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Over the last few weeks, several aspects of Tom Herman’s Texas program have been exposed as deficient, and those deficiencies have cost the Longhorns opportunities to take winnable games in a wide-open Big 12.
“Our focus, rightfully so, has to be about us,” Herman said in his press conference Monday. “We’ve got so many things that we need to clean up. So many things that without a spring practice, without a normal training camp, and trying to install new systems on both sides of the ball, we need to practice. We need to work.”
Any team playing college football in 2020 is facing the challenge of limited practice time. Herman has a point that two new installations were derailed by pandemic interruptions, but his own middling results throughout the first three years of his tenure led him to the point to where two new coordinators were necessary.
Regardless of reasoning, that was the one of several issues Herman specifically identified as needing to be fixed prior to Texas’ (potential) home game versus Baylor on October 24. The others were red zone defense, rushing defense, rushing offense, and beating man coverage.
“This is about us and fixing the things that are fixable that we are deficient at right now,” Herman said.
Red zone defense
Texas allowed opponents to score on 10-of-13 red zone opportunities entering the Red River Showdown in Dallas. When they got back on the bus to Austin, they did so after a defensive performance where 6-of-7 Sooner red zone opportunities ended in a score.
Texas has allowed opponents to add points on 16-of-20 red zone trips. Twelve of those scores were touchdowns.
Oklahoma’s lone red zone failure came in the third overtime via a missed field goal. Up until that point, the Sooners added points to the scoreboard every time they were inside the Texas 20.
In the Big 12, teams are expected to post gaudy yardage numbers considering the coaches and quarterbacks leading offenses. Holding teams to field goals can be minor victories so long as your own offense can set its own pace.
Texas allowing teams to score on 80% of red zone trips is nowhere near the bottom of this metric. That honor belongs to TCU, who has allowed points on all eight trips inside the 20 by opponents. Among Power 5 teams that have played, Texas is one of four teams who have given opposing teams 20 red zone opportunities.
Ultimately, red zone defense was the straw that broke the camel’s back versus Oklahoma. Herman acknowledged other defensive problems, but in an overtime game the ability to hold an offense in the red zone becomes paramount. Teams must only travel five yards to get to create a red zone opportunity. If red zone defense is a weak point, overtime will accentuate it.
The Longhorns currently rank 36th out of 76 teams who have played a game in 2020 in rushing defense, right in the middle of the pack. Texas’ current ranking is undoubtedly boosted by its season opening performance against UTEP. The Longhorns gave up 43 yards on 33 attempts by the Miners and forced UTEP to go backward for 31 yards on 8.0 tackles for loss.
Chris Ash’s defense held two of Texas’ three Big 12 opponents under their season rushing average. Texas Tech tallied 110 yards, 31.5 yards under their current season average. TCU ran for 152 yards, almost 20 yards under their season average.
Though the numbers appear to show consistency, individual plays belie those statistics. Texas allowed a 75-yard SaRodorick Thompson touchdown run late in Lubbock, putting the Red Raiders up 56-41 with three minutes to play. If it weren’t for Sam Ehlinger’s two late touchdown passes to Joshua Moore, and a fortuitous deflection on an onside kick, Thompson’s running play would have been the backbreaker.
Texas’ attempt to win the game versus TCU was made more difficult after failing to stop Horned Frog quarterback Max Duggan on the ground. Duggan rushed 17 times for 105 yards and two scores, including the 26-yard game-winner through a porous defensive alignment with 4:01 left in the game.
Where Texas held its first two opponents under their season average, Oklahoma ran right by its typical numbers with a depleted depth chart at running back. The Sooners, led by TJ Pledger’s 131 yards and two scores on 22 attempts, found easy yardage early on the ground versus the Longhorns. OU tallied 78 yards in the first quarter on its way to a 193-yard performance in regulation, well over its season average of 144.0.
