Longhorns Notebook: Impotent O, soft D cost UT again

By Kevin Flaherty

Given the recent history of the Texas-Oklahoma State series, the Cowboys could be forgiven for looking over their shoulders in the third and fourth quarters.

In 2004, the Longhorns trailed 35-7 just before halftime before roaring back to win 56-35. They pulled a similar act a year later, falling behind 28-9 at half, only to win 47-28. And in 2007, Colt McCoy helped to turn a 35-14 fourth quarter deficit into a 38-35 win.

So while Oklahoma State led 23-3 at halftime, the Cowboys had to feel a bit anxious about the end result. After all, Texas hadn’t lost to Oklahoma State in the Mack Brown era.

The Cowboys shouldn’t have worried. There isn’t a Vince Young on the 2010 Longhorns, not a Colt McCoy, and no Jamaal Charles. Limas Sweed isn’t walking through that door.

Instead, the Longhorns have an offense sans playmakers, one built around a series of role players and talented underclassmen not yet ready to assume the full glare of the spotlight.

The staff would like to have a running game to take brunt of the offense off quarterback Garrett Gilbert. But the running backs are a series of complementary players who would be best suited opposite a big-time passing attack. The receivers are a collection of players who thrived with Jordan Shipley and who now struggle to get open without him. The offensive line, while solid at times, is far from a dominant group that would allow for both the running game and passing game to develop at their own paces.

It makes for an offense without an identity, and one without a place to lean in hard times.

The defense is another mystery altogether. Blessed with elite-level players at defensive end in Sam Acho, defensive tackle in Kheeston Randall, linebacker in Keenan Robinson, cornerback in Aaron Williams and safety in Kenny Vaccaro, the group can stop the run and the pass at times, but seldom for a full game.

Every team goes through a down cycle. That Brown has avoided one to this point is a remarkable part of his legacy. And the future appears to be bright.

Out of those elite defensive players, all but Acho are set to return next season. And offensively, the Longhorns started three freshman linemen on Saturday. Gilbert is still just a sophomore, and is capable of great things. Receivers like Mike Davis, who set the Texas record for receptions by a freshman in a season, will only get better. And running back Malcolm Brown could supply the high-level runner that the Longhorns haven’t had the past few seasons.

But on a Saturday where the Longhorns found themselves in a familiar position, down 20 to Oklahoma State, Texas lacked familiar faces to solve its problems.

Defensively, the Longhorns allowed the Cowboys to tack on 10 more points, eliminating Texas’s chance for a comeback. And the offense didn’t get rolling until the fourth quarter, when a 30-point lead was just too much to overcome.

Now the Longhorns find themselves with their backs against the wall, sitting at 4-6 with two games remaining, needing to win both to achieve bowl eligibility. The bowl itself isn’t as valuable as the extra practices that could prove vital in shaping a young team for next season.

It might be over those added practices that the Longhorns establish an identity, the kind that responds positively to adversity and knows how to come back. The kind that makes Oklahoma State cringe even when the Cowboys appear to have the game in hand.