It’s like, better than losin’.
The wisdom of Nuke LaLoosh never seems more sagacious than when you outscore your first two conference opponents by a combined seven points and yet find yourselves tied with only TCU atop the conference standings. The hilarity of ISU 38, OU 31 will get plenty of attention as we settle into Hate Week, but for now let’s take a quick look back at how the Longhorns found themselves embracing their own particular brand of chaos but right where they want to be in the Big XII.
This Shooting From the Rewatch comes to you Sunday afternoon courtesy of ACL tickets and an eventful post-concert evening...which I guess is technically Shooting From the First Watch the Next Day, but that lacks a certain pith.
Anyway, here we go.
The straw that stirs the drink is a cliche hoary enough to warrant inclusion in the Crash Davis Post-Game Presser Playbook, but it’s hard to find a better descriptor for Sam Ehlinger’s unlikely-to-be-relinquished role in the drivers’ seat of the Longhorn offense. It helps when the drink is competently mixed and swaps in some Grey Goose for Taaka, but once the ball is snapped it’s on the QB to ensure that smooth finish and Sam was more than equal to the challenge.
Outside of an ugly underthrow worthy of a federal Duck Stamp on the offense’s first play, Sam was between solid and excellent throwing the ball against a veteran and well-coached defense. He missed high, low and wide on a few shorter throws and could stand to refine his touch on end zone fades, but he also hit a half-dozen beautiful balls on deeper slants and skinny posts. Those are the throws where his arm really shines, and the offensive adjustment to frequent 10 personnel and utilizing Lil’Jordan Humphrey in the boundary mean that Collin Johnson should find himself on the receiving end of a lot of those balls between now and season’s end.
Even though he’s got a big arm, Ehlinger’s legs are the biggest part of his game right now and he used them to great effect. My eyes popped when I saw 20 carries in the box score, but in watching the game his usage felt more or less sustainable as he was featured smartly as a constraint in the run game and scrambled at least a half dozen times. His ability to turn negatives into positives when pulling the ball down or simply buying time downfield is a huge contribution for an O that hasn’t schemed first - or second - looks open all that well this year, and Sam’s confidence in his legs allows him to easily manipulate the pocket by sliding with his eyes downfield. There are a lot of components to the catch-all term of “pocket presence,” but he’s got a lot of them and they’re being used to good effect so far.
The big boys up front warrant the next mention, as they exceeded reasonable expectation for a bunch missing 60% of its Game One Starters. We ended up with addition by subtraction and transposition as former backup RT Denzel Okafor got the start on the left side, and I owe Terrell Cuney an apology for utterly writing him off heading into the season. He got whipped by Will Geary a few times, but he gave as good as he got and didn’t serve as the run-game deadweight I thought he would when I heard he was getting the start. Bizarrely it seemed like Jake McMillon played the worst game out of any of the Longhorns’ bathroom wreckers, but the Wildcats’ inability to flat-out wreck us up front kept victory in the cards.
As an aside, Derek Kerstetter is gonna be good.
The backs got more limited usage in this one, combining to tie Sam Ehlinger with 20 collective carries, but it was nice to see them being used in their individual spheres of competence. Toneil Carter got to hit outside on the Power Sweep and Inverted Read (which predictably gained some extra teeth with the prospect of Ehlinger pulling the ball and heading up the gut) while Warren and Porter served as shorter-yardage hammers and each found the end zone. Warren showed off some plus blocking after a few execrable games in that regard, turning in some impressive blitz pickups and a couple of nice lead blocks on Reggie Hemphill-Mapps (thank God) jet sweeps.
Hemphill-Mapps turned out to be Ehlinger’s favorite target in this one, pacing the Longhorns with 12 catches for 121 yards. A couple of those “catches” were of the jet sweep pop pass variety, but RHM was a consistent chain-mover on slants, sticks and pivot routes and showed some danger and tackle-breaking ability with the ball in his hands. Collin Johnson didn’t get the deep shot I coveted, but with the aforementioned good scheming he got to torment corners on deeper slants and digs without getting immediately doubled by the safety or robbed underneath by the boundary ‘backer. He and Lil’Jordan Humphrey - who turned in a strong effort of his own with four grabs, 60 yards and some nice blocking in the screen game - should be a deadly boundary duo as post/wheel and slant/fade variants become tough for opponents to handle.
Johnson, Humphrey and Mapps get us three-quarters of the way to our dream 10 personnel package - Jerrod Heard made his case to be the answer at Z with an easy seam TD and a few other nifty grabs. Lorenzo Joe also contributed some strong blocking when his number was called, but with three spots locked down we can keep holding auditions for #4.
Ehlinger + RPOs + 10 personnel + not getting held hostage at any individual OL position made tonight an Easy Button relative to their previous seven quarters of football despite a relatively tough opponent. It sounds as though Tom Herman was a more active presence on the headset last night and likely made his presence strongly felt in the offensive meeting room all week, but whatever the authorship we saw the progression towards a workable 10-personnel identity and a sense of rhythm that will be much tougher for future opponents to defend.
Of course, it would be too much to ask to fire on most cylinders on BOTH sides of the ball, right?
