From the Press Box: Texas closes season against Kansas State with win

Photo by Dave Campbell's Texas Football

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AUSTIN – The Texas Longhorns broke a six-game losing streak and kept bowl hopes alive with a 22-17 victory over Kansas State. The win puts Texas at 5-7 in Steve Sarkisian’s first year at the helm. The Longhorns might turn it down if available, but a bowl invite could be in the future if not enough teams reach six wins after Week 13

Texas leaned on Roschon Johnson’s legs for most of the afternoon. The former quarterback at Port Neches-Groves had a career high 179 yards on 31 carries. A lot of those came as a quarterback from the wildcat formation. Casey Thompson was 17 of 23 for 170 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Xavier Worthy led the Longhorns with six catches for 65 yards. 

FIVE OBSERVATIONS

Thompson is good enough: An argument can be made that “good enough” isn’t good enough for the Texas Longhorns, especially at the quarterback position. Sarkisian going on a search for a transfer quarterback to start in 2022 won’t be shocking. A team with a 4-7 record shouldn’t entrench a quarterback as a starter. Despite that, Thompson was not the main issue for the Longhorns in 2021 and a better cast around him, including a better defense, could equate to a better outing in 2022. 

Let’s look at the numbers. Heading into the Kansas State game, Thompson threw the most passes for Texas in seven of the team’s 11 games. The Longhorns averaged 40.3 points per game in those outings. In the four games that Hudson Card threw the most passes for Texas, the Longhorns averaged 17.9. Sam Ehlinger in 2020 averaged 7.96 yards an attempt. Entering the game against Kansas State, Thompson was averaging 8.16. 

Thompson threw for five touchdowns in the loss to Oklahoma. He was 23 of 38 for 280 yards and two touchdowns to one interception in the loss to Baylor. He passed for six scores in the loss to Kansas. He was below average in the loss to Oklahoma State, but so has every other quarterback to face the Cowboys. The Week 12 performance against West Virginia was the only real stinker during the six-game losing streak but reports in Austin suggest Thompson’s thumb hasn’t been right since the Oklahoma game. 

Thompson is no Ehlinger. Thompson might not even be on campus in Austin in 2022, and maybe Sarkisian finds his skill set limiting. But let’s not write off Texas’ 2021 struggles as a team lacking a quarterback. Ehlinger threw seven picks in his first nine starts, and then he threw 10 more in 2019. The Longhorns underachieved in 2021 and Thompson wasn’t good enough to guarantee another shot in 2022, but he wasn’t bad enough to suggest that the Longhorns couldn’t become a conference contender with him at quarterback. He’s as good or better than the starters at Baylor and Oklahoma State. 

Jaylan Ford should be an impact player in 2022: The Longhorns faced off with Kansas State without both of its starting linebackers. DeMarvion Oveshown and Luke Brockermeyer were late scratches, and that forced Ford and David Gbenda into significant playing time. The duo answered the bell for the most part, especially Ford. The sophomore from Frisco Lone Star High School grew in confidence as he saw more reps. Normally, he’d only play in relief of a tired starter or on third downs. He was able to make some mistakes without being pulled off the field, and sometimes young players need to work through bad moments. He should be one of the playmakers for the 2022 defense with another offseason to improve on alignment and assignment. 

Running back is the best position group on the team: It can’t be a coincidence that Texas’ best position group is running back and that coach, Stan Drayton, is the longest-tenured assistant on the team. The continuity has led to recruiting success, and the depth of the running back room was on display against Kansas State. Johnson had a big game as a traditional running back and out of the wildcat formation. Keilan Robinson is a weapon in space. We know what Bijan Robinson offers when healthy, and a former Mr. Texas Football is waiting in the wings in the form of Jonathon Brooks. Improve the offensive line in the offseason and this Texas offense could grind opponents into submission in 2021. 

The Longhorns must find more wide receivers: The talking points for Texas’ downfall tend to focus on the poor play in the trenches or inconsistency at quarterback or the overall play of a historically poor defense. And those talking points are warranted. But a position that gets overlooked is wide receiver. Take away Xavier Worthy and the Longhorns lack any difference makers at wide receiver. Jordan Whittington can’t stay healthy. Neither can Troy Omeire. Marcus Washington hasn’t lived up to four-star hype. Joshua Moore transferred. We haven’t seen enough of young guys such as Kelvontay Dixon or Casey Cain to know if those guys would make a difference, but the fact that they can’t get on the field despite the struggles of the starters means that the coaches don’t believe so. Worthy can’t do it himself, and more weapons on the outside only makes life easier for the quarterback and the running game. Worthy caught six passes in the game. No other wide receiver registered more than two.

The defense stepped up: The Longhorns held an opponent to fewer than 30 points for the first time since a 32-27 win over TCU on Oct. 2. Uncoincidentally, that was the last time Texas won a football game heading into the game against Kansas State. The raw talent fielded by the Longhorns finally looked competent on Saturday against the Wildcats. With a few exceptions, Texas played sound defensive football. The defensive line was disruptive in the backfield. The linebackers flew to the football. The secondary prevented big pass plays. A few bad angles by safeties allowed for a couple of long runs by Kansas State, but otherwise, it was a day for the Longhorns to be happy about heading into the offseason. Kansas State was shut out in the second half. 

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