Football

If past is prologue, uptight Texas will play fast, loose, upbeat vs. No. 22 USC

Posted September 9th, 2018

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Texas coach Tom Herman tried his best to sell a 28-21 win over Tulsa on Saturday. Some didn’t get the message, though.

“We’ve got a lot of lessons to learn and a lot of things to clean up,” Herman said, “but those pills are a lot easier to swallow when you win.”

What constitutes a win looks rather muddled these days even though the Longhorns are 1-1.

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Athletic director Chris Del Conte struck a downbeat note on Longhorn Network. “Right now, I understand what Tom’s trying to do, and I like what we’re seeing as long as we’re winning,” Del Conte said.

Texas cornerback Kris Boyd (2) breaks up a pass intended for Tulsa Golden Hurricane safety Brandon Johnson (29) in the NCAA college football game, at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, in Austin, Texas Saturday, Sept. 8 , 2018. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

On the post-game show, Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams said, “To me, the most upsetting part is it was a lost opportunity to build confidence.”

Over in the locker room, running back Toniel Carter vented on Twitter about not getting to play. “Frustration really setting in. God take the wheel,” he tweeted and later deleted.

Winning’s hard. Really, really hard, Herman said. Fortunately for him, the Longhorns have shown a serious propensity to play up or down to the opponents over the years. That’s why Texas will probably pull things together for this week’s home matchup against No. 22 USC (1-1).

“This is personal, man,” running back Tre Watson said. “I’m from Southern California, so SC is something I need. I need.”

Understand, UT’s inconsistency did not start with Herman’s arrival last year. This problem bedeviled former coach Charlie Strong, too.

In 2015, Texas got amped up to knock off two top-12 foes — No. 10 Oklahoma and No. 12 Baylor. But the Horns got blown out by Iowa State and lost a winnable Thanksgiving game against Texas Tech. That team finished 5-7.

In 2016, Texas rose to the occasion in the season opener for a thrilling 50-47 double-overtime win over No. 10 Notre Dame. Of course, the Strong era came to a crashing end in a loss at Kansas.

Last season with Herman at the controls, the Horns started 1-1, just like they’ve done this year. Texas looked quite comfortable in the bright-lights, big-stage moment at the Coliseum  against USC in week three before losing 27-24 in double OT. That group lost winnable games against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, too, and went 7-6.

Texas defensive players gave USC quarterback Sam Darnold fits last season in a double-overtime loss at the Coliseum. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

If the past is any prologue, Herman will have no problem getting his players to “loosen up” this week. The problem lies in the wild inconsistency. No team can accomplish anything of merit by playing tight against one lesser team and upbeat against a perceived equal.

“I don’t think we play up or down to our opponents,” quarterback Sam Ehlinger said. “We need to find that consistency of playing great football and playing to the standard of the University of Texas.”

It’s mind-boggling how this team full of veterans can play tight at all. “I mean, you asked; we’ve got a lot of youth on defense right now out there,” Herman said. “There were times on offense when we had a lot of youth out there as well.”

This is not a young team by any stretch. Sixteen players in the starting 22 against Tulsa were upperclassmen. Yet Herman said “we’re breaking in a lot of new cast of characters.”

Freshmen safety Caden Sterns enrolled in January, and coaches have raved about him from day one. Senior P.J. Locke III shifted to safety to make up for Brandon Jones’ injury, so that meant redshirt freshman Kobe Boyce started, too.

Texas did not play a single athlete that Herman didn’t praise at some point during training camp. That goes for receiver Joshua Moore (two catches, seven yards), receiver Brennan Eagles (one catch, 35 yards) and safety B.J. Foster (one interception).

Texas running back Keaontay Ingram (26) breaks away from Tulsa safety Cristian Williams (3) and safety Manny Bunch (10) during an NCAA college football game in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Freshman running back Keaontay Ingram didn’t start, but it’s growing harder to explain why he’s got such a limited role. Ingram had 10 carries for 64 yards and scored on a sizzling inside-outside 29-yard run.

If the team isn’t ready to go mentally, that falls squarely on the head coach.

“I think we just tighten up because we try to play so hard, we don’t want to make mistakes for each other that we overthink plays sometimes,” senior linebacker Anthony Wheeler said. “Herman just wants us to play loose, go out and play and have fun.”

Under the surface, other issues need to be addressed.

On UT’s second drive, UT had second-and-goal at the Tulsa 1 and couldn’t punch it in. It was the spring game all over again.

Herman said sophomore Daniel Young is “our goal line and short-yardage back.” But Young wasn’t even on the field in that situation; Young didn’t play on offense until the game was almost over.

On second down, Watson got stopped for no gain. Ehlinger lost a yard running on third down, and then he threw a bad pass to Collin Johnson in the end zone on fourth.

The defense allowed 189 rushing yards and did not produce a sack. That got overlooked because Tulsa dropped two touchdown passes in the end zone and missed three field goals.

But it’s USC week, which means there will be energy aplenty. The Men of Troy generate that just by wearing those famous helmets.

“When you’ve got guys all around the board saying the same thing — play loose, have fun — it’s a relaxed environment,” Locke said.

Play loose, have fun? If it were only that easy at Texas.

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

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