Question: What do you get when the most reliable player on a struggling team plays poorly?
Answer: TCU 37 – Texas 27
It was a tale of two halves for Texas: In the opening two quarters, the defense played admirably and kept the Horns in the game. But in the second half, several of the recent trends that plague the Longhorn defense came home to roost and Sam Ehlinger and the offense could not bail the team out.
After a season-saving field goal from Cameron Dicker ended last week’s game against Kansas, it was a tumultuous week on the 40 Acres. Rumors swirled around the team, and fans took to every outlet available to vent their frustrations.
With that backdrop, the defense opened the game by getting a stop on third down and short on TCU’s first drive. The stop seemed to be perfect timing and injected confidence in a maligned unit, sparking the Texas defense to a solid first half performance. TCU quarterback Max Duggan had that fearful look in his eyes that he didn’t know where pressure would come from in the first quarter.
As the Horned Frogs’ signal caller became comfortable with Texas’ ineffective pass rush, the game’s complexion transformed. Texas led, 17-13 at halftime, but Duggan and TCU dominated from that point forward.
Before discussing how the loss to TCU impacts Texas’ season, it would be negligent not to acknowledge that Sam Ehlinger played his worst game in a year and a half. The Horns are not a good enough team to overcome sub-par play from their most important player.
Blame Ehlinger’s four interceptions on a combustible cocktail of wide receivers that don’t get separation, too many pass attempts (48), an inconsistent running game, play calling, and a player’s penchant for playing hero ball when things aren’t going well.
Truthfully, each of those problems represents an extra layer of difficulty laid on top of the key to the team’s success. Better said, Texas players and coaches made their jobs harder than necessary on Saturday afternoon.
With an overall record of 5-3, the Longhorns will remain solidly in the bottom half of the Top 25. Although the team’s ceiling is higher than that, they are accurately positioned given their current level of play.
More interesting is the team’s 3-2 mark in Big 12 play. There are five teams within one game of Texas in the standings, making it a fool’s errand to project the remainder of the season. The surer thing to acknowledge is that on their current trajectory Texas will not qualify for the conference championship game.
Many fans set expectations for the year at 10-2 or 9-3. With three losses on the dance card before Halloween, the Longhorns are now faced with needing to play perfectly for the remainder of the season to meet that outlook.
Although it appears unlikely at this point, finishing 9-3 overall and 6-3 in the league represents a step forward for the program. Given the rash of injuries that has victimized an already inexperienced roster, winning the final four games on the schedule is a good goal (meaning it is attainable yet a stretch to achieve).
In his post-game press conference, Tom Herman referenced the way the 2018 Longhorns responded to a two game losing streak by responding with three consecutive wins to finish the regular season. Many of the players on this year’s team experienced that turnaround, making it a valid projection for this season.
Before Texas writes an ending to 5-3, a much-needed bye week awaits. Two more players were injured against TCU – they will have to take a number and wait their turn at the trainer’s table.
After an unsatisfying win over Kansas, the rumor mill went into overdrive. Considering the team lost this week instead of eking out a win, the rumor mill will be busier than the team’s trainer.
If Texas wins their last four games, a berth in the conference championship game remains likely. The true takeaway from the loss to TCU is that a 9-3 season and an appearance in the Big 12 Championship now hinges on Texas making dramatic and substantial improvements over their final four games.
Penalties, line play on both sides of the ball, defensive backs guarding wideouts instead of watching the quarterback, punt and kickoff returns…opportunities for improvement are plentiful. Whether that is good or bad depends on if your glass is half full or on it’s way to empty.
Herman can’t worry about fan perspectives at this point, and he summed up the situation after the game in Fort Worth, “The only thing to do is improve.”
Each week Matt Cotcher will continue to build “The Story of the Season” as it unfolds.
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