Shockingly enough, a Texas Longhorns defense that lost six starters and many of its most productive players struggled to start the season against a difficult schedule.*
Just as shockingly, having one of the best defensive coaches in the country in Chalrie Strong has led to quick improvement.**
Here are four stats that illustrate the team's improvement from the opener against Notre Dame.
* This is not actually shocking
** Neither is this
1. Opponents are 12-of-39 on third down in October
Through the first month of the season, the Horns simply couldn't get off the field on money downs, conceding first downs on 8-of-14 attempts against Notre Dame, 14-of-21 attempts against Rice, and 9-of-17 attempts against Oklahoma State. Since then, even in the blowout loss against TCU, things have improved drastically -- Oklahoma converted only 3-of-12 attempts and Kansas State managed 4-of-14.
In addition to fewer coverage busts on the back end due to some personnel changes on the back end and fewer mistakes by senior cornerback Duke Thomas, a major increase in pressure applied by the defensive line and blitzing players has made a monumental difference.
Where quarterbacks were once standing in clean pockets able to look downfield with little harrasssment even deep into plays, opposing passers now must contend with blitzes coming from various angles and a defensive tackle group that is steadily improving.
So the numbers are much-improved during the month of October, with the Texas defense holding opponents to 12 conversions on 39 attempts (30.8 percent). Had the Horns achieved that level of consistency through the entire season, the team would rank No. 15 nationally. And keep in mind that Texas has accomplished that feat against two top-15 opponents and a Kansas State team that took TCU down to the wire.
All told, Texas is now up to No. 41 nationaly in third-down S&P+.
2. Texas has 11 sacks in the last two games
Improved third-down defense and the increase in sacks have gone hand-in-hand for the Horns, as one might expect. Through the first five games, the defense generated only five sacks, with numerous misses against the Owls playing a large role in that number -- converting on all of those opportunities would have doubled the number of sacks in those contests.
In the last two games, the Horns have well out-paced the team's early production, posting 11 total sacks and missing far fewer opportunities. As a result, the Texas is now tied for 36th nationally in that category, matching the production of LSU and Michigan.
How tied together are sacks to long down-and-distance situations? A 12.5-percent sack rate on passing downs is good enough for No. 9 nationally.
3. The Horns are tied for 21st nationally on opposing plays of 30 yards or more
Despite the fact that Texas still ranks No. 90 nationaly in defensive S&P+, some peripheral statistics over than the third-down defense shed some light on how well the defense has been playing and what it is doing well, with reducing big plays a major factor in the recent resurgence.
In opposing plays of 30 or more yards, the Horns rank tied for 21st nationally with 10 such plays allowed on the year. Against Oklahoma and Kansas State, the only play that went over 30 yards was the 50-yard pass from Baker Mayfield to wide receiver Sterling Shepard that took advantage of senior cornerback Duke Thomas with a double move. Last weekend, only a 22-yard run by Wildcats running back Charles Jones went for more than 20 yards.
Considering how much success a more experience defense had in stopping major chunk plays from happening, it's extremely easy to view this development as the current group improving to meet the standards that head coach Charlie Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford demand.
4. Texas is giving up 2.7 yards per carry in the last two games
Not so long ago, Texas was experiencing numerous problems defending the run, from defensive linemen failing to beat one-on-one blocks to poor run fits to missed tackles. A short stretch against Kansas State looked similar to past struggles, but overall things got better in a hurry, as the run defense now ranks No. 43 nationally in S&P+.
Giving up 5.43 yards per carry to TCU is the anomaly over the last four games -- every other opponent has averaged 3.7 yards per carry or less against the Horns, including Oklahoma State's 2.24 yards per carry and Oklahoma's 1.81 yards per carry. The longest run conceded in those other three games was the 22-yarder by Jones.