Allowing over 500 total yards to the California Golden Bears on Saturday night resulted in another unacceptable performance by the Texas Longhorns defense, putting even more pressure on suddenly-embattled defensive coordinator Vance Bedford.
After the game, players and coaches both took responsibility for the execution mistakes that resulted in yet another road loss under head coach Charlie Strong, but won’t be able to stop the outcry from the fanbase until the Oklahoma State game on October 1 in Stillwater.
“We knew we needed to press and challenge the receivers and we didn’t do a good job,” Strong said after the game. “Some of their throws came when guys busted coverage and were wide open.”
In fact, the mistakes in coverage were numerous, costly, and spread around a number of players.
"It's not a talent issue. It's not a scheme issue. It's an execution issue,” said Fox end Breckyn Hager.
Cornerback Holton Hill, who was benched against UTEP, busted a coverage that resulted in a touchdown and was beat deep on another play. He also missed a tackle.
Preseason All-Big 12 selection Davante Davis got beat deep in coverage before sustaining an injury. He missed a tackle, too.
This week, Bedford spoke about inconsistency with the younger players and it’s clear that there are still mistakes being made by that group.
More frustrating are the mistakes by sixth-year senior Sheroid Evans, who has been a feel-good story in his return from two ACL injuries that caused him to miss nearly three years.
Evans blew a coverage and got beat deep twice, including once for a touchdown.
"We went over plays that they ran so to see them execute was frustrating,” he said. “They didn't do anything that we hadn't seen."
Even more frustrating is the fact that there isn’t a widespread lack of preparation by this team, which was a major issue last season. For the most part, the team has been putting in the extra time, it just isn’t telling on the field.
“We all watch film together,” Evans said. “We didn’t show up. We didn’t show that we put in extra hours of studying our opponent and we’ve got to get back to it next week.”
The older secondary players are flawed in significant ways and the younger players aren’t showing the improvement that they should in their second season.
Hill is the poster boy for those disappointments as the staff tries to get him to show the proper attitude in practice and reduce mistakes in games.
The jump predicted for Davis, a preseason All-Big 12 selection, hasn’t happened after a poor performance against Notre Dame and ineffectual work against Cal.
One of the major culprits in poor decisions and penalties on special teams has been Kris Boyd, who has translated his lack of mental toughness and ability to execute to defense, where he gave up the game-winning touchdown pass on a simple slant route by Chad Hansen in which he never drove on the football in giving up an inside release.
At Boyd’s best, his utter recklessness on special teams makes him extremely effective as a gunner on the punt coverage unit. But in watching him drift aimlessly in such a key moment against Hansen, it’s clear that he doesn’t yet feel confident enough in his understanding of his assignments to play fast, as he was also beat on a deep throw.
The indecisiveness, poor angles, and missed tackles from the secondary are all poor signs for the immediate future.
The defensive backs also aren’t producing enough turnovers to make up for those mistakes in coverage.
One of the areas where Texas has had success in the last two years was in securing interceptions, with 28 total under Strong through 28 games. However, nine of those — nearly one third — came from former walk-on safety Dylan Haines, who has been injured and ineffective during the first three games this season.
A divisive player because of his issues making open-field tackles, Haines missed three tackles against Cal and hasn’t yet recorded an interception this season. If the senior can’t provide value with big, game-changing plays, perhaps it’s approaching the time to look at younger, more athletic options
For someone like the nation’s top safety in the 2016 class, Brandon Jones, it’s all about making plays on special teams. After becoming the first Texas player to block two punts in a season since Mykkelle Thompson in 2012 and the first to do so in back-to-back games since Michael Griffin in 2005, Jones is proving himself in that phase.
Considering that the ‘Horns intercepted a pass every 29 attempts in 2015, but has not done so once in 91 attempts in 2016, it’s time to start making any necessary changes to begin producing turnovers, of which Texas only has one in 2016.
Some poor luck on fumble recoveries has something to do with that, an area where some teams benefit from circumstance and some do not. In Berkeley, the Longhorns forced three fumbles, but were unable to recover a single one.
The other aspect of poor pass defense is a poor pass rush — the ‘Horns have struggled to generate honest pressure, leading to some blitz-heavy tendencies at times that opponents have exploited with screen passes or even fake screens.
On the game-winning drive, Cal was able to create a 30-yard pass from Davis Webb to Jordan Veasy with a fake screen that sucked in the linebackers and left the Golden Bears wide receiver running free over the middle.
A missed open-field tackle by Haines added in some hidden yardage on the play.
Throughout Webb’s career, opponents have been able to force an interception every 35 passes, but since the former Texas Tech quarterback typically makes bad decisions when faced with a strong pass rush, the inability to get pressure helped result in Webb avoiding any interceptions against Texas.
Prior to the season, a lot of the defensive talk revolved around the potential for improvement from junior Fox end Naashon Hughes and sophomore defensive end Charles Omenihu. Unfortunately, the best Longhorns pass rush has come from Fox ends Malcolm Roach and Breckyn Hager in situational packages.
Through three games, Hughes and Omenihu only have a single sack apiece.
In fact, of the 11 Texas sacks this season, zero have come from defensive tackles or senior defensive end Bryce Cottrell.
Instead, defensive backs have accounted for four and Roach and Hager have accounted for four total, illustrating the extent to which Bedford has had to manufacture pressure with blitzes or situational personnel groupings — that’s nearly three quarters of the team’s entire sack production.
Recruiting misses there still loom large, too, as the ‘Horns landed only two defensive tackles between 2013 and 2015 and missed on elite defensive ends like Solomon Thomas, Daeshon Hall, and Myles Garrett.
Indeed, recruiting misses in the secondary are equally important. Think that LSU safety Jamal Adams wouldn’t have been willing to wear burnt orange for Charlie Strong?
Imagine being able to rely on an elite, All-American recruit at safety instead of a boom-or-bust walk on like Haines who is a great story, but also a fully-maximized player with crucial weaknesses.
While the context is important, the blame ultimately has to lie somewhere, so, like the players and head coach, Bedford also accepted responsibility for the defense’s failings.
"I need to do a better job getting these guys ready to play to go out there and win ballgames the remainder of the season,” Bedford said on Longhorn Network after the loss.
Considering the team’s youth and the athletic deficiencies of some players the coaching staff trusts, it’s not yet time to panic, despite the calls from some quarters to remove Bedford from his position and have Strong take a larger role in the defense.
However, the time is quickly approaching where wondering whether the blame lies with the coaches or players will result in a reckoning. When that happens, the coaches usually take the fall.
Time to start showing more signs of getting it right.