After a disappointing loss to the Oklahoma State Cowboys, everyone begs the same few questions after a close game. Do the Texas Longhorns have trouble finishing games? Can their offense or defense come through in clutch situations? Where is the culture shift? Are we wrong to say Texas is back any time they win by two or more scores?
I wanted to use the open date to assess the reasons we tend to associate with Texas losses based off the eye test. Using a variety of scopes, both standard and advanced metrics, we can find out if Texas does in fact have execution issues or if they are just unlucky.
The first two measurements are simple — points scored vs. allowed per quarter. The array below shows the average distribution of points per quarter for each Big 12 team (in order of the Texas schedule) with offense going up and defense going down. In addition, I have included the top six AP teams as they have cemented themselves in their own CFP-eligible tier. It’s always helpful to compare to those high caliber teams to see if the Longhorns are really championship contenders. The numbers adjacent to each bar shows the time of possession. An example, Texas offense is on the field 44 percent of the first quarter and scores 7.8 points on average in the first quarter. The Texas defense is on the field for the other 56 percent of the first quarter, allowing 5.0 points on average.
Texas is scoring just 5.4 points in the fourth quarter and has one of the most notable drop offs in offensive production, apart from Oklahoma (and they aren’t doing too hot this year either). Apart from Kansas, they also struggle to retain possession during the second half more than any other team. From a fan’s perspective, it’s easy to blame the defense in comeback losses, but the Texas offense slows down significantly towards the end of the game — they are phenomenal at jumping on the scoreboard early on, and they look like a top-tier team if you were to extract just the first half.
However, I am not ready to state that the Longhorns defense is fine as is. It is clear they allow a significant amount of more points than they do in the rest of the game (7.6 points in the fourth quarter). The only team to allow more points in the fourth is West Virginia at 8.3. Most top-tier teams see their second-half adjustments come to fruition. This is evident with Iowa St, TCU, Ohio State, Georgia, Clemson, and Alabama. And while the Longhorns seem to clamp down during the third, they don’t have the same control of the game down the stretch.
TCU and Oklahoma State allow a lot of scoring on defense. As mentioned previously, Oklahoma State is close to the bottom of 131 teams in total yards allowed and passing yards allowed. But their ability to win games lies in their consistent production on offense. TCU has an ability to slow down the game and keep possession at 55 percent and 57 percent in the third and fourth quarters respectively. This factor could lead to them cementing a conference championship.
It was interesting to see Iowa State’s weird structure in this visualization. They have easily one of the best defenses in the country, but their offensive production ranks last in the conference.
Another anomaly was Michigan’s drop off in defense. They allow 0.9 points during the third quarter but 6.0 in the fourth. This might be justified by their easy strength of schedule so far, where their defense makes a positive impact coming out of the second half, and then the second strings and freshman are getting their reps in the fourth quarter.
But let’s return our focus to the Longhorns. The first advanced statistic I wanted to look at was the biggest plays of each game. (Note for the following advanced metrics: the game against UTSA is not included as the play-by-play data was not published). Using EPA, expected points added, I compiled the top 10 best plays from each game Texas played this season. The term is a bit paradoxical because it is in fact calculating how many points adds in comparison to the expected value, which is based on the down, distance to go, and field position.
Each point is labeled with a general description of what occurred during the play, and it can be inferred whether it was an offensive or defensive play for Texas. For instance, a turnover on downs very late in the fourth quarter of the Alabama game gave Texas 3.55 points above expected, implying this was a turnover on downs for Bama. Another example is RB Jase McClellan’s 81-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter of the same game, which gave Bama 6.22 points above expected (displayed towards the bottom of the graph).
A surprising takeaway from this graph is that Texas doesn’t seem to fail in making big plays throughout the game. Even more so, their opponents’ biggest plays are evenly distributed throughout the game for the most part. This begs the question, if Texas produces and allows roughly the same number of explosive plays throughout the game, what is it that changes in the fourth quarter?
Next, I turned to WPA, win probability added. The decision to focus on this metric is because sometimes a big play is not important to the game. If a team is up by 50 and they allow a 70-yard Hail Mary throw, it doesn’t affect the outcome of the game. Also, a failed third-down or fourth-down conversion can be much more influential late in a close game than earlier on. The graph is set up like the previous one, taking the top 10 plays from each game this season. The data points in the top half boost Texas’ chances of winning the game and the bottom half favor their opponents.
In the more one-sided games against UL-Monroe, West Virginia, and Oklahoma, the bulk of the most impactful plays are going to be in the first half when Texas was building up their lead. And vice versa, it makes sense that the most important plays lie in the fourth quarter when it is close.
Logically then, let’s zoom in on that particular section detailing around the last 12 minutes of the game. The graph below shows these same points in that area, but they are differentiated by which Texas unit was on the field. I restored the labels indicating the play type with some more detail as well.
For some clarity, the fumble point at the top occurred with the defense on the field, alluding to the end of the Iowa State game in which this helped seal the victory. The fumble point at the bottom is attributed to Bijan Robinson in the overtime play against Texas Tech. A third-down conversion that failed will be a positive point for Texas defense, but negative if it occurred for the Texas offense, and one that is successfully converted will appear conversely.
So, is it the offense, the defense, the kicker? One could argue it’s the defense. The defense created seven plays that helped push Texas to victories in the last minutes and have allowed in 14 plays in which opponents boosted their odds. They have allowed three passing touchdowns, a rushing touchdown, and a field goal. Meanwhile, the offense has generated five potentially game-sealing plays, including a passing touchdown, while failing on five. But that’s an easy take to have.
The total number of plays for offense versus defense is the staggering number here. It further shows that the Texas offense fails to keep possession as we have seen proven in the first comparison. They can’t chew the clock, nor can they score efficiently in the clutch. Thus, even if Texas is allowing the same number of big plays throughout the game, the small stuff adds up. The defense is consistently forced to be on the field for longer, increasing their chances of exposure.
I would love to hear your opinions on what rate is worse — allowing four touchdowns off of 21 highly consequential plays or scoring just one touchdown on nine crucial offensive plays.
I set out on this analysis wanting to prove that Texas was back and have just been unlucky. Their three losses are just by a combined 11 points. And it’s easy to get behind that storyline, especially when your heart is in these games, too. But the rollercoaster of emotions kind of ends when both CFP and conference championship odds begin to peter out.
Unfortunately, both the standard and advanced metrics show that Texas isn’t quite there yet — the Longhorns have a problem finishing games, and I could have easily scraped last year’s data, or all the games under Herman, too, to show that this has been an ongoing problem. We know what a championship team looks like, and Texas has shown glimpses of that this season. Fans so desperately wanted to believe that it was all going to be different this year. For now, it seems like Texas has been overhyped again unless something changes.