For any defensive coach, there are three main elements to defensive success -- forcing turnovers, forcing negative plays, and forcing the opposing offense off the field quickly. Relatedly, all three of those things help put the offense in a position to succeed by winning the field position battle.
In looking at some of the stats -- particularly total yardage and scoring defense -- Manny Diaz's group appeared to dominate against the Rice Owls on Saturday night. The Texas defense held an opponent without a touchdown for the first time since the 2009 Big 12 championship game against Nebraska and more than doubled the offense output by the Owls with 506 total yards against 224 for Rice. Holding Rice to only two third-down conversions in 12 chances, a roughly 17% success rate, is impressive, but would essentially be unsustainable over an entire season -- consider that TCU lead the country last season by allowing opponents to convert less than one quarter of third-down attempts, the best number in the last four years.
Even those positive stats obscure some fundamental truths about the quality of the performance by the Texas defense, especially in the first half and to a lesser extent the third quarter. The Owls gained 130 yards on the ground at 4.3 yards per attempt, a number that jumps to nearly five yards per attempt after taking out the fumbled snap that lost 14 yards on the second play of the game -- an unforced error by the Owls, to use tennis terminology.
Dive plays up the middle and the speed option to Jackson Jeffcoat's side of the field found a great deal of success and helped Rice control the ball and the clock, shortening the game and costing Texas several possessions that could have more quickly put the game away.
But there were also five important plays that illustrated the inability of the defense to get off the field. While the Owls struggled mightily on third down, most of the sustained Rice drives included significant gains on first and second down, in addition to some mistakes by the Texas defense missing tackles and committing silly penalties -- both aspects that plagued the team last season.
And while it's easy at this point to overreact with the trauma of 2010 still lingering so close to the surface, the fact remains that those type of mistakes prolong drives and sap momentum and energy from both the team and the fans (at home games), while flipping field position and giving the offense long fields with which to work.
Here are those five significant plays that prolonged drives and kept the Texas defense on the field longer than necessary.
Situation 1, The Gideon Special: 2nd and 10, Rice 35
Context: After three and outs by both teams to start the game, Rice began the team's second possession on the Owl 35 with an incomplete pass.
The Play: On a pass around the line of scrimmage to 6-5, 250-pound tight end Luke Willson, Texas safety had a chance to make a play for a loss of yardage but missed the tackle, allowing Willson to pick up seven yards.
The Result: Instead of facing third and long, Rice converted the third and short opportunity with a four-yard pass, extending the drive that would eventually span nine plays, eat up four minutes of clock, and result in a field goal. It was one of only two Rice third-down conversions on the night.
The Big Picture: Missed tackles are as much of a Gideon trademark as targeting penalties and the fact is that missed tackles in those situations are "Not Our Standard" and if the senior continues to make those type of plays, being "a coach on the field" doesn't provide enough upside to continue to give him snaps if Adrian Phillips and Kenny Vaccaro play at a high level, which is completely reasonable to expect.
Situation 2, The Terrible Call: 3rd and 5, Texas 38
Context: With the drive almost certainly extended by Gideon's missed tackle, the Owls broke into Texas territory with an 11-yard run on first down by Tyler Smith, but faced a 3rd and 5 after quarterback Tyler McHargue followed up a completed pass with an incompletion.
The Play: McHargue targeted an outside receiver with Carrington Byndom in coverage and overthrew the pass as Byndon made some contact with the receiver, drawing a pass interference flag. However, it appeared that Byndom was in position on the play -- likely a bogus call, but one that extended the drive once again.
The Result: The Rice second possession of the game resulted in a field goal, as mentioned above.
The Big Picture: Though Byndom was in position on the play, the lesson here is to find the ball and avoid making unnecessary contact when the receiver doesn't have a chance to make a play on it -- that way the officials have no opportunity to make a bad call.
Situation 3: 1st and 10, Rice 31
Context: After the one-yard touchdown run by Cody Johnson to start the second quarter, Rice received the ball and picked up 12 yards with a rush and a pass to start the drive.
The Play: Trying to generate momentum, the Owls dialed up a trick play with a halfback pass by Sam McGuffie. Junior reserve defensive end Dravannti Johnson brought some heat off the edge and appeared to have McGuffie wrapped up for a drive-killing loss. Instead, Johnson could not bring the Rice back to the ground and McGuffie completed a 15-yard pass to Vance McDonald.
The Result: A major momentum swing and the continuation of the drive, which likely would have died with the near 10-yard loss that should have happened on the play. After two Rice timeouts amidst general confusion, the Longhorns held on third down to finally force the punt. However, the extra 20 yards on the drive helped flip field position.
