The scene is all too familiar since Tom Herman took over the Texas Longhorns program.
A yellow flag on the field.
An official signaling yet another penalty on the Longhorns.
Now Herman and his staff are resorting to desperate measures with the team underachieving at 2-2 and the Herman era threatening to come apart at the seams in his fourth season on the Forty Acres thanks to numerous mistakes.
“Guys that commit foolish penalties will be punished,” Herman said last week. “I’ve never, never, never been in a program that we’ve done that before. Some of the new coaches have been and so moving forward we’ll punish foolish penalties.”
In other words, meting out punishment for penalties was not a tactic that Mack Brown employed when Herman was a graduate assistant at Texas. It was not a tactic that Paul Rhoads used at Iowa State or David Bailiff at Texas State and Rice. It was not a tactic that Urban Meyer used at Ohio State when Herman won a national championship as Meyer’s offensive coordinator.
So the fact that none of the successful coaches that Herman has worked with in the past used that tactic, including two coaches with national titles, speaks to the struggles of the current Texas staff to find answers. Any answers.
Part of the desperation stems from the fact that the continued flurry of flags merely represents a disturbing trend for Herman.
In 2017, Texas finished No. 112 nationally in penalty yards per game and 115h in total penalty yardage. The following year, the Horns ranked No. 98 in penalty yards per game, but 116th in total penalty yardage. In 2019, Texas regressed to 120th in penalty yards per game and 119th in total penalty yardage. This year, Herman’s squad ranks 70th out of 77 teams in penalty yards per game.
So this isn’t a new problem under Herman — in fact, it’s trending in the wrong direction, leaving the staff believing that they have no other choice but to penalize players for penalties.
“It’s the only thing left that we know how to do,” Herman said. “We have educated. We have pleaded until we’re blue in the face.”
It’s not that the players don’t care, at least in Herman’s belief.
“Guys, I cannot tell you the amount of contrition that some of these guys have. There is no malice. There’s no lack of care,” Herman said.
Simply finding a through line with all the penalties in an attempt to find solutions is not a straightforward task, either.
“Well, I think they all need to be taken individually and see why and how and what,” Herman said.
The personal foul penalty on senior center Derek Kerstetter against Oklahoma was the example brought up during Herman’s press conference.
With Texas trailing 10-0 early in the second quarter following the interception by junior linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger scrambled on 3rd and 16 from the Oklahoma 17-yard line, nearly picking up the first down near the goal line. The Longhorns looked poised to go for it on fourth down and potentially tie the game.
Instead, Kerstetter earned a personal foul penalty for a late hit as he hustled to make a block for his quarterback and Texas was forced to settle for a field goal.
“I mean, Derek Kerstetter’s a captain and nobody’s more sick about the penalty than he is,” Herman said. “As he’s done very many times, he had assumed that Sam was still up and driving the pile and that he was coming in to push the pile, much like he’s done for four years here. We’ve got to be smarter in that instance and know that he is down and that’s not [in] a pile. And he knows that.”
It was the only red-zone drive against the Sooners that failed to produce a touchdown for the Longhorns and came at a key point in the game. The Texas defense had just handed the offense a short field as the entire team struggled to gain momentum after junior running back Keaontay Ingram’s early fumble forced a defensive stand near the goal line to prevent Oklahoma from taking a more significant early lead.
So although when penalties happen may not be part of how Herman and his staff evaluate the mistakes in an effort to correct them, the timing can play a hugely important role in the extent to which a penalty impacts a game, especially in the charged environment of a rivalry game like the Red River Shootout.
For the staff right now, however, the why of these penalties remains at the forefront of their evaluations.
Why did junior punter Ryan Bujcevski compound a long punt return with a personal foul penalty for shoving the punt returner down after making the tackle? Why are other special teams players getting penalties on touchbacks and punts with no chance of a return? Why is the defense picking up so many personal foul penalties in general?
“I think they’re all different. Some come from an over exuberance of trying to do too much,” Herman said. “Some come from a lack of attention to detail and your technique, but they all need to be addressed singularly.”
One prime example of a lack of attention to detail came early in the TCU game.
Facing a 3rd and 5 deep in Texas territory after both teams punted to start the game, Ehlinger found Ingram in the flat for a 47-yard gain to flip field position.
The problem was that there an ineligible man downfield — the Longhorns simply lined up wrong, as redshirt sophomore wide receiver Joshua Moore covered up an eligible receiver on the line of scrimmage. In the week following the game, Ehlinger challenged his teammates to be more disciplined.
Another penalty was a combination of a lack of attention to detail and poor technique.
After a recovered fumble down 23-21 in the third quarter against the Horned Frogs, Ehlinger found redshirt sophomore wide receiver Al’Vonte Woodard on a coverage bust for a 26-yard gain down to the TCU 11-yard line.
Except that redshirt sophomore right tackle Christian Jones was attempting to climb to the second level on the run-pass option and drifted too far downfield despite not having anyone to block, earning a five-yard penalty that cost the Longhorns 31 yards of field position.
When the following two plays produced only a single yard, Texas was forced to punt. The Longhorns eventually lost the game by two points.
Those two penalties are both relatively easy to correct.
More difficult may be fixing the false start penalties helped put Texas behind the chains in games against UTEP and Texas Tech — the Longhorns had five false start penalties in those two games. With crowd noise limited this season and four or the five starters possessing significant previous experience entering this season, there’s no excuse for the prevalence of those penalties.
Nor is it clear how resorting to punitive measures will correct those issues — or the all other issues — when other techniques have failed.
Perhaps the best hope for improvement is the players simply gaining a higher level of comfortability with the new coaching staff and being on the field and competing in the midst of a global pandemic.
“It’s cases of just losing your wits for a split second and it winds up costing us, so we’ve obviously got to play smarter and we’ve got to rein that in and trust our technique and trust our training and [clean up] some of the things that were a lack of fundamentals or what gets us in trouble,” Herman said.