Six points allowed. A scoreless second half.
After giving up 144 points in the previous three games, the Texas Longhorns made significant progress against the Iowa State Cyclones on Saturday evening in the team’s return to Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
In all, the ‘Horns turned in a season-best performance in points allowed, rushing yards allowed, sacks, and tackles for loss.
And though the total yardage allowed eventually surpassed the season’s high point in the win against UTEP, 73 of the 280 yards by Iowa State came on the final drive, which featured numerous back ups on the field for Texas.
“As a defense, we took it upon ourselves to go out and step up and help the offense when they needed it,” said junior Fox end Naashon Hughes. “We just went out there and played with a chip on our shoulders. We’ve been focusing on getting to the quarterback and finishing our rushes. We just didn’t want to leave anything on the table.”
Listed as the third-string Fox end for several weeks after failing to show much production behind the line of scrimmage in the primary playmaking position for the Texas defense, Hughes responded with his best pass-rushing performance as a Longhorn.
Coming in to the game, Hughes had recorded only eight total tackles and one tackle for loss in 2016, but finally lived up to the offseason hype about his improved ability to get to the quarterback with 2.5 sacks and four overall tackles.
Numerous other players chipped in to contribute a total of 52 lost yards for the Cyclones offense — six players recorded at least one sack and 11 players recorded at least a half tackles for loss.
Leading the way was sophomore defensive tackle Chris Nelson, who has unexpectedly emerged as the most productive player at the position this season for head coach Charlie Strong’s defense. Against Iowa State, the Florida native led the team with seven tackles, five of which were solo. He also had 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and forced a key fumble.
Freshman linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch also had an impactful performance in his first extended playing time, flying around the field to record four solo tackles and a sack. With his emergence, it’s possible that he could continue to take playing time from sophomore Malik Jefferson, who did record a half sack and 1.5 tackles for loss, but still failed to finish on several plays.
Another freshman also flashed for the first time on defense — linebacker Erick Fowler recorded a tackle for loss late in the game, while freshman defensive lineman Jordan Elliott added a half tackle for loss himself.
And while Iowa State is a 1-5 football team that began the season with a loss to FCS opponent Northern Iowa, understanding the Texas defensive performance requires putting the game in the context of recent performances by first-year head coach Matt Campbell’s team and other Big 12 games overall.
In the last three games, the Cyclones were averaging 39 points per game and 472 total yards, scoring 16 touchdowns over that stretch. The ‘Horns held the visitors 33 points under that scoring average, nearly 200 yards under the total yardage average, and didn’t allow a single touchdown.
Those six points by Iowa State were the fewest in a Big 12 match up this season.
“Personally, they beat us 24-0 last year, so we just had to return the favor,” Hughes said. “As a defense, we’ve been kind of bad these past couple of games. We wanted to go out there and prove we can still play football and still play Texas defense.”
The defensive line certainly helped out a reeling secondary, which found some success by inserting sophomore cornerback John Bonney in to the starting lineup. As usual, there were some rough moments from Bonney with his footwork and quickness, but he finished second on the team in tackles with six and didn’t give up any long touchdown passes over his head as a result of busted coverages.
In fact, there weren’t any horrific busted coverages for the first time since going against a downright awful Miners passing attack, perhaps aided by better communicated enabled by the defensive backs wearing play cards on their wrists.
Benching struggling cornerbacks Davante Davis and Holton Hill made a difference as well — neither one played until late in the game, as Strong sent them a clear message about their past performances.
As a result, the two Iowa State quarterbacks combined to complete only 55.9 percent of their passes on the day for 5.4 yards per attempt. In the previous three games, opponents had completed 68.7 percent of their passes at 11.9 yards per attempt. That stretch also included 10 passing touchdowns allowed by the porous Longhorns secondary.
In a blowout loss to Oklahoma on Saturday, the next Texas opponent, Kansas State, largely struggled to take advantage of a vulnerable Sooners secondary in managing only one touchdown pass and 6.1 yards per attempt.
The Wildcats rank dead last in the Big 12 in passing yards per game, yards per attempt, touchdown passes, and completion percentage.
Like last season, the next weekend’s match up in Manhattan will represent a tremendous opportunity for the Longhorns secondary to continue showing improvement.