The Terrapins beat the Longhorns 51-41 on Saturday at Darrell K. Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium to open the Tom Herman era on the 40 Acres. Let’s take a look at how the Texas defense and special teams graded in the loss to Maryland.
Early on, it looked like the Texas defense was going to have its way with the Terrapins. The defensive line played well on the first drive of the game, but after that everything went downhill. Poona Ford played well, taking on double teams and opening up lanes for the linebackers to come down and make plays, but the linebackers failed to make those plays. Charles Omenihu flashed at times, notching Texas’ only sack. Ta’quon Graham played about as well as you could have expected for a freshman. One major disappointment was the non-impact by Malcolm Roach. The sophomore finished with only 1 tackle and was not a disruptive presence in the backfield. Texas only got the quarterback once all game, which is disappointing when facing a team that led the Big 10 in sacks allowed a season ago.
Most fans will look at the stats and see 276 yards rushing and think that the defensive line had a rough day, but I would personally place much of that blame on the linebackers.
Following Ty Johnson’s 40-yard touchdown run in the 3rd quarter, I closely watched a replay that showed both Anthony Wheeler and Malik Jefferson filling the wrong gaps, allowing Johnson to run untouched into the end zone. The assignment football that the linebackers struggled with in 2016 seems to remain. On obvious passing downs, Texas chose to bring in a package that included Breckyn Hager and Jeff McCulloch. Unfortunately, that package was not used as often as Todd Orlando would have liked, mainly due to the inability to stop the run on 1st and 2nd down. Gary Johnson played on special teams but did not see any action on defense, despite being considered one of the best tacklers and run defenders on the team. Whether it’s from bad coaching the past 3 seasons or simply the inability to know an assignment, Todd Orlando has to find linebackers that give this defense at least a fighting chance in defending the run.
Tyrrell Pigrome was known as a run-first QB who had issues throwing the ball. Those issues never arose against Texas. Aside from a first quarter interception returned for a touchdown by Holton Hill, Texas was beat through the air all day. Kris Boyd got beat on numerous occasions and Holton Hill was not much better. After an injury to Pigrome, backup QB Kasim Hill converted a 3rd and 19 pass that squashed the hopes of any comeback by the Longhorns.
Brandon Jones and DeShon Elliott are both going to be elite safeties, but the duo still struggles with pursuit angles and helping in the run game. Elliott seemed to play out of control at times, and whiffed on several open field tackles. Jones still needs proper coaching on how to help out in run support and properly shed off blocks.
Overall, it seemed like the communication issues that plagued the Texas defensive backs much of last year were fixed, but the players simply failed to execute. Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill combined to complete 80% of their passes. If Texas plans on winning big time football games this year, they have to figure out their coverage issues before they face the likes of Baker Mayfield, Mason Rudolph, Will Grier and Sam Darnold.
This was maybe the most wild special teams game I have seen in awhile. Maryland and Texas both returned blocked field goals for touchdowns, and Texas also added a punt return for a touchdown. Poona Ford blocked a kick midway through the 2nd quarter that fell right into the hands of Holton Hill, who returned it to the house.
New kicker Josh Rowland did not look good in his first live game action. His kicks were low and did not have much power behind them. Rowland missed his first kick wide left before having his next kicked blocked and returned for a touchdown. The reality is, Texas does not have many options in the kicking department. Walk-on Chris Naggar has no live game experience and senior Mitchell Becker has only attempted 2 field goals in his career, both from under 25 yards.
Michael Dickson looked like his normal self. The junior punted twice for 118 yards and flipped the field when he was asked to do so.
In the return game, Texas lined up Devin Duvernay and Brandon Jones on kickoff returns. Both have the speed to be deadly in the return game, but blocking continues to an issue. Reggie Hemphill-Mapps served as the primary punt returner, and it looked like Texas has found its answer at that position. Hemphill-Mapps returned a punt 91 yards for a touchdown in the 3rd quarter to help get Texas back in the game. Credit Tom Herman for staying true to his word and playing starters on special teams. Malik Jefferson had a huge block that sprung Hemphill-Mapps on his return for a touchdown.
It’s hard to not give a passing grade to a unit that had 2 touchdowns, but the field goal kicking and blocking on kick returns are worrisome.