One play sums up Longhorns'plight

Courtesy Texas 247

AUSTIN – In a span of 12 plays the Texas Longhorns came oh so close to penning the first words of a brand new chapter in their journey as a football program under Charlie Strong.

Gray had a big run on the Longhorns’ impressive 13-play, 98-yard drive, but the drive ending with a fumble made it moot. 
Instead, one play summed up why Texas is stuck in the portion of the novel where the main character is mired in an unsavory situation – the latest twist in the tale being Saturday’s 28-7 loss – and looking for a light at the end of the tunnel.

The play in question came well after the Texas (2-3, 1-1) defense stoned Baylor (5-0, 1-0) twice at point-blank range. A maligned Longhorn defense stepped on the face of the nation’s best offense with a hobnail boot and broke its nose, which was followed by the anemic and helpless Texas offense taking the baton and ran to daylight for once.

Shawn Watson put together the best series of plays in thus far his young tenure on the Forty Acres. Tyrone Swoopes, who was otherwise inconsistent and ineffective, led the offense down the field with poise coming off his own goal line.

A beautiful 23-yard play-action pass in the flat to Alex De La Torre gave Texas breathing room. A defensive holding call forced by Lorenzo Joe on a 3rd-and-5 gave the Longhorns life. A dart from Swoopes to M.J. McFarland gave a team thinking it could win hope it could get the job done.

Big plays from Malcolm Brown, Jaxon Shipley and Johnathan Gray thereafter gave Texas belief it could accomplish a task many deemed unachievable.

And with a 1st-and-Goal at one-yard line it happened. The bottom fell out.

While the Longhorn offense seemed ready to not just turn a corner, but change directions and go on a new path after looking like a formidable unit for the first time since those long, clock-consuming drives against UCLA that were finished with touchdowns, they hit the wall. To sum up the offense’s plight, it was one of the most simple plays in football that served as their undoing.

Had Swoopes scored the play before he botched a snap on the one-yard line the Longhorns wouldn’t have been in that predicament, but in a game of inches the Longhorns need every inch they can get and can’t afford to give them up.

Swoopes nearly scored one play before his fumble, proving every yard will be earned for the offense. 
Texas was able to overcome a bad exchange between Swoopes and Jake Raulerson against Kansas last week. Against a good football team, it’s the equivalent of the Longhorns playing Russian roulette.

“It’s a center/quarterback exchange,” Strong said. “Nobody’s swiping at it. Snap the ball, catch it and let’s move forward. It’s just a quarterback sneak.”
The inability to execute such a simple, basic play in a critical situation – Texas could have made it a tie game going into halftime at that point – shows how far away the Longhorns are from being able to do more than just give a team a good game.

“We don’t know how to win yet,” Strong said. “We don’t know how to finish.”

In their quest to learn how to win it’s been self-inflicted wounds like the Swoopes fumble that have cost Texas. The kind of wounds a team with an offense so far away from being even average it seems they’re drifting at sea hoping to see the shoreline soon and a special teams unit too shaky to stand on its own can ill afford to have.
“If we would have gotten that score… We could have approached the second half differently,” Strong said. “I think the players would have settled in a little bit more.”

There’s no shame in losing to the seventh-ranked team in the country. There is though when outright failure on behalf of everyone involved were responsible for the mistakes for which this team isn’t good enough to recover.

Nick Rose has had trouble getting extra points through the uprights, but Strong felt the need to roll the dice and let him attempt a 52-yard field goal. Watching Terrell Burt run the other way after scooping up the ensuing blocked field goal wash’t a huge surprise in that it happened, but with Strong opting for a scenario that’s resulted in too many bad outcomes this season it was a borderline shock for him to go that direction.

A blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown was one of the easy scores Texas gave Baylor, which is something the Longhorns’ can’t do. 

“Every day [in practice] we put the ball on both hashes and we go 35, 40 [yards] and hit it,” Strong said. “We just didn’t hit it. We got blocked.”

