After an offseason full of high expectations, the Texas Longhorns’ opening game of the season left something to be desired in spite of the lopsided victory over the Rice Owls.
The offense needed a while to get going but finally managed to find its stride in the second half, while the defense played strong for most of the game, giving up its only touchdown of the game on a long drive mostly featuring the second unit. With Alabama on the horizon, there are some clear lessons Texas can take into the week of preparation.
The offense needs to find its rhythm and focus on intermediate passing
Fans had an opportunity to groan early as Steve Sarkisian dialed up deep shots and then was unable to convert on them, unable to ignore the similarities to last year’s efforts. Quarterback Quinn Ewers missed Worthy and AD Mitchell deep early and the longest pass of the first 40 minutes of the game was a swing pass to running back Jonathon Brooks in space that he took 47 yards for a score. In the second half, Texas managed to string together back-to-back TD passes from Ewers, a nine-yard touchdown completion to Mitchell and a quick pass to JaTavion Sanders that he turned into a 44-yard score by outrunning the defenders.
For the game, Ewers was 0-7 on attempts longer than 15 yards, while completing 9-10 on passes between 5 and 14 yards. In fact, 174 of Ewers’ 260 yards came on intermediate routes, which was clearly his and the offense’s best bet for consistency.
Third downs are still a problem for the offense
A year after finishing the year 38.79% on third downs, Texas was more or less the same team in 2023, finishing the game 6-15 on the money down. The Longhorns started the game 0-2 on third downs and managed to rattle off three consecutive conversions on a late first-half drive to finish the opening 30 minutes 3-9. Texas managed just one drive longer than 10 plays, a 16-play, 66-yard drive that stalled in the red zone and ended in a field goal. That being said, Texas turned several of their short drives into points, with seven scoring of their 12 drives ending in scores.
Perhaps part of the problem for the Longhorns was their inability to put themselves into third-and-manageable situations. When the starters were pulled in the late third quarter, Texas had an average distance to go of 9.3 yards, leading to their 5-12 conversion rate at that point.
The defensive line can be a dominant force
Speaking of expectations, a group that was expected to be a strength for the Longhorns, the defensive line, truly shone against the Owls. We saw the Longhorns’ defensive front regularly reset the line of scrimmage and play in the backfield, keeping the Owls off-balance and swinging the advantage in favor of the defense. When Texas pulled the starters at the start of the fourth quarter, Rice had amassed just 25 rushing yards, without removing sack yardage, for a 1.5 per-rush average. Their ability to create havoc can be exemplified by a play by Alfred Collins, who on a critical passing down beat his blocker, rushed Rice quarterback JT Daniels forcing a bad throw, then jumped up to bat down the pass and end the Owls’ threat.
The defensive front routinely played on the Rice side of the line of scrimmage, with the starters finishing with six tackles for loss for 28 yards and two sacks for 19 yards. Sophomore Ethan Burke, who Texas will need a big season from, led the charge for the defense, accounting for 1.5 of the Longhorns’ two sacks on the day.
Now, with Alabama lurking, the Longhorns have a full game on tape of things to coach and improve on if they are going to pull off the upset that they narrowly missed a year ago. It will take a massive effort, and some significant improvements from the offense, to pull it off in Tuscaloosa.