There’s something different about the Texas Longhorns defense under the play-calling guidance of head coach Charlie Strong.
Initially, the demotion of defensive coordinator Vance Bedford looked on pace to be an unfruitful one. Following two consecutive losses aided by the ‘Horns defense sacrificing 507 and 555 yards in losses to California and Oklahoma State, respectively, Strong’s first effort as Texas’ acting defensive coordinator saw Oklahoma explode for 672 yards — one of the worst defensive performances in Longhorns history.
That past month, though, has provided considerable upticks in a trio of defining and outcome-altering areas.
Big scoring plays allowed
The early portion of the season saw Texas suffer one deep gash after another. The blueprint to beating the ‘Horns was doing so over the top of a secondary that proved incapable of preventing the big play. Including the Oklahoma game, as it was the Texas defense’s first outing without Bedford calling the shots and still sorting through personnel concerns, the ‘Horns allowed one significant scoring play after another. Texas’ first five games gave way to 14 scores of at least 20 yards, which includes nine that went for at least 30 yards, six 40-plus-yard scores and four touchdowns that chewed up at least 50 yards.
The ‘Horns four latest games tell a much different story, as Texas allowed only one scoring play greater than 20 yards — Seth Russell’s 50-yard scamper. Not so coincidently, Texas is 3-1 in its last four games with the lone loss being one that can be largely placed on a stagnant offense against Kansas State.
Much of this can success can be credited to the defense beginning to grasp how to keep plays in front of them and, for the most part, tackling much more effectively in open field — fundamentals that seemed to be severely lacking under Bedford’s guidance.
Not only is Texas preventing the big scoring play almost entirely, but this new-look Strong defense also isn’t allowing opponents to cross the goal line nearly as frequently as it had under Bedford and Strong’s defensive debut, so to speak. During the first five games of the season, Texas allowed 26 offensive touchdowns — an average of 5.2 per game. In the four games since the Red River Shootout, opponents have collectively scored only 11 touchdowns — a 2.75 per game effort.
Of the 11 touchdowns the Texas defense allowed over the past month, eight came in wins over Baylor and Texas Tech—a pair of prolific offenses that averaged 43.7 and 47.3 points per game entering each meeting, respectively. The ‘Horns defense held Baylor to 34 points and Texas Tech’s offense to only 30, considering the Red Raiders added a defensive touchdown to their 37-point total. Even Iowa State entered Austin averaging 39 points per game during its previous three outings before Texas held the Cyclones to six total points by way of two field goals.
As a result, Texas’ defense is giving up only 23.5 points per game after the Red River Shootout; a substantial step forward from the 38.8 points sacrificed per game through five.
Unlike the lengthy scoring plays and abundance of touchdowns allowed that required more than a handful of days under Strong’s command to produce positive results, the Texas defense immediately began forcing turnovers once Strong took over.
Beginning with Oklahoma, the Longhorns forced four turnovers against the Sooners. Texas has since forced at least one turnover in each of its last four games and a total of eight. Collectively, under Bedford, Texas had one takeaway in four games; under Strong, the defense has 12 in five games.
Though the ‘Horns offense hasn’t been able to capitalize on an efficient number of those turnovers, simply preventing points for the opposition has been the difference in Texas’ two-game winning streak.
The improved defensive efforts aren’t limited to the above-noted areas, though, they’re certainly the most notable. Whether it be a considerably small sample size or less than eye-popping improvements, there’s been additional improvement, nonetheless.
After Kansas State’s Jesse Ertz and Baylor’s Seth Russell — each dual-threat quarterbacks — collectively rushed for 216 yards and three touchdowns on the ‘Horns, Strong kept a spy on Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes II for the majority of Saturday’s 45-37 victory. As a result, Mahomes’ day finished with -16 yards on 15 attempts, which includes three sacks. The past four games have also seen Texas’ defense allow 30 fewer yards per game, as well as 61 fewer yards through the air than during the first five games of 2016. Texas’ defensive third down conversion rate improved, as well, down to 39 percent from 42 percent.
If that past month is of any indication, Strong’s defense is only going to continue improving. Should that prove true for the final three games of the season, Texas may be in for its most positive conclusion to a season in recent memory.