Five Quick Thoughts: Texas narrowly evades disaster against Kansas

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With multiple new starters facing a Kansas offense that has shown much greater competence and had a bye week to prepare under a hotshot young OC, Texas’ defense was in a decisive game. This was a time for the Longhorns to settle in on defense and focus on playing good base defense while keying Pooka Williams. That was the common assumption throughout the week, bolstered by talking points from the Texas staff about simplifying and getting the players moving fast.

It turns out the base defense for Texas is the blitz, and they were their normal boom or bust selves with Pooka Williams turning 25 carries into 190 yards and 2 touchdowns while Carter Stanley completed 27-of-47 passes for 310 and 4 more touchdowns.

This was nearly a complete disaster for Texas football, some will argue that the margin was narrow enough that it still was a disaster but wins versus losses do make a big difference in this game. Texas found enough fight to fend off the pesky Jayhawks and made a lot of big plays on offense that allowed them to pull out a victory. Amusingly or not, depending on your perspective, the margin of victory was essentially that of the extra two-points that came when Malcolm Roach blocked an extra point and D’Shawn Jamison returned it. Texas’ special teams were much better in this game.

Quick thought No. 1: The defense is broken

When this unit needs to play sound, base defense and gets stops they can’t really do it. What stops Texas did get in this game tended to come from successful blitzes that put Kansas behind the chains or finished off third downs. Normally it was the former as the Jayhawks were 10-of-19 on third down in this game and also went 2-for-2 on fourth down and found a receiver wide open in the end zone against drop eight, double cloud coverage on their two point conversion attempt.

The fact that Texas is incapable of playing sound base defense to save their lives has been the growing concern every single week this season. There was hope it wouldn’t matter as much against Oklahoma, who seemed vulnerable to a pressure package, but Texas didn’t attack the Oklahoma protections even as well as they attacked the Jayhawks tonight.

Kansas torched Texas in the first half running two-back zone-read and Texas was able to adjust in the second half with some of their insider-backer blitzes executed with great timing by Juwan Mitchell. But there remains a lack of answers in the playbook for good passing and Carter Stanley carried Kansas down the stretch with several big passes completed thanks to fantastic efforts by the Jayhawk receivers. All told the Jayhawks dropped 569 yards of offense.

This is a better Kansas offense than we’ve seen in previous seasons, much improved. Even a loss wouldn’t have been quite the same as losing to the David Beaty squad that took down Charlie Strong’s Longhorns back in 2016, but the defensive performance was still spectacularly putrid. The problem with this defense wasn’t a lack of focus on tackling in practice, although that probably didn’t help. The problem with this defense is that they don’t have any identity other than launching boom or bust blitzes that can’t save them against an effective passing game.

Quick thought No. 2: There were a few positives on the defensive side

DeMarvion Overshown obviously has some talent when it comes to closing and tackling in space and a few attempts by the Jayhawks to catch him on slot fades down the field didn’t yield results. Texas is insanely beat up in the secondary after another head down tackle attempt took another guy out of the game, this time senior safety Brandon Jones. Being able to insert Overshown into the mix is certainly a plus.

Anthony Cook played a pretty good game out at cornerback. D’Shawn Jamison makes plays now and again but he was also relentlessly picked on when Kansas found him 1-on-1 down the field and he couldn’t hold up. But Cook battled hard and didn’t let the Jayhawks get anything easy throwing to his side. Texas definitely has some talent at the cornerback position and if they could get Jalen Green back and healthy could potentially end the year on a high note after many early struggles.

The second half brought back Malcolm Roach and Juwan Mitchell, which led to Texas moving Joe Ossai to rover and Byron Vaughns at B-backer. Roach and Mitchell each made big plays that were extremely necessary for producing victory, Mitchell is much better a pure inside-backer than anyone else on the roster. Ossai is a tremendous all-around linebacker but he doesn’t have a great feel for the inside blitz and can’t manage the sorts of lateral cuts that Mitchell utilizes to find space between the tackles.

Much like a year ago, the problem isn’t really that Texas lacks the athletes or skill to play high level defense. There isn’t a team in the league with better talent to work with in trying to craft something that could hold up against Big 12 offenses. The problem is the coordination. Texas ran their seventh different defense in as many games and in what should be no surprise, couldn’t expect to execute the base calls when they really needed to down the stretch.

