On Saturday, the Texas Longhorns fell to the Oklahoma Sooners in a heartbreaking 34-30 loss in the Red River Rivalry at the Cotton Bowl. Giving up 34 points was a season high for the defensive unit although undoubtedly aided by the two interceptions and fumble that Oklahoma forced.
Regardless, the Texas defense didn’t perform at the elite unit they had previously played at this season. Poor tackling, open lanes for the Oklahoma rushing attack, and an inability to disrupt in the red zone all contributed to the less-than-stellar performance.
However, when evaluated the under microscope, how did the defense perform in the four key areas of emphasis — third downs, fourth downs, sacks, and turnovers? Let’s find out.
The Longhorns allowed the Sooners offense to convert 5-of-14 (35.7 percent) third downs, a strong performance. Getting off the field at this rate is difficult, especially against a team that came into the game performing so well in this metric — Oklahoma entered the Cotton Bowl at No. 6 nationally by converting third downs at a rate of 55.2 percent. On the 14 third downs faced by the Sooners, they needed to gain an average of 7.1 yards while converting 2-of-6 third and longs (nine-plus yards).
But one of those third downs, a 3rd and 11 in the fourth quarter, was picked up by Oklahoma quarterback Dillon Gabriel on a 12-yard scramble from the Sooners 12-yard line that helped flip the field when Gabriel scrambled for 44 yards two plays later, eventually setting up a 45-yard field-goal attempt. The effort from Zack Schmitt missed to keep the Oklahoma lead at seven points, but Texas nearly paid for allowing that long third-down conversion by going down two possessions with less than eight minutes remaining.
Season outlook: Texas has significantly improved on third down. The combination of third and distance plus improved front-seven play has made this area a success for the team. The defense has allowed a third-down conversion rate of 28.4 percent, good for ninth in the country, a massive improvement from last year’s 41.3-percent rate. Over a full season, this year’s opposing third-down conversion rate would rank as the program’s best effort since 2017.
The Texas defense held Oklahoma on their only fourth-down attempt on the day. With the game in the balance, the Sooner offense stayed on the field for 4th and 1 at the Texas 48-yard line with one minute left in the third quarter.
Gabriel attempted to connect with wide receiver Drake Stoops running an out route from the slot. Texas sophomore defensive back Michael Taaffe was able to make a break on the ball and put enough pressure that the mistimed throw fell incomplete, a huge stop that put the Longhorns offense in a position to score in a one-possession game. Redshirt sophomore running back Jonathon Brooks did exactly that, running for a 29-yard touchdown to end a five-play, 73-yard drive.
Season outlook: Texas continues to be effective on fourth down, improving to 33.3 percent on the year. Last year, the team’s fourth-down conversion percentage was 57.1 percent, a significantly higher rate than this year and one that ranked tied for 86th nationally.
Texas recorded one sack on the day. On 2nd and 10 in the first quarter, Texas collapsed the pocket and Gabriel rolled to his left with Longhorns freshman linebacker Anthony Hill coming from across the field in pursuit and able to bring Gabriel down for a one-yard loss. The sack forced the Sooners to face a 3rd and 11 that resulted in a pass completed short of the yard to gain and a subsequent punt.
Other than that play, which occurred just seven minutes into the game, the Texas defense was unable to sack Gabriel.
Not only did Texas fail to bring Gabriels down multiple times, but they allowed him to escape the pocket and use his legs as a weapon. Gabriels amassed 113 rushing yards on the day, a career high, and was only hurried twice.
Getting pressure on the quarterback and bringing him down has been a huge success thus far for the Longhorns. However, the ability to rack up sacks specifically has been somewhat of a hot-and-cold effort. The defense currently has multiple games with five sacks but also multