This is not the Texas Longhorns defense of four weeks ago.
Under the guidance of coordinator Chris Ash, the unit has steadily improved for the nation’s No. 22 team since a less-than-stellar performance against the Oklahoma Sooners in the Cotton Bowl, culminating, for now, with Saturday’s 17-13 win over the West Virginia Mountaineers at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
With star West Virginia running back Leddie Brown limited by a left leg injury, the Mountaineers only ran for 43 net yards on 26 carries as the Longhorns defensive line effectively dissuaded the visitors from even attempting to run the football for much of the game.
There were still some missed opportunities by the defense, including a dropped interception by freshman defensive tackle Alfred Colins, but the difference in the game was the red-zone defense by the Longhorns. On five trips inside the Texas 20-yard line, West Virginia only managed 13 points after settling for a 29-yard field goal on 4th and 2 early in the third quarter and then failing to convert on two fourth downs on the final two offensive possessions for the visitors.
Early in the fourth quarter, a six-play, 69-yard drive took West Virginia down to the Texas 16-yard line. On 3rd and 1, Longhorns junior cornerback Jalen Green had strong coverage in the end zone and Mountaineers quarterback Jarrett Doege wasn’t able to step into the throw, resulting in a 4th and 1 attempt. When Doege threw a little bit late to his intended target, tight end Mike O’Laughlin, Texas junior safety BJ Foster was able to recover and play through the eyes and hands of O’Laughlin to force the incomplete pass and turnover on downs.
Texas was subsequently able to pick up a first down on three runs thanks to a designed 13-yard effort by senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger on 3rd and 3, but all three ensuing passes hit the artificial turf as the wide receivers appeared to battle the sun. The third pass, intended for graduate transfer Tarik Black down the sideline for a potentially big gain, went through the hands of the former Michigan wide receiver on arguably the best throw from Ehlinger all day.
So West Virginia got the ball back at their own 36-yard line with 9:19 remaining and moved the ball steadily down the field. Another big third-down play by Texas, this time a physical tackle by junior cornerback Josh Thompson on a completion to Brown near the sticks, forced another fourth-down attempt by West Virginia.
In a game during which the officials allowed a significant amount of contact over the middle of the field, junior safety Chris Brown had blanket coverage on wide receiver Ali Jennings, forcing the incomplete pass and then celebrating with his now-trademark flex celebration.
“That’s the epitome of Chris Brown right there,” senior defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham said after the game. “That’s him — he’s 5’8, maybe 200 pounds soaking wet, but he plays big and he’s not afraid of sticking his head in and going to make plays.”
Strong efforts overall on third and fourth down were the epitome of the improving Longhorns defense all game long.
The Mountaineers failed on the team’s other fourth-down attempt thanks to more zero blitzes from Ash, the same tactic that he used on the game-winning fourth down against Oklahoma State last week and continued to use extensively against West Virginia. The blitzes either made Doege throw the ball early or change his launch point.
On third downs, junior linebacker DeMarvion Overshown continued his positive trajectory. One red-zone blitz resulted in Overshown sacking Doege for a nine-yard loss on 3rd and goal from the Texas 8-yard line during the third quarter. Earlier in the game, Overshown cleaned up on 3rd and 1 when Collins flushed Brown to the edge, where Overshown forced a fumble and brought down Brown four yards behind the line of scrimmage to ensure that West Virginia had to punt the ball.
Overshown finished the game with eight tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, and a pass broken up. There are still some growing pains for the former safety — Herman joked that Overshown needs the bye week to gain weight badly enough that, “If you’ve got any honey buns or peanut butter you want to you want to donate, holler at me.” Without that extra weight, Overshown just doesn’t quite have the pop to play the A and B gaps that he will next year after a real offseason at the position.
One player who doesn’t need to bulk up to be more effective is 350-pound sophomore nose tackle T’Vondre Sweat. When the starter at nose tackle, redshirt sophomore Keondre Coburn, went out with an ankle injury in the first half, Sweat proved an effective replacement. On the first failed fourth-down attempted by West Virginia, it was Sweat who batted the pass that Doege threw again illegally. On 3rd and 2 from the Texas 9-yard line in the third quarter, Sweat knocked down a pass that forced a short West Virginia field goal.
Sweat finished with four tackles, including one tackle for loss.
Those plays collectively helped define a game that featured the Mountaineers working the perimeter passing game extensively in the second half. Without halftime to adjust, the Horns had some troubles slowing down those quick passes and winning against blocks on the outside.
“It’s like you’re playing with 11 true freshmen out there on defense and trying to make as many adjustments as you can on the sideline, but there’s literally no recall, there’s no banked reps, there’s no experience in this defense,” Herman said. “The guys gritted it out, they toughed it out, they willed it out, and I could not be prouder of them.”
Even though West Virginia was able to move the ball through the air in the second half with 201 passing yards, the defense took away the running game, took away passes over the top, and ensured that Ash’s bend-but-don’t-break strategy worked with the excellent red-zone defense.
