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Texas vs. OU: The Longhorns defense is in a tough place

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Thoughts from Saturday’s game in Dallas.

NCAA Football: Texas at Oklahoma Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns sustained the third loss of the season to leave the team at 0-3 in 2016 and 1-8 in the Strong era overall in games where the defense surrenders at least 40 points in regulation.

The lone win was a 48-45 win over Iowa State in Austin during Strong’s first season in 2014.

Let’s get into this.

— Of course any time a defense gives up 40 points, the chances of wining that game decrease. What makes things more frustrating for this 2016 Texas team is that in those three losses this season, the offense has put up 43, 31, and 40 respectively.

Last season, Texas didn’t have the personnel to run the type of offense former play caller Shawn Watson wanted to run (and really any type of spread/passing offense since the quarterback position couldn’t make the throws).

I’m not starting to think the script has flipped from last season in this regard. It looks like Texas is continuing to run a scheme on defense its players aren’t capable of handling right now (specifically in the secondary).

— Those clamoring that this team is young and needs another year aren’t wrong about that specific point. This team, especially this defense, is still young and it’s a factor in the Texas struggles.

But with that being the case, I can’t understand why Strong continues to run single-high safety looks on defense. I’ll get more into this later this week with a dedicated post about the scheme, but with each loss, it’s apparent Texas doesn’t have personnel playing effectively enough and at the level needed to run that type of defense right now.

It’s putting so much responsibility on the corners and defenders lined up on the opposing receivers.

Strong may be switching up what the defensive line, Fox end and linebackers are doing. But with one safety deep, the back end of the defense continues to get exposed. The corners need more help.

— If you go back and watch last season’s Red River Showdown game, one of the key differences between what Texas was able to do defensively that game verses what they couldn’t do this past Saturday was get to the quarterback.

In last season’s game, the Texas did actually run it’s single-high safety looks throughout the game. But in that game, the pass-rush was all over Mayfield. The ‘Horns sacked him six times, hit him a couple more times, and got him off-balance thanks to consistent pressure.

Guys like Malik Jefferson, Poona Ford, Paul Boyette Jr., and Bryce Cottrell, who are still on roster and playing this season, all combined for five of those six sacks and one of the two quarterback hits last year against Oklahoma. Departed defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway had the other sack.

Against Oklahoma this past Saturday, the Texas defense sacked Mayfield just once and didn’t record any additional quarterback hits.

Sure, the speed at which throws are made can factor in at times. But the lack of sacks this past Saturday also happened against an offensive line that had given up the second most sacks in the Big 12 Conference before this game.

One issue that could be contributing to this the lack of a productive defensive tackle inside that demands more attention from opposing offensive linemen. What Texas currently has in the middle isn’t bad, but they aren’t Hassan Ridgeway or Malcolm Brown either right now.

A lack of an imposing defensive tackle is not the only reason the defense is struggling. But it’s definitely something that shouldn’t be overlooked.

— Malik Jefferson led the team in sacks last season in this game with two. This week, he didn’t record a single one.

Having Jefferson in the middle is still hurting his opportunity to make more plays. Last season in this game, we saw Peter Jinkens man the middle some and it allowed Jefferson to come off the edge.

This season, too often, Jefferson is getting swallowed up inside against offensive lineman and it’s basically taking him out of plays or putting him in a tough position to make a play.

Strong would be wise to figure out a way to get Jefferson coming off the edge more.

— Texas ran one of the weirder goal line defenses I’ve ever seen on OU’s last touchdown of the game.

OU has it 1st and goal at the Texas 3-yard line. The Sooners come out in a jumbo package with just one receiver flanked to the right. Texas apparently counters with just three DL, Malik, Wheeler, Hager, and five defensive backs....

Let me say that again, OU has one receiver flanked left on the Texas 3-yard line. The Longhorns have five defensive backs on the field to go with three down linemen....

OU scores.

— Safety Dylan Haines recorded two interceptions. One was a flukey play where the ball literally got knocked into his arms when he was assisting on a tackle. The other, he happened to be in the right spot on a Mayfield overthrow (on a play that looked like it could have been a pass interference call on nickel backBrandon Jones after he took out the crossing wide receiver).

Haines kind of reminds be of the batter in your lineup that will either get a home run (turnover) or strike out (misses tackles, poor pursuit, lacks speed/range to be effective enough in coverage).

His home runs aren’t coming at a rate that makes sense to not at least try some one else back there. The only issue is who else can Texas try? I do wonder what Jones would look like as a deep safety with his athleticism and speed.

— Linebacker Anthony Wheeler didn’t have a bad game. He ended Saturday leading the team in tackles with 13 (six solo, seven assisted).

