Sam Ehlinger was all alone once again.
On the sideline of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, the senior quarterback was left despondent after he watched junior kicker Cameron Dicker miss a 57-yard field goal as time expired and his home career ended with the No. 17 Texas Longhorns falling to the No. 13 Iowa State Cyclones in a 23-20 loss.
On Twitter, Colin Cowherd put it simply — “The Texas Longhorns should never lose to Iowa State in football.”
Cowherd’s take is not unfamiliar, though. When Texas lost to Iowa State in 2010, a Cyclones team with Tom Herman as the offensive coordinator, Longhorns defensive tackle Kheeston Randall made a similar statement.
“It’s bad for the program,” Randall said. “They beat us today, but we just shouldn’t lose to certain teams here at Texas.”
The problem is that those certain teams have continued to beat Texas over the last decade, producing what Ehlinger in his post-game press conference termed the million-dollar question haunting the Longhorns program since that loss to the Cyclones.
Is it the fault of the coaches when a talented team fails to ever put it together on both sides of the ball?
“I don’t think it’s ever fully on the coaching,” Ehlinger said.
But if it’s not on the coaching, then it’s on the players. The same players who were lauded last week by defensive coordinator Chris Ash last week for buying into the team’s emerging culture on that side of the ball. The same players who pulled off the improbable comeback against Texas Tech and nearly did the same against Oklahoma. The same players who have kept this team this close to being undefeated.
Most importantly, they are also the same players that Herman brought to Texas — only three scholarship players on the roster are holdovers from the Charlie Strong era. With how many fifth-year seniors opt to move on, something that starting right guard Denzel Okafor considered when he entered the transfer portal during the offseason, those players remained on the Forty Acres because Herman wanted them to remain on the Forty Acres.
So there simply aren’t any more excuses — it doesn’t matter whether the blame falls on the coaches or the players because the most important players on this Texas team were all recruited by Herman. They’re his guys and that means that the blame goes to the top in Herman’s fourth year after having failed once again to play for a Big 12 title in Arlington.
Nearly a year ago, Herman used his one-time option to press the reset button, turning over seven of his assistants, including both coordinators. With Herman justifiably pointing out since last year that the roster would peak in 2020, the standards for this season were always obvious and public. Not despite those changes, but in part because of them — by making those changes, Herman was admitting that he needed to win, and he needed to win this season.
The ways in which the Herman era atrophied on Friday left little doubt about the culprit in a game featuring failures that served as a universal stand-in for the failures across this entire season and left Ehlinger, in his own words, frustrated and confused after his final home game.
“I think that we still haven’t played a great game where both sides of the ball were playing really well, that’s frustrating,” Ehlinger said. “I’m confused — we have so much talent, but we can’t put it all together. A lot of self-inflicted mistakes.
If the implications of where the blame should fall for another disappointing season on the Forty Acres weren’t clear enough from Ehlinger’s comments, Iowa State running back Breece Hall delivered a concise commentary that could well serve as the epitaph for the Herman era.
“It’s five-star culture versus five-star players,” Hall said.
Herman’s own decisions during the game only compound the ease with which this loss ends up as a referendum of him as a coach.
On the game’s first drive, a 59-yard throw by Ehlinger to junior wide receiver Brennan Eagles moved the ball to the Iowa State 4-yard line. But after a two-yard loss on second down, Texas was backed up to the 3-yard line. When the third-down pass fell incomplete, Herman opted to kick a 21-yard field goal.
The decision went against Herman’s typical aggressiveness near the goal line — the man hates field goals of less than 25 yards — indicating that the Texas head coach anticipated a low-scoring game dictated by field position, red-zone stops, and any potential turnovers.
But then Herman’s game management down the stretch completely went in the other direction, opting for the type of risks that would make more sense in the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma. Like going for two during a second overtime, for instance.
Just to throw out a hypothetical.
Within the more broad game flow, one of Herman’s key decisions in the third quarter made even less sense. Texas had scored on a long touchdown drive to take a 20-10 lead after a stretch of play from the start of the second quarter into the third quarter that featured 36 offensive plays by Iowa State over more than 15 minutes of possession. The defense had just held the Cyclones to a field goal in the red zone even after the physical and mental stress of spending that much time on the field — more than 75-percent possession for Iowa State over nearly a third of the game.
Facing a 4th and 8 just inside Iowa State territory, Herman called a fake punt that the team had worked on during the last two weeks. Herman thought it was there to convert, noting that sophomore running back Roschon Johnson was open on a corner route. Instead, the backup punter, Dicker, threw in the flat to senior tight end Cade Brewer, who was tackled three yards short of the first down by an Iowa State player whose sole job as a special teams-only contributor is to make plays just like that.
