A year after giving up 51 points to the Maryland Terrapins, the Texas Longhorns defense played marginally better last Saturday, but not to the standard of coordinator Todd Orlando, who said on Wednesday that he was disappointed with the slow start and the penalties committed by his group.
Despite plenty of preparation time for interim head coach Matt Canada’s offense, which includes plenty of motions, shifts, and misdirection, the Longhorns defense struggled to defend a staple of the offense — the jet sweep.
“The first one, we kind of misread,” Orlando said. “It’s kind of like option football. You can rep it in practice, and then when you see it, live bullets, the speed of it caught us a little off-guard. There were a handful of other ones. It wasn’t a surprise.”
The surprise was that the Longhorns struggled so mightily to defend it after spending four weeks preparing for it — Orlando said his defenders had trouble being disciplined and getting their eyes in the right place to diagnose those plays quickly. The difficulty defending those plays is that the nature of Maryland interim head coach Matt Canada’s offense makes the jet sweep hard to defend, in part because it’s often difficult to even identify who has the football.
On the first jet sweep run by the Terrapins, Longhorns linebacker Gary Johnson got sucked in by the misdirection, ultimately getting in the way of Jeffrey McCulloch, who had properly diagnosed the play more quickly than Johnson.
The touchdown run by standout Maryland freshman Jeshaun Jones revealed another issue with the linebacker corps when Malcolm Roach is at inside linebacker — he simply doesn’t have the sideline-to-sideline speed to ensure outside runs don’t get vertical up the field before he can get to the hash marks.
“I think Malcolm, if you asked him, would have told you that he could play better,” Orlando said. “We’ve got to get better in that spot.”
After Johnson was ejected and Roach was playing with senior Anthony Wheeler, who also lacks the pure speed necessary to play inside linebacker against modern offenses, the lack of range was readily apparent.
A lack of practice reps for junior Jeffrey McCulloch also impacted the game, as McCulloch missed most of preseason camp with a pectoral muscle strain. Orlando seemed to suggest that his snaps against Maryland were limited as a result.
So Orlando clearly has to hope that having Johnson available will help some of those problems and that Wheeler can play better next to Johnson. If he can’t, there aren’t a lot of options, but McCulloch may be the best while freshmen Ayodele Adeoye and DeMarvion Overshown continue to recover from preseason knee injuries.
After giving up 263 yards on 6.1 yards per carry against Maryland last season, Texas did show significant improvement in allowing 143 yards on 3.1 yards per carry last Saturday, it just would have been a much lower number if the Horns had defended the jet sweep better.
Failing to do so, along with allowing the 65-yard touchdown pass to Jones, helped contribute to the 17-point deficit that severely reduced the overall margin for error.
Penalties were also a significant factor in the game’s final outcome, especially penalties committed by the defense.
“Some of the stuff in terms of the penalties, that’s just not us. That’s not what we’re teaching, that’s not disciplined football,” Orlando said.
Some penalties, like the targeting penalty on Johnson, are difficult to avoid because they happen so quickly when a quarterback decides to slide. Orlando said that he teaches his players to try to lift their head at the last second if an opponent opts to slide late, in the hopes that the video booth will see that and not eject the player for leading with their helmet. Most of the big penalties called on the defense were errors of aggression, according to head coach Tom Herman on Monday.
Maryland scored 13 points largely as a result of needless defensive penalties. Longhorns players hit the Terrapins quarterback late multiple times and senior cornerback Kris Boyd picked up a key pass interference penalty on 3rd and long. One drive featured three 15-yard penalties, including the targeting call on Johnson that resulted in his justified ejection.
When combined with the disappointing penalties and the slow start, the lack of turnovers and sacks forced by the defense ensure that the Horns didn’t have a strong chance to win the game.
“We had an opportunity with Kris [Boyd’s] play, which in my opinion if he finishes that, he’s got a chance to score. But, it has been addressed. A 3-0 ratio to go along with explosive plays, you’re not going to win a lot of ball games. We’ve got to get back to that. It’s been emphasized around here all the time. It just didn’t happen.”
Neither did consistent pressure on the quarterback. Orlando said that opponents are now prepared for the schemes that he likes to employ and are choosing to get the ball out quickly to avoid sacks.
When that happens, Orlando depends on his defensive backs to go make a play on the football in man-to-man coverage, especially Boyd, the team’s best cornerback and a preseason All-Big 12 selection.
Even with all those issues, Texas still largely overcame the loss of standout players up the middle and gave the offense multiple chances to win the game late, including holding strong right at the goal line to force a critical field goal.
So there were some positives, just not enough to secure the victory or avoid Orlando’s disappointment on multiple levels.
“There’s no moral victories around here,” Orlando said. “You’re at the University of Texas. You’re expected to win, you’re expected to win anywhere.”