Baylor’s convincing win in the special teams battle concluded when Spencer Roth pulled off a 19-yard jaunt on a fake punt to highlight a 10-play, 83-yard scoring drive for the Bears. The worst thing about Roth running right to an area the Longhorns vacated to set up a return was it spawned one of the very few times all day the Texas defense was unable to befuddle Bryce Petty as the Baylor quarterback got the Bears in the end zone three plays later.

“The fake punt should have never happened,” Strong said. “We have two guys that should have been just going right down and checking the punter and then he just pulls it down, because we had a return set up, and he just pulls it down and ran right behind the defenders.”

The two blunders led to 14 Baylor points, making for a hole too deep from the Longhorns to emerge. That’s a sad statement, but with Texas still having chance to get into the game and an offense that totaled just 51 yards on its first 18 plays of the second half it’s true.

A harsh reality is settling in for the 2014 Texas Longhorns: such perfect play is required in all three phases of the game that with so little experience in key spots and with such a small margin for error, any other type of performance won’t lead to victories.

Texas is still good enough to beat a team like Kansas when it doesn’t play well, but that won’t be the case against few – if any – other Big 12 opponents. The disheartening thing is like the loss to UCLA last month the Baylor game was there for the taking had the mistakes not happened.

Vance Bedford deserves a tip of the cap for putting together a tremendous game plan, and his players deserve props for executing. Texas sacked Petty three times, allowed only 7-of-22 passes to be completed and allowed only three passing plays that were explosive in nature (16 or more yards) and no offensive play longer than 30 yards.

After calling Baylor “trash” in the spring, Steve Edmond let his action speak on the field. A team-high 17 tackles with two sacks and two tackles for loss spearheaded the best defensive effort by a Texas team since Will Muschamp was dialing up the pressure in Austin.

The Texas defense had an incredible performance against the Baylor offense that felt wasted due to the ineptitude of the offense. 

The defense wore down due to not getting enough help from the rest of the team. The coaches and players both have to be better offensively and on special teams for these type of games to not happen going forward.

But chances are we have haven’t seen the last of these performances. There can be improvement, but not enough for Texas to become a team that suddenly produces instant offense and magically learns how to slam the door on an opponent.

And on top of all of the physical and mental aspects of the game the Longhorns aren’t proficient in right now, Strong still has a team battling confidence issues. If even the slightest shred of doubt creeps into the minds of the players then doing things like ending a 98-yard drive with a botched snap will continue to happen.
The BYU game proved the rebuilding job Strong has on his hands wouldn’t be easy, but with every passing week and with more layers being peeled off the union we’re learning how far the Texas program has fallen and – hopefully for some – the realization that there’s no quick fix.

Not one great recruiting class. Not an exciting offensive system. Before the Longhorns can worry about competing for and winning championships the cleanse of trying to change the way the players think, play and behave must continue.

“The confidence has got to come within them,” Strong said. “They have to believe that they are a good football team and they have to believe that they are a good player themselves. You’ve got to continue to build confidence and that’s what it’s all about.”

Building confidence, learning to win and being a better offensive football team will all take time, which is something the Longhorns don’t have. One play proved every yard is going to be a struggle for this team and nothing is going to come easy.

That includes wins the rest of the way. Some say Strong needs a signature win, but at this point any win no matter the label would be welcomed for Texas.
Brown had a long run on a screen pass wiped out by a holding penalty. 

The Longhorns competed Saturday, but more games where one side of the ball clearly holds up its end of the deal while the other falls significantly short provides a recipe for discontent and unrest in the locker room.

Not to say Strong and his staff will be dealing with an in-house revolt, but if the forgettable 2010 season taught Longhorn fans anything it’s that at some point losing becomes such a burden the team can no longer carry it and they crumble.

Texas simply has to get better. The catch is the Longhorns have a long way to go and not enough time to get there, meaning an already long season has the potential to be even longer.

“It’s a process,” Strong said. “You’ve just got to continue to play and win games. When you win a big game that you don’t suppose to win, then it all comes together for you.”

It’s a process that will take one play at a time to complete. Saturday proved Texas needs to start winning every play before it can think about winning every game.