Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Texas, with all its offensive points and defensive issues, sure passes for a Big 12 team

Posted November 12th, 2018

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Story highlights
  • Tom Herman came to Austin, espousing strong defense and a balanced offense, but the defense has been awful and the running game spotty.
  • Texas' strengths of passing and more passing reflects more on the personnel than a plan.
  • The Longhorns have had 17 pass plays covering 30 yards or longer but just one run.

Don’t look now, but Texas has become the quintessential Big 12 team.

High-scoring. No defense. Lots and lots of passing.

Doesn’t that scream Big 12?

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Not that this was Tom Herman’s plan when he got here. Not at all.

If anything, this has evolved into the anti-Tom Herman team. After all, the second-year head coach arrived in Austin with big talk about winning championships with strong defense and balanced offense. But he’s gone off script. By necessity.

Yeah, about that defense. It, uh, hasn’t been all that strong. In fact, it’s been downright awful for most of the season, especially against high-powered offenses. In the fourth quarter, it’s been borderline disastrous. Heck, Oklahoma and Texas Tech put up 45 points in that period. Texas ranks 86th nationally in total defense.

And balance? This team’s idea of balance is the same number of passes in each half. The running game has been little more than a diversion so Sam Ehlinger can rest his golden arm. It’s been good in spurts, like against Tulsa and Oklahoma. A team that has gotten just one 100-yard rushing performance from its entire backfield in 10 games does not a balanced offense make. Texas ranks 83rd nationally in rushing.

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) receives a snap during an NCAA college football game against Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Oklahoma, on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
But that also means that Texas fits right in with the rest of the Big 12. Misery isn’t the only thing that loves company. So do one-dimensional, high-voltage offenses that rarely play defense, but Herman notes that Texas has played four passing teams that rank in the top 10 in the nation.

All of this doesn’t so much make the Longhorns bad, because they’re not. They’re a legitimate 7-3 with an excellent shot to win out and get into the Big 12 championship game if either Oklahoma or West Virginia stumbles.

And Herman is fine with this year’s incarnation of Texas because he’s looking at the bottom line and said Monday that that evolution is in large part dictated by the strength of his roster.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Herman said. “I like winning, and we’re going to win the game the way the game needs to be won. We’re still not where we want to be running the football. We’re light years ahead of where we were, but the bar was set pretty low, so we’re not quite there yet.”

And it’s obvious to see that Ehlinger and wide receivers Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay represent the strongest part of this team. And it’s just as clear that the defense, even with eight senior starters, has looked just horrendous at times.

The Longhorns would have been stuck with a three-game losing streak coming out of Lubbock but for an opportunistic defense that forced three turnovers and had a critical fourth-down stop in Texas Tech territory as well.

“To be honest with you, our best players on offense are our receivers and our quarterback and our tight end, and our running backs out of the backfield,” Herman said. “Now, are we going to turn into a throw-it-70-times-a-game outfit? We will never do that. We understand that as good of a plan as we have on defense, as good of players as we have on defense, this stretch of five games has been ‘Murderers’ Row’ of elite offenses, not just in this league but in the country.”

As good as Ehlinger and the wideouts have been, maybe Texas should throw 70 times this week against Iowa State. The Longhorns have 17 pass plays covering 30 yards or more. They’ve broken one run longer than 30 yards when Keaontay Ingram went off for a 31-yarder against the Sooners. Texas is pass-happy or plodding on the ground.

But then as bad as the defense has been, maybe Texas needs to run the ball 70 times this week against Iowa State to keep the Cyclones offense off the field. Of course, that necessitates making first downs.

Herman went out of his way to defend the defense. It may smack of an excuse, but it’s also real that injuries  took out linebacker Malcolm Roach for the first half of the season, removed potential All-Big 12 safety Brandon Jones for two games, this week’s co-defensive player of the week cornerback Davante Davis for the West Virginia game, safety Caden Sterns for part of that game as well and limited defensive end Breckyn Hager the last two games.

“Our defense, you know, the last couple games especially, have been really, really banged up,” Herman said. “We understand that we weren’t going to win the last few games 17-14. Just wasn’t going to happen. That’s something that our offense understands very early in the week. They understand it as we install the game plan.”

So the plan has changed. But, it could be argued, for the better.

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