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Why the Texas offense stalled against Tulsa

The Longhorns still aren’t explosive enough to make up for mistakes. But the offense as a whole is getter closer to a potential breakout.

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

While the Texas Longhorns roared off to a strong start against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane on Saturday in scoring 21 points in the first half, the second half featured significant struggles — two three and outs aided by penalties, a fumble, and a dropped third-down pass when the Horns finally picked up a first down.

In an effort to understand what happened, here’s a look at those first four drives and how they ended up falling apart.

First drive

Texas started the third quarter with the football after deferring to start the game. A touchback gave the Longhorns the ball at the Golden Hurricane 25-yard line.

On the first play, the Horns ran what looked like a designed swing pass to freshman running back Keaontay Ingram, who picked up seven yards thanks to good downfield blocking from senior tight end Andrew Beck and junior wide receiver Devin Duvernay. Given how early Beck and Duvernay were blocking, it looked like the play was to Ingram all along.

Unfortunately, graduate transfer left tackle Calvin Anderson was hit for a holding penalty, which put the Horns in a 1st and 20 situation and cost the team 17 yards of field position. Anderson initially had his left hand outside the framework of the defender’s body, but quickly got both hands inside and ended up taking the defender to the ground. From the camera angle provided by the Longhorn Network, it’s hard to see if the flag was warranted. It’s possible that the hold occurred with Anderson’s right hand, which was blocked from view.

No offense in the country is happy about 1st and 20 one play into a half. Texas especially is still not in a position where the offense is reliable or explosive enough to even feel comfortable getting out of these situations. To be fair, that’s a relatively tough bar to clear.

Texas split out Ingram and Beck in a five-wide look on a crossing route designed for junior wide receiver Collin Johnson, who picked up good blocks from Beck and junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey. The play gained eight yards, a solid chunk on first down after the penalty, but could have gone for a few more, as Humphrey was displaced several yards backwards after he made contact with the defender, who disengaged to make the play.

After looking back to the sideline for a check on 2nd and 12, Texas stacked Beck and Ingram to Ehlinger’s right and ran power to Ingram, who used his nifty feet, patience, and vision to find a seam for 10 yards. So Texas did go a good job of setting up a manageable 3rd and 2 after initially getting behind the chains.

Unfortunately, the Longhorns ran a zone read on the next play and Ehlinger tried to get the read defender to bite on the running back by holding the ball at the mesh point for an extra second, but ultimately was tackled for a two-yard loss immediately after pulling it. The play was one of the more significant mistakes that Ehlinger made during the game, as Ingram had the blocking to pick up the first down — that was the proper read on the play. Head coach Tom Herman seemingly referenced this play in his Monday’s press conference as one that Ehlinger would like to have back.

Second drive

After the defense forced a three and out, Texas lost about 10 yards of field position when freshman punt returner D’Shawn Jamison decided not to take the four or so yards available to him and instead tried to backtrack to take the edge. He ended up losing six yards.

Instead of starting with the ball around the 35-yard line, Texas started on its own 28-yard line.

The Horns opened the drive with a three-yard gain by graduate transfer running back Tre Watson, who was tripped up behind an offensive line that created good displacement on the play — when Watson was tackled, it was basically at the new line of scrimmage.

Ehlinger identified a blitz on the next play and slide his protection to the right. Freshman wide receiver Brennan Eagles, who was in the game with fellow freshman Joshua Moore, had one-on-one coverage. As a result, Ehlinger looked in his direction, but Eagles didn’t create the needed separation, so Ehlinger vacated the pocket to his left with a defender in pursuit.

The sophomore quarterback then made his biggest mistake of the game. He’s been focused on scrambling to make plays down the field instead of pulling the ball down and running, but he underestimated the speed of the defending chasing him and should have taken the several yards available on the scramble. Instead, the ball was stripped out from behind as he attempted to throw the ball. Tulsa recovered.

Third drive

Another stop by the Texas defense stopped a scoring opportunity for Tulsa, but gave the Horns the ball deep in their own territory — at the 4-yard line.