The Texas defense was playing well. A punt from Dicker had the opportunity to pin the Cyclones inside their own 10-yard line. And even though Johnson was open, the expectation was that maybe Dicker could throw a corner route to him? Or that a notoriously well-coached team would fall for the fake enough for it to convert eight yards to a tight end with athleticism sapped by multiple knee injuries?
Herman even had the opportunity to say after the game that he wanted to keep the ball away from Iowa State, but demurred from doing so.
Despite Herman’s lack of confidence in the defense, the Longhorns did hold the Cyclones to another field goal, but the ensuing offensive possession for Texas included another questionable decision from a head coach whose decision-making style continued to drift away from his clear first-quarter declaration of perceived and actual game flow.
Facing 4th and 2 from the Iowa State 13-yard line up by four points with a little more than eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Herman’s choices were to follow the analytics contained in his infamous binder or opt for a more conservative approach by kicking the field goal.
Herman said he thought hard about whether the kick the field goal. After ultimately acquiescing to the influence of The Binder, Texas then decided to dial up an atypical play for a situation that almost always features a run by Ehlinger, but instead of a quarterback counter or quarterback power or the buck sweep that worked on Ehlinger’s touchdown run in the first quarter, the play call was an inside zone fake with the quarterback following the running back. But the play was blown up when Brewer let Iowa State defensive end Ja’Quon Bailey knife into the backfield and the slow-developing nature of it meant that Bijan Robinson was late to make his attempted block on linebacker Mike Rose. Ehlinger was brought down short of the yard to gain when he was tripped up in the congestion.
With a little bit of distance from the game, the play call looks about as baffling as the decision to go for it.
Once again, however, the defense did its job despite Herman’s lack of confidence in it to avoid giving up a second touchdown.
So with 4:09 remaining, Texas got the ball back at the Iowa State 24-yard line facing more critical decisions by the head coach about his philosophy with a four-point lead. In the past, Herman has received criticism for opting for a conservative approach, running the football to keep the clock moving and force opposing head coaches to watch the clock run or start using timeouts.
Against Iowa State, Herman tried to put Iowa State away, knowing that the other option was running into a loaded defensive front as he’s chosen to do in the past. After running the ball on first down, Ehlinger tried a long pass downfield targeting sophomore wide receiver Jake Smith that fell incomplete. On 3rd and 6, Texas faced another choice — throw the ball in hopes of getting a first down or running a safer play like a running back screen or quarterback draw that might still produce a first down, but would also keep the clock running.
Ehlinger’s target of redshirt sophomore wide receiver Joshua Moore at the sticks fell incomplete against tight coverage.
As a result, when Texas kicked the ball the possession had only lasted 60 seconds. Running the ball twice or completing two screen passes instead could have taken more than twice that amount of time off the clock.
Since Iowa State eventually scored a touchdown in only 1:44, the clock management until didn’t play a huge factor in the game — the fact that Herman’s approach didn’t work is ultimately more significant.
Neither did the attempt at the game-tying drive. Most notably, facing a 3rd and 10 from the Iowa State 36-yard line, Texas called four verticals hoping to find the running back on a checkdown to pick up some extra yardage for Dicker. Instead, Ehlinger was sacked when he was forced to step up in the pocket for a four-yard loss that proved costly when Dicker had enough leg to make the field goal, but it bent just outside the left upright.
It was a game that Texas had plenty of reason to win:
Texas just lost a game where it:
— punted twice
— gained 448 yards of offense/6.89 a play
— led for 58.5 minutes
— had the ball with the lead in the late 3Q/4Q three times
— pushed the ball to ISU territory 8 times in 10 possessions
— Zach Barnett (@zach_barnett) November 27, 2020
As Barnett noted in a followup tweet, the whole is once again less than the sum of the parts.
In another indication of where things stand in the Herman era, the Texas head coach was asked to defend his continued employment by the school.
“That’s not for me to decide,” Herman said.
And it isn’t — that’s a decision for athletics director Chris Del Conte and the boosters willing to write checks big enough to pay Herman’s hefty buyout and land an expensive new head coach — but Herman didn’t stop there.
“I feel like where we have the program right now compared to where it was when we took over, the future is very bright,” Herman said. “We’ve won a lot of big games in our time here… I feel great about the trajectory of our program and where we’re headed and the things that are on the horizon.”
As Herman sounded like Strong at his USF introductory press conference imagining the Texas program as a baked cake that only needed some icing and some slicing, what really is on the horizon for a program still facing that million-dollar question?
A decade ago, Randall noted one of the first key signs of the program’s decline — a decline that Herman did in fairness arrest and turn around, to some extent — so perhaps he still has some insight.
And so the shadow looms as the BBs fully escape the box again.