Football

Horns at the halfway point: Injuries, inconsistency aside, Texas still has fighting chance to win Big 12

QB Sam Ehlinger taking major steps forward, but in hindsight, there should have been more worries about the defense

Posted October 15th, 2019

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Story highlights
  • WR Devin Duvernay: “We definitely have enough time to bounce back.”
  • Too many were dismissive of the fact Texas was replacing eight defensive starters.
  • Ehlinger alone can’t carry Texas to victory, as evidence by what happened in the Cotton Bowl.

Here at the turn, the Longhorns have so far done exactly what oddsmakers figured they would.

Texas won the four games in which it was favored. The Horns lost two games against top-10 opponents when they were underdogs.

Texas (4-2, 2-1 Big 12) isn’t a top-10 caliber team just yet. But it’s not third-tier, riff-raff, either. Being ranked 15th at the season’s midway point looks and feels right given the current body of work.

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Obviously, most fans are anxious to see their team win six straight to close out the regular season and get back to the Big 12 championship game. “We definitely have enough time to bounce back,” senior receiver Devin Duvernay said Tuesday.

Would Texas like a rematch against No. 5 Oklahoma?

“I just want to make sure we’re there,” Duvernay said. “Who we play doesn’t matter.”

So far this season, some preseason storylines have come to fruition. Sam Ehlinger has taken a major step forward to become the program’s best quarterback in a decade. On this, there is no debate. There’s also no doubt Shane Buechele made the right decision to leave SMU.

However, it’s obvious there should have been more worry about replacing eight defensive starters. Too many inside Moncrief — heck, outside of the UT football building, too — dismissed the nervous Nellies. Now, UT’s defense is on pace to be among the worst statistical units in school history.

No use counting the missed tackles, either. You’re well out of fingers and toes.

Duvernay is right, though. Texas has time to bounce back and still accomplish its chief mission of winning the Big 12. UT has yet to play Kansas (2-4), at TCU (3-2), Kansas State (3-2), at Iowa State (4-2), at Baylor (6-0) and against Texas Tech (3-3). 

Here’s a look at some key themes from the season’s first half and how it impacts things going forward:

Injuries aren’t an excuse, but…

To coach Tom Herman’s credit, he preaches three key words. “Next man up,” linebacker Joseph Ossai has said repeatedly.

In August and early September, Texas couldn’t keep its running backs healthy. Keaontay Ingram (knee), Jordan Whittington (sports hernia), Daniel Young (ankle) and Kirk Johnson (shoulder) all went down at some point. That’s literally all four of UT’s scholarship running backs.

Herman had to move third-string quarterback Roschon Johnson to running back. The selfless freshman has been sensational given the circumstances. Against OU, he came five yards shy of back-to-back 100-yard games. Now Johnson looks like he could soon be the starter over Ingram, although both will be critical down the stretch.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Texas ranks seventh in the Big 12 in rushing (163.0 ypg). It’s scary to think what that number would be if Ehlinger was a plodding pocket thrower.

The secondary has been shredded by injuries. Caden Sterns (knee), Jalen Green (shoulder), Josh Thompson (broken foot) were all injured against Oklahoma State. Chris Brown (fractured forearm) will miss the next six weeks. B.J. Foster and DeMarvion Overshown were injured but have since returned.

Maybe the secondary wasn’t tearing it up at full strength. Still, Texas ranks 126th nationally in pass defense (310 yards per game). That’s fifth from the bottom among 130 FBS schools.

Little pressure up front

The secondary injuries and pass defense wouldn’t be so glaring if the Horns were getting after the quarterback. The first two games, Texas’ defensive line was virtually nonexistent.

“Stats don’t matter for defensive linemen,” Herman said after the team’s 1-1 start. “Do you disrupt the offense? And if the answer is yes, you’re doing your job.”

Now with six games under its belt, the defensive line has accounted for only two sacks. Texas has 10 sacks overall, but most have come via blitz pressure. That puts extra burden on the secondary if the rusher can’t get to the quarterback in time.

Senior defensive end Malcolm Roach is credited with only one quarterback hurry. He’ll also miss the first half of Saturday’s Kansas game after being ejected for targeting against OU.