Texas looked solid on defense early, junking some of the Wildcats’ favored QB run looks. A sack by DeShon Elliott and Malik helped snuff out K-State’s second drive, and things looked to be settling into a reasonably low-scoring affair...until the Longhorn secondary started busting coverages.
The second quarter looked like we’d invited Vance Bedford back to guest-coordinate. After a double move on Holton Hill drew a PI, Ertz said thank you very much when Texas left Dalton Schoen utterly uncovered for an 80+ yard TD up the seam. Both Kris Boyd and Naashon Hughes looked to jump the flat-route hitch without actually covering the guy while at safety, PJ Locke drifted towards the sideline and never even attempted to cover Schoen until his White Flight was well underway - and Locke’s closing speed (or lack thereof) after the catch won’t be the thing his agent puts at the front of his NFL Draft tape. The next drive was keyed by a 39-yard bomb when Lock and Boyd combined to botch a simple smash route, both jumping the hitch underneath and leaving Brandon Jones no shot at preventing the corner route throw as he tried to range over from center field. The drive ended with the simplest slant TD you’ll ever see as Locke stood flat-footed over the #2 receiver in trips and gave up the inside with nary a peep.
The D stiffened over the next few drives, but ironically found itself behind the eight ball once Ertz went out. Backup QB Alex Delton came in and began to run QB Counter over...and over... and over again while Texas cast about in vain for answers in a mauling reminiscent of the second half against Baylor in 2015. No one fired with the guard’s pull, Poona (on short rest since the DL rotation was out of whack without Chris Nelson) was unable to play off a single block when the guard next to him pulled or climbed, PJ Locke got rocked on contain and Delton seemingly got yards at will.
Locke did help blow up the Wildcats’ second fourth-quarter drive with a timely edge blitz, forcing Delton to heave an off-target attempt on another smash route (which was open - we played those like shit all night) and the pass D was up to the challenge on K-State’s final drive in regulation when a Naashon Hughes sack (!) set up an Ertz heave to give Elliott his fifth INT of the season and provide Texas with a golden chance to win in regulation...but more on that in the Special Teams section. Texas got punished by QB Counter again for K-State’s first overtime TD, but Charles Omenihu forced a hold to derail the Wildcats’ second OT attempt and tee up Texas for the win.
The DL was undermanned without Chris Nelson, whose key role as a run-game stalwart has been overlooked by the occasional double decimal-counting dunce. Poona Ford had a quiet night as the game went on, and Charles Omenihu was probably the DL’s best player against the run, making what were just about the front’s only contributions against QB Counter with the aforementioned hold and another great play where he looped three gaps over once he recognized what was coming. Malcolm Roach bagged himself a sack and played a solid game, but he’s not built to play 70+ snaps at 4i without some rotation help that wasn’t in the cards last night.
The linebackers did solid work against a variegated Wildcat run game - things got tough once Delton started spamming Counter, but this game would have looked a lot uglier in that regard a season or two ago. Malik turned in several open-field rundowns and made plays in the backfield while Gary Johnson showed up in the run game. Naashon Hughes got on the stat sheet with a sack and squeezed the run game reasonably, but it will be nice to see some more of Shark McCulloch as we get into the pass-heavier portion of the Longhorns’ schedule.
In the secondary, P.J. Locke had a nightmare game and it seemed like Kris Boyd made an unwelcome return to the Land of Assignment Confusion on a few plays. DeShon Elliott turned in his customary stout performance while Brandon Jones was asked to be a centerfield eraser for much of the night and did the job well when he wasn’t totally out-leveraged by someone else’s coverage bust.
It’s a game that would be more concerning if we had more single-wing opponents on the schedule, but for now cleaning up our assignment busts in the secondary should be Orlando’s Job One heading into Hate Week.
It’s time to strenuously explore any other options we have at field goal kicker. Watching a dude who agreed to trade his services for four years in Manhattan, Kansas and a K-State degree nail a 53-yarder and bang a 58-yarder off the upright made me bang my head in wroth as Josh Rowland threw in misses from 27 (!) and piddle-legged a 45-yard chance to win the game in regulation. We just don’t have a lot to lose by seeing what Chris Naggar, Kathy Ireland or anyone else can get done at this point.
Dickson’s punts were solid yet again, and we saw some good early field position from Kyle Porter kick returns that went a-glimmering as Kris Boyd and Lil’Jordan Humphrey each fielded high hangers behind dubious blocking. Our Decided Return Game Advantage has yet to materialize, and that’s putting it gently.
In a Big XII that lacks firebreathing teams and promises plenty of down-to-the-wire contests from here on in, the third phase could easily help usher Texas into a surprise berth in the conference title game. It’s time for Herman’s focus in this area to start bearing fruit.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Nuke said it best - winnin’ is better than losin’. The D was frustrating, but the O was frequently captivating and it’s very likely that we’ll be seeing what Sam Ehlinger can do in the Red River shootout and many shootouts to come. That’s a lot to put on (yet another) true freshman QB, but if you’re going to ride the QB Crazy Train for one more season you could do a hell of a lot worse when looking for a conductor.
At the sound of the tone, it’s 2:45 PM - and OU still sucks.