Texas takes two steps back
DALLAS – Along with Snickers, Twinkies and Oreos, the State Fair of Texas featured another item Saturday that was cooked to a crisp, golden brown.
The dish wasn’t popular with the Texas fans who trekked to the Cotton Bowl to watch their team play Oklahoma. Around 6 p.m., most of them limped to the parking lot feeling queasy and sick.
Less than one season removed from its appearance in the BCS title game, Texas’ alarming freefall continued with a 28-20 loss to the Sooners in the Red River Rivalry. The defeat was only the second for the Longhorns in the past six years against its archrival – but it may have begun a trend for a team that looks out of sorts both on the field and the sideline.
Fumbled punts, dropped passes, devastating penalties, peculiar play-calling on offense. A week after getting annihilated by rebuilding UCLA, Texas turned in another stinker. The only good news is that the Longhorns have a bye week before traveling to play sixth-ranked Nebraska on Oct. 16. Texas hasn’t lost three straight since 1999.
“No excuses,” coach Mack Brown said, after the debacle, and he’s right. There are no excuses.
That may fly at some schools who lost their top players to graduation and the NFL draft. But not at Texas.
Not when you boast an athletic budget that more than doubles some of your Big 12 counterparts. Not when your facilities and coaching salaries outclass nearly every school in the country. And certainly not when you have the pick of the litter in a state filled with five-star recruits.
Even in the post Colt McCoy-Jordan Shipley era, there is absolutely no excuse for this kind of mediocrity from the No. 21 Longhorns, who are in danger of falling out of the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time in 162 weeks.
“Something that we don’t do here at Texas is lose,” defensive end Eddie Jones said. “We have to go back out and work hard as a team, stay motivated and find a way to change things around.”
It won’t be easy.
Poor discipline and execution aren’t the only things slowing the Longhorns. Simply put, Texas lacks talent – or at least the kind of talent it takes to contend for conference titles and national championships.
The Longhorns don’t have a game-breaker. The wide receivers are average at best, and Brown and his staff continue to play Duck-Duck-Goose with their running backs. D.J. Monroe broke free for a 60-yard scoring run in the first quarter but hardly sniffed the field after halftime.
Brown said he limited Monroe’s carries because he’s a recently converted wide receiver who is still learning the playbook. That’s understandable. What doesn’t make sense, however, is that Texas doesn’t have any better options on its roster.
In 13 years in Austin, Brown has signed just two running backs – Cedric Benson and Jamaal Charles – who went on to become Big 12 stars. In a state where thousands of high schools treat football as a year-round sport, that’s inexcusable.
The Longhorns have landed a commitment from 6-foot, 220-pound tailback Malcolm Brown from Steele High School in Cibolo, Texas. But the prospect – the eighth-ranked player in the Class of 2011 by Rivals.com – doesn’t arrive until next season. Until then, the ground game should continue to struggle.
That will put additional pressure on sophomore quarterback Garrett Gilbert, a skilled athlete whose progress will be limited until Texas upgrades its personnel. In the meantime, Texas will have to rely on effort and intensity to salvage the 2010 season.
“We fought our hearts out,” defensive end Sam Acho said. “We were told, ‘Don’t look at the scoreboard’ and ‘Fight when you’re covering your guy.’ Last week [against UCLA] we didn’t fight as much as we would have liked. This week we fought and it came down to a couple of plays.
“We’re going to keep on fighting.”
That’s lovely, but it doesn’t mean squat when you make knucklehead plays like the ones that doomed the Longhorns against Oklahoma.
A lack of discipline was the biggest problem, when Texas racked up 81 yards in penalties. Trailing 21-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Longhorns were poised to get the ball back after their defense stopped Oklahoma on third-and-10 on the Sooners’ 48.
But well after the play, defensive lineman Jackson Jeffcoat pushed an Oklahoma player in the back and drew a 15-yard penalty that extended the Sooners’ possession. Oklahoma scored three plays later to go up 28-10.
Stat of the game: All four of the Sooners’ scoring drives were extended by Texas penalties.
“Absolute killers,” Brown said.
So was the play-calling of offensive coordinator Greg Davis, whose mishandling of Gilbert played a major factor in last year’s BCS title game loss to Alabama. Countless times against the Sooners, Davis called for third-down passes that were caught well before the first-down marker. Without the proper weapons, Davis’ East-West aerial attack just isn’t productive.
“We didn’t make the plays that we should’ve made and they made the plays that mattered,” receiver James Kirkendoll said. “We were right there at the end. We just came up short.”
Indeed, Texas deserves credit for threatening the Sooners up until the end. Trailing 28-20 with about one minute remaining, Emmanuel Acho forced a fumble when he sacked quarterback Landry Jones on his own 6-yard line. Texas linebacker Jared Norton had a chance to scoop up the loose ball and race untouched until the end zone. Instead, Norton accidentally kicked the ball out of bounds.
Oklahoma was forced to punt two plays later, but instead of returning the kick for a touchdown, Texas’ Aaron Williams fumbled the ball on Texas’ 41-yard line. The Sooners pounced on the loose football and then ran out the clock.
“We found a way to make this one not so pretty,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said.
That’s because the Sooners aren’t that much better than the Longhorns. Oklahoma is 5-0, but its victories over unranked Cincinnati, Air Force and Utah State came by a combined 12 points.
Still, Oklahoma and Nebraska appear to be the class of an extremely average Big 12 conference. The Sooners and Cornhuskers don’t play each other during the regular season, so no one would be surprised if they are both undefeated entering the conference title game at Dallas Cowboys Stadium on Jan. 4.
That means the Big 12 still stands a good shot at placing a team in the BCS championship game. But it won’t be Texas.
Not this season – and maybe not for the foreseeable future.