Cedric Golden

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Golden: Texas’ defense will need to play at an elite level in 2018 to get some wins

Posted September 1st, 2018

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LANDOVER, Md. — Bad start.

Horrible ending.

Here’s the worst part of becoming only the fifth FBS team to lose to Maryland since October 2016: For the Texas Longhorns to be better than they were last year, the defense will have to play close to perfect because this offense just can’t be depended upon to deliver consistently. And that’s whether the play caller is Tom Herman, Tim Beck or the fat dude working the squeegee between the third and fourth quarter after the rain delay Saturday.

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Sure the D had its moments, but Todd Orlando’s crew didn’t do enough though this ugly loss and will have to fall at the feet of an offense that gave the ball away in the fourth quarter. After the Terps scored 51 at DKR to open last season, the last thing the Horns needed was to lose again to an unranked opponent coming off a 4-8 year and missing its suspended head coach.

But it happened. Again.

Maryland 34, Texas 29.

It was bad because it didn’t have to be that way. Those Omarosa tapes down the street don’t come close to the sanitationally challenged game film the Horns produced.

Maryland Terrapins defensive back Antoine Brooks Jr. (25) celebrates with his teammates after picking off the ball against the Texas Longhorns ;late in the 4th quarter in the NCAA college football game, at FedExField, in Landover,Maryland Saturday, Sept. 1 , 2018 Texas loss 34-29. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Long before the rains pelted FedEx Field for nearly 90 minutes while the teams tried to stay loose in the locker rooms, Orlando’s defense started as if this game was being played over at the Capital One Arena in D.C. Yes, that’s the home of the NHL champion Washington Capitals. The difference is the Caps are accustomed to sliding around on skates.

Texas spent most of the first 20 minutes stumbling about as the Terrapins’ jet-swept them into near oblivion. By the time the Horns woke up, the score was 24-7, Turtles. The front seven was a step late on those early end-arounds and made a star of Jeshaun Jones, a freshman wideout who scored on a run, pass, and reception in the first 23 minutes of his collegiate career.

Texas Longhorns defensive back P.J. Locke III (11) Texas Longhorns defensive lineman Breckyn Hager (44) and Texas Longhorns linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch (23) stops Maryland Terrapins quarterback Kasim Hill (11) on 4th down in the 3rd quarter in the NCAA college football game, at FedExField, in Landover,Maryland Saturday, Sept. 1 , 2018 RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Even with those early struggles, Texas regained its footing to take a five-point, lead but the stretch run proved to be the ugliest of undoings.

“We lost the fourth quarter,” Herman said. “We came out of the rain delay and it was a field-goal game. Our defense gives up a field goal and we can’t find a way to finish and win. We have to go back as coaches and figure out why and reevaluate.”

Even with the positive response from the slow start, this defense played beneath its experience level. Time and time again, the Horns committed critical mistakes. Kris Boyd (pass interference) and B.J. Foster (roughing the passer) aided Maryland’s final scoring drive, ruining what would have been a nice bounce-back story had the Horns’ offense not turned it over in each of the last three drives.

With that said, the defense, which was expected to be a strength, kept the Horns in it as safety Brandon Jones won a goal-line battle with Maryland quarterback Kasim Hill, limiting the Terps to a field goal which made a win possible with a touchdown.

Therein lies the frustration in Longhorn Nation. No matter how much we hear about improved power cleans and higher aggregate vertical jumps, the 2018 Longhorns aren’t good enough to ride the rollercoaster of inconsistency and still expect to win. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger brought those past late-game turnovers from his freshman year into 2018 and there isn’t a guarantee that Shane Buechele will be much better since Ehlinger beat him out for the starting job.

So you’re left with a talented defense that has to play at an elite level to get wins. This team isn’t built for 45-44 shootouts but rather something in the range of 30-27. On this day it became an even bigger mountain of pressure when linebacker Gary Johnson was ejected for targeting in the second quarter. But it was a pressure that wasn’t unexpected. The reality lies in the fact that the Horns are still average at quarterback, average in the running game and below average when it comes to ball security at winning time.

To its credit, the defense played much better in the second half and put the offense in the position of needing to score just one touchdown — one touchdown — in the last three possessions.

Didn’t happen. On to Tulsa.

Here’s the bottom line: the Horns aren’t spectacular on either side of the ball, but there are enough workmanlike players on this defense — yes, some — that will do enough to put this offense in enough good positions to make a second straight bowl game.

But unless we see a huge upsurge in offensive productivity, that will be about it in 2018.

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