The inside word coming into this one was that the defensive staff was tremendously confident, and that the offensive staff had no idea what to expect.
They were half right.
The TL;DR version is that Malik Zaire missed four more throws than Tyrone Swoopes hit, and it's not because Zaire was missing a lot. If you've got the intestinal fortitude, read on.
While hope springs eternal at the start of any football season, it was tough to put much of a shine on this matchup. Even factoring in the loss of nose tackle Jarron Jones, the Irish had the beef in the trenches and the top-tier athleticism of guys like Jaylon Smith to make life hell on a Longhorn O that was throwing a pair of true frosh into the fire on the O-line. The most viable plan for an offense that could contribute on the scoreboard and avoid cutting the defense's Achilles tendons felt something like:
- Manage an honest 3-4 yards on between-the-tackles runs
- Stretch the D with quick hitters to Daje and Foreman
- Pick your spots for downfield shots to Foreman/Warrick/Burt
- Run some Power Option with Swoopes
- Pray that God is a Protestant
Whatever the actual script was, it got swiftly buried under an avalanche of blown-up runs and pass rush pressure that tended to arrive on about step three-and-a-half of the average five step drop. The program's Sins of O-lines Past came together in an interesting way in the first quarter, as a (relatively) promising first-quarter drive got snuffed when senior Sed Flowers and true freshman in Patrick Vahe both got jacked back on 3rd and 1 to drop D'Onta Foreman in the backfield and ensure that Texas wouldn't answer the opening Irish TD. There was measurable progress from the Arkansas debacle, and a vast gulf between what we saw and the kind of OL performance that gives any offensive scheme a shot at cracking the top half of the FBS.
Swoopes faced a stacked deck from the get-go, but once again showed some tremendously troubling tendencies that make you wonder if his inherent limitations will ever allow his strengths to really play up. He faced a ton of pressure but somehow managed to manufacture even more for himself, and he missed a few absolutely cake-and-candy throws after failing to set his feet and display any kind of proper form. He showed more decisiveness as a runner and showed a little more escapability in the backfield, but the ease with which he was tracked and dumped on a few open field runs made it clear that he's not going to elevate this offense with his legs. His ability to elevate the offense in any consistent way remains on the wrong side of questionable, and it's going to take some time before the offense is ready to elevate him.
Heard got some very limited run, and showed the exciting quicks and dubious command of the passing offense that you'd expect. He didn't return in the second half and there was some chatter that he was experiencing concussion-like symptoms - haven't heard anything definitive as of this writing, but hopefully he's OK. He'll have a (possibly major) role to play this season if he's healthy.
Gray and Foreman ran reasonably tough on limited touches under tremendously adverse circumstances - not a lot to be done when the offensive front is collapsing as soon as you take the handoff. Daje Johnson showed some impressive jukes and a dubious understanding of the cardinal points of the compass, and John Burt got to sport the deep speed that will make him one hell of a dangerous X receiver once Texas devises a way to throw 20+ yard routes without 7+ man protections.
The offensive staff will get (re)raked over the coals for this one, and it's tough to point to too many elements in the game plan that made it look like Texas was really set up for success. It's also tough to figure out what the game plan was, or what it could have been to make things click with three Domers in the backfield on every play. Run the damn ball? Tried it. Spread 'em out and throw quick-hitters to get athletes in space? Did that, too. Hit some jet sweeps to create space for the run game? Check and check. At this moment, the number of Texas' OL starters who are A) reasonably experienced, B) possessed of a Top-25 D1 athletic ceiling, C) well-developed and D) playing in their natural position is zero.
Malik is awesome! On to Rice!
OK, OK, let's dig a little deeper.
A shaky offensive show that kneecapped a game defensive effort was the most likely storyline heading into this one, but the Longhorn D managed to sabotage its own efforts with troubling regularity.
The overall approach to play with three down lineman, two-gap the front and cover for a lack of beef with frequent blitzing and a steady diet of twists and games made some sense on paper. In practice, it got derailed by the consistent inability of anyone not wearing #46 on their jersey to beat an offensive lineman to a spot and make a play. The Domers' top-shelf OL was always going to represent a tremendous test for the Texas defensive front, but Notre Dame's 90+% win rate on individual one-on-one matchups was still something of a shock. You could count the number of times that a Longhorn lineman - including a potential All-American in Hassan Ridgeway - simply shed a block and disrupted a play on two hands, and still have a finger left over to shoot at Brian Kelly for that double-time out chicanery at the end of the first half. While Texas could have sold out and sent even more pressure at the Irish, you're not going to consistently Diaz your way into scheming an absolutely untouched defender into the heart of the offense. Sooner or later someone just has to beat the man in front of him, and when later becomes next-to-never you get a result like we saw tonight.
The detached defenders in the front seven were the undeniable bright spot, with Malik visibly leading the way alongside some good moments from Naashon Hughes and a flash or three from Edwin Freeman. Peter Jinkens showed some steady vet presence on a few plays while demonstrating just exactly why he's been benched by three consecutive defensive coordinators on several others.
By far the most disheartening element of the entire affair was the outright confusion that seemed to reign from gun to gun in the Longhorn secondary. Texas' defensive identity rests on the Strong/Bedford/Vaughn troika's ability to coach up DBs, disguise coverages and allow the efforts of the front seven (or front six, these days) to play up by confusing QBs and allowing the Longhorns to send rushers from all angles to jam up the run game and generate sacks while keeping a lid on things downfield. Texas' DBs looked lost for much of the night, with a baffling array of slow reactions, semi-competitive efforts and coverage busts. The Longhorn safeties were too slow to close on dig routes in front of them early (which is bad) and much too slow to handle receivers flying down the sideline for wide-open TDs (which is much, much worse). The John Bonney outside, Duke Thomas inside experiment failed on both counts while Dylan Haines played by far his worst game in a Longhorn uniform.
We broke the 20-yard line on most of our kickoff returns, but the 25 remained a bridge too far. Nick Rose fell victim to Brian Kelly's mind games on his third consecutive attempt at a 50-yard field goal to end the half, and Aussie Rules punter Michael Dickson was more Young Einstein than Crocodile Dundee as a trio of shanks marred his evening. In fairness, he did have to kick the damned thing ten times and might have just gotten tired. We were treated to a Kris Boyd demolition on punt coverage that called to mind the halcyon days of Beau Trahan and Michael Ungar.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The whole "We've got 23 true freshman on the two-deep and are going to have some growing pains" thing is all fun and games until the pains have you howling for Tramadol in Game One. This was the Worst of All Possible Openers for Texas, and while the Longhorns were dealt a bad hand they did next to nothing to improve their lot. While there aren't any remaining opponents who'll bring the combined OL/DL talent that the Domers dropped on us, there are plenty squads with the skill position talent on offense and ability to fog a mirror on defense to make Texas pay if the staff can't get a young bunch to leave this one behind them and take the next step - or three - in short order.
On to Rice. Hook 'Em.