On September 19, Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong promised to fix the defense.
Two weeks later, he demoted defensive coordinator Vance Bedford and took over play-calling duties.
Having already wasted the season’s only bye week leading in to the Oklahoma State game in a futile attempt to get young players in the secondary more involved, Strong’s defense gave up 672 yards and 45 points to Oklahoma in a five-point loss.
Since then, however, things have started to turn around in fits and starts — the defense has held each of the last five opponents below their season scoring average.
Through the first five games, opponents averaged 6.38 yards per play, but that number is now down to 5.03 yards per play, which would rank among the top 25 nationally this season.
Finding ways to force turnovers and create sacks and tackles for loss has also played a big role — 12 of the 17 takeaways have come in the last five games, along with 21 sacks and 45 tackles for loss.
The stretch featured some notable defensive performances.
Against the Mountaineers, the ‘Horns held breakout freshman running back Kennedy McKoy to 2.9 yards per carry after he entered the game at 9.1 yards per attempt over his previous four contests. The longest run of the game for West Virginia was only 13 yards.
In the second half, the defense came up big — after allowing a long touchdown drive in the third quarter, Texas recorded two interceptions and then forced three punts to give the offense a chance to win the game.
On the last 18 West Virginia plays, the Mountaineers gained only 32 yards.
In Lubbock, Texas held Texas Tech to 2.05 yards per play under the season average for the Red Raiders. And the explosive offense that leads the nation in plays of 30 or more yards only had two on the day. One went for 30 yards and the other went for 31 yards and neither resulted in a touchdown. In fact, the longest score for head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s attack on the day went for only nine yards.
The Red Raiders entered that game leading the country in third-down conversion percentage, but the Longhorns were able to get stops on 7 of 19 opportunities — that’s the worst performance on third down for Texas Tech this season and more than 20 percent below the season average to that point.
In the game against Baylor, the defense struggled to defend the quarterback run, but forced two critical field goals after long drives to allow Trent Domingue the opportunity for his game-winning kick.
On the first, the Bears faced 1st and goal from the Longhorns 8-yard line, but pressure from linebacker Malik Jefferson forced an intentional grounding penalty on quarterback Seth Russell before the defense held on two consecutive running plays.
On the second, Texas had to force two consecutive negative running plays after Baylor got down to the 2-yard line in one of the best defensive stands of the season.
In the second half against Kansas State, the defense responded after a poor start, holding the Wildcats to three points by forcing two fumbles, an interception, and a punt.
By giving wristbands to each member of the defense to reduce communication issues and settling on sophomores Kris Boyd and John Bonney as the starting cornerbacks, the pass defense has largely avoided giving up the long plays that characterized the start to the season.
Boyd rewarded Strong’s confidence with the game-sealing interception in the end zone against Texas Tech and Bonney now leads the team with six pass break ups.
Texas ranks second in the Big 12 in interceptions during conference play and fourth in passing touchdowns allowed, despite the poor start — six of the 13 passing touchdowns allowed came in the games against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.
Strong also made a commitment to playing Fox ends Breckyn Hager and Malcolm Roach instead of Naashon Hughes, who was one of the longest-tenured starters in Strong’s time at Texas.
The confidence in his young players has also paid off — Hager leads the team in tackles for loss with nine and Roach is second with six. Hager is also the team leader in sacks with five.
Overall, the Longhorns rank No. 4 nationally with 36 sacks on the season.
Calling the defense fixed might be a stretch, but considering that the group entered the season with three experienced defensive tackles and that 18 freshmen and sophomores are on the two-deep depth chart for the Kansas game, things are headed in the right direction.