The Texas Longhorns are halfway through a stretch of four games against ranked opponents, but junior wide receiver Jordan Whittington won’t be available to help junior quarterback Casey Thompson in any of them.
Whittington required surgery after injuring his clavicle against Oklahoma, leaving Thompson without his security blanket on third downs and the Longhorns without the team’s most reliable wide receiver, one who provided extra value in the running game and as a blocker.
So it wasn’t a surprise when the passing game suffered against an experienced Oklahoma State secondary — Thompson threw two interceptions, totaled only 179 yards through the air, and went 3-for-9 passing on third down. All three completions came in the first quarter and a half. Then Thompson forced a throw in the red zone and Jason Taylor II returned the interception 85 yards for a touchdown to turn a potential 24-3 or 20-3 lead into a 17-10 game.
The three completions did feature some positive moments, as junior Joshua Moore converted a third down, freshman Xavier Worthy converted another, and junior Marcus Washington got open on 3rd and 6 for a 58-yard gain, the longest reception of his career.
But the inability to maintain that success over the final 35-plus minutes was emblematic of a group struggling to regularly make positive plays.
“I think at the end of the day, what we’re looking for from that room is a little more level of consistency — we’re a little hit and miss, a little up and down,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said Monday. “That’s kind of been a bit of the story of our passing game in general. One week, it looks really great and the next week, it hasn’t been so great and it’s been a little bit of an up-and-down roller coaster.”
Sarkisian recognizes the need to put players in a position to succeed, something that didn’t always happen against Oklahoma State.
On one play, Worthy, who is listed at 160 pounds, was asked to block for Washington on a screen pass after Washington went in motion. Washington only gained two yards.
Late in the game, on a key 2nd and 1 trailing 25-24, redshirt freshman wide receiver Kelvontay Dixon was asked to block for Dixon on a run-pass option bubble screen. Dixon missed his block and Worthy was tackled at the line of scrimmage, leading to the eventual turnover on downs.
Beyond the problems of only having one strong blocker among the top four healthy wide receivers, the passing-game production has been hit or miss with those key players.
Moore, the leading receiver in 2020, only has one game with more than 24 receiving yards this season, a mark he surpassed six times last year.
Worthy, who has a chance to become the best wide receiver in school history, is still a true freshman who enrolled during the summer. His up-and-down nature as a young player is evident in his last four games — a 100-yard performance against Texas Tech followed by seven yards against TCU, then the 261-yard game against Oklahoma followed by 28 yards against Oklahoma State.
Washington’s big play flashed his upside as a wide receiver, but he only has four catches for 83 yards this season.
Dixon doesn’t have a catch since the Rice game.
With so much inconsistency from the wide receivers, the offensive staff discussed ways to get junior running back Keilan Robinson the ball more often in the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma State loss.
“It’s a fine line when you have such a quality player in Bijan [Robinson] in what he provides for our team, he obviously is an electric player, we see it every Saturday and what he can do, but we also have seen glimpses of what Keilan has brought to the table,” Sarkisian said last week.
“Even some of the few snaps he got Saturday, the impact that he had, so we’re always trying to evolve, we’re always trying to put ourselves in the best situation to be successful, not only just the individual players but us as a team. So I would anticipate we will continue to find a way in a role for him to be involved in what we do moving forward.”
With the advantage of the bye week, the obvious solution is to play Bijan Robinson and Keilan Robinson more often at the same time. The Alabama transfer was listed as a wide receiver during the spring and his speed on fly sweeps, like one that produced 25 yards against Oklahoma State, can cause hesitation in defenses — putting Keilan Robinson in motion could force them out of position just enough to allow Bijan Robinson to find the type of creases the offensive line struggled to create in the second half of the last two games.
Perhaps Bijan Robinson and junior running back Roschon Johnson could split out more often as wide receivers, too — both have flashed route-running ability this season, including a five-yard catch for Johnson against Oklahoma State.
Regardless of what solutions Sarkisian attempts in Waco against the Bears and then in Ames against the Cyclones, the loss to the Cowboys made apparent just how much the Longhorns miss Whittington.