The words “must-win” and “Rice” don’t usually go together when talking about the Texas Longhorns unless you’re talking about the NCAA baseball tournament. But that’s what Saturday is. That’s what the next two Saturdays are going to be thanks to the dismal performance the Longhorns put on against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Why are coaches and anyone else in the program shocked that there are tens of thousands of tickets available for the Rice game? Would you want to pay more money than last season to see that?
I can only imagine what the Cotton Bowl will look like if Texas goes into Dallas at 1-4 facing an Oklahoma Sooners team that’s a dark horse to win the conference and maybe get into the college football playoff. It all looks bleak. Last Saturday’s game was so bad that the football program is being bombarded with questions. Here are five of mine:
1. Where’s the change?
Tyrone Swoopes doesn’t have the speed to out-run defenders nor does he have the escapability to avoid them. That was made painfully obvious last year. He had no value unless he was completing short at a high rate and avoided throwing deep because it felt like those kinds of plays were a complete waste as last season dragged on.
The reason it was so frustrating for so many fans to watch on Saturday was that it felt like the only change offensively was that it was a hurry-up version of what they did last year. All it did was give the defense less rest after a three-and-out.
Defensively, the only thing that appeared to change was an over-reliance on the line to create a pass-rush while six or seven guys dropped back into coverage. It’s tough to get too down on the defense because the offense played so poorly that the Texas D was never given a chance to succeed. It’s actually a wonder that they held Notre Dame to just 17 points in the first half. Malik Jefferson’s performance stood out as the freshman linebacker lived up to the hype, but zone coverage and no pass rush allows offenses to pick the Longhorns defense apart all day, which is what happened on Saturday.
They spent an entire offseason changing everything, but little appeared to change at all.
2. What about Johnathan Gray?
I couldn’t believe how little we saw Gray get the ball against Notre Dame. The shift in the offense should’ve been to have it revolve around him because he’s the best proven player they’ve got. He certainly showed it early and should’ve gotten the chance to show it more often.
Gray had 40 yards on eight carries. The rest of the ball carriers (not including Swoopes or Jerrod Heard) combined for 15 yards on nine carries.
It was 14-0 the first time he got two consecutive carries. It was 38-3 before it happened again. Yes, quarterback is a huge issue, but Gray should be the focal point of the offense until everything is sorted out there.
3. Where’s the pass rush?
Malik Zaire certainly didn’t look like an unproven kid that might be overwhelmed by his first home start. Texas gave him all day to throw and boy did he look comfortable. He completed 84% of his throws for 313 yards and three touchdowns. That’s more than 14 yards per attempt. As we said before, rushing three or four guys just wasn’t working for Texas. The rushing scheme wasn’t creative nor overpowering, which is a bad combination. Zaire is certainly athletic, but he didn’t need to show it. He made for a nice pocket passer against Texas.
4. What did Tyrone Swoopes do to earn his spot?
A majority of people that follow Texas football were genuinely shocked to find out that, while Jerrod Heard would get some playing time, Swoopes would still be the unquestioned starter coming into the season. People were floored, even those who had been watching practice. Coaches gushed about the huge steps Swoopes had taken to solidify his place as the quarterback of the future in his second year.
And then he goes out and lays an egg against Notre Dame, doing exactly what he did last year. You can’t blame the pressure either. There were plays designed to get the ball out of his hands quickly and hit open receivers short and he still couldn’t execute. He completed just one deep ball for one of the few first downs of the game.
Maybe Texas was scared off on playing Jerrod Heard after being shaken up following a tough hit. Maybe they didn’t want to subject him to a swarming Notre Dame defense any more knowing that they’d need him for the rest of the season. Whatever it was, it doesn’t change the fact that he looks faster and crisper with his throws than Swoopes. I’m with Cedric Golden: He needs to start against Rice and for the rest of the season.
It’s a lot to ask a freshman to carry a program like Heard might have to do this season… but what choice does Texas have?
In talking to donors, season ticket holders, and super fans that made the trip up to South Bend, there was only one guy that anyone wanted to blame after the loss: Charlie Strong.
When Texas brought him in, they weren’t expecting a five year wait in which the program had to hit rock bottom before just getting back to winning seasons and challenging for the conference or national championship. This isn’t Louisville where fans are going to be patient. This is the Texas Longhorns, not that far removed from a trip to the national championship game, not that far from upsetting Oklahoma and beating the Aggies in the final game of the rivalry.
Any promise built up by competing well against OU last year and upsetting a (barely) ranked West Virginia team last year is long gone thanks to three terrible losses in a row: TCU, Arkansas, and now Notre Dame.
“Maybe he isn’t the guy,” many fans told me. “It’s hard to say that after one year and one game, but [the loss to Notre Dame] was pathetic.”
It’s hard to believe, but yeah, Strong is now on the hot seat. Beating Rice isn’t going to cool it any. Beating Cal may help, but a loss is going to make Strong’s seat white-dwarf-hot. That means the team is 1-5 after the Oklahoma game with Baylor and probably more losses on the schedule. At that point, 4-8 is a real possibility. 3-9 is even in play. The last time a Texas team won fewer than five games was John Mackovic’s 1997 squad, and he got fired after that season. Mack Brown was fired after an 8-5 season in which the Longhorns went into the final game of the season with a chance to win the conference.
He couldn’t have done what Strong did the last two years? You don’t think Texas would go shopping for someone else after another awful season from Charlie Strong?
Texas fans hope that they won’t have to find out.
Photos courtesy Jon Durr/Getty Images; Cooper Neill/Getty Images