This Texas Longhorns team can still win Big 12 title.
Yes, that’s right; I said it. I don’t gamble, but if I did, I wouldn’t actually bet on this team winning the conference championship, but it is still a possibility. With that said, there’s no need to panic. The sky is not falling, despite how much Tom Herman would like his team to feel that type of urgency after a loss. It’s just one game, and everything that happened in that game can be a teachable moment. Texas can still improve and be competitive for the remainder of the season. Here are some takeaways on how Texas can get back to the winning team we all expected to see:
Find the run game
One thing that stood out in Texas’ loss on Saturday is that the ‘Horns featured only 16 plays between Kyle Porter and Chris Warren III. Two of those were passes to Warren, with the other 14 being run plays. To this point, I’ve only watched the game live, so I’m not confident in saying it, but I didn’t see one power or split zone called by offensive coordinator Tim Beck on Saturday. These are supposed to be the bread and butter plays of the offense, and they need to be effective in order for the offense to produce.
I attribute the lack of the power/zone game to the fact that a serviceable blocking tight end was not availible for the ‘Horns on Saturday. Garret Gray is still developing as a blocker and it showed on virtually every play. Texas will need to find someone who can hold down this position in the run game if they are going to be effective for the remainder of the season.
On the bright side, Warren averaged 5.2 yards per carry in addition to two receptions for 19 yards. He looked good on Saturday, despite stepping out of bounds on a second down reception with only a defensive back between him and the first down early in the game. Herman announced that Warren will be starting the game on Saturday and he should provide a needed boost to the run game.
Another positive note is that despite being stalemated by Maryland for most of the game, this is the same offensive line that often got a push for D’Onta Foreman last season. Nothing makes me believe this line cannot get a push, they just need to get down and dirty, and that starts with the play-calling. I believe that if the power run game is established early in games, this line will respond, and they will not get pushed around again.
Establish the screen game
When Texas used the screen game against Maryland, it was effective. Late in the game, the Longhorns attempted to push the ball down the field and abandoned the quick passing game other than a few curls mixed in. Texas needs to keep Shane Buechele active and protected by calling the quick passing plays and allowing their physical, speedy receivers to make plays in space.
On the bright side, Buechele played well enough to win on Saturday and the wide receivers looked very good. There were few (if any) drops in the game, and they did well working in space. Buechele was late on a few reads, but he got the ball to his receivers, completed better than 65 percent of his passes and his only turnover was effectively a punt on a third and long play when he didn’t have an open receiver. If Texas can build on this by allowing the recievers to get the ball in space, the offense will become much more dangerous as they get into Big 12 play.
Make better reads
The defense struggled to read the play on Saturday. Credit some of that to the misdirection and zone read offense utilized by Maryland, but in order to be effective, the linebackers and secondary need to minimize the false steps and ensure they are pursuing to the right place. The open A gaps that were seen multiple times on Saturday were one example of this, in addition to Maryland’s ability to get outside on several runs due to false steps by the defensive backfield, creating angles for the Maryland blockers and sealing both the defensive backs and linebackers to the inside. There were also multiple pass plays in which Maryland was able to take advantage of poor reads by secondary, resulting in big plays.
On the bright side, Texas may not face another team that will place three different ball carriers in the backfield on a regular basis. This will simplify the defensive responsibilities and should provide some relief in this area in future games.
Make the play
There were also multiple opportunities for Texas defenders to make plays on Saturday that were simply not executed. The tackling has to get better. When you have an opportunity to make a play on a ball carrier, you must run through the ball carrier. There were several examples of Texas defenders pulling up short or lunging for the ball carrier on Saturday. Those types of tackles will not work against college athletes.
The secondary also was victimized on a few occasions when they were in the right position to make a play and simply got caught in the middle. As coaches, the defensive backs are taught to either make a play on the ball or make a hit and attempt to jar the ball loose. Getting caught in the middle is when indecision results in not being able to execute either technique, resulting in receptions that should not have been made, and in many cases, missed tackles.
On a bright note, when Naashon Hughes, Anthony Wheeler, and Malik Jefferson did read the play and finished through the ball carrier on Saturday, they looked nasty. This shows the potential to be a dynamic linebacking corps, but they must become more consistent in their technique. Additionally, Holton Hill played like the four-star recruit he was two years ago on Saturday. This coaching staff may be seriously considering switching Hill to the boundary and allowing Kris Boyd to play the field corner in future weeks.
Sure, this is a broad statement, but specifically, this statement refers to penalties. Texas had 11 penalties for 117 yards on Saturday, while only gaining 98 yards on the ground. As a coach, I always subtracted the offensive penalty yards from the rushing yards total. Texas had 60 yards in defensive penalties, so that means they only effectively gained 38 yards on the ground Saturday. Some of these issues can be attributed to first game jitters and this statistic should get better throughout the remainder of the season, but in order to win games, Texas cannot kill drives with mental mistakes. The techniques taught in practice are designed to eliminate these types of mistakes, however, the Texas players need to transfer this technique to the field on game day in order to stop giving up yards due to penalties.
There you have it: Five very fixable things that, if addressed, will leave this team looking very different in future games and provide the potential for wins over Oklahoma State, Kansas State, and yes, even Oklahoma. Now it’s time for this team to strap it up and show our opponents how we play ball in Texas.