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Inside the struggles of the Texas offense

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What happened against Iowa State in Ames?

NCAA Football: Texas at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

There were big expectations for the Texas Longhorns on offense this year.

Finally, it looked like the Longhorns had some experience along the offensive line, explosive players at the wide receiver position, and a Heisman-quality, dual-threat quarterback to run the offense. This Texas team, in the words of that quarterback, was back.

Going into the first bye week, if you told the average fan this Longhorns team would be 6-4 and would have averaged a meager 32.3 points per game in its last six games, despite putting up 42 against West Virginia and 50 against Kansas (88 and 107 in defensive FEI respectively according to footballoutsiders.com) they would have found that hard to believe. Well, that is exactly what has left the Longhorn faithful wondering, what happened?

First of all, Sam Ehlinger has not been the same player over the last six games that he was in 2018 and the first four contests of 2019. The Longhorns quarterback was able to throw for 3,292 yards and 25 touchdowns while only throwing five interceptions, earning a quarterback rating of 146.8 in 2018. Ehlinger looked every bit of a Heisman contender heading into 2019, and he lived up to the hype in the first four games of the season.

Heading into the bye week, Ehlinger had a 181.01 quarterback rating by compiling a 72.9 completion percentage, throwing for 309 yards per game, and possessing a 15-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In that time period, Ehlinger also averaged 47.8 rushing yards per game.

Since then, he’s struggled, to say the least — his quarterback rating over the last six games is 132.53. He has completed only 60.8 percent of his passes, averaging 279.5 yards per game and despite averaging three more carries per game, has only added 39.5 rushing yards per game. The most alarming statistic over those games is his 12-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Some may question if the decrease in productivity is due to a better quality opponent, so I investigated. All of the methods used for advanced metrics that correct for strength of opponent are proprietary information, so I developed my own method to calculate an opponent-adjusted quarterback rating. For this, I used the following equation to calculate opponents defensive pass efficiency:

Effp = (1-Efft/130)-Effr^2*R% where

Effp = Defensive pass efficiency

Efft = Defensive FEI ranking out of 130 teams

Effr = Defensive rush efficiency calculated as shown below

R % = Opponents run play percentage

I calculated defensive rush efficiency using the following equation:

Effr = 1/(Ypc/Ypcs) where:

Effr = defensive rush efficiency

Ypc = yards per carry allowed

Ypcs = standard yards per carry based on the best YPC average in the FBS (currently 2.4)

The defensive pass efficiencies were calculated as follows:

  • LTU - 0.519864
  • LSU - 0.685063
  • Rice - 0.112049
  • OK ST - 0.592955
  • WVU - 0.222049
  • Oklahoma - 0.317925
  • Kansas 0.070154
  • TCU - 0.691509
  • Kansas State - 0.714991
  • Iowa State - 0.670235
  • Baylor 0.815361
  • Texas Tech 0.355526

I then calculated the average pass efficiency over the first four games of 2019 and compared it to the most recent six games in 2019, through the completion of Iowa State. The first four games, the opponent had an average pass efficiency rating of 0.477 while in the last six games the average opponent’s pass efficiency rating was 0.449. Based on this data, the last six Texas opponents were slightly better at pass defense than their first four opponents.

I then calculated Ehlinger’s adjusted passer rating for the first four games versus the last six games. Over the first four games, Ehlinger had an opponent adjusted QB rating of 86.43 while over the last six games, Ehlinger had an adjusted QB rating of 59.35. As you can see, facing improved pass defenses is not the reason for Ehlinger’s struggles.

Some may say Ehlinger is pressing, some may say he is putting too much on his shoulder, and that may be true, but the majority of his struggles are not due to self-inflicted pressure, but due to undue stress put on the quarterback by the coaching staff.

Ehlinger is a Heisman-quality quarterback. He was capable of putting together solid numbers for 18 games and led the Longhorns to 10 wins a year ago. So what is causing the struggles for the quarterback?

A review of interviews with both head coach Tom Herman and offensive coordinator Tim Beck reveal that they have been coaching Ehlinger to make throws into tighter windows and take more chances with the football. They are not satisfied with a good play, or a check down for a few yards — they want him to push the ball into coverage in order to make the explosive play. They are asking for a perfect play, consistently.

This results in overthinking as a quarterback, which results in slower reads. Slower reads result in missing open receivers and holding the ball a second longer, allowing the defensive pressure to get home. It also results in attempting to squeeze the ball into tight windows or late throws after the defense has adjusted, resulting in interceptions. Overthinking as a result of over coaching is one reason for the struggles, at least in my opinion, but that is not the most glaring reason that Ehlinger and the rest of the Longhorns offense has struggled recently.

The most glaring reason is over-reliance on the quarterback and resulting fatigue. Over the first four games, Ehlinger averaged 45.5 combined rushing and passing attempts per game. Over the last six games, Sam has averaged 52.2 combined attempts per game.

Further analysis of this statistic reveals that when Sam has greater than 50 attempts in a game, he struggles. This is not surprising — it is too much to ask of any quarterback to make 50 plays or more in a game.

Over the last six games, Ehlinger has been asked to do this four times, and Texas is 1-3 in those games, with the sole win coming against Kansas. In the first four games, Sam was only asked to carry the offense greater than 50 plays one time, coming in the loss to LSU. In all, Texas is 1-4 in games where Ehlinger has 50 or more combined attempts.

Some may counter that this is due to a failed rushing attack, but that is not the case. The Texas running backs did struggle to run the ball against LSU, having 17 total carries for 61 yards, but in the other five games Keaontay Ingram and Roschon Johnson provided sufficient production on the ground when called upon, especially when running between the tackles.

The running backs had 10 carries for 104 yards against Oklahoma, 25 carries for 147 yards against Kansas, 21 carries for 81 yards against TCU (still almost four yards per carry), and although the team abandoned the run game completely early in the second quarter against Iowa State, they were actually starting to get a ground game going, with the last six carries before the half averaging 3.6 yards per carry despite a one-yard gain on third and short being included in that mix.

In fact, if you do the math, Texas averages 4.8 yards per carry with their running backs in the games that Ehlinger has had 50 or more attempts. There have been signs of life in the run game in those games, but the Texas coaching staff foolishly chose to abandon the game and rely instead on Ehlinger carrying the team. It hasn’t worked.

If there is one message that this science project sends to the Longhorn faithful it should be that the run game is working. Texas has abandoned it, foolishly.

If the Texas staff wants to win against Baylor and Texas Tech, they need to be aware of this fact and use the running backs to limit some of the pressure on Ehlinger, despite their early belief that the run game is not working. They may just surprise themselves.