The Big Picture: If Manny Diaz is going to substitute frequently, reserves have to make plays in the game. It's not even about creating turnovers as much as it is about executing and making the easy, available plays. Johnson had what was a pretty easy opportunity to make a tackle well behind the line of scrimmage that would have virtually ended the drive, but couldn't do it. Once again, that's just not good enough.
Situation 4, The Poorly-Timed Facemask: 2nd and 25, Rice 25
Context: After Texas took a 13-3 lead midway through the second quarter, a strong coverage play on special teams by the Horns' newest scholarship player, senior fullback Jamison Berryhill, gave Rice the ball on the 18. Five rushes for 22 yards and an incomplete pass led to a 15-yard illegal block penalty on wide receiver Donte Moore, the type of play that once again should have killed the drive with Rice facing 2nd and 25.
The Play: A six-yard run by Tyler Smith should have put lead to a 3rd and 19 for Rice, but a 15-yard facemask penalty by Kheeston Randall gave Rice a significant chunk of free real estate and a free first down out of nothing.
The Result: Again, the result was a major momentum swing compounded two plays later by a 19-yard run by Tyler Smith that got Rice to the edge of field goal range, which Rice was able to convert after the Texas defense held on the next three plays following Smith's run. Instead of running one more play, Rice was able to run five more plays and take more time off the block, as well as score the three points.
The Big Picture: As the anchor of the defensive line and senior leader, the mental mistake by Randall on the play is completely unacceptable for a potential all-conference performer.
Situation 5, The Brain-Dead Superman: 2nd and 7, Rice 49
Context: The ill-advised lateral attempt by Garrett Gilbert in the general direction of Fozzy Whittaker ended the first Texas drive of the second half. A 40-yard punt by Justin Tucker and an 11-yard return by Xavier Webb gave Rice excellent field position near midfield. Tyler Smith rushed for three yards on the drive's first play.
The Play: Nearing the sideline on an eight-yard run, Blake Gideon saw his opportunity to finally hit someone and decided to launch himself through the air at McHargue, hitting him out of bounds and picking up a 15-yard personal foul.
The Result: Once again, the Texas defense compounded one mistake with another, promptly giving up another long run to Tyler Smith on the following play, this time for 20 yards.
The Big Picture: While the 20-yard run by Tyler Smith probably hurt as much as the personal foul penalty on Gideon and the yardage added on to the play did not allow Rice to continue the possession -- McHargue had already gained the necessary yardage for a first down -- the bigger concern here is that the personal foul by Gideon continues his disturbing trend of targeting opponents and jumping on the pile late. It seems as if he can't hit opponents without doing it illegally. Combined with his well-documented problem making tackles, the damaging penalties Gideon commits seem to outweigh whatever intangible contributes he provides if he isn't making interceptions or forcing fumbles. And after six interceptions in 2009, Gideon made only two in 2010, so there are serious question marks about whether Gideon can even excel in a center-field type of role without Earl Thomas.
Upon review, each of Rice's three scoring drives were aided early on by major mistakes from the Texas defense -- the missed tackle by Gideon, the facemask by Kheeston Randall, and the personal foul penalty on Gideon. Seniors, both. After the latter two penalties, a possible lose of focus or just plain poor execution lead to two long runs from Tyler Smith that ultimately gave Rice the necessary yardage to reach field-goal range -- either way, Texas followed two losing type of plays with two more losing type of plays and against better teams than Rice, that will put some chances at victories in serious jeopardy.
Even in the other two situations, the poor plays cost Texas field position and that isn't winning football either. With the kickoff and punt return phases of the game still not providing any advantage for the Longhorns -- along with mediocre efforts both punting and kicking off by Justin Tucker -- Texas lost the field-position battle relatively substantially against Rice.
As the 2010 season demonstrated, consistently missing tackles and committing stupid penalties also have a seriously deleterious effect on the team's psyche. Over the course of a season, consistently making those mistakes will rob the defense of confidence and result in the types of half-assed efforts that defined 2010. It's up to the players on the field to fix that.
Fixing the run fits by the defensive line and better pursuit/ability to get off blocks will be keys moving forward to more effectively stop the running game, but simply executing on the easy plays that kill drives and avoiding the costly penalties that prolong drives are easier steps that could greatly benefit the Texas defense. And if Blake Gideon keeps missing tackles and committing brain-dead penalties, he's a part of the problem, not the solution.