Following a heartening performance against the then-No. 21 Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns, the No. 15 Texas Longhorns took a massive step backwards in a 40-21 defeat by the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday in Fayetteville.
In front of the first sellout crowd at Donald W. Reynolds Razorbacks Stadium in years, new head coach Steve Sarkisian’s team didn’t appear ready for the environment, much less a full SEC schedule. The Horns struggled offensively in the first half, especially along the offensive line, and then struggled defensively in the second half as the Razorbacks ran for 187 yards on 7.2 yards per carry in opening up a 33-7 lead late in the third quarter.
Led by former offensive line coach Sam Pittman, Arkansas ran for 333 yards in creating a 471-256 advantage in total yards. And in the trenches on both sides of the ball, Texas simply got beat.
The tone was set early for what type of game it would be in a hostile environment when Texas sophomore cornerback Kitan Crawford appeared to recover a muffed punt at the Arkansas 4-yard line following the second Razorbacks drive. But the play was overturned because Crawford’s foot was barely on the sideline as he recovered the football.
Predictable play calling early for Texas and an inability to handle an Arkansas defensive front that dared the Longhorns to run the football helped stymy Sarkisian’s offense early in the game. In particular, Texas ran the ball frequently on first down, but couldn’t consistently gain yardage, putting the Longhorns into regular third-and-long situations exacerbated by three third-down penalties.
Texas finished 2-for-6 passing on first down and ended the game with a 5.3 yard per carry average that wasn’t illustrative of how much the Longhorns struggled on early downs. The third-down numbers provide some clarification — Texas went 4-for-13 on the money down while facing an average of 7.5 yards on third down that reached over 10 yards when the game was still in question. In the first half, Sarkisian’s offense failed to convert all six third-down opportunities while averaging 2.6 yards per carry and 4.9 yards per pass attempt.
Early in the second quarter, a rare Texas drive into Arkansas territory was illustrative of the problems faced by the Longhorns.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Hudson Card ran into a sack on 2nd and 5 against a three-man rush when he tried to climb the pocket unnecessarily. Then Texas had a delay of game penalty on 3rd and 10 that included Card getting hit well after the whistle without a penalty flag. On 3rd and 15, Card scrambled and nearly produced a massive touchdown pass, but his pass intended for junior wide receiver Jordan Whittington in the end zone tailed just enough that Whittington couldn’t bring it in while twisting his body to make a play on the football.
Arkansas responded with a touchdown run to make the score 10-0 and put pressure on Texas with the sellout crowd beginning to impact the game.
Sarkisian cited another missed opportunities in his post-game press conference. On the next Texas possession, a false start created a 3rd and 11 that Card nearly converted with a 16-yard pass dropped by Whittington, one of several on the day for the junior. Instead of continuing the drive with a first down, senior kicker Cameron Dicker fumbled a good snap on the ensuing punt and had it blocked.
“We were just a little jittery, for whatever reason — I don’t think it was about looks that we weren’t prepared for, we just didn’t play to our standards and to our capability,” Sarkisian said.
After the blocked punt, the Texas defense responded, as it did in the red zone for much of the first half, holding Arkansas to a field goal. Another field goal by the Razorbacks, this one off the uprights, pushed the lead to 16-0 at halftime.
“Things happened in this game that we didn’t have to deal with last week and that’s always your concern when you go on the road in a hostile environment at night, of keeping the temperament of your team so that you can go out and perform and execute and clearly that didn’t happen tonight. So that’s the thing that is probably the most disappointing that we’ve got to make sure that we get back right moving forward,” Sarkisian said.
Before going into the locker room, Sarkisian said that Card was struggling to keep his eyes downfield as the Arkansas pass rush impacted him, but the execution issues along the offensive line were the biggest issue in the first half. So it wasn’t necessarily surprising when Card took the field with the first-team offense to open the final 30 minutes.
“I think it was a combination of everything — we didn’t play very good as a football team, especially an offensive football team in the first half,” Sarkisian said.
Whatever halftime adjustments Sarkisian made, they didn’t work, as Texas went three and out for the fifth time in its first seven possessions.
An interception by senior safety BJ Foster finally gave the Longhorns a short field and the offense temporarily asserted itself into the game for the first time with a one-yard touchdown run on the sixth play to cut the lead to 16-7.
The game quickly turned against Texas as the defense made some key mistakes — senior cornerback D’Shawn Jamison gave up a 45-yard pass play when he had his eyes in the backfield and didn’t carry the receiver well enough in zone coverage, then the run defense started to break down, allowing runs of 19 yards, 12 yards, and five yards before a one-yard touchdown run.
On the next possession, Card finally gave Sarkisian reason to pull him, missing shot plays to freshman wide receiver Xavier Worthy and then to junior wide receiver Joshua Moore. Both players were open, but Card never gave them a chance to catch the football.
Still, Texas managed to get into a 4th and 1 at the Texas 40-yard line when Sarkisian made one of the worst play calls of his young Texas tenure. With the Arkansas defensive front shutting down nearly every interior running play, Sarkisian opted to go under center and run between the tackles with sophomore running back Bijan Robinson, who never had a chance and was stopped for a loss of a yard.
The defense held in the red zone once again to limit the damage to a 26-7 Arkansas lead, but Card fumbled on the next play trying to throw on a scramble and the Razorbacks promptly put the game away with a 26-yard touchdown run.
Sarkisian had waited too long to make the quarterback change, admitting after the game that he had considered putting junior Casey Thompson in earlier, noting it’s a “gut thing.”
Perhaps the big lead influenced how the Arkansas defense handled the next two drives for Thompson. The quarterback change clearly made a difference on the scoreboard, though, as Thompson led a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive and then a 14-play, 75-yard drive that featured some more atrocious play calling by Sarkisian as he ran the ball up the middle three straight times from the 1-yard line with 183-pound Keilan Robinson, the team’s smallest running back.
While Thompson finally scored on an impressive fourth-down scramble, Sarkisian’s play calling hardly inspired confidence moving forward.
And in between the two drives, a tired defense turned in an embarrassing effort against an Arkansas offense it knew was going to run the ball.
The run defense isn’t the most immediate concern, however — it’s the burgeoning quarterback controversy and how Sarkisian chooses to handle it.
After looking confident and self-assured against Louisiana, Card went 8-for-15 passing for 61 yards with the fumble, continued to miss shot plays, and didn’t look decisive when scrambling.
Thompson did look decisive, going through his progressions quickly and making smart decisions about when to pull the football down and take off, running seven times for 44 yards with two touchdowns. He looked better passing, too, going 5-for-8 throwing the ball for 57 yards. So in two drives, Thompson nearly matched Card’s passing production over 10 drives.
In the game’s immediate aftermath, Sarkisian wasn’t willing to commit to what he’ll do at quarterback moving forward.
“Pretty early to ask that question, we’ll have to take a look at it,” Sarkisian said when asked about the quarterback situation.
The on-field performances on Saturday heavily suggest that Thompson deserves an opportunity to start against Rice, a critical opportunity to get better before conference plays begins against Texas Tech in two weeks.
Whatever decision Sarkisian makes, next week’s game will help define whether the putrid performance in Fayetteville was an aberration or a sign of things to come as the Longhorns suffered their worst margin of defeat since late in the Charlie Strong era.
“We’ve got to get back to the drawing board — this was not a performance I was anticipating,” Sarkisian said. “But we’ll find out about ourselves and what we’re made of because I really believe this one game is not going to define us. But we’ve got work to do, that’s for sure.”