Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Somehow, ‘We Own the Middle’ just doesn’t sound as good as ‘Finish,’ Texas

Posted September 1st, 2018

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LANDOVER, Md. — All in all, Tom Herman probably wishes he’d been at a strip club.

Or anywhere besides FedEx Field.

For sure, he has to be mightily concerned his Texas team hasn’t yet shed its losing image even though the second-year head coach showed no anger and kept a very positive tone afterward.

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Stripped of all pretense and very soon its No. 23 national ranking, the Longhorns have to regroup against a front-loaded schedule that pits them against USC, TCU and Oklahoma all by mid-October. Legitimate power teams, unlike a victorious Maryland squad picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten. In its division. Ahead of only Indiana and Rutgers.

After an embarrassing 34-29 loss to a second-tier Power 5 team in turmoil — the program has been described as toxic in culture and didn’t even have its head coach on the sideline because of suspension — Herman has to be wondering just how difficult this task of remaking Texas into Texas figures to be.

Tougher than he thought?

“No, no,” Herman said. “I knew where we were, and I knew what needed to be done.”

He may know, but can he fix it? There has to be some doubt when Texas starts that horridly again. Herman appears to have a turnover-prone quarterback who’s not special, a defense that looked like it was seeing the jet sweep for the first time and a complacent team that doesn’t get bent out of shape when it loses.

In light of the school’s 23-28 record since Mack Brown’s departure, how big a setback is this stunning defeat?

“Not very,” said Herman, who has also had to deal with a distraction of an inconsequential 2014 trip to a strip club with fired Ohio State assistant Zach Smith on a recruiting trip. “We’re guaranteed nine conference games, and I think you’ll see growth and development.”

I’m guessing the fan base would disagree with Herman’s assessment of the loss. It stings more since Herman had preached all off-season that his Texas team needed to finish. It was printed in the locker rooms. Etched on T-shirts. Mouthed incessantly by his players. He spoke at Big 12 media days about how the staff had trained them to finish and had put that component into every drill, every workout.

They had to learn how to finish.

Unfortunately, they also forgot how to start.

When the Terrapins broke out to a 24-7 lead, it appeared Texas had regressed from a year ago when it fell to Maryland in Austin. Four straight three-and-out series for the offense in the first half cost Texas dearly. It did recover and rallied with 22 unanswered points, but was stymied in the second half by critical penalties and third-down breakdowns, a shortage of clutch plays and three killing turnovers in the team’s last three possessions of the game.

For sure, the Terrapins outplayed the Longhorns at the start and at the finish. But the Longhorns owned the middle, for what that’s worth. Own the Middle, however, is just not as catchy as Finish. Not as effective either.

Now after stubbing their toe — again — against Maryland — again — in their season-opener — again — the Longhorns are staring at the same mediocrity they’re desperately trying to escape.

A little anger would be nice, but none was seen from Herman or his players. Denial, perhaps?

“We beat ourselves out there,” said wideout Collin Johnson, who had two big catches, one for a touchdown. “Maryland’s a great team and came ready to play. Losing doesn’t make you a loser.”

It does when you’re 0-1. That doesn’t mean they have to remain a loser, but it’s clear the Longhorns still don’t know how to finish. But are they finished? Is this season over before it’s started?

When Herman had that pregnant pause in Frisco, stumped by how many elite players he has before answering “some,” that may have been a completely honest appraisal. He didn’t have enough Saturday.

Sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger had some bright moments, but reverted to his turnover ways late. In fairness, his arm was hit on one pick, and he said the last one came when “you have to put the ball up in a risky situation.” There will be plenty more of those situations, and Herman might be forced to give Shane Buechele a second look sooner than later.

Texas has some really talented young players, but none better than Maryland’s true freshman, who found the end zone in every manner but sea, not that there wasn’t plenty of water on this rain-delayed game. Jeshaun Jones, a three-star recruit out of Florida who was the final pledge of the Terps’ most recent recruiting class, scored by land and air, rushing for a touchdown, catching a pass for a touchdown and throwing for a touchdown.

Herman did own the loss, but said, “We know we’re better than we were at any point last year, but we didn’t show it in the first and fourth quarters.”

No, they didn’t. Nickel back P.J. Locke III, looking ahead, said, “We’ve got to move on. We can’t let Maryland beat us twice.”

Uh, P.J., they already have.

RELATED COVERAGE: Maryland 34, Texas 29: Three late turnovers raise more questions whether anything has changed

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RELATED COVERAGE: Maryland 34, Texas 29: The expanded boxscore

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