But when he struggles, that could be an example of youth rather than scheme. At times, you see him diagnose the play well and get in to make a play, as Strong would say.

At other times, he looks hesitant to react or read the play, and you see him get out of position and/or miss a tackle.

He may never have the ceiling Malik Jefferson has, but if he can continue to develop and play more consistently, he’ll have a chance to be a solid linebacker in this conference.

— The corners are a mess right now. Not one corner has played consistently well at all this season.

One thing this defense needs most right now is a reliable corner on the outside at at least one of the two starting positions. Unfortunately, that hasn’t looked closed to happening.

If you want an example of what type of effect a good corner can have on a D1 college defense, take a look at the job Oklahoma’s junior corner Jordan Thomas did against Texas.

He prevented at least three deep bombs against the ‘Horns this past Saturday and had a couple good open-field tackles. I’d easily say he was one of the key difference-makers in this tight game.

Had Thomas played for the team in burnt orange, I’d say Texas wins that game if he makes the same type of plays against OU he did against Texas.

And yes, he did give up a big play or two. But that’s the life of a corner. Even the best get burned. Which is why they need safety help...

— On this note, Mike Stoops is another coach that has been on and off the hot seat this season. Stoops also ran a lot of single-high safety looks against Texas. His defense gave three scores through the air including two bombs. Hmm...

— Running back D’Onta Foreman is a freak. And his twin brother is good too. I can’t help but wonder how many more yards D’Onta would have behind a stronger offensive line.

Am I allowed add him to my NFL fantasy team now and stash him for next season?

— Quarterback Shane Buechele had a very up and down game. He struggled on some deep throws, including one where wide receiver John Burt had green grass for 10 miles in every direction. And he ended with an interception (questionable one) but could have had at least another right at the start of the game that would have gone for points.

The inaccuracy throwing deep is at least a bit concerning. If you’re Texas, your hoping the struggles there are due to any injury he may be dealing with.

As for the near-interceptions and interception, you’re hoping those are freshman mistakes.

All in all, he still threw three touchdown passes (finally connecting on two deep bombs) and made enough throws to help this team put up 40 points. Texas should win games when the offense scores that many points.

— At his Monday presser, Coach Strong said the offense needs to pass out of the 18-Wheeler package... Five games into the season...

I know Jay Norvell is no longer running the offense and that its not Sterlin Gilbert’s job. But come on, just now they realize they need to pass out of this package?

— There were some great contributions from receivers. Devin Duvernay, Dorian Leonard, Armanti Foreman, and Collin Johnson come to mind.

Oh, and Burt had another drop. Tough season for that guy... Just when you get a quarterback that can pass, you get a case of the drops.

— Wide receiver Jerrod Heard would be more involved in my offense if I was running this scheme. One catch for nine yards is at lest three catches too few. Then again, it’s still a crowded receiving corps.

— I haven’t gone back and looked at the offensive line in detail but from what I can remember, it played to it’s own par which is usually par at best.

Maybe my opinion will change when I got back and watch again.

— Tight end Caleb Bluiett is the better blocker between he and Andrew Beck. Am I the only one that sees that? Give me more Blueitt if Texas isn’t going to throw to the tight ends.

— Putting Armanti Foreman back to receive kicks means Texas is trying anything it can to get more out of it’s returns. But the problem is probably more so the lack of effective blockers on the return teams than the guy taking the football up field.

— Kicker Trent Domingue did his part today and so did punter Michael Dickson.

— Here were my “Five Things to Watch” in this game and how they played out.

1) Can the Texas pass rush get to Mayfield again? - It did not at the same rate it did in last year’s game. Six sacks in 2015 to one sack in 2016.

2) Can Texas get off the fields on third downs? — Texas allowed OU to convert 57% of its 3rd downs. In comparison, Texas converted 39% (the ‘Horns were also 1 for 1 on 4th down).

3) What will Charlie Strong’s defense look like? — Some things up front may have been different, but the single-high safety look we’ve seen continued to get burned. DeDe Westbrook ended with 232 yards on 10 receptions and scored three times.

4) Can key freshmen step up in this game? — Buechele had his fair share of good throws but also had some key misfires.

At running back, Kyle Porter rushed 6 times for 16 yards, averaging 2.7 a carry. I haven’t studied Shackelford yet.

Malcolm Roach couldn’t get to the quarterback. And Brandon Jones recorded four tackles (2 solo, 2 asst).

That defense really could have used a game where Roach got the Mayfield a couple times.

5) If Texas gets down early, can it fight back to win? — Texas fought back to regain the lead three different times before giving it up with eight minutes to go in the third quarter.

The Longhorns never got over the hump after that and lost by five points.