For the last two weeks, strong efforts by the Texas defense haven't been enough to overcome a completely inept offense.
Yet, there was linebacker and senior leader Emmanuel Acho after the Kansas State game on Saturday night, speaking with remarkable candor about his unit's performance:
We executed pretty well, but it wasn't enough. If you would have told me we'd hold them to under 150 total yards (121), I would have for sure assumed we would have won the game. But we didn't force enough turnovers. And that's on me as a defensive leader. We've got to get the ball out. So we didn't do enough.
Rather than giving up and losing that mental edge when the offense doesn't perform well -- a major problem last season -- this Longhorn defense is taking pride in playing stifling defense, no matter what happens when Bryan Harsin's group has the ball.
According to Acho, the defense is holding itself to the highest possible standards:
We can't give up anything as a defense. When we don't know what the offensive output is going to be, it's on us to shut the other team out. That's all we can control. We can't do anything about the offense, but we have to limit our opponents as much as possible.
Instead of passing blame, Acho and the other defensive leaders are taking responsibility for what they can control -- forcing turnovers. It's something the Longhorns did extremely well early in the season, forcing 11 through the first four games, but excessively poorly in the last six games, with only five takeaways, one in the last three contests.
The major culprit is the secondary, which has otherwise performed well -- no touchdowns allowed longer than 20 yards through the air -- but has not finished plays with interceptions, recording only one in the last six games after coming up with six in the first four. While there weren't any opportunities against Kansas State, there have been numerous drops in other recent games.
Still, there are plenty of positives for a group that currently ranks 10th in the country in total defense -- the confidence in the scheme employed by coordinator Manny Diaz is clearly building by the minute, allowing players to fly around the field with the abandon necessary to play at a high level.
The front seven, in particular, has been outstanding the last several games. Acho has perhaps played the best two back-to-back games of his career, leading the Longhorns in tackles against Kansas State with 13 tackles, two for loss, and a sack as well. Meanwhile, Keenan Robinson battled through his hand injury to lay one of the hardest hits of the game on Collin Klein , while racking up 10 tackles of his own, two of them for loss.
More impressive still has been the work of Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat at the defensive end position, who combined for 15 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two sacks, and five quarterback hurries against the Wildcats. Finally living up to his five-star potential, Jeffcoat's motor has been running at an all-time high the last several weeks, never more apparent than his shoestring tackle of Missouri quarterback James Franklin after pursuing him across the field.
As well as the Texas defense has been playing over the last four games, it's actually been an impressive season overall, as Mack Brown pointed out on Monday:
We've held nine of the ten opponents we've played so for under their rushing average, eight of the ten opponents under their passing average, and all ten under their total yardage average. Our defense held KState, UCLA, Kansas, and Texas Tech more than 100 yards under their total yardage for the season. Fifty-three tackles for losses over the last three games. So we're playing really, really good defense, and we all know that that's what you have to do to get started back to the top.
For the Longhorns to come out on top Thursday at Kyle Field, simply holding the Aggies under their typically levels of production may not be enough with a struggling offense. Instead of simply giving the offense a chance to win the game, the defense may actually need to go out and create some game-changing plays in the form of turnovers.
Ball security is not really a strength of the Aggie offense, which has lost eight fumbles on the season and thrown 11 interceptions -- based on the numbers, the Texas defense will have some opportunities to force turnovers. If the Longhorns turn those opportunities into turnovers, the offense could be put in a position to win the game late. If not, well, it's scary to think about what would happen if the rivalry ends for the near future with the Aggies on a winning streak.