The Sooners ran 55 times for 208 yards and four of their seven touchdowns in the four-overtime affair. The UT defense limited Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler to 5.97 yards per passing attempt, well under his 10.4 ypa mark he possessed entering the Cotton Bowl.
The UT defense did give up several touchdown passes, including two in overtime, but the Sooners were able to consistently finish drives in which the running game was featured at the beginning, middle, and end.
Running the football
Texas is averaging 4.78 yards per carry in Big 12 games, but in those games a Longhorn running back has eclipsed 50 yards one time. Ehlinger leads the Longhorns in rushing attempts, yards, and touchdowns through four games. He has tallied five of the Longhorns’ seven rushing touchdowns.
Plenty has gone wrong with the running back room during conference play, outside of Keaontay Ingram’s 89-yard day at Texas Tech.
Ingram is struggling with ball security. His pivotal fumble versus TCU at the goal line was his final carry against the Frogs. His very next carry was on the opening drive versus OU, and he fumbled yet again.
Roschon Johnson has a banged-up shoulder that has not limited his drive but has limited his effectiveness and availability.
Bijan Robinson is acclimating to the college game, a process that slowed after an awkward fall versus Texas Tech.
It’s not just the players touching the ball. The offensive line isn’t performing. Herman remarked Monday that “nobody up front” played a good game against the Sooners.
Texas’ best offensive moments have come as a result of Ehlinger finding open receivers. Those moments have coincided with a desperate need to come back in every Big 12 game. The amount of positive in the run game is limited, with it too focusing on Ehlinger in short yardage.
Herman said Saturday he needed to find a way to sustain drives at normal tempo, and the running game is an integral part of that strategy. It hasn’t been there consistently through the Longhorns’ first four games.
“You’ve got to be able to run the football efficiently,” Herman said. “Doesn’t have to be every snap, certainly, but you’ve got to be able to run the football efficiently to win championships.”
“We’ve got to find ways to get our receivers open versus man coverage.”
For as long as Herman has been the head coach at Texas, the slot (known as H) receiver in his offense has been the most productive. Lil’Jordan Humphrey eclipsed 1000 yards at the position in 2018. Devin Duvernay did the same in 2019.
Jordan Whittington, in his first extended action at receiver in a Longhorn uniform, played well at the position Saturday versus the Sooners.
Whittington caught a game-high 10 catches for 65 yards, continuing the tradition of successful Longhorn slot receivers under Herman. But Texas needs more than just production from the slot, it needs production from every receiver.
Ehlinger and his predecessor Shane Buechele both said to the media in the past they consider receivers covered one-on-one to be open. It’s faith Texas has recruited wide receivers on the outside who are better than opposing corners.
That only seemed to work regularly when Texas would throw to Collin Johnson, who is now catching touchdown passes in the NFL.
Texas’ leading receiver this year is Joshua Moore, who has 19 catches for 283 yards and five touchdowns. Several of his catches have been the result of using his athletic ability to leap over defenders for the football. The same goes for Brennan Eagles, second on the team in receiving yards and touchdowns.
Again, those plays often came as a result of the Texas receivers having to out-athlete the opposing defensive back on the outside. Eagles had one open breakaway thanks to a double-move, but the rest have been Texas receivers winning one-on-one matchups.
They simply haven’t happened consistently enough to Herman’s liking.
Whittington, Jake Smith, and even Kai Money have the luxury at H of being schemed open, or rarely facing man coverage. Moore, Eagles, Tarik Black, and Brenden Schooler are tasked with winning one-on-one.
Andre Coleman’s room is filled with highly-ranked pass catchers, but none have been able to separate and beat coverage at a high level. Its why Herman noted they needed to find ways for those players to get open.
Some available methods are concepts like mesh, crossing routes, wheel routes, and switch routes. It’s likely those will be utilized to help a wide receiver room that has faced problems getting open on the outside during Herman’s entire tenure.
Cover photo courtesy of Josh Gateley, provided by OU Athletics