Texas needs to get ball in hands of speedy playmakers to shake slow-start problems

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In his first two games as Texas’ playcaller, Major Applewhite has helped the Longhorns put on a pair of prolific offensive performances.

First, he orchestrated a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback in their win over Oregon State in last December’s Alamo Bowl, when David Ash threw touchdown passes on each of Texas’ final two possessions to give it a 31-27 win. Then, Applewhite helped the Longhorns pile up a school-record 715 yards in their season-opening win over New Mexico State last weekend.

As impressive as those displays were, though, Texas has gotten off to extremely slow starts in both games Applewhite has been in charge of the offense. In eight first-quarter drives with Applewhite calling the plays, the Longhorns have gained 83 yards, averaging less than three yards per play and scored only three points.

In 22 drives after the first quarter the previous two games, Texas scored 84 points and gained 990 yards, averaging 8.9 yards per play. While recording 40 first downs on those 22 drives, the Longhorns only had two first downs in the eight first-quarter possessions.

They scored a touchdown once every 1.83 drives after the first quarter, compared to finding the end zone once every 3.12 drives in 25 games while Bryan Harsin was calling plays the previous two seasons. 

So what was the difference? Why did Texas become such an explosive offense in the last 45 minutes of the game while struggling to move the chains in the first 15 minutes?

“I don’t think there was a point in the game when everybody decided we’re going to play hard or not or if we’re going to quit,” Ash said. “It never came to that. It was always like, ‘That was not good, but it’s going to happen on the next play.’’

It’s easy to believe that the flood of post-first quarter production is mere coincidence. But the reality is that the Longhorns, knowingly or not, did make changes in both games that helped them late. They got the ball in the hands of their playmakers – their fastest offensive playmakers.

In last year’s Alamo Bowl, Olympic long jumper and current Buffalo Bills wide receiver Marquise Goodwin didn’t touch the ball in the first quarter. On the first play from scrimmage in the second quarter, he took a reverse and sprinted 64 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.

Goodwin eventually hauled in a go-ahead 36-yard touchdown pass from Ash with 2:24 left in the game, putting a double move on the man covering him and blowing past him for the score. He finished with 132 yards on just five touches.

This past Saturday, it was Daje Johnson, a track standout from nearby Pflugerville's Hendrickson High School, that broke the game open.

Johnson ran for 25 yards on two carries, including Texas’ first of the game, in the first quarter. The Longhorns were held scoreless for the first 28 minutes of the game and didn’t take their first lead until Johnson’s 66-yard touchdown catch with 1:08 remaining in the first half.

Ash hit Johnson in stride before he dashed by several Aggies defenders on his way to the end zone. He also ran for a 24-yard touchdown on Texas’ first possession of the second half, finishing with 104 yards on seven touches.

If Texas gets off to as slow of a start this weekend against BYU as it did last weekend, it won’t win comfortably. Not in a hostile environment like the one it’ll encounter in Provo and not against a defense that allowed the third-fewest points and yards per game last season.

So if the Longhorns want to get off to quicker start when they face the Cougars on their home turf Saturday, they’ll need to get the ball into their playmakers’ hands – especially Johnson’s.