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Texas special teams unit hasn’t done the ‘Horns many favors this season

Whether it’s the protection or the kicking, there’s plenty of room for improvement on special teams.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Texas Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns 2016 special teams unit hasn't exactly been, well, special. Aside from a 37-yard field goal that split the uprights to deliver No. 8 Baylor its first loss of the season just weeks ago, a defensive unit that’s blocked five total kicks and one of the nation’s premier punters in Michael Dickson, the special teams has done just as much harm as good through 10 games.

The woes began during the season opener against No. 10 Notre Dame. Following a touchdown that put Texas ahead 37-35, a blocked extra point was returned for two points and instead of securing a 1-0 start to the season in regulation, Texas required two overtimes and a Superman-esque dive across the goal line from Tyrone Swoopes.

Two weeks later on the road against California, Trent Domingue missed a 53-yard field goal just before the half and another from 49 yards to open the second half. While it’s impossible to decisively say the two misses would have made a difference in what became a seven-point Longhorn loss, knocking down both field goals could have, at the least, allowed Texas to defend an 11-point lead for the majority of the fourth quarter.

Things really unraveled the following week in Stillwater. In a 49-31 loss to Oklahoma State, Texas missed a 46-yard field goal and saw three extra point attempts get blocked — largely due to some severely struggling interior protection — with one returned for a two points. Though Texas ultimately lost by 18 points, the initial impact was the difference in Oklahoma State’s 30-25 edge and a potential 31-28 Longhorns lead. Following the kicking misfortunes, Texas attempted a two-point conversion on its only remaining touchdown of the afternoon.

The trend altered against Oklahoma and Iowa State with Domingue knocking in all four field goal attempts and all seven extra point opportunities, but on the road against Kansas State, Domingue’s inconsistencies likely cost Texas an opportunity at overtime.

Down 10 points with just over four minutes to play, Domingue entered the game with a chance to make it a one-score game if he were able to connect on a 35-yard field goal from the middle of the field. Instead, the graduate transfer missed badly and what could have been Dorian Leonard’s game-tying touchdown reception with 46 seconds wasn’t enough in a 24-21 loss.

Domingue was able to redeem himself the following week with the aforementioned game-winning field goal over Baylor. In the first quarter, though, just outside of Domingue’s range — but still a makeable kick — Texas elected to go for it on fourth down from Baylor’s 30-yard line with a Shane Buechele pass that was intercepted.

The following week against Texas Tech, Texas was on the edge of Domingue’s field goal range on the Red Raider 26-yard line and rather than seek to extend the lead to 11 points with under three minutes remaining, Tyrone Swoopes tried and failed to gain the necessary one yard on fourth down.

By this point, it was understandable if the staff had concerns with not only Domingue’s ability to make lengthy kicks, but the offensive line’s ability to keep defenders from finding themselves in the backfield for blocks, as well.

Ironically, the blocking became an issue the very next game against West Virginia, as the Mountaineers blocked a 37-yard field goal early in the third quarter without even jumping. Had Domingue received the protection he needed and made the kick, Texas could have sent him out for another game-winning opportunity from West Virginia’s 27-yard line in the final seconds, rather than relying upon a Hail Mary for the win.

In short, Texas’ special teams unit hasn’t made life on the Longhorns any easier this season, aside from the game-winner against Baylor. There’s a legitimate argument for Domingue’s leg preventing overtime against Kansas State and his blocking preventing a potential win over West Virginia. I’m not sure this is what Charlie Strong had in mind during the offseason when he jokingly asked someone to send him a kicker after failing to recruit one during the previous two cycles.

That said, it would be unfair to place for the losses to Kansas State and West Virginia blame solely on the shoulders of the special teams. In Manhattan, Armanti Foreman dropped a would-be touchdown on 4th and 16 that, too, would have allowed Leonard’s reception to serve as the go-ahead score. And Buechele’s fumble on a third-down sack in the red zone against West Virginia prevented the ‘Horns from adding points and potentially winning the game on a last-second kick.

Fortunately for Strong and his 5-5 Longhorns, it seems unlikely that special teams will decide the outcome on Saturday against a 1-9 Kansas Jayhawks team. If that proves true to the negative for the ‘Horns, Texas has much bigger problems than special teams.

But during the season finale at home against TCU, it’s quite possible that Domingue’s leg and the protection he depends on will become the difference in a 6-6 regular season finish and the 7-5 mark entering a bowl game that Strong likely needs to secure a fourth season in Austin.