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Mental Toughness Greater Obstacle for Longhorns
While the Longhorns looked like a different team, physically, for the majority of their content against UCLA, mental mistakes cost them big. For the next 9 games to be positive, this can't become a recurring theme.
Collegiate student-athletes will make physical mistakes related to execution, and mental mistakes due to exhaustion, lack of discipline or even momentary lapses of concentration. Physical mistakes can be minimized through practice, through discipline of craft, through dedication to one's position to ensure when the time comes the play will be made. Mental execution, however, is a whole different animal and one not so easily tamed.
This is exactly what we saw of the Texas Longhorns in their narrow 20-17 loss to the UCLA Bruins on Saturday night. The physical execution was arguably the best its been to this point in the season, but the mental execution let Charlie Strong's team down at the worst possible times.
There's little doubt the Longhorns will continue to improve physically, in terms of drive-to-drive and how they deliver on both sides of the ball. Their bounce-back, overall sense of urgency, and level of emotion against the Bruins speaks volumes about Strong's ability to motivate, for one, but also about the difference in this team from others in years past who wouldn't have come out with as much fire after an embarrassing loss.
Tyrone Swoopes was impressive.
His ability to throw with ease and precision on the run was the big question mark many of us had entering into the game against UCLA. This ability will be tested all season long -- especially against greater competition -- as a youthful offensive line learns through trial by fire, and Swoopes showed on Saturday he has what it takes to make the Horns' offense productive through the air.
The running game was also decent. Shawn Watson's decision to use the running backs as quick wideouts to get them the ball in space worked well early, and Malcolm Brown and John Gray combined for 118 yards on 21 carries after getting some decent holes to run through in the second half. Obviously, this isn't the 200+ yards rushing Texas will need here in a few weeks to win games, but it's a positive sign the offensive line which many had buried after the BYU debacle isn't a lost cause. They still need to establish their will more often in the trenches, but their dominance seems like less of a pipe dream than it may have this time last week.
John Gray didn't look like the John Gray of a couple of seasons ago. This is concerning. There was limited burst there when holes were there to run through, and you have to wonder if the surgeries, the rehab, and the grind has started to degrade some of his ability to turn routine carries into big gains.
Let's hope not.
As a whole, the defense played with heart and with emotion on its sleeve, making big plays when they were needed. Malcom Brown showed everyone why he's among the nation's best interior defensive linemen, terrorizing a UCLA front four that had no answer. Jason Hall laid some big hits, showing why his three-star rating might have been a little short-sighted, but also made some critical mental mistakes which we'll get back to. Jordan Hicks had another solid evening as a whole, and proved yet again this defense can't play at the level it's capable of collectively without him on the field.
All-in-all, the physical execution was promising. It was an improvement, and a marked one, and with a team of this experience level, it feels like that's what will be reasonable to ask from here on out.
The mental, however, was another story.
It all began with a crucial mistake made by senior captain Desmond Jackson -- who later left the game with an injury -- when he deferred Texas' second half-opportunity to receive the kickoff after UCLA was awarded the coin flip win prior to the game. The result was UCLA earning one extra possession which they weren't entitled to start the second-half. As it turns out, that possession could have made all the difference for Texas in those final moments of the 4th quarter.
It's hardly fair to isolate Jackson as the lone mental letdown, however, when there were plenty of others. Jason Hall's desire to make plays on occasion backfired, as the freshman safety earned two running into the kicker penalties during the game. One did not result in a first down, but the other did, saving a possession for UCLA, and giving rarely-used Bruins backup quarterback Jerry Neuheisel a chance for a few more throws. One of which would be the dagger.
It all ended with Duke Thomas.
While Thomas also played well, his inability to recognize, then cover UCLA wideout Jordan Payton on a late fourth quarter sideline wheel route led to the game-winning touchdown, and a heart-breaking loss for a Texas team so close to grabbing a huge victory.
It's one thing to make mental mistakes against a team like UCLA who may be highly-ranked, but has yet to play a full 60 minutes this season. It will be another to make the same mental mistakes in coming weeks against teams like Baylor and Oklahoma, who have played a full 60 minutes, and have shown a level of ability which ensures mental mistakes from their opponents will turn into points. The margins the Longhorns have to work with are small, and mental mistakes which make those margins larger just cannot be reconciled.
If the Longhorns' incremental improvement in physical execution becomes exponential over the next 9 weeks, they're going to be in plenty of ball games. If it isn't met with the same improvement mentally, however, this season could be a long one indeed.
Texas Longhorns hang tough with UCLA Bruins, but fall 20-17 on late touchdown pass
At least the Horns were ready to play this week.
UCLA Bruins back-up quarterback Jerry Neuheisel hadn't had many opportunities to stretch the field after replacing star starter Brett Hundley early in the game after Hundley suffered a left elbow injury on a scramble.
But when Neuheisel pump-faked on 1st and 10 from the Texas 33-yard line, Texas Longhorns junior cornerback Duke Thomas bit on the fake and UCLA wide receiver Jordan Payton was sprung for an easy touchdown catch down the sidelines to provide the final margin in a narrow 20-17 UCLA win over Texas on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
With a final chance to win the game, Texas senior wide receiver John Harris dropped a short pass on first down, putting the Horns behind the chain and ultimately resulting in a bounced pass by Tyrone Swoopes on 4th and 7 to decide the game.
