Keaontay Ingram only needed a yard for the go-ahead touchdown.
With a little over two and a half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Texas Longhorns junior running back had just keyed the biggest drive of the game for the home team with a 52-yard catch on a wheel route and a 16-yard run.
After Texas rushed to the line despite the obvious benefit of running some clock, Ingram crashed into a pile at the line of scrimmage, then inexplicably reached the ball out towards the goal line. When he tried to re-secure the ball after his forward progress was stopped, it was knocked loose by star TCU linebacker Garett Wallow and the visiting Horned Frogs recovered at their own 1-yard line.
Stopping the clock with timeouts didn’t work out for head coach Tom Herman after TCU wide receiver Taye Barber ran for nine yards on 3rd and 7 to seal the 33-31 victory for the Horned Frogs at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
Senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger was left attempting to provide some perspective to Ingram after his mistake.
“I reminded him that as much as we love this, it’s just a game,” Ehlinger said. “It’s not life or death. I told him, it’s certainly not him.”
Ehlinger was right. It certainly wasn’t all on Ingram — the Longhorns combined to make enough mistakes for several football games.
And so it wasn’t just the type of loss that has defined the last decade of football.
It was the type of loss that has also defined the Tom Herman era, now in its fourth year and featuring a 1-3 record against TCU. Saturday was just the latest misstep against a program that is now 7-2 against Texas since joining the Big 12 in 2012.
Hail the new purple overlords, different from the old purple overlords.
In a sloppy game that featured 26 penalties and couldn’t start or stop without them, head coach Gary Patterson beat Texas once again with a 33-31 victory at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
Herman’s Longhorns entered the game averaging eight penalties per game, one of the worst marks in the country. Last season, Texas ranked tied for 114th in the country in penalty yards per game. In 2018, it was tied for 109th. Herman’s first season saw the Horns rank in a tie at 107th.
So it’s not just that Texas has consistently committed penalties at an extraordinarily high rate since Herman arrived in Austin, it’s that the problem is only getting worse.
“This university deserves better,” senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger said. “It’s very frustrating when it’s self-inflicted and it’s preventable by attention to detail and playing the way that we all know everybody is capable of playing in this program.”
The self-inflicted mistakes started quickly.
After the first attempt at the opening kickoff resulted in an offsides call on TCU, Texas freshman safety Jerrin Thompson was called for a hold on junior cornerback D’Shawn Jamison’s 96-yard kickoff return. The most frustrating aspect of that play? Thompson’s hold happened so early that the penalty didn’t clearly spring Jamison for the potentially huge play. It might not have had an impact all.
On the second offense drive, redshirt sophomore wide receiver Joshua Moore lined up split wide left, but covered up senior tight end Cade Brewer. So when Brewer ran a route, he was flagged as an ineligible receiver downfield as Ingram picked up 47 yards.
Take another 52 yards off the board for Texas.
The Longhorns even managed to commit awful special teams penalties like a personal foul on senior safety Chris Brown on a punt return kicked from the Texas 40-yard line — the type of play that almost never results in a return due to the compressed field. Then redshirt freshman linebacker David Gbenda was called for a personal foul on a touchback in the second half. A touchback.
Sometimes the officials simply intervened, like the 34-yard gain by sophomore wide receiver Jake Smith when he was called for offensive pass interference despite making little contact with the defender.
Or when the officials picked up a flag for a holding penalty on a 15-yard run by TCU quarterback Max Duggan to the Texas 1-yard line in the first quarter. Instead of facing 2nd and 20 from the 26-yard line, the Horned Frogs scored two plays later.
Texas finished the game with 12 penalties for 92 yards after combining with TCU for 13 penalties in the first quarter, a Big 12 record.
“I don’t have a better adjective other than it was a weird feeling down there,” Herman said about how the game started. “It was difficult to get into a rhythm.”
The question is why all those penalties happened. Herman said there are “a thousand reasons why they happen,” but was left perplexed because he thought Texas practiced well during the week. The issue is translating practice performance to the game, the same issue that surfaced last week against Texas Tech with the tackling problems.
“We’ve got to find a way to make sure that we’re getting the necessary reps to where it is second nature and it’s not a deal where guys are thinking too much,” Herman said.
The Texas head coach said he would discuss those problems with his leadership council this week.
