In any college football season, things change. Players get hurt, expectations change, game plans evolve, and the pathway to a successful season must be re-evaluated. After seven weeks of Texas Longhorns football, it is time to take a more pragmatic view of the season, where the Longhorns are at, and how to define success in 2023.
The Longhorns exceeded all preseason expectations to start the year, but this is a physical game and things change. Now, don’t let this seem like a downtrodden article — Texas still has a chance to do great things this season, and maybe still have a shot of sneaking into the College Football Playoff — but there certainly have been some developments that force us to re-evaluate this team and the potential they have for the rest of the season.
“As we go on to this stretch here in the second half of the season, where every game is a big 12 championship game,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said Monday. “Our ability to stay focused on us and what we need to do to play good football to keep stacking wins is of the utmost importance.”
Texas has been able to win games, sitting at 6-1. However, to be honest, when you look at these games and the stat sheet, some perceived strengths and weaknesses from the beginning of the season look quite different than we originally thought.
This Texas offense has been successful protecting the ball with only three interceptions on the year, they are 14th in completion percentage, and have a dynamic rushing attack led by standout Jonathan Brooks. There are some glaring weaknesses, in which this Texas offense is not top 10 in any other major category — the Longhorns are 58th in red-zone offense, 24th in passing offense, 41st in first downs, 36th in rushing offense, 26th in scoring offense, and 15th in total offense.
The current record is a credit to the versatility that Sarkisian preaches, including strong play from the defense, which currently ranks eighth on third down, 10th in the red zone, 16th in rush defense, 17th in scoring defense, and 15th in total defense.
One of the most interesting aspects of this team is how the offense has found success. The strengths and weaknesses we predicted at the beginning of the season must be re-assessed. With the loss of Bijan Robinson and Roscon Johnson, we all predicted that the running game would have issues the passing game would help overcome.
Instead, the opposite has been apparent for this Texas offense, with the rushing attack being the brightest spot of the offense. So far this year Brooks is seventh in the nation in rushing yards with 825 while Ewers is 23rd in passing yards with 1,915. Wide receiver Xavier Worthy, who was projected to be the catalyst of this offense, sits 50th in the nation in receiving yards with 545.
So the aspects of this team that make the offense go are different that predicted at the beginning of the season. Now, with the loss of Ewers to injury and Maalik Murphy stepping into the fold as the starter, it will be interesting to see how these trends change or remain the same. How does this Texas team adapt to such a development?
In most situations when the starting quarterback goes down, that means disaster for the offense, but that might not be the case for the Longhorns because Murphy is more than capable of running this offense. Thanks to his patience and maturity, he now gets a chance to prove that to the nation.
Standing at 6’5 and 238 pounds, Murphy was a consensus four-star recruit and the 12th-best quarterback in the 2022 class, according to 247Sports. Greg Biggins at 247 described him as a “physically gifted signal caller with a lot of tools. Still needs game reps and experience to take his game to another level. Has a clean, easy delivery and one of the strongest arms in the class.”
On Saturday, Murphy will start getting those reps he needs.
“Maalik’s a natural passer when he throws the ball. It’s a very beautiful ball. And I think there’s not a throw that he can’t make,” Sarkisian said. “I think he’s got really good leadership qualities, he’s got a great feel for the game, and he understands what we do and why we do it.”
More than anything the team needs to rally around Murphy, and according to reports from third-year defensive back Michael Taaffe, this shouldn’t be an issue.
“The whole locker room loves him,” Taaffe said. “I think everybody in the locker room would say that they have a personal connection with Maalik and that’s really cool. He’s not a people pleaser, but he’s a positive guy and everybody attracts towards him and wants to be around him and wants to be his friend.”
It will be interesting to see the changes in this Texas offense, that objectively wasn’t terribly electric with Quinn under center. They weren’t bad, but after looking at the stats, they weren’t where we thought they would be.
Texas had some games where they let an inferior opponent stick around — Wyoming, Rice, and now Houston. They were able to notch big blowout wins against Baylor and Kansas, albeit against backup quarterbacks. Now, they did have an incredible win against Alabama on the road Week Two, but it seemed pieces of this offense have been off since the Cotton Bowl.
Nobody likes to lose in the Red River Rivalry — we hate those kids in Norman, and a loss always has a defining mark on the season — but the hangover has certainly been palpable in regards to the product this team has put out on the field following the loss.
After putting on a clinic in the first quarter against Houston in Week Seven, the Longhorns allowed the mediocre Cougars team to score 21 unanswered points and put the game in jeopardy. It feels like there is some doubt creeping into the mental aspect of the game for Ewers and the Longhorns. Even before he was injured, this was not a performance becoming of a national championship-caliber team.
Now to add to the poor performance the reality that multiple key players were injured in the Houston game, including senior linebacker Jett Bush, senior defensive tackle Alfred Collins, and junior cornerback Gavin Holmes, in addition to senior cornerback Ryan Watts dressing but not playing and several other more minor injuries.
To add insult to injury, Ewers left last Saturday’s game with a shoulder injury.
Now I’m not saying that the season’s over, far from it. This team has a wealth of depth at multiple positions, including the most important with Murphy and Arch Manning available to step in for Ewers. The team as a whole however, needs to step up and rally around Maalik as he gets the keys to the offense.
“Inevitably as a quarterback, you’re only as good as the guys around you,” Sarkisian said. “When guys play well around you, that makes your job a lot easier.”
How Murphy and the team as a whole comes out in Week Eight will be a true testament to the culture that Sarkisian has developed and their resilience as a whole, an area in which the Longhorns head coach has confidence in his team.
I’m fired up about our culture. If there’s one thing on our team right now that I lean into more than anything, it’s our culture. I said it a week ago, I felt like that win in Houston was a culture win. We didn’t play our best football. We were we weren’t exactly on point. We had guys get hurt. We blew some coverages. We had some protection breakdowns. All that went on,” Sarkisian said.
“And in the end, we found a way to win a game because we had really good poise. We stayed together. We had a football team that was pulling for one another and found a way to make plays at critical moments. And I think that’s what really good teams have — they’ve got a great culture.”
I just believe that now at the halfway point of the season expectations and potential need to be re-evaluated to some degree. The ability to combat adversity is the mark of any good organization, especially a good football program.
As Sarkisian embarks on the final stretch of Texas’ farewell season in the Big 12, likely without the aid of his starting quarterback, the depth of this roster and versatility at Sarkisian’s command will be put to the test.
“We have a really versatile football team,” Sarkisian said after the Houston win. “And the idea that we can win games in a lot of different ways and that the fact that we’re not one dimensional — whether that’s offense, defense, special teams, and I thought this game definitely showed that our versatility really shined through, that our culture shined through in this game to that the togetherness of the team and the ability to keep their poise and composure.”
Luckily for the Longhorns, they have proven their versatility and ability to win football games in many different ways. They have the depth to replace these key positions if need be. However, the mark of a champion is not the possession of spare parts when others are lost, but the ability to use them despite the adversity of losing key pieces in the first place.
Halfway through the year, overall this season has seen success, although in a very different way than predicted at the beginning of the season. The ability to move through adversity, and not dwell on losses is the only way to move forward, whether it’s the loss to Oklahoma or the loss of Ewers because this team still has all the potential in the world physically. Now, Sarkisian’s culture, and ability to mentally prepare this team for adversity will be tested as they either continue to succeed or ultimately fall short of the season’s high expectations.