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Third downs told the tale for the Texas defense in 2018

A year after posting the lowest opponent third-down conversion percentage in the Big 12 since 2009, the Horns struggled in Todd Orlando’s second season on the Forty Acres.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Texas Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Third downs were a toss up for the Texas Longhorns in 2018.

When looking at the results for 2018, the defense’s ability to get off of the field on third downs was generally indicative of the outcome. The Longhorns were 8-1 when their opponent converted on fewer than 50 percent of their third-down attempts. Conversely, Texas was 2-3 when allowing 50 percent or greater conversions.

The struggles to get off the field under second-year defensive coordinator Todd Orlando marked a major reversal from his Longhorns debut — in 2017, Texas posted the lowest opponent third-down conversion percentage in the Big 12 (27.14 percent) since the 2009 Horns defense (26.50 percent).

The issues in 2018 crescendoed late in the season, despite Orlando’s constant emphasis on the down’s importance during press conferences, as four of the contests in which Texas allowed greater than 50 percent conversions came in the final five games of the regular season. The fifth came in the Big 12 Championship game against the Oklahoma Sooners.

The two games in which Texas allowed greater than 50 percent third-down conversions and won were against Kansas and Texas Tech. Both games saw Texas hold off opponents putting together big fourth quarter comebacks — 24 and 17 points, respectively. Both teams managed to put together impressive runs in the second half overall, with Tech converting on their first four third downs in the second half leading to 10 points. The Jayhawks, on the other hand, converted six of their eight second-half attempts to propel their comeback.

On the other side of the coin, Maryland was the only team that managed to come away with a win when converting on fewer than 50 percent of its third downs — the Terrapins simply managed to make the most of their conversions when they did.

One of the first third-down conversions in that game was a 65-yard touchdown run on a third-and-long. Three of the other five third-down conversions came in the fourth quarter as they tried to milk the clock and end the Texas comeback attempt. The majority of the damage by Maryland came on two drives in the second half — a touchdown drive of 4:49 and a field goal drive of 5:34 on either side of a Texas punt to retake the lead 34-29. During that stretch, Maryland converted three of five third-down attempts. Kasim Hill also converted on 4th and 6 to keep the drive alive.

Texas did itself no favors against Maryland on third downs, either, contributing to the success in that outlier game — the Longhorns managed to convert on just three third-down conversions and lost the time of possession battle by more than five minutes.

So as the Longhorns focus their rebuild on the defensive side, finding schematic ways to improve on defense must be a top priority. Playing in the Big 12 is a guarantee that teams will move the ball and score, but managing to get the defense off the field early to keep them fresh for a late push will be paramount in a fairly wide open conference this season.