AMES, Iowa — Following Saturday’s game, Charlie Strong defended his offensive coordinator. You know, the new one.
He also defended his quarterback. You know, the new one.
Both are difficult stances to take since both failed miserably Saturday night. Part of the problem is the fan base is hearing the same explanation for this poor play. You know, the old one: A lack of execution.
“This,” Strong said, “is a setback.”
Strong is running out of games this season to show his program has turned the corner, and the stagnant offense in these mounting losses continues to be the main reason the Longhorns turn the corner and run into themselves. Three true road games this season, 10 total points. Seven of those came in the expiring moments of the TCU debacle.
So the Texas head coach is facing some tough options.
Asked specifically to evaluate the play-calling by Jay Norvell in his seventh game in that role, Strong said, “I think we were fine. It wasn’t the play-calling, just execution. The opportunities were there.”
Unless Strong plans on making another change and use three different play-callers in the same season, Norvell remains the man. For four more games, at least.
No one’s betting on a fifth at this point because a bowl game for a 3-5 team appears as unlikely as a week in Austin without drama. At least Texas has an extra $250 million in coin, thanks to the Swoosh family, to be able to afford a top-notch offensive coordinator in the offseason. But Strong’s not ready to go there.
“It’s just hard to evaluate right now,” Strong said when asked about his faith in Norvell moving forward. “There are a lot more issues than just Jay.”
He’ll get no argument there. But Texas was way too conservative, rarely trying to throw the ball downfield and relying on the same horizontal passes that got Greg Davis fired.
And unless Texas goes back to junior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes — and that might not be a terrible option, because he at least was more effective than the starter Saturday — redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard remains the man under center. The quarterback never actually gets under center and directs a power running attack any more, and that part of Texas’ offense went away too on this night. Heard looked and played rattled, hesitant, unsure of himself.
Of course, Strong may be looking around for an endorsement of his own. That, too, may be hard to come by these days as he seeks answers for this humiliating 24-0 loss to, yes, Iowa State. Yeah, that Iowa State, whose own coach is on a seat even hotter than Charlie’s, although the Longhorns and Cyclones have identical 3-5 overall records and 2-3 Big 12 marks. And we saw Saturday which of those two is the better team.
But assuming Strong hangs on for a third season, it’s hard to imagine Norvell having a realistic shot at the title of offensive coordinator for 2016 despite his early promise with top-of-the-résumé games against Cal, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. Those shouldn’t be forgotten, but Saturday reflected clear regression, and Heard’s development has stalled.
Of course, Norvell was the one who said earlier in the week he wasn’t worried about Texas’ lagging passing game, and he has yet to produce a consistent, well-oiled offense.
The dominant performance in the win over Oklahoma has worn off, washed away in a sea of mistakes. Texas rode an emotional tidal wave and a ticked-off roster that rose up and stunned the befuddled Sooners, but the following win over Kansas State in a downpour looks pedestrian, considering Bill Snyder’s Wildcats are 0-4 in the league.
This was a train wreck, no other way to say it.
Texas couldn’t run the ball. After totaling 313 yards against OU and 274 in the grime against Kansas State, it managed a paltry 119 yards Saturday. No run went beyond 13 yards. Iowa State owned the line of scrimmage.
Texas really couldn’t pass the ball at all, finishing with 85 yards against the nation’s 114th-ranked pass defense. For the fourth consecutive game, Heard passed for fewer than 100 yards, this time a mind-boggling 26. Of those, 18 came on the final play of the half on a dumpoff to Daje Johnson when Texas wasn’t within the county line of the end zone.
Speaking of that forbidden territory, Texas came close in the waning moments but wideout Marcus Johnson couldn’t hold onto Swoopes’ pass in the corner of the end zone on the final play. Before that drive, the Longhorns had run one snap past midfield and had gone three-and-out on a staggering seven of 10 series.
But Strong wouldn’t dump on Heard.
“It’s not on the quarterback position,” Strong said. “It’s on all of them. There’s breakdowns at every position. We’ve got to get better across the board.”
Strong insisted Norvell called downfield passes, but said Heard hung onto the ball too long and just didn’t release it to allow his receivers to make some plays. Heard said he has confidence, but did admit the interception and almost two others shook him.
“It does hinder you when you throw an interception and come close to others,” Heard said.
Of course, who on this Texas team has any real, lasting confidence at all? Even with lowly Kansas looming next, all the good feelings dissolved on a cool night when Texas fell and fell hard to a 2-5 Iowa State team that scheduled Texas as its homecoming opponent. TCU had also pegged the Longhorns for those annual school dance and punch-bowl festivities.
That, Vance Bedford was saying just days ago, “tells me that they think we’re patsies.”
Well, if the pushover role fits …