Other mistakes hurt the Longhorns and contributed to the choppy way that the game unfolded.
Late in the first half, Texas aggressively tried to tie the game or take the lead down 17-14 with 1:28 remaining. On the first play, TCU dialed up a plus-one blitz and then took away Ehlinger’s hot route to Brewer. When Ehlinger progressed to his second read, he tried to find Moore, who didn’t cut off his route as anticipated. The result was an easy interception for TCU cornerback La’Kendrick Van Zandt, who made his own mistake when his first return to the Texas 5-yard line was negated by 15 yards for a personal foul.
Ehlinger tried to take the blame after the game, but it wasn’t the first mental mistake for Moore or even the first time he hasn’t been on the same page as Ehlinger with route adjustments this year.
In the third quarter, the Horns forced a three-and-out facing a 23-21 deficit and enjoyed a brief moment of potential momentum. Instead, Smith dropped an easy catch on a 3rd and 4 crossing route when he appeared to simply take his eyes off the football. He was eyeing a swath of open field that extended some 65 or so yards to the end zone.
Had Smith made the reception, he might still be running.
On the next drive, Texas returned to the old standby — ruining drives with a penalty. A rare busted coverage by Patterson’s defense left redshirt sophomore wide receiver Al’Vonte Woodard running free down the sideline for a 26-yard gain on a run-pass option. The problem was that run option, as redshirt sophomore right tackle Christian Jones was flagged as an illegal player downfield when he wandered just far enough into the open field looking for someone to block that he drew the flag after a discussion by the officials.
Jones wasn’t much more than a yard farther down the field than legally allowed. Attention to detail matters.
Sometimes the coaches put their players in position to fail.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Texas had a 29-26 lead and the football after the defense held TCU to a four-play drive. Instead of aggressively trying to win the game, the Longhorns called two running plays and then came up short on third down.
The Horned Frogs took advantage thanks to a questionable defensive call by coordinator Chris Ash. Facing a 2nd and 5 from the Texas 26-yard line, TCU dialed up an empty set, prompting the defense to respond with both defensive tackles lined up wide of the guards and the linebackers ready to bracket the inside routes.
The result was a middle completely open to the quarterback draw. Sure enough, Duggan kept it for what became the game-winning score with virtually no resistance. The ability to take advantage of that defensive call was so obvious it would have been shocking to see the Horned Frogs run anything other than a quarterback draw.
Deciding to run the ball twice on that three-and-out in the fourth quarter was made more perplexing because inconsistency from the offensive line combined with penalties, sometimes by the offensive line itself, to limit the overall rhythm when the Horns had the ball and make it difficult to sustain drives. On first down, Texas only averaged three yards per rush in the first half and 3.9 yards per rush overall.
“I think consistently is the key word there — we were feast or famine. We would have some explosive plays and some zero, negative yard yard plays that we couldn’t stay ahead of the sticks,” Herman said. “We need to do a better job early in the game of establishing the run and not having to take that long for us to find a runner to that we can hang our hat on.”
Outside of a 16-yard run by Ingram, who started the game, the junior carried the ball 10 times for 26 yards.
Sophomore running back Roschon Johnson, who left the game with a shoulder injury, recorded a run of 40 yards and Ehlinger set his career high with a 36-yard run on a scramble, but the other 22 carries went for only 76 yards, an average of 3.5 yards per carry.
And that’s without any sack yardage included, as the offensive line did protect Ehlinger well enough to avoid any sacks.
Ehlinger wasn’t efficient, either, starting the game with four incompletions for the first time in his career and finishing the game 17-of-36 passing for 236 yards. Throwing for four touchdowns was evidence that Ehlinger did have good moments, but there just weren’t enough.
“I think it was up and down and he made some really really good throws, made some ill-advised ones as well,” Herman said of Ehlinger. “The TCU defense did a really good job. So, you never want to sound like we were playing on air out there — those guys, they’ve got a really good defense, and they got a lot better this week.”
The problem is that Texas didn’t get better this week. Texas didn’t get better last week prior to the narrow escape against Texas Tech, either. And that just can’t continue if the Longhorns expect to reach the team’s goal of competing for a Big 12 title.
“We can’t continue to beat ourselves the way that we played these last two weeks and expect to win any more ball games,” Herman said. “That’s on me to get them ready and find a way to make sure that we don’t beat ourselves.”