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Texas vs Oklahoma State: Reviewing the Longhorns Defense

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The Texas defense was very good on Saturday... but fell a few crucial plays short of being great.
The Texas defense was very good on Saturday... but fell a few crucial plays short of being great.

A week after the meltdown in Dallas, Texas played a heck of a lot better this week and gave Oklahoma State a good run but ultimately fell short, losing 38-26 to the CowboysManny Diaz's unit gave OSU's offense -- arguably the most explosive in the country -- a stiff challenge, but were undone by a handful of big plays that were the difference in the game. On offense, Texas showed a great deal of progress (and promise) but remains just inconsistent enough so as to make avoiding falling into drive-killing situations a real challenge.

For their part, Oklahoma State played a very solid, disciplined game that was well-conceived by their coaches, and affirmed their status as an elite team this year. They're balanced on offense, they have big play ability, their secondary is a real team asset, and they're a very mature and opportunistic team overall. Top to bottom this is the best OSU team Mike Gundy has put together.

Let's start with some game night observations on the play of the Texas defense:

Horns_bullet_mediumTexas' secondary was generally outstanding.  The performance of the defense was impressive in many respects, but let's start with the secondary, which turned in a terrific game against one of the nation's most prolific passing attacks. Brandon Weeden came into the game completing 76% of his passes while averaging 8.6 yards per attempt and 11.3 per completion, including 15 touchdowns in just 5 games. Texas limited Weeden to 23 of 41 passing (56%) for 218 yards and 1 touchdown, at an average of 5.3 yards per attempt and 9.5 per completion. Our secondary didn't let Blackmon (7-74-1) destroy us, and did a solid job managing OSU's secondary receivers and screen game.

Carrington Byndom isn't just improving each week -- he's already damn good and is rapidly approaching elite status; he's an All-Conference performer for us the next two years. Adrian Phillips isn't quite as developed in coverage, but he's racing up the learning curve, has an All-Conference ceiling himself, he has great instincts and awareness, he's well-rounded and versatile, and he plays physical football. (No word yet on the status of his injury, but it's a big loss for us this season if he's out for any extended amount of time.) Quandre Diggs is a true freshman, and it shows, but I like how Manny Diaz used him against OSU, liberating him to play more of a roaming role where his rawer coverage skills are less exposed and superior instincts highlighted. He's raw and inexperienced, but he's a natural football player who's going to shine more and more as he gains experience and becomes more comfortable.

Among our safeties, we may not get him back next year, but Kenny Vaccaro was very active and turned in a good performance. Christian Scott is showing some nice things with the physicality he brings, but he's a liability in coverage, lacking the quickness or speed to be effective in isolated coverage. Blake Gideon gets a lot of grief for his high visibility mistakes, but his biggest problem is that he is too often invisible; he's barely passable as a deep center fielder, ineffective as a blitzer, and too rarely manages to make a disruptive impact.

All told, the secondary as a whole did a terrific job of playing together, and our coaching staff did a really nice job with coordinating assignments and getting the right defensive backs on the right assignments. We were strategic in terms of where we concentrated coverage and what we allowed, and the overall performance deserves an 'A'.

Horns_bullet_mediumThe defense was very good... but not quite great.  Our defense did an excellent job containing Weeden, Blackmon, and the OSU passing attack, we got OSU's offense off the field five times in three plays and out -- and ended a sixth Cowboys drive in two plays on a safety -- and we allowed the Cowboys to convert just 2 of 12 third downs. In so many respects, the Longhorns defense turned in one damn fine performance.

But with Texas' young and inconsistent offense incapable of producing enough points to win a game in the 30s, a victory depended in large part on the defense being great. They fell about five plays short.

Although Texas held OSU to just 2 of 12 successful 3rd down conversions, those two conversions, plus a pair of fourth down conversions, sustained drives that put 17 points on the board. Midway through the second quarter Weeden converted a 4th and 9 to Blackmon, setting up OSU's second touchdown of the game two plays later. Later in the second quarter, in their final drive before the half, the Pokes converted a 3rd and 5 from his own 38, and then extended their lead to 21-10 on a 30-yard touchdown run on 4th and 1. And finally, midway through the 3rd quarter the Cowboys successfully converted a 3rd and 10 from their own 43, extending a drive that would result in a field goal.

The fifth play that stood between a very good performance by the Texas defense and a great one was, of course, Jeremy Smith's 74-yard touchdown run near the end of the 3rd quarter, which extended OSU's lead to 38-24 and for all intents and purposes ended the game.

In large part you have to credit Oklahoma State and their ability to complement their passing game with a genuinely potent rushing attack. There is in that respect a certain "pick your poison" element to defending OSU's offense, but Texas has only itself to blame for some of the most devastating damage they did on the ground. On the 30-yard TD run on 4th and 1, Texas was positioned just fine to make a play after a short gain at best, but Jordan Hicks inexplicably flowed to his right and into a heap of blockers, completely abandoning his gap, which Smith promptly galloped through untouched to the end zone. On Smith's 74-yard romp, our defensive alignment conceded the entire middle of the field, and when Keenan Robinson couldn't shed a blocker to slow down Smith, there was literally no one there who could have made a play.

As many things as there were to like about Diaz's game plan and the performance of his defense, you have to believe he's going to question the wisdom of leaving the deep middle of the field so unattended while in dime coverage. That's a fairly easy adjustment, but after the last two games perhaps the tougher question is whether a shift in personnel usage at linebacker may be necessary. Acho and Robinson have their strengths, of course, as does Hicks -- though he's certainly struggled lately -- but all three are speed/outside linebackers, and we're seeing situations where there's a need for a bruising middle linebacker type. Both Kansas State and Texas A&M's offenses will exploit that vulnerability. Steve Edmond probably needs more snaps sooner rather than later.

Horns_bullet_mediumRushing the passer.  Finally, a few words on the defensive line. Randall (3 tackles, 1 QBH) and Jeffcoat (4 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 tipped ball) had their moments, and Okafor really played his heart out all game long (5 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack, 1 QBH) highlighted by his tremendous rush that forced Weeden out of the back of the end zone for a safety. But the defense is really hurting from the lack of a high-end pass rusher. Jeffcoat hasn't developed at all and isn't showing any pass rushing moves, more or less speed rushing over and over, without the first step and burst necessary to make it effective. Okafor lacks the agility and quickness to do anything other than try to overpower his man and while he's doing an admirable job playing his ass off and pouring all of his energy into every play, he gets visibly tired, and it's hard for him to sustain effectiveness over stretches of plays.

Dravannti Johnson gave us a nice speed rush in the third quarter, but he's to this point in his career not played well enough -- particularly against the run -- to warrant a high volume of snaps. There's always the hope that Reggie Wilson is ready to emerge, but at this point it's just wishcasting. The bottom line is that this is a very pedestrian pass rushing group, and with our linebackers struggling to be the kinds of playmakers Manny Diaz's defense requires this group may well be limited to very good. And against the incredible number of outstanding offenses in this year's Big 12, combined with the limitations of our own offense, that may not be quite enough. 

Next: Thoughts on the offense.