HOUSTON — Despite racing out to a 21-0 lead against the Houston Cougars on Saturday at TDECU Stadium, the then-No. 8 Texas Longhorns grew stagnant offensively, attempted a failed fake field goal, and ultimately allowed three consecutive touchdowns by the Cougars.
Two turnovers forced in the second half helped limit the damage done by a Houston offense that threw for 378 yards as Texas suffered from another strong performance by quarterback Donovan Smith, who helped engineer last season’s overtime win by Texas Tech in Lubbock.
Following the departure of redshirt starting quarterback Quinn Ewers to a right shoulder injury in the third quarter, the running game carried the offense to a fourth-quarter touchdown before senior nickel back Jahdae Barron secured the victory by breaking up a 4th and 1 pass from the Texas 10-yard line intended for Houston wide receiver Stephon Johnson.
Here are three things from Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian after the game.
Texas saw something on film that led to the fake field goal
Special teams coordinator Jeff Banks is known as one of the best in the business and heading into the Houston game, he noticed the effectiveness of the Cougars block unit, particularly off the edge. So the Texas game plan included the decision to fake a field goal to take advantage of that aggressiveness with a pass from holder Ryan Sanborn to kicker Bert Auburn to the right side of the Houston formation.
With the Longhorns up 21-7 with 2:33 remaining in the second quarter and the ball at the Cougars 26-yard line on 4th and 6, Sarkisian dialed up the fake.
“You game plan and you go in with the plan and they had a really good rush unit and they had an excellent guy coming off the edge blocking the kick. He didn’t rush — you’ve got to ask Dana (Holgorsen) why they didn’t rush. We haven’t faked a field goal in three years, but he didn’t rush and they played the play and Bert makes the first guy miss. At that point, it’s just kind of a dead play.”
Auburn only gained one yard, turning the ball over on downs and keeping Texas from potentially going up 24-7 with the 43-yard field goal. Houston responded, driving 75 yards on nine plays to cut the deficit to 21-14 at halftime, a huge momentum swing in the game.
“That’s part of coaching. We can play a brand of football that’s ultra-conservative, but that’s kind of not who this team is. We’re an attack-oriented team and our players thrive in that and they believe in those calls,” Sarkisian said.
“If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t have called it, but hindsight is 20/20. I don’t get to play Monday morning quarterback — I’ve got to make those calls in about 10 seconds and we knew going into the game, we’d like that call in that situation. This time, it didn’t work.”
Houston marked another opponent switching up their defense
After wins over Rice and Wyoming that required significant game time before Texas created real separation, Sarkisian mentioned the difficulties of making in-game adjustments to defensive looks the Owls and Cowboys hadn’t put on film before those games.
So when the Texas head coach made a similar statement after the win over Houston, it marked the third time in seven games that Sarkisian cited that type of changeup by an opponent, in this case a response to the performance of redshirt freshman backup quarterback Maalik Murphy.
“Houston did a nice job and they they played an absolutely different defense than they had shown all year long and so we had to make a lot of adjustments throughout the game and all the way into that last drive,” Sarkisian said.
Regardless of how hard it is to make those offensive adjustments on the fly and how often opponents choose to make those decisions against Texas out of desperation, the bottom line is that the Longhorns hired Sarkisian despite his mediocre record as a head coach in large part because of his acumen as a play caller, creating expectations that come without caveats.
The initial game plan was good enough for Texas to score 21 points in less than 18 minutes of game time, at which point Houston presumably adjusted, but requiring seven more drives and 38 minutes of game time to score another touchdown doesn’t reach the standard set for Sarkisian, especially when his questionable game management decisions put more pressure on his play calling.
The secondary is banged up and needs some answers
Senior cornerback Ryan Watts dressed but did not play after suffering an injury against Kansas that has caused him to miss the last two games. Senior safety Jalen Catalon did not dress against Houston after suffering an injury against Oklahoma. Senior nickel back Jahdae Barron did not play in the first half after he was not cleared until late in the week. Junior cornerback Gavin Holmes left the Houston game after suffering an injury on a missed tackle.
So the Longhorns secondary is far from full health and suffered from it against the Cougars, allowing the huge performance through the air as the defensive front made Houston one dimensional. Smith completed 70 percent of his passes, was 7-of-11 on third down, and generally made Texas pay over the middle once again, often on crossing routes.
“First of all, we’ve got to figure out which guys we’re gonna have back there and then part of it is the secondary, part of it is getting the rush to where we can affect the quarterback more and force a few more errant throw because the running game was pretty much null and void,” Sarkisian said. “We did a great job defending the run, but we’ve just got to find a way to eliminate passing lanes and to play tighter coverage and then force some errant throws. If people are gonna throw it that much, we’ve got to create some interceptions, we’ve got to create some sacks, some sack fumbles.”
Texas did create two turnovers with one interception and the sack by senior linebacker Jaylan Ford that forced a fumble recovered by the Longhorns, one of three sacks by Texas, but it almost wasn’t enough.