Moments earlier, Harris had been the hero, catching an eight-yard touchdown pass from Swoopes on a 10-play, 80-yard drive that consumed four minutes and gave the Horns the lead. Harris had kept the drive alive with a six-yard catch on 3rd and 5 before junior running back Johnathan Gray showed some explosiveness bouncing a run outside and breaking off a 31-yard gain, exactly the type of play the Horns had trouble producing against BYU last week.
Down the field, Harris celebrated after pancaking a UCLA defender to help Gray pick up some extra yardage.
The offense showed improvement from last week, as the offensive line generally played better in paving the way for 4.2 yards per carry and Swoopes had a good outing, going 24-of-34 for 196 yards and two touchdowns, including a lofted touchdown pass to junior tight end MJ McFarland in the second quarter.
Several plays before, Swoopes had kept the drive alive after vacating the pocket on 4th and 8 from the UCLA 38-yard line and delivering a pass to Harris, who extended for an impressive 33-yard catch.
After a holding penalty by junior offensive guard Sedrick Flowers, Swoopes set up the touchdown pass by scrambling down the sideline for 10 big yards on his longest run of the evening.
Pop passes using slant routes to junior wide receiver Marcus Johnson on plays blocked for the Power play that the line had trouble blocking last week against the Cougars represented a welcome addition to the offense. And senior wide receiver Jaxon Shipley, who played despite a head injury sustained last week, was used on push passes to provide some threat in the perimeter game in another adjustment by play caller Shawn Watson
While the offense improved as a whole, the defense still struggled at times, giving up 215 yards on the ground to the Bruins, even without Hundley's impressive scrambling ability that burned the Horns several times before his injury. UCLA running back Paul Perkins didn't score a touchdown, but gained a career-high 126 yards on 26 carries, including a 58-yard burst early in the second half made possible when he broke the attempted tackles of Texas linebacker Jordan Hicks and safety Jason Hall.
Part of the problem for the defense, especially in the second half, may have been a leg injury to senior defensive tackle Desmond Jackson in the second half. Jackson was carted off the field, but it's not known how much time he could possibly miss or even the exact nature of his injury.
Texas also suffered from special teams and coaching mistakes. The game began with head coach Charlie Strong visibly frustrated on the sideline after UCLA won the toss, deferred, and then had Texas decide to kick the ball off, which ultimately resulted in the Bruins receiving the ball to start both halves. And in the fourth quarter on the final UCLA drive, Texas could only stop the clock once after using two timeouts early in the game.
Special teams were also an area of struggle for Texas once again. Junior Nick Rose kicked the ball out of bounds for the second time this season when he appeared to attempt to angle a kick towards the sideline after the go-ahead touchdown.
Then, after the Horns forced the only turnover of the game when senior linebacker Steve Edmond knocked a ball loose from UCLA running back Jordon James that sophomore defensive tackle Paul Boyette recovered, the offense went three-and-out and gave up a 45-yard punt return to UCLA defensive back Ishmael Adams.
Unsurprisingly, UCLA immediately tried to produce a big play with the double move to Payton and were able to do so as Thomas suffered the type of mental mistake that characterized his worst moments in 2013.
There were also time-management issues for Texas after the UCLA turnover that gave the offense a chance to run their four-minute drill and kill the clock. But instead of running time off, the Horns ran plays with significant time remaining on the play clock, poor decisions that were ultimately made irrelevant by the big punt return and subsequent touchdown pass.
So while the game represented a significant improvement from the no-show in the third quarter against the Cougars last week, there is still plenty of room for this team to get better.
The offensive line appeared to do so with some more variation in the running game, though sophomore Kent Perkins was a major disappointment at right tackle with two critical holding penalties in pass protection and several other miscues that allowed easy shots on Swoopes.
And the running ability of the Texas starting quarterback still appears lacking. He seemed too willing to give up the ball up on the zone read even when the read players were crashing and struggled to make opponent miss in the open field when he was scrambling -- his long run on the game went for only 10 yards.
On the positive side, Swoopes was throwing bullets all game, continuing to show improved accuracy on short throws and working more towards the middle of the field with the pop passes to Johnson.
Ultimately, however, the long passing play on the day was still 33 yards to John Harris, with no other receiver producing a catch of more than 20 yards -- the margin for error simply isn't high enough for this group to drive the ball down the field in short chunks. Competing with Baylor and Oklahoma in upcoming weeks will require some big plays.
The injury to Hundley was probably worth a touchdown or so in keeping the game close, as UCLA went to a more conservative game plan with Neuheisel at quarterback. In that regard, the ability of the Bruins to impose their will in the running game presents a major concern moving forward for a Texas front seven that may be without Jackson for several weeks and still suffers from the linebackers disappearing. Everyone in the stadium knew that the Bruins wanted to run the football and the Horns weren't able to get stops.
In that context, hanging tough with a Bruins team that may still be somewhat overrated at No. 12 nationally isn't suggestive of a program that is close to breaking through.
Facing a tough schedule, the game against UCLA represented a chance to pull off the type of upset that would earn some rare positive national attention for a program that desperately needs something to create a sense of resurgence.
With one pump fake and a lofted pass, the back-up quarterback for the Bruins ripped that opportunity away from a team that may still be in the market for moral victories.