“It was never lost, boss.”
When asked about the Texas Longhorns defense recovering its swagger last Saturday against the Iowa State Cyclones, senior defensive end Charles Omenihu provided the defining response on Tuesday.
In the game’s immediate aftermath, Longhorns head coach Tom Herman had a similar perspective.
“This is a defense that has taken a lot of hits lately,” Herman said in the post-game press conference. “A lot of people thought we had forgotten how to play defense or how to coach defense.”
Any assessments in that vein — and there were many — lost the key context.
Facing the No. 1 offense in S&P+ in the Cotton Bowl. The No. 4 offense in Stillwater while dealing with key suspensions. The No. 7 Mountaineers offense in Austin with a depleted defensive line and secondary. The No. 18 offense in Lubbock, while dealing massive defensive injuries across the board.
So the coaches started solving problems.
Strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight didn’t want to hear any of it when he addressed the team the day after narrowly beating the Red Raiders.
“At this point, you could tell he was kind of fed up,” defensive tackle Chris Nelson said on Tuesday. “He knows what he built us up to be and how we worked and trained for it. He just took everything out and told us straight up, doing what he’s always been doing — keeping it real with us. That’s what we love him for.”
The message? “This is not us. This is not how you guys play.”
As the de facto head coach during the offseason, McKnight drew on the strength he’d helped build and the connection with his players forged through those months.
Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who was frustrated about film he’ll have to live with until the planet blows up, asked head coach Tom Herman to have a full pads practice last Tuesday to solve the tackling issues last week. Orlando struck a similar theme.
“It’s been preached so much, that when it doesn’t happen in a game, what do you say? Do you just say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do a better job of tackling?’ That’s phony, if you’re a coach,” Orlando said on Wednesday.
The easy trap to fall into is being afraid of injuring players in practices as a result of too much physicality. For Orlando, the risk on the other side is losing the culture instilled throughout the offseason. Losing the hardness and the edge of the defense — not what Orlando wants.
“If something happens, it happens,” Orlando said. “If you don’t perform something well, you can sit there and hide behind it and say, we’re going to do a better job on Saturday, but that’s ridiculous to think you’re gonna get it solved.”
So the staff made changes to get it solved and continues to learn from those results — on Tuesday, the team was in full pads again, as it was last Tuesday at Orlando’s request, but spent less time on the field.
Like Herman said, though, the Iowa State game wasn’t about discovering a new way to play defense or a new way to coach defense. It was about execution, especially on the early downs.
“We didn’t bring a whole lot more pressure,” Herman said on Monday. “The biggest key to that game defensively was first and second down. When we have teams in 3rd and 12, 3rd and 13, 3rd and 10, you can be a lot more creative with the pressure that you bring and the cover that you play.”
Orlando echoed that point on Wednesday. For the first time in several games, the Longhorns controlled the line of scrimmage against the run on early downs — one of the biggest keys to Orlando’s defense.
By creating negative plays or incomplete passes on those downs, the Longhorns were able to put the Cyclones it predictable situations that limited the playbook for Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell.
With better health in the secondary, the defensive backs in the game were able to cover against an Iowa State wide receiver corps that isn’t as talented as virtually every other group in the conference. The defensive front and assorted blitzers were able to successfully pressure the quarterback.
“For a couple games there, it had been a third the medium fest and it’s dealer’s choice on offense. You want to run a screen, draw, inside zone, quick game, drop back, you know, mesh routes to attack man coverage, get the ball out quick,” Herman said.
“So pretty much the playbook is open, so to speak for offenses on third and medium. When you push it back to third and long, third and extra long, that’s when you can get creative. So I don’t think it has to do with the experience level of the quarterback one bit. It has to do with the fact that we were able to be successful on first and second down and create third and longs.”
The result was a defense that got off the field on 10-of-15 third downs, created six sacks, and forced two turnovers, instead of a defense that struggled in all of those areas.
All of those areas were related, without being a result of major scheme adjustments — the scheme was never the problem in the first place.
Health was a problem. Coverage was a problem, largely a result of injuries and suspensions. Holding the line of scrimmage by the front was a problem. Flowing and filling on outside zone and the gap fits by the linebackers on inside runs were a problem. Tackling was a problem.
With better health and more physical play across the board thanks to challenges and tweaks made by McKnight and Orlando, the Longhorns physically dominated the Cyclones.
“You know, I thought this game was a game that was going to come down to physicality, and quite honestly, they were the more physical football team,” Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said after his team’s physical whipping.
Noting that it’s a fine line, Campbell went on to blame how he physically prepared his team in practice — it wasn’t about effort and it wasn’t about teaching the right techniques. It was about practicing the right way.
Days before, Orlando and McKnight had solved that same problem, at least for one game.
The results were clear — the Texas players hadn’t forgotten how to play defense and the Longhorns coaches hadn’t forgotten how to coach it.
The swagger was never lost. It just needed a rediscovery.