In what turned out to be a nail bitter, the then-No. 8 Texas Longhorns defeated the Houston Cougars 31-24 on Saturday at TDECU Stadium to improve to 6-1 on the year. With the score tied 24-24 in the fourth quarter, the Texas offense went on a touchdown march with bakcup quarterback Maalik Murphy behind center that proved to be decisive. On the ensuing possession, Houston’s last of the game, the defense forced a turnover on downs to secure the win.
Depending on one’s season expectations, evaluation of Houston, and importance of injuries, the lens of how this game can be viewed varies drastically. Examining the defense under the microscope and in the four areas of emphasis — third downs, fourth downs, sacks, and turnovers — sheds light on how to properly judge the performance of the defensive unit.
Texas held Houston to a rate of 4-for-13 (30.8 percent) on third downs. To start the game, Texas held Houston on four straight third downs, which allowed Texas to go up by 21 points. For the half, the Cougars converted only one third down. The third-down conversion was a long down and distance as the Texas defense had created a 3rd and 10 and Houston ended up scoring two plays later.
In the fourth quarter, the Texas defense was quite stout. The Cougars went 1-for-5 on third downs in the final frame. As a whole, holding an opposing team to a conversion rate of 30.8 percent is more than solid. The Texas defense performed well in this metric.
Season outlook: Texas has held opponents to a third-down conversion percentage of 28.7 percent this season, which is good for eighth in the country at the moment. This is a significant improvement from last year and even previous years.
Texas gave up conversions on 2-of-3 (66.7 percent) fourth downs with every fourth down coming in the fourth quarter. However, with the game on the line, the Longhorns defense got a fourth-down stop. Every other play in the game became irrelevant on the 4th and 1 from the Texas 10-yard line as nickel back Jahdae Barron made a game-saving play.
Jahdae Barron leaving the field after making the game-saving pass breakup. pic.twitter.com/6rgtxUxWY0— Eric Henry (@EricCHenry_) October 21, 2023
While Texas did make this play to win the game, giving up two other fourth-down conversions is not a good performance.
Season 0utlook: Texas has given up 6-of-15 (40.0 percent) fourth downs for the year, which is tied for 32nd in the country, a significant improvement from the 57.1-percent rate last year.
Texas had three sacks against Houston and also held Houston quarterback Donovan Smith to essentially nothing on the ground — his longest rush was four yards. The Longhorns performed well both in terms of bringing Smith down for sacks and limiting rushing.
Buck end Ethan Burke had a sack to bring his total for the season to three which is tied for most on the team. Linebacker Jaylan Ford also had a sack, his first of the year.
Texas LB Jaylan Ford was great in Texas' narrow win over Houston yesterday!— Hook'em Headlines (@HookemHeadlines) October 22, 2023
-6 total tackles, 2.5 TFLs
-1 sack, 2 QB pressures
-1 forced fumble
-3 defensive stops
-0 missed tackles pic.twitter.com/5iXmfb8Cyo
Defensive tackle Alfred Collins added his first sack of the year against the Cougars, too. Texas now has 11 different players with a sack on the year, a testament to the depth of the defense and creativity of coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski.
Season outlook: Texas has 16 sacks through seven games. The unit has struggled to find consistency in bringing down opposing quarterbacks, but has shown flashes of greatness including the game against Houston. Texas is on a similar pace as last year with room to either boom or bust.
After failing to force a turnover for the first time in the season against Oklahoma, the defense got back on a track with a fumble recovery and interception against Houston. Better yet, both turnovers came in the second half of the game while it was tied.
Jaylan Ford sack forced fumble pic.twitter.com/VUxcjkjnA4— RanDynasty (@ran_dynasty) October 21, 2023
On 3rd and 7 in the third quarter, the Texas edge rushers forced Smith to step up in the pocket. On a delayed blitz, Ford came in to bring him down and the force of his hit knocked the ball out with defensive tackle Vernon Broughton recovering it. Texas was able to kick a field goal on the drive.
On the next drive, Houston drove the length of the field and was threatening the Texas red zone. On 2nd and 10 from the Texas 28-yard line, Smith targeted a receiver gunning for the end zone. The throw was somewhat errant and safety Michael Taaffe came across the field to intercept the ball in the endz one.
Michael Taaffe : Season-high 8 tackles & an INT in the endzone for a touchback pic.twitter.com/5iwv3zsY0W— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life) October 22, 2023
Season outlook: Texas has forced 10 turnovers through seven games after creating only 14 during the entirety of last season. Texas is tied for 62nd in the nation after finishing 104th last year. While this is an improvement year to year, the Longhorns defense still has room to grow in this metric this season.
Texas performed relatively well in each metric against Houston. In the upcoming few weeks with quarterback Quinn Ewers likely sidelined, the defense will need to play at an extremely high level. However, when evaluated under the microscope against Houston, the defense did its job.