The Texas Longhorns have taken several steps forward throughout the first third of their season, from improved productivity and efficiency from the quarterback position to superior pass protection that’s paving the way for that increased productivity to closing games to reach a 3-1 start and a No. 18 national ranking.
Three consecutive wins for the for the first time since 2014 and beating two ranked foes in two weeks for the first time in an entire decade aside, though, there’s still plenty for Texas to clean up and improve upon as the season nears its mid point. Three ranked opponents remain in No. 6 Oklahoma, No. 12 West Virginia, and No. 25 Texas Tech, as does four true road games beginning next week against Kansas State in Manhattan.
With the schedule on pace to remain tremendously competitive throughout, which includes what appears to be an improved Kansas team that topped Texas during its last trip to Lawrence, Tom Herman’s program will need to continue to tighten some loose ends that are holding the Horns back from their peak 2018 potential.
Establish a more consistent and reliable running game
With former Under Armour All-American Keaontay Ingram and Cal graduate transfer Tre Watson joining a Texas running back room that returned Daniel Young and Toneil Carter, the expectation entering the season was that the Longhorns strength offensively would likely be its ground game.
That hasn’t exactly proven to be the case.
Although serviceable, Texas’ rushing attack has been far from overwhelming through four games, even with quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s 127 yards and team-leading three touchdowns. All totaled, Texas’ 163.8 rushing yards per game ranks 83rd nationally and eighth in the 10-team Big 12, and Watson, the Longhorns leading rusher, is averaging only 64 yards per contest, which has him slotted at 105th nationally.
It certainly hasn’t helped that Ingram, who has looked the part of Texas’ top option out of the backfield, has received only 24 carries after an MCL strain limited him against TCU and kept him out of action entirely the previous weekend against USC. But nevertheless, the Texas running game, or the lack thereof, could be the difference in the offense finally taking off with an improved Ehlinger running the show, or slumping for stretches and dropping a game or two that the Longhorns likely win with a formidable backfield.
The good news, however, is while Texas tries to discover its most potent running back rotation going forward, only one of the Horns eight remaining opponents rank within the top 25 nationally in rush defense — Oklahoma State at No. 25. Six others — Kansas State (87th), Oklahoma (80th), Baylor (76th), West Virginia (T-62nd), Texas Tech (66th), and Kansas (69th) — rank outside of the top 60 nationally, so there’s certainly room for the running game to find its footing.
Move the chains more efficiently on third down
The Longhorns have lined up for 61 third-down attempts this season, but moved the chains on only 23 of those tries. That 38-percent success rate sits as the 81st best effort nationally.
There are two important factors to note for the Longhorns lack of success consistently converting on third down: Texas starting slow, and digging itself into a deep hole.
We’ll begin with the latter.
Of Texas’ 38 failed third-down attempts, 13 have come in third and long situations (2-of-15) in which the Longhorns needed to gain at least 10 yards. Texas has also struggled to move the chains during 3rd and 4-to-6 situations, converting only 3-of-11 such tries, although the Horns have enjoyed more success in third and short (1-to-3 yards to go) and third and manageable (7-to-9 yards) opportunities, converting 8-of-15 and 10-of-20 tries, respectively.
In fact, Texas’ 50-percent success rate from 3rd and 7-to-9 would be good for the 16th-best effort nationally if the Longhorns were converting at that clip across the board.
On 15 occasions, though, Texas has dug itself into a hole and the only escape is a big play, which of course, hasn’t happened too many times in what’s often a drive-ending down.
If the Longhorns can be more productive on first and second downs and avoid costly penalties, Texas won’t be tasked with trying to account for as many yards on third down, which can drastically increase the offense’s odds of moving the ball, as seen by Texas’ success on 3rd and 7-to-9 yards.
Faster starts would be favorable as well. Just consider the Longhorns third-down woes out of the gates this season:
- Vs. Maryland: Started 0-of-6
- Vs. Tulsa: Started 2-of-8
- Vs. USC: Started 4-of-11
- Vs. TCU: Started 0-of-8
Although those are far from desirable results, Texas has responded and later moved the chains in a much more convincing fashion.
For example, after the 2-of-8 start against Tulsa, which had trimmed the Longhorns lead to just 28-21 late, Texas converted three consecutive third-down attempts on the final drive before taking a knee on 3rd and 12 to kill the clock.
The USC game painted a similar picture, as Texas responded from its 4-of-11 start to convert four consecutive second half third-down attempts to help build a comfortable 37-14 lead. Texas finished 10-of-19 on third down against the Trojans.
Most recently, the Longhorns failed to convert each of their first eight third-down attempts against TCU, but Texas went on to convert five of its final seven attempts, including going 2-of-2 on what was essentially a game-winning drive, as a 3rd and 7 pitch to Lil’Jordan Humphrey was taken to the house to lift Texas’ lead to 31-16.
Texas is closing strong, which has worked wonders for the win column, but for that to continue with several explosive offenses still to come, converting more consistently out of the gates would be ideal in avoiding falling behind like the Longhorns did against Maryland and USC.
Limit big plays that have plagued the defense early on
Todd Orlando’s defense has continued to progress along with the season and has tightened up in crunch time, just as it did in wins over No. 22 USC and No. 18 TCU with the Longhorns limiting the Trojans and Horned Frogs to only three second-half points.
Time and time again, though, the Horns have played with fire by allowing opponents to burn Texas with explosive plays, several of which have ended with points being added to the scoreboard.
Considering plays that chewed up at least 20 yards, the Longhorns have allowed 18 explosive plays throughout their first four outings. During the season-opener against Maryland, in what became a 34-29 loss, the Longhorns allowed five big plays to account for 171 yards, which equated to 42 percent of Maryland’s 407 total yards on the afternoon. Those big plays produced 21 points for the Terps. The following weekend, Tulsa enjoyed four big plays for 130 yards, including a 35-yard strike to Keenan Johnson that pulled Tulsa within one score, 28-21.
The USC game may be the glaring example of these defensive lapses to date. The Trojans put the first points on the board behind a 23-yard run up the middle by Stephen Carr, and paired with four big plays through the air, 59 percent (186-of-317) of USC’s total offensive productivity came courtesy of explosive plays. More recently, Texas sacrificed 135 yards to TCU on just four explosive plays, including a 50-yard bomb to Jalen Reagor and a 39-yard connection to KaVontae Turpin.
Of the 10 touchdowns Texas has allowed this season, five were produced by explosive plays.
Elsewhere, the Texas defense is beginning to show shades of its 2017 self, but with a handful of top-30 offenses still to come in Texas Tech (1st), West Virginia (8th), Oklahoma State (11th), Oklahoma (21st), and Baylor (28th), allowing big plays could very well lead to Texas losing a big game or two.
Riding high and rising on the national landscape behind back-to-back ranked wins, head coach Tom Herman’s program is trending in a positive direction and flashing plenty of positive progression along the way. If that’s the good news, the better news is that Texas can still afford to polish and improve upon several aspects of its game going forward.
With three ranked foes and three true road games looming, the No. 18-ranked Longhorns will quite simply need to continue improving in hopes of continuing to win and climbing their way up the polls.