"Stay ahead of the chains."
One of those near-cliches in football, what does the expression really mean? In a nutshell, it means to create positive plays and avoid negative plays and penalties. Pick up four yards on first down? Ahead of the chains. Then lose three yards on second down? Behind the chains.
So while it's difficult to sustain long drives consistently gaining between three and five yards every play, racking up positive yardage play after play does keep teams in 3rd-and-short opportunities that teams classifying as merely solid can convert at a reasonably high rate.
And helps avoid the third-and-long situations that allow defenses to start playing games with the defensive line and bring blitzes that outnumber blockers.
Last season, the Texas offense was characterized by breakdowns along the offensive line and at the quarterback positions. Linemen would miss assignments or blocks, and the young quarterbacks had little to no ability to get the team out of obviously bad plays.
As a result, the Longhorns finished tied for 73rd in the country in tackles for loss allowed with 77 over the course of the season, roughly six per game. All that after a relatively strong start -- after three games, Mack Brown and his squad had only conceded 10 stops behind the line of scrimmage against Rice, BYU, and UCLA.
Then October happened. During that month, during which the Longhorns went 2-2, Texas gave up 40 tackles behind the line of scrimmage -- an average of 10 per game, for a total of 222 yards lost. The four teams that finished below the 'Horns played five games that month due to a scheduling quirk, with the worst in terms of yards lost per tackle finishing with only 180 negative yards. Overall, the only other school that even approached Texas in terms of negative yardage that month was Kent State, which lost 193 yards.
The five tackles for loss allowed against Iowa State to start the month weren't egregious. The 15 tackles for loss against Oklahoma, which included nine sacks and four fumbles by the Texas quarterbacks, all for 101 yards lost (not included the McCoy sack that was returned for a touchdown) was egregious. Egregiously bad. Yeah, that happened, and it was terrible.
In overall yardage lost, things weren't quite as bad against Oklahoma State -- the Longhorns lost *only* 58 yards on 12 tackles for loss by the Cowboys. So, yeah, awesome. In comparison, at least.
To set a baseline, the top 40 teams in 2011 allowed right around five tackles for loss per game, while the 20 worst teams gave up right around seven. In other words, the difference between being average in this area and flat-out bad is only two tackles for loss per game -- a missed hole by the running back, a quarterback holding the ball too long, a missed assignment by an offensive lineman, it doesn't take many of these mistakes to separate acceptable and awful.
With all that mind, the Longhorns entered the 2012 season with a major emphasis on reducing those types of plays. The offensive line is more experienced and stronger with more time spent under position coach Stacy Searels, David Ash has a great understanding of the game and an increased ability to check out of plays, and the running backs are older, stronger.
The early returns are a significant decrease in the type of mistakes that kill plays -- though three games, the Longhorns have given up four tackles for loss, which ranks as the best in the country. Stop and read that again. Stop and look at those numbers above again. Say a silent hallelujah. Scream a loud hallelujah. Whatever expresses your happiness most accurately.
Caveats! Of course. Moving on.
Things fell apart for Texas and the inexperienced quarterbacks and offensive line (excepting Tray Allen, who was crappy, and David Snow, who was solid) during the exact same stretch that the 'Horns are about to enter. A stretch known this season as the defining stretch, with upcoming games against Oklahoma State, West Virginia, and Oklahoma that will reveal whether team can contend for a conference title this season and how much progress is necessary to compete for a national championship next season.
The ability to avoid those crippling negative plays offensively will be at the center of those efforts. In the early going, Oklahoma State has been among the best in the country at making plays behind the line of scrimmage, tied for 10th in the country with Florida State with 29 such plays. Through two games, West Virginia has recorded 19 tackles for loss, which ranks fourth in the country on a per-game basis. Oklahoma, on the other hand, is a bit down after losing so much talent on the defensive line (some of it to suspensions this fall) with only 11 through two contests, down from the nearly seven per game that the Sooners averaged last year.
In other words, both Oklahoma State and West Virginia will present much greater challenges than Texas has dealt with to the current point of the season, while Oklahoma, at least early, may be experiencing something of a drop-off from 2011.
The idea is for the 'Horns to keep the number of negative plays in the range of four or five through each of the games. If Texas can do that, as well as avoid turnovers, the Longhorns should have a chance in each. As long as the defense can make some tackles, that is.