One of the most tedious parts of any coach’s job is to manage expectations. Tom Herman is trying to under-promise and over-deliver.
The Texas coach has an unmistakable head-down, eyes-on-the-prize mentality these days as his Longhorns have built a three-game winning streak.
He offered no braggadocio after Texas beat sixth-ranked Oklahoma State in overtime. And he was rather low-key after Saturday’s 17-13 win over West Virginia. Herman thanked the fans profusely for their support and continued to lean on his new favorite phrase — “work in progress.”
No. 21 Texas (5-2, 4-2 Big 12) most certainly is that. The Longhorns get an off week to rest up, get more “good on good” practice work and prepare for a trip to Lawrence, Kan. UT’s next game is against winless Kansas on Nov. 21.
“Guys, this is the way it’s going to be all year,” Herman said Saturday. “We’re going to get better this by week. We got a ton better in the bye week leading up to the Baylor game. We’re a much different team at this point.
“But we are going to be a work in progress, certainly on defense with all the adjustments that we need to make and the lack of repetitions against certain schemes and formations and plays,” Herman said. “Then on offense, we’ve got some inexperience on the perimeter that we’ve got to continue to get on the same page with the quarterback and keep improving.”
Where should Herman begin? There are all sorts of good-but-not great aspects to this team, so the coaches have no reason to go easy.
Saturday was a day the defense continued making strides. West Virginia’s game plan was to minimize Joseph Ossai’s impact, but other defensive linemen stepped up. Moro Ojomo and T’Vondre Sweat combined for nine tackles, and the front line didn’t miss a beat when Keondre Coburn suffered a sprained ankle.
The Mountaineers’ success depends solely on their running game. They appeared to abandon it as quarterback Jarret Doege attempted 50 passes. West Virginia had a season-low 43 yards rushing.
Linebackers Juwan Mitchell had nine tackles, and DeMarvion Overshown had eight. Overshown also blew up one of the biggest plays of the day. On third-and-goal from the Texas 8, Doege had nowhere to go as Overshown came blitzing free for a sack.
Texas has allowed an average of 79 yards rushing the last three games. Every defensive coordinator in America will take that, including UT’s Chris Ash.
West Virginia was 6-for-16 on third downs and 0-for-3 on fourth down. Two of those fourth-down plays were pass attempts into the end zone. B.J. Foster broke up the first and Chris Brown shut down the second.
The last three games, Texas’ opponents are 14-for-42 on third down. A 33.3% conversion rate? Ash will take that, too.
“We don’t fold under pressure,” said defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham, who had four stops, one tackle for loss and a pass breakup. “We’re starting to execute the things that we’ve been coached to do. And we’re playing like a discipline defense.”
This defense needs to keep making strides, because the offense isn’t as explosive as it was in September. Saturday was another day of engine sputter.
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger hasn’t looked like himself in weeks. Against West Virginia, he completed 48.4% of his throws — his second-lowest total of the season. He completed 47.2% against TCU. The longest pass play of the day was the 35-yarder to Bijan Robinson that sealed victory.
“I think I’m trying to be too perfect,” Ehlinger said. “I need to just go out and let it rip.”
Herman was unsparing in his criticism of the passing game. “Offense was not pretty in the throw game. Not at all,” Herman said. “Sam was off in the first half, and then, boy, he was on in the second half. And we didn’t help him very much on the perimeter.”
But Herman turned around and praised his offensive line, calling it perhaps the unit’s best game of the season. West Virginia came in with the No. 1 rushing defense in the Big 12, and Texas had a 100-yard rusher and gave up only one sack.
Speaking of those 100 yards, freshman Bijan Robinson had his best performance to date. He opened the game with a 54-yard sprint through the Mountaineers’ defense. Then, UT coaches gave him only 11 more carries the rest of the day. Herman, offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich and running backs coach Stan Drayton are convinced a three-man rotation is the way to go. Roshon Johnson had 29 yards on 10 carries against WVU. Keaontay Ingram was out with a high ankle sprain.
Robinson committed an unpardonable sin in Herman’s eyes by fumbling. Ingram is proof positive that you can overcome that objection, though.
“I feel really comfortable with this offense and how coach Yurcich is using it,” Robinson said. “And I just can’t wait for the future. At first, I was just trying to get a feel for this game. But as it keeps slowing down, with the speed of the game, it’s looking good.”
Said Ehlinger: “I can’t even imagine what type of player he’s going to be.”
So, like every week, there’s some good and some not-so-good with these Longhorns. At least nobody’s talking about penalties this week. Texas had only four, for 45 yards. That qualifies as great with this group.
It’s a team that deserves to be in The Associated Press Top 25 poll, but not in the top 10. It’s one that still controls its own destiny in the Big 12 championship race. But it’s one that could stumble again, too.
Alas, Herman’s description is apt. Texas is a work in progress.
“They better not be happy,” Herman said. “What do we got to be full on? I told our guys all week that if the best thing you do when you look back on 2020 is you beat Oklahoma State, what a shame. What a shame that would be. We are definitely a work in progress.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.