resulting shank traveled only 24 yards before going out of bounds.

As a result, Tulsa got the ball at the Texas 33-yard line down 21-0 and scored a touchdown six plays later to narrow the deficit.

So the holding penalty and the near block allowed the Golden Hurricane a short field to start a comeback in a pivotal moment of the game.

The next punt was only marginally better. The Texas offense managed a first down for the first time in four possessions before the drive stalled when junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey dropped a pass past the first-down marker on 3rd and 8.

Bujcevski appeared slow to get his punt off on this occasion, resulting in more edge pressure from an unblocked defender. Once again, the punt went short and out of bounds, traveling only 32 yards.

This time, the punt actually went into Tulsa territory, but a 48-yard pass put the Golden Hurricane on the goal line and a short run narrowed the margin to 21-14 to make it a one-score game for the first time since the first quarter.

Bujcevski finished the game with four punts for 146 yards, an average of 36.5 yards per punt. Three of them landed out of bounds and his fifth attempt was blocked. Of Bujcevski’s 13 punts this season, six of them have gone out of bounds. His 37.3-yard average currently ranks No. 65 out of 78 eligible punters nationally.

Other than the 52-yard punt, each of the other punts against Tulsa significantly impacted the field position battle in a negative way for Texas.

“Yeah, inconsistent, but I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t help him,” head coach Tom Herman said on Monday. “We probably spooked him a little bit, obviously, and you got a guy that’s playing in second American football game ever and you got somebody running clean and putting a hand on his foot. So we got to do a much better job coaching our guys in protection and so that he can feel more comfortable back there.”

With freshman D’Shawn Jamison back as the punt returner and kick returner, the young player was a little bit too eager to make plays. In replacement of junior safety Brandon Jones, who had two impressive punt returns against Maryland, Jamison tried to make something happen early in the third quarter.

Instead of taking the five or so yards available on the return, Jamison retreated in an effort to take the edge and lost six yards before he was tackled. After sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger fumbled two plays later, Tulsa got the ball on the Texas 32-yard line.

Following the first Golden Hurricane touchdown set up by the penalty and Bujcevski’s short punt out of bounds, Jamison tried to make something happen once again, taking the kickoff out of the end zone. Given that Texas has struggled for the last several years to return any kicks more than 25 yards, Jamison was taking a significant risk. It didn’t pay off — Jamison only made it to the Texas 21-yard line and sophomore tight end Cade Brewer was called for holding, backing the Horns up to the 11-yard line. In the exchange, Texas lost 14 yards of field position.

The median punt average last season was just a little bit under 42 yards. With that as the bench mark and adding 10 yards of positive field position for Bujcevski’s good punt, Texas lost 74 yards of field position due to poor punts and the blocked punt, which cost the team 52 yards.

Adding in the 20 yards of lost field position due to Jamison’s poor decisions and Texas lost 94 yards of field position due to poor play on special teams. Combined with the eight penalties for 65 yards, special teams mistakes and penalties cost the Horns 159 yards against the Golden Hurricane.

With the defense not playing at the expected level and the offense stymied in the third quarter due to penalties, the fumble, and the dropped pass by Humphrey, Texas simply can’t afford to rack up penalty yardage and consistently provide the opponent with shorter fields due to blocked punts or short punts out of bounds.