Brian Davis

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Eyes on Texas: Standing first-and-goal at the 1, why do the Longhorns make it so hard?

Texas has struggled in the past to score near the goal line; Horns must capitalize no matter who's calling plays

Posted September 13th, 2018

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Story highlights
  • Tom Herman: “I was disappointed with not being able to punch it in on the goal line.”
  • Other Big 12 teams are not only scoring, they're getting plenty of chances, too.
  • Sam Ehlinger: “Our eyes should light up in the red zone, because that’s how you win games.”

Tom Herman hated the question back in April, and it likely burns him up now.

When faced with first-and-goal at the 1-yard line, why can’t the Texas Longhorns simply line up, smash someone and score? With this team, it’s always an adventure.

In the Orange-White spring game, the first-team offense faced that exact situation. Toniel Carter got stuffed on first and second down. The coaches moved Lil’Jordan Humphrey, a receiver, into the backfield. He punched it in, but it sure seemed like an odd moment. Even in April.

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“Do we really think those three plays are indicative of what we can and can’t do on offense?” the Texas coach growled when asked about the situation afterward.

Fast forward to last Saturday’s game against Tulsa. Sam Ehlinger had no problems waltzing into the end zone on first-and-goal at the Tulsa 1 for UT’s first score. No sweat. But on the second drive, the Horns faced second-and-goal at the 1 against a three-touchdown underdog. Well, running back Tre Watson got stuffed. Ehlinger couldn’t punch it in on third down, and Ehlinger threw a difficult pass across his body to Collin Johnson out of bounds on fourth down.

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) hands the ball off to running back Tre Watson (5) during an NCAA college football game against Tulsa in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“I’ll take the blame for that one,” Ehlinger said this week. “I should have scored on the one that I kept. Moving forward, we’ll have a stronger focus. Our eyes should light up in the red zone, because that’s how you win games.”

The Longhorns missed a golden opportunity against the Golden Hurricane to take a 14-point, first-quarter lead and sow doubt into the opponent. Instead, Tulsa players came away feeling good about things. They made it a tussle all night long before succumbing 28-21.

We can argue whether Herman should have called for freshman kicker Cameron Dicker in that situation. Texas is now two games in and the Lake Travis product has yet to attempt a field goal. Odds are a close game against USC will come down to kicks.

That’s not the issue here, though. If Herman is going to trust his offense to stay on the field, as is his penchant, the Horns must deliver for him.

Should be easy, right? One yard. Sometimes it makes all the difference in winning and losing.

Herman knew exactly how big that moment was. “I was disappointed with not being able to punch it in on the goal line,” he said Saturday night. “That was disappointing.”

The guess here is that Herman was worked up about that missed opportunity and everything else that he chewed on his players something fierce at halftime. Then they locked up and played a miserable third quarter.

“Instead of being happy and having fun about being up 21-0, you know, I wanted to ensure against complacency,” Herman said. “Lesson learned.”

A psychiatrist could make a fortune off this locker room.

Lay down on your couch and think about what a goal-line stands does for the defense. I’d argue that last year’s first-quarter, goal-line stand against USC was a watershed moment in the Todd Orlando Experience. Ronald Jones II got stuffed at the Texas 1, and the Longhorns felt like supermen. USC’s top running back finished with 47 yards, Jones’ second-lowest total of the year.

Texas defense gang tackle USC running back Ronald Jones II (25) in the back field in the NCAA college football game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, September 16, 2017 in Los Angeles. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“That was a great moment, man,” UT defensive tackle Chris Nelson recalled this week. “Lining up, looking those guys in the eye and getting that stop, it made a big turn for the defense. It just hyped everybody up.”

First-and-goal from the 1 is all about mindset. It has nothing to do with snazzy formations or trick plays. It’s what the entire game of football is all about. Who’s tougher? Which team is going exert its will over the other?

Texas offensive linemen should be able to line down and ramrod Tulsa defensive linemen off the line of scrimmage with ease. There should be no doubt.

Oh, these guys are capable enough. Did anyone see tackle Samuel Cosmi and tight end Cade Brewer smash two poor Maryland defenders on the goal line at FedEx Field allowing Kyle Porter to score? Wow.

If Herman can get the Horns to master this mindset, their pace back to respectability and championships will quicken.

“Our guys understand the necessity,” Herman said, “One of our four things on our plan to win is to score touchdowns and prevent touchdowns in the red zone. It’s critical for us to do that and we had done a really good job up until that point in the two previous games.”

Last year, Texas scored on 78.7 percent of its trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, the third-lowest total in the Big 12. The Longhorns did get a lot of touchdowns (29 out of 47 attempts). But the kicking was suspect (eight field goals), so Herman went for it a lot. UT had 30 fourth-down conversion attempts last season, the second-most in the league.

And of course, nail-biting trips near the goal line against USC and Oklahoma State resulted in total heartbreak.

Two games into this season, Texas sits last in the Big 12 in scoring inside the 20. But that’s a misleading number. Outside of the turnover on downs against Tulsa, UT’s only other chance came at the end of that game when Ehlinger was in victory formation.

Look at the other conference teams. Baylor and West Virginia are both 9 for 9 scoring inside the 20-yard line. TCU and Oklahoma are a combined 15 for 15. Heck, Texas Tech is 12 for 14, a number inflated by a blowout win over lifeless Lamar. Oklahoma State is 11 for 13.

Other teams are moving the ball with ease, at least easier than Texas has done so far. Every single time this offense gets within scoring range, Texas must take advantage, no matter who’s calling the plays.

First-and-goal at the 1. One yard. Seems like a million at times.

“We’ve got to be able to finish inside the red zone, especially that close to the goal line,” Watson said. “Yeah, that gives defenses a little bit of excitement when we don’t, and we’ve gotta make sure we finish.

“That’s our main focus, is finishing,” Watson continued, echoing a major theme under Herman. “We have it on the back of our shirts, and that’s the motto that they preach.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

Past Eyes on Texas columns:

Aug. 31: Three reasons not to be so high on Todd Orlando and so down on Tim Beck

Sept. 7: Calvin Anderson’s “business decision” is paying off so far

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