Texas used jet motion in an attempt to create a seam for Watson behind two tight ends, but Beck missed his block, which threw off the timing of the play. By the time Watson got through an open hole, it filled quickly for a three-yard gain.

Sticking with two tight ends, Texas moved the wide receivers into tight splits, but senior Jerrod Heard was in close enough to make his block. Fortunately, Ehlinger made the right read to give Watson a seam created by sophomore tight end Cade Brewer. After bouncing the ball outside, Watson made it somewhere close to the 30-yard line — a potential gain of more than 20 yards to flip the field position.

Once again, however, Brewer’s block wasn’t quite executed correctly. He had his hands in the right spot, he just held on too long, maintaining his grip past the necessary point for the play’s timing and after the defender started to turn. Had he let go sooner, Watson still had the crease and the bounce to the edge available, so Brewer’s hold only forced that defender to take a wider angle in his eventual pursuit. Frustrating.

From a similar formation, Texas handed the ball off to Ingram on 2nd and 8, but Heard missed his block again. Ingram bounced the ball away from that defender and had a chance to gain some yardage, but he was tripped up from behind by the pursuing player who was Heard’s responsibility. Ingram might have only gained a yard or two, but given his ability to split defenders, any play has the potential for some magic.

On 3rd and 6, Texas went back to the crossing route to Johnson, but Humphrey missed his block and Johnson was dumped three yards short of the first down.

In addition to the penalty, the Longhorns were mostly sunk on this drive due to poor blocking by the wide receivers.

Fourth drive

The game was starting to turn after freshman Ryan Bujcevski’s 24-yard punt gave Tulsa a short field. After capitalizing with a touchdown, the score was 21-7 and there was starting to be some more serious pressure on the Longhorns to move the football.

The drive didn’t start well, however, as Jamison took the kickoff out of the end zone and Texas was hit with another holding penalty on Brewer to cost the team 14 yards of field position and force the offense to start at its own 11-yard line.

Ehlinger checked down to Ingram on the first play, giving his freshman running back a one-on-one opportunity with a linebacker in the open field. While that’s normally a winning proposition, the Tulsa player made a nice tackle to limit the gain to five yards.

A direct snap to Humphrey featured a great lead block by Ingram and other strong efforts by Anderson, Beck, and Duvernay, with Johnson even getting into the mix. The former high school running back picked up 11 yards on the play to pick up a first down for the first time in the second half with 30 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

Texas again lined up with a short split to the boundary and this time it was Duvernay who missed his block, resulting in Watson needing a tremendous effort to break that tackle and fall forward for a loss of only one yard.

A free defender and a missed block by Johnson helped Tulsa hold Ingram to a three-yard gain on a play that was otherwise well blocked.

From a five-wide look on 3rd and 8, Ehlinger looked right to the trips side, then came back to his favored target to his left — Humphrey, who created separation with a comeback route at the sticks. Ehlinger put the ball on the money, but Humphrey dropped it in traffic to force the punt.

In reviewing that happened on the first four drives of the second half, it’s clear that the play calling wasn’t the issue — there weren’t any glaringly poor decisions other than choosing to narrow wide receiver splits to help with blocking. Even then, though, the bigger problem was players not executing on the field. Several plays were set up well, but a mistake most often from the tight ends or wide receivers, helped limit the play.

The holding penalties and lost yardage on special teams didn’t help either, as Texas consistently started well into its own territory. The frustrating thing about those holding penalties? Neither were that egregious or even that necessary.

A similar analysis of the blocking or Ehlinger’s zone-read decision on third down or his decision not to just pick up a few yards shows a team that was close to executing at a solid level for the entire game.

After all, Texas played well in the first half and finished the game well. The difference was a few mistakes in the middle, but given that the offensive line is better in pass blocking and run blocking, there’s more juice at running back, and Ehlinger is generally playing at a higher level than he did for most of last year, this offense isn’t far off.

While failing to win convincingly against a problem like Tulsa makes it feel like there isn’t any progress, even a review of the offense’s biggest failures shows a group that is further along than last season and close to a potential breakout.