Offensively, there aren’t a lot of positives for a team that only managed 184 passing yards, but if there’s one feel-good takeaway from the game, it’s the breakout performance from freshman running back Bijan Robinson. Now starting for a third straight game, Robinson broke off the longest run of his career on the first play from scrimmage, slicing the middle of the West Virginia defense for a 54-yard gain.
While Robinson’s first chance at showing breakaway speed at the college level was hardly a resounding success, the explosive run did showcase his ability to plant his foot, find a seam, and then get downhill without any wasted movement.
It also came as a result of a small tweak offensively — Texas has mostly used Robinson on outside zone this season. And, previously, most of the counter plays were run for the quarterback, but the counter scheme used with Robinson worked effectively to open the game and could become a bigger part of the attack as the true freshman gets more carries.
Another carry later in the second quarter allowed Robinson to truly flash the ability that made him the consensus No. 1 running back in the 2020 class — the Arizona product spun out of a tackle at the line of scrimmage, bounced the run outside, then stiff armed not one but two defenders on his way to nearly breaking a long touchdown run. The final West Virginia defender had to resort to grabbing Robinson’s face mask just to get him out of bounds.
My goodness, Bijan Robinson!— Chris Hummer (@chris_hummer) November 7, 2020
Spin cycle + the stiff arm pic.twitter.com/7KWKDQSJSp
Frustratingly, Robinson only carried the ball three more times in the final 20-plus minutes of the first half, raising further questions about the substitution patterns of position coach Stan Drayton, who once again refused to ride the hot running back.
With Robinson alternating with sophomore Roschon Johnson series by series after Robinson’s strong start, it was bad luck for Robinson that the Texas offense didn’t happen to find success when he was on the field.
After the game, though, head coach Tom Herman maintained the program-wide talking point that Robinson didn’t receive more carries because the coaching staff wants to keep him fresh and not put too much weight on his shoulders. Robinson is, after all, a freshman running back who didn’t recall having many more than 20 carries or so in a single game in his high school career. He also made some mistakes — fumbling in the third quarter and missing an assignment in pass protection.
Even with those mistakes, when facing a 2nd and 7 from the Texas 24-yard line with 1:47 remaining after the Longhorns called a timeout, offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich dialed up a pass in an effort to ice the game with Robinson on the field. He called a familiar play, using the running back on a wheel route out of the backfield. Ehlinger checked down almost immediately in an effort to avoid any chance of a sack and Robinson found the open field, racing 35 yards for the game-clinching play.
Robinson finished the game with 12 carries for 113 yards, the first 100-yard performance of his college career, and turned the potential that he showed in high school into production on the field. So, regardless of the discussions about how Drayton handles the running back rotation, Robinson took a significant step forward on Saturday by truly living up to the hype in a way that will put more pressure on the coaches to give him more opportunities moving forward. And when the game was on the line, he was the running back on the field.
Overall, the only two touchdowns scored by the Longhorns offense were on the first possession of the game and the first possession of the second half.
During the opening 30 minutes, Ehlinger was off, going 9-of-18 passing for 87 yards and one touchdown while struggling with his accuracy. Whether it was on passes to the perimeter or a notably underthrown ball intended for junior wide receiver Brennan Eagles that should have gone for a 47-yard touchdown after Texas got the ball just past midfield early in the second quarter, Ehlinger looked like a quarterback playing hurt.
Asked about whether he is hurt after the game, Ehlinger at first offered only a stock answer — “If I’m available, I’m always going to put my body on the line for my team.” Pressed further, he merely noted that the body naturally breaks down as the season progresses before offering a more candid insight about his current level of health.
“The bye week’s coming at a perfect time, let’s just say that,” Ehlinger said.
It wasn’t until the third quarter that Ehlinger finally connected on a deep ball, finding sophomore wide receiver Jake Smith for a 33-yard touchdown. Of course, that throw came one play after Ehlinger once again delivered an underthrown pass to Eagles, who wasn’t able to secure the jump ball.
Assessing his struggles, Ehlinger repeated something he said earlier in the season — “I think I’m trying to be too perfect. I need to just go out and let it rip.”
The fourth-quarter drive that featured Texas receivers drop three passes that hit them in the hands illustrates the extent to which it’s not just Ehlinger struggling with his health. It’s also difficult for him to develop timing with receivers who don’t always come through with catches or even get open in the first place or, in the case of the slot position, simply haven’t been healthy for most of the season.
In the words of Ehlinger, then, the bye week does come at a perfect time for the offense to get better in the passing game on the outside, continue to make improvements along the offensive line after only allowing one sack to West Virginia and four combined tackles to the Stills brothers, and bank more reps on defense.
Asked how to characterize what progress looks like in the midst of a three-game winning streak, Herman had a simple answer — win. Since winning is “really, really hard,” after all, Herman typically talks about taking 24 hours to enjoy victories, but on Saturday he took a little bit more sharp approach to where his team should be mentally.
“They better not be happy,” Herman said. “What have we got to be full on? I told our guys all week, if the best thing that you do when you look back on 2020 is you beat Oklahoma State, what a shame. What a shame that would be.”