AUSTIN, Texas – A group that has started a combined 134 career games still has plenty to learn.
Lost amid one of the worst defensive performances in Texas history and the abrupt firing of Manny Diaz is the unmistakable fact Texas’ offense still has plenty of work to do. That work might begin up front.
Texas’ offensive line did not have its best night Saturday in Provo, Utah. David Ash was scrambling much of the night as BYU got consistent pressure by only rushing three or four defenders, and eventually Ash got hurt. Texas’ run blocking, especially in short-yardage situations, was maddeningly inconsistent.
The Longhorns flat-out didn't own the line of scrimmage against a team that was manhandled by Virginia a week earlier.
That’s not exactly how Texas coaches and players perceived the game when they reviewed the film. On Monday, Mack Brown said he believed Texas’ line did some good things and had a better night that most realize.
The real problem, he said, was situational football.
“We were in so many third-and-long situations,” Brown said. “BYU has some great pass rushers. Kyle Van Noy, as publicized, he's a great player, not a good player. We ran the ball well at times, could have run it at other times better. We made some mistakes at quarterback and running back, even receiver, that hurt us up front. But I'm still positive about those guys moving forward.
“When you don't score more than 21 points, it always goes to the offensive line. Other times, people could have helped them with other things.”
On that topic, the numbers do not lie. Texas’ offense had 26 second-down opportunities against BYU and picked up first downs on only eight occasions. On 14 of those 26, Texas was facing second-and-7 or longer.
Going 0-for-3 on fourth downs is an obvious issue, but the Longhorns’ performance on third downs shouldn’t be overlooked. They converted five of their 17 third-down attempts, but that number doesn’t say everything. Eight of those 17 attempts were from 7 yards or longer, and Texas converted on third-and-long only once.
Those pressure situations put BYU at a distinct advantage. Creating more passing downs gave the Cougars the ability to drop more defenders into coverage and attack Ash with only three or four rushers.
"Now you have third-and-long, and you have a guy that's going to be drafted, and he's rushing your passer," offensive coordinator Major Applewhite said. "That makes it extremely difficult on the quarterback. When they can mix that in, allow him to drop seven or drop eight, it makes it difficult. We have to find a way to get ourselves in third-and-medium and third-and-short and find some more options.”
Senior offensive guard Mason Walters says failures in those critical situations can’t be blamed entirely on the Longhorns line. It takes all 11 to execute, and execution was certainly not up to par against BYU.
When he rewatched the game, he saw 11 players who were battling for 60 minutes. Effort wasn’t the issue, in his opinion. It’s simple attention to detail.
“It’s really all you have. When you’re not executing, you just have guys running around,” he said. “I really think the execution part of it comes when you start understanding there is an onus on you. It’s not OK to go out and almost do it right. It has to be done exactly the way it’s coached. Once that is seen and the execution starts to happen, it can be very explosive.”
It’s hard for that Texas offensive line to stay explosive without getting more help. Left tackle Desmond Harrison struggled, but that’s to be expected for a junior college transfer playing his second game for Texas. For most of the game, though, the same starting five stayed on the field.
Brown and offensive line coach Stacy Searles say they want 10 offensive linemen they can use, but backups Sedrick Flowers, Kennedy Estelle, Curtis Riser and others played minimal roles on Saturday. Next up is an athletic Ole Miss line, led by No. 1 recruit Robert Nkemdiche, that that presents just as many challenges as BYU did.
Now seems as good a time as any to open up competition for the starting offensive line jobs and tinker with new combinations. Texas is playing the same five linemen over and over and expecting different results.
Walters’ explanations for why the line didn’t get the job done are more abstract than blunt. He says energy needs to be better focused in the first quarter, that efforts need to be better channeled going forward.
But at the end of the day, Texas didn’t win. That’s all that matters to him, and no matter what explanation you lean on, the line needs to get better.
“We know this is a good team,” he said. “We know we have a good offense. It’s the execution factor that we need to step up on.”