Texas defensive lineman Malcolm Roach (32) celebrates a sack by Brandon Jones against LSU during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Austin, Texas. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Defensive end Ta’Quon Graham is tied with linebacker Joseph Ossai for the team lead with six tackles for loss, but Graham hasn’t dominated at any point this season. Defensive tackle Keondre Coburn has 12 tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack so far.

These same linemen have excelled against the run, though. Texas is also doing better at getting off the field on third downs this season; opponents are converting on 38.1% of their attempts, down from 44.3% last season.

“I feel like we’re good,” Coburn said. “As a defense, we’re good. We’re executing good, we’re getting stops that we need. But if a team get better stops and executes better plays that us, then that’s what happens.”

OU shattered the O-line’s mystique

Texas’ offensive line had been a team strength before last Saturday, when the Sooners ran numerous stunts and blitzes that confused the Horns at times and led to nine sacks.

OU co-opted a play from LSU where defensive coordinator Alex Grinch had a linebacker loop around from his outside position and run straight past guard Parker Braun. On another blitz, OU’s Kenneth Murray saw guard Junior Angilau pull to his left, so he shot the gap to break up a play.

Texas center Zach Shackelford (56), left guard Parker Braun (73) and left tackle Samuel Cosmi (52) line up against Oklahoma defensive lineman Neville Gallimore (90) in the second half of last week’s game at the Cotton Bowl. The Longhorns gave up nine sacks. (Stephen Spillman/For Statesman)

Herman said “it’s on everybody,” not just the offensive line. Ehlinger said he held the ball too long at times. The running backs needed to chip block some more. Still, future defensive coordinators have gobs of film they can watch to learn how to exploit this unit.

“I mean, he’s right in saying that,” center Zach Shackelford said of Herman, “but there’s also some stuff we gotta get more fluid and quicker at, like communication wise, so we can eliminate that stuff.”

Not-so-special special teams

Herman said the punt return game was “embarrassing” after Oklahoma State. That’s one way to put it. Freshman Jake Smith and senior Brandon Jones both muffed punts that led to turnovers, causing total havoc.

Then against OU, Duvernay made several bad decisions on kickoff returns, like running balls out that should have gone for touchbacks and dropping a fair catch at the 5-yard line. D’Shawn Jamison also let a punt roll free and get downed inside the 10.

Mistakes like those prevent teams from winning championships. “Hidden yards,” coaches call them, add up to win- or-lose field position battles.

At least Cameron Dicker is 6 of 8 so far on field goals, hitting a career-long 57-yarder against Rice. He also showed nerves of steel by drilling a 49-yarder after OU’s Lincoln Riley called three consecutive timeouts.

Offense showing explosive potential

Despite all these injuries, inconsistent play and mental mistakes, Texas still has a chance every week with Ehlinger.

The junior has reached a point where he can throw four touchdowns against OSU and not hear his name mentioned once in Herman’s post-game press conference. Ehlinger accounted for four touchdowns in a win at West Virginia, and nobody batted an eye. That’s now a standard day.

Ehlinger has connected with Brennan Eagles for touchdowns from 55 and 73 yards. He’s got a 53-yard scoring throw to Jake Smith, who has somehow disappeared the last few weeks. Ehlinger’s got a slew of throws in the 20- to 30-yard range, too.

Texas wide receiver Brennan Eagles (13) celebrates his touchdown against Oklahoma State on Sept. 21. (Stephen Spillman/For Statesman)

Duvernay, Smith and Eagles all have four touchdown catches each. Collin Johnson missed three games with a hamstring injury. If he can work back into the mix, Johnson should force defenders to adjust, thereby opening more throwing lanes.

Ehlinger alone can’t carry Texas to victory each week, as evidence by what happened in the Cotton Bowl. But he can give the Horns a huge lift.

“I’ve liked the fight that we have, the mentality that we have for a whole duration of the game,” Ehlinger said. “I believe that we can continue to eliminate self-inflicted wounds, mistakes that we inflict on ourselves. I mean that’s the biggest thing. Continue to do that, that’ll be good.”

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

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