Football

Mood swing: After riding high, Longhorns now face plenty of scrutiny, questions

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Story highlights
  • Longhorns are now 1-5 in true road games dating back to the start of the 2015 season.
  • Texas could be without guard Kent Perkins, who was arrested early Friday for DWI.
  • The offense is clicking. The entire season rests on whether Horns can fix their defense.

Posted September 23rd, 2016

Two weeks ago, all was right in Charlie Strong’s world.

His 11th-ranked Longhorns were looking good with a 2-0 record, which included an upset win over then-No. 10 Notre Dame. Strong did a whirlwind of national media interviews, the offense looked sensational with a freshman quarterback and UT fans truly believed those three magic words — Texas is back.

Now, the 21st-ranked Longhorns are 2-1 after a dismal defensive exhibition that has changed the narrative entirely. It’s anyone’s guess what’ll happen next as Texas begins a nine-game Big 12 meat grinder next Saturday at Oklahoma State.

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Texas is back, all right. Back in the muck the program has been trying to escape since 2010.

Strong faces a difficult decision about his friend and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, who oversaw the 2015 unit which is widely considered one of the worst defenses in school history. This season, the Longhorns have allowed 104 points in three games, putting the defense on pace to obliterate the school record for most points allowed.

Strong preaches the importance of senior leadership. But early Friday, senior guard Kent Perkins, who has started a team-high 26 games, was arrested for driving while intoxicated. It’s still unclear what sort of team punishment Perkins will face. “We’re disappointed in his actions and take a strong stance against drinking and driving,” Strong said in a statement.
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And the Horns are now 1-5 in their last six true road games. In those five losses, Texas lost by an average of 25.4 points.

Last Monday, Strong was asked how his team will bounce back from the 50-43 defeat at Cal. “Well, we like to think, and which is true, that I just have a different team right now and I have a team that is much more mature now,” he said.

Strong told the players that it was a team loss, not something that can be pinned solely on the defense or anyone individually.

“When we win, everybody is happy; when we lose, then we all got a piece of the blame,” he said.

UT offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert , middle, is congratulated after the win against Notre Dame at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Sunday September 4, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
UT offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert , middle, is congratulated after the win against Notre Dame at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Sunday September 4, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Let’s examine what is working, beginning with Sterlin Gilbert’s spread offense.

Strong would be in serious trouble if Gilbert’s hiring didn’t pan out, but it did. The San Angelo native installed the scheme he learned from former Baylor coach Art Briles and turned the reigns over to Shane Buechele, the first freshman quarterback to start a season for Texas since Bobby Layne.

The results were immediate. Buechele appears to be a natural in this system built on pre-snap safety reads. Each play has a run or pass option based on the defensive alignment. He is averaging 240 passing yards per game and has thrown seven touchdowns and only two interceptions.

Buechele’s passing coupled with backfield monsters D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren III give the Longhorns a dynamite package. To win in college football, 30 points per game is the absolute minimum. Texas is averaging 44.7 points after putting up only 23.9 the last two years combined.

“We can do anything on the offensive side, and we can do it successfully,” Buechele said. “As long as we can just keep doing that and adapt to what the defense is giving us, we can be successful.”

The only downside is that the offense may be too dependent on Buechele. Against Cal, he got slammed down and had to be taken off for a chest exam. Buechele suffered a rib injury, but returned to the game and later said he felt fine.

Oddly enough, this is an offense that has no traditional playbook, which has become the norm with spread offenses. Buechele said there’s more the Horns haven’t shown yet offensively. New wrinkles like pop-passes out of the 18-Wheeler package, wildcat plays with Jerrod Heard and bunched receiver formations are all still possible.

Texas quarterback Shane Buechele runs upfield against UTEP during the first quarter of action held at Royal-Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Texas quarterback Shane Buechele runs upfield against UTEP during the first quarter of action held at Royal-Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

“We have the outside throws, we have middle-of-the-field throws,” he said. “It’s just what the defensive gives us, and the play call and whatever happens, happens.”

The offense is clicking, so its imperative Strong, Bedford and the rest of the coaching staff fix the defense. “We’ll get it fixed,” Strong said over and over on Monday. The scheme is sound, as proven over the years at Louisville and with Texas in 2014. The Horns may need better players on the field, though.

Strong said youngsters like Malcolm Roach, Breckyn Hager and Brandon Jones will all see more playing time going forward. Same probably goes for DeShon Elliott. As much as Strong loves his seniors, he cannot deny the instant impact those four underclassmen have made in three games.

“This is not going to turn into what it did last year,” senior safety Dylan Haines said. “We’re going to get it fixed.”

This is a down year for the Big 12. Oklahoma already has two losses, TCU fell to Arkansas in overtime and Oklahoma State lost to Central Michigan. Sure, that game was decided on a fluke play after an officiating mistake, but the Cowboys should have whipped the Chippewas.

No. 16 Baylor is the highest-ranking Big 12 team in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.

If Texas cannot make considerable strides in a down league this season, school officials will be pressured into considering a head coaching change. It’d be impossible to avoid such speculation. Strong is 13-15 in two-plus seasons. For every step forward, there’s always been one or two steps back.

“Our goal is in front of us,” Strong said. “We said that we want to go win the conference, so now we have a chance to go do it.”

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

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