The concern for Texas Longhorns defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has been growing in recent weeks.
In 2017, Texas was one of the elite third-down defenses in the country, ranking No. 3 nationally in allowing opponents to convert only 27.1 percent of those attempts.
This season, the Horns haven’t been as consistent, ranking No. 69 nationally as a result of opponents converting at a 39-percent rate.
And that rate is trending in the wrong direction, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said last week.
“Third down we’re starting to slide a bit. I don’t like the progression that we’re going into. Our third-down defense, at least in the last three or four years, has been in the 30 to 32 percent range and we’re starting to creep on up.”
Playing effective defense in the Big 12, according to Orlando, requires getting off the field in those situations. “Otherwise, it’s not going to be good,” he said.
Operating at the level desired by Orlando isn’t easy, however. While Texas led the conference in third-down defense last season, no defense in the conference was able to hold opponents to a lower rate in 2016 than Kansas at 35.6 percent.
For most seasons in the last decade, only one or two teams have managed that feat. Houston didn’t manage it in 2015 or 2016, either.
Regardless, the Longhorns were able to use the bye week to do some self scouting of the third-down defense. As a result of that assessment, Orlando said some of the issues were about his calls and some were about making the same calls too frequently, allowing opponents to scheme against an anticipated look.
The Texas defensive coordinator made a point not to blame the players, but also noted that a lot of opposing offenses are going to the line of scrimmage and then looking back to the sideline to receive calls based on the defensive alignment by the Longhorns.
Baylor, for instance, was able to convert at a rate of 47.1 percent on third downs by employing that strategy.
Unfortunately, the self scouting didn’t pay off in Stillwater.
Oklahoma State converted 50 percent of its third downs and scored touchdowns on two fourth-down conversions, with the issues ranging from cornerbacks getting beat in coverage to a busted coverage to apparent confusion about how to defend the zone read play. Penalties helped extend two drives.
The task won’t get any easier this weekend, as West Virginia ranks No. 24 nationally by converting at a rate of 44.9 percent on third downs.
The good news for Texas, such as it exists, is that star quarterback Will Grier isn’t a threat to run the football for West Virginia, which will make the medium third downs easier to defend than the same situations against Oklahoma State.
And Grier has had some issues with turnovers this season — he threw three interceptions against Kansas and two against Kansas State. He’s also been sacked 19 times, including seven by Iowa State, which is five more sacks than last season in 170 fewer pass attempts.
So taking advantage of the issues in pass protection for the Mountaineers will be a key for the Longhorns by providing the potential to get off the field defensively. And getting a turnover or two by intercepting Grier could be the difference in the game. The two turnovers forced by the Horns in the Cotton Bowl certainly made a huge difference.
Where are the sacks going to come from, though? Senior defensive end Charles Omenihu has played extremely well recently and now has seven sacks on the season, but that’s nearly half of the 15 total for the Horns. So although senior linebacker Gary Johnson has three, no one else on the team has more than one, including senior defensive end Breckyn Hager.
Orlando has been predicting a breakout performance for Hager for weeks. So even though the fiery team captain has five quarterback hurries, it’s clear that he’s getting frustrated and that frustration boiled over last weekend with his unnecessary aggression at the end of the game.
Perhaps this is the week that Hager finally has that long-anticipated breakthrough.
The bottom line, however, is that after poor third-down defense in the last two games and only one forced turnover in that stretch, how well Texas performs in those two areas will have a tremendous impact on whether the Longhorns can pull out a big victory on Saturday.