Jimmy Burch

Texas must find immediate answers to offensive problems

Texas quarterback Jerrod Heard found little time to throw against Notre Dame.
Texas quarterback Jerrod Heard found little time to throw against Notre Dame. AP

A fresh round of soul-searching following another lesson in humiliation is on the docket this week for members of the Texas Longhorns offense.

That does not absolve the defense, which also drew the ire of coach Charlie Strong after a 38-3 loss to No. 11 Notre Dame in Saturday’s season opener that felt more lopsided than the final margin.

Despite lots of public proclamations during fall drills about a new-and-improved spread offense that would be run by a savvier version of quarterback Tyrone Swoopes, the Longhorns delivered on none of that against the Irish.

Swoopes, who rarely had time to run or throw behind a leaky offensive line, looked completely overmatched (again) when facing a top-flight defense. Quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson, the assistant head coach for offense, had no play-calling solutions (again) when the train jumped the tracks. Texas finished without a touchdown for only the third time in the past decade, but the second time in its past seven games.

Focusing exclusively on the Longhorns’ past three games (all losses), Texas has been outscored 117-20 by the collective efforts of TCU, Arkansas and Notre Dame with largely the same group of skill-position players and coaches involved in the process. That’s a scoring average of 6.6 points per game during an era when scoring is up for most of the nation’s 128 FBS schools because of so many up-tempo, spread offenses.

But Texas’ debut in its new spread offense managed only a third-quarter field goal, a 34.7 completion rate by quarterbacks Swoopes and Jerrod Heard and a 2.1 yards-per-carry rushing effort. Notre Dame was credited with four sacks and eight quarterback hurries.

Irish pass rushers regularly confused or overpowered both freshmen starters in Texas’ offensive line (LT Connor Williams, RG Patrick Vahe) and kept both quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket all night. More efforts like this will mean another record similar to last year’s 6-7 mark that Strong called “unacceptable” during July.

“It’s always a shock and you do get embarrassed,” said Strong, who acknowledged being irate at his defense and perplexed by the latest struggles from his offense. “I think we are a better football team than that. We have to improve.”

Until offensive improvement surfaces, it’s hard to expect a rebuilt defense with six first-year starters to win games by itself. But who will ignite the offensive turnaround? And what needs to change to make it happen?

Those are questions Strong must ask as this season unfolds regarding quarterbacks, assistant coaches and play-calling duties. Neither Swoopes nor Watson seemed to have a clue Saturday about how to make things better beyond the time-honored clichés of working harder and executing better.

It is interesting that Swoopes, who downplayed the amount of off-season tweaks in the Texas offense before the contest, leaned on the first-game leaning curve while explaining away a 163-yard offensive output.

“We’re kind of learning on the fly still. Coaches, players, everybody,” Swoopes said. “Things are different. We’ll go to practice, see what we did wrong, fix it and get better next week.”

If only things were that simple. Watson, who should be coaching for his job the rest of the season, is new to the spread offense (unlike the TCU co-coordinators who ignited last year’s overnight transformation in Fort Worth) and realizes the ongoing trend is ominous for the program.

“We’re always concerned when we don’t do well. We are all concerned,” said Watson, who remains firm in his belief that improvements spotted in fall drills eventually will transfer to game day. “I know the progress has been made. We’ve got to show up when the lights go on and play.”

Indeed you do, coach. That’s the only evidence that will sway fans, alumni and your boss. If things don’t improve, Strong needs to follow the TCU lead, step outside his comfort zone after the season and bring in a spread-offense guru to bring order to the current chaos.

Toward that end, expect a more aggressive package for Heard in Saturday’s home game against Rice (7 p.m., Longhorn Network) as long as he is healthy enough to execute it. Watson said Heard was limited to two series against Notre Dame because he had the wind knocked out of him and coaches chose to keep him on the sidelines after he absorbed back-to-back sacks to close his second series.

How did the redshirt freshman fare in his abbreviated college debut?

“I thought Jerrod did a good job,” Watson said. “Jerrod’s going to be an exciting player. He took a hit there and was able to bounce back, so he showed some resiliency. I think he’s going to be a good player for us.”

After three consecutive flat-line efforts from Swoopes, the Rice game projects as a good time to discover how good Heard might be if given more than six snaps (Saturday’s total) to strut his stuff. It is worth noting that two of Texas’ eight first downs were recorded during the six snaps with Heard on the field.

Watson understands his job status will come into question in a big way if an offensive turnaround does not begin soon. At this point, Watson said: “I’ve got to keep working for the kids. That’s the simple answer. I’m going to do my very best to make sure we help the kids get this thing right.”

Against Notre Dame, on national television, that was not the case. And the shortfall bothered running back Johnathan Gray, an Aledo graduate.

“Coming out here to Notre Dame, great atmosphere, the stage is set,” Gray said. “And for us to lay an egg is just mind-boggling.”

The only thing worse, for Watson and the program, would be following up with another “mind-boggling” performance against Rice.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

Key number

6.6 Scoring average for Texas in its past three games (all losses), including a 38-3 setback to No. 11 Notre Dame in Saturday’s opener.

Moving up

Texas A&M: The unranked Aggies should move with momentum into Tuesday’s updated AP poll after a 38-17 thumping of No. 15 Arizona State.

Moving down

Pac-12 image: Two potential title contenders, No. 15 Arizona State and No. 21 Stanford, fell in their openers and other teams struggled.

Key games this week

No. 1 Ohio State at Virginia Tech: Buckeyes open Monday night against the lone team to defeat them in last year’s CFP title-winning season.

No. 7 Oregon at No. 5 Michigan State: Huge playoff implications Saturday, especially with injury to new Oregon QB Vernon Adams.

No. 19 Oklahoma at No. 25 Tennessee: Statement game Saturday for two power programs seeking turnaround seasons.

Playoff projections

If the college football season ended today, here’s a projected playoff bracket based on games played thus far (including playoff seeds):

Semifinal: Ohio State (No. 1) vs. TCU (No. 4)

Semifinal: Alabama (No. 2) vs. Baylor (No. 3)

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