Texas Football: You Can’t Have It Both Ways

Longhorns still plagued by preexisting issues

Quickly recapping the obvious details: Iowa State shut out the Texas Longhorns this past weekend, in a convincing 24-0 victory - the largest shutout loss since 1976. “Convincing,” however, doesn’t only apply to devastating loss. It also applies to those convinced coach Charlie Strong has already worn out his welcome.

Courtesy of UT Athletics

“See, he can’t lead Texas.”

“See, we just beat Oklahoma and Kansas State. Where was this against Notre Dame?”

“See, he can’t lead Texas.”

You don’t like him? Fair enough, but see the whole picture.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion. Nevertheless, if you’re going to criticize the program, I believe in informing people what you believe the issues are – with some semblance of clarity – versus providing a “hot take."

The Longhorns are showing a multitude of issues, which were never fully extinguished to begin with. Oklahoma – or the ideas presented during the win – simultaneously exhibited what’s still possible, and also a pot of fool’s gold.

Areas of Concern:

Let’s start with this possibly divisive opinion: The quarterback play of Longhorns is literally fifth in the list of issues plaguing the team.

Yes, fifth. As in number five. At best. I will run down the list in reverse order.

QB Play: Let’s call it as it is. In Heard and Swoopes, you have two very young and athletic quarterbacks with (thus far) underdeveloped arm talent. Both are excellent ball runners – Heard in open space, Swoopes as a premium power back. However, to date, they’ve shown little touch or ability to anticipate open receivers. Throwing players open just isn’t a reasonable ask, as it stands today.

The route tree itself is unusual: verticals, posts, and some intermediate routing. The plan seems to be to create spacing at the next level for Heard/Swoopes to take off, by occupying the secondary. Iowa State knew neither quarterback could (or would) make those throws, choosing to sit on run plays. Shorter throws – aside from slow developing underneath routes – to create a rhythm, and put the athletes in space, aren’t in the plans.

Norvell has simplified the game play to the extent that the Iowa State defense almost knew which plays were being run based on formation differences. There were times Iowa State rushed three players, or purposefully disengaged with Texas’ offensive line, focusing strictly on containment of Heard and Swoopes.

Defensive standstill: Suffering from similar issues, the defense has stagnated. Because of the simplification, there’s no concealment of coverages or the rare blitz – there are no surprises. Lemming never needed to make adjustments pre-snap, or immediately after, merely ran or passed into the Longhorns’ pressure points. If Ridgeway, Jinkens, or Jefferson aren’t blowing up assignments, more often than not, the front seven has broken down or moved backward this season.

Putting it lightly, the secondary play has been less than stellar, with continual breakdowns on fundamentals and poor tackling. On several throws, corners were turned and beaten, spinning like tops and unaware of ball placement. DBU alums are rolling over in their graves.

Losing the war: While the QB play gets the longest breakdown because of its specificities, the line play towers over all. Winning and losing at the collegiate level is decided in trenches, and Longhorns are simply being washed and rinsed at the point of attack, especially on defensive front. The offensive line fared no better – the Cyclones were able to get consistent pressure with only three or four players.

Leadership: Post-game, Strong mentioned the lack of leadership among upperclassmen, particularly the dearth of seniors to self-police teammates. It’s become an extra task I’m certain Strong didn’t anticipate. Most bothersome is the players describing last week’s lackadaisical practice.

There is that nasty habit of playing down, almost as they still expect teams to cower in their burnt orange wake - something a few of the players noted this week. Frankly, they simply aren’t playing for each other. There’s no accountability or energy, unless something positive is happening. Where is the competitive nature? A personal commitment to excellence?

Who are we? The lack of identity remains the primary flaw – are they a power or a finesse team? I wonder if a power-spread could be a feasible solution – similar to the – gulp… – skyrocketing Houston Cougars. Houston’s version (similar to Baylor) plays a numbers game, creating schematic advantages by attacking with overloads, zone pulls, and power runs.

This brings us to the elephant in the room. Both primary play caller Jay Norvell and Shawn Watson, the offensive coordinator, come from pro-set West Coast offenses. Strong comes from a West Coast offense at Louisville, but is a defensive coach by trade. So there is also an institutional familiarity issue for the coaches, working in tandem with the team’s youth.

The long-term issue with changing to a pro style offense is the recruiting problem – its own monster, wrapped in tentacles of the previous regime. (This is a topic deserving of its own column.)

Looking Ahead to Kansas:

Continuing to shoot it straight, Kansas is terrible, and Texas should walk over the Jayhawks in dominating fashion. However, with so many questions unanswered, it’s difficult to know where the Longhorns will be mentally as Saturday rolls around.

If nothing else, Kansas will provide valuable game time experience. Taking Texas – in what Strong critics will call a “must-win” – Texas 28 Kansas 17.

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