Quick thought No. 3: Multiple mistakes aside, this was a solid offensive performance

Texas had a few more issues with protection, a few iffy fourth down calls, some trouble both with basic stunts and then also some auto-blitzes that Kansas was utilizing, and they turned the ball over a couple of times. Lots of sloppiness overall, but then they still finished with over 600 yards of offense, 50 points, and a perfect game-ending drive to set up the winning kick by Cameron Dicker.

Early on Kansas was responding to Texas motioning Roschon Johnson out to form empty formations with an automatic blitz that stymied Texas early on before they finally adjusted. The Longhorns’ struggles to consistently pick up pressures well against their last two opponents without leaving a RB in the backfield to help is a bit disconcerting and threatens to negate one of their best features on offense.

The turnovers were also disastrous and instrumental in Kansas nearly pulling off the upset. The first was a glance to Collin Johnson in which Ehlinger lost track of the underneath defender, a bad mistake of the sort that can happen in a RPO offense. The second was mostly a good play by Kansas, Mike Lee got his helmet right on the ball. Jake Smith was trying to do too much at times and probably should have just gotten his hands on that ball but it was also a good play.

Texas had some more problems with fourth down calls, using a “wild Smith” set to run QB stretch on one failure and running a confusing pass pattern on another. All that said, Texas moved the ball well, got the run game going, and have shown more and more ways to get the ball to Brennan Eagles and Collin Johnson. Eagles caught six balls for 76 yards and a score while Johnson had 8 for 96 and several big catches down the stretch that secured the victory.

Quick thought No. 4: Texas had to ask way too much of Sam Ehlinger to win that game

Ehlinger completed 31-of-44 passes for 399 yards at 9.1 ypa, threw four touchdowns to one interception, and then was credited with 14 carries for 91 yards in the run game (before removing sack yardage). The vast majority of that were a series of badly needed scrambles when the protection or routes broke down and Texas needed Ehlinger to pull magic from his hat to keep the chains moving.

You really don’t want to ask your QB to take as many hits as Ehlinger had to take in this contest in order to pull that game out, either in the passing game or running the football.

Texas has to go play at TCU next week before they get another bye week to rest and heal up for a crucial finishing stretch that has them home against Kansas State before taking them on more road trips to face Baylor and Iowa State. These are games in which Texas should be able to rely on the run game to win while shoring up their defense over time. Keaontay Ingram got going again this week with 14 carries for 101 yards and a score and Roschon Johnson had 11 for 46 and another TD, meaning a combined 25-156 and two scores.

That’s what Texas is looking for in hopes of shortening some of these games and putting away inferior opponents, but instead they had Ehlinger having to get the team down the field in less than a minute and a half and handling the ball on 58 plays in order to win a shootout with what’s probably still the worst team in the Big 12.

Quick thought No. 5: This team has a long ways to go in order to get to the Red River Rematch

Texas’ defense against Kansas resembled their effort in 2018 on the road against Texas Tech, when they finished the game with a mash unit and couldn’t get stops they needed but instead had to rely on late game heroics from Ehlinger. The difference is that the defense kinda looked that way from start to finish this week whereas it was more of a late game phenomenon against the Red Raiders.

This unit is pretty beat up and was playing walk-on Mason Ramirez in the pass down “cowboy package” late after losing Brandon Jones to the shoulder injury. They still have several DBs that have played in multiple games this season to turn to but the number of injuries they’ve endured at safety is overwhelming.

If Texas had lost to Kansas you’d have to wonder if Tom Herman might make some adjustments on the defensive side. If there are any he has in mind it may be worth executing them anyways given that it required a big fourth quarter on offense to avoid the loss. Todd Orlando has repeatedly demonstrated that his solutions when things get tough are to get aggressive and double down on being a pressure defense. Despite a depleted secondary that can’t hold up to repeated exposure and a constantly shuffling linebacker corps that rarely nails the timing on his blitzes, time and time again you see Orlando try to blitz his way out of trouble.

That’s simply not going to work, and every week that Texas fails to drill down some fundamentals in base defense decreases the chances of managing to win enough road games to get back to the Big 12 championship. If Herman had another reliable defensive assistant around that had a vision and plan for cleaning up the play of the defense it’d probably be a good idea to turn to them now to take over. Instead that will have to go to Orlando, who’s presumably going to try and finish out the year by trying to get the base nickel package with a B-backer on the field (perhaps not Ossai though) into decent enough working order to scratch out some stops in the coming weeks. The prognosis is fairly grim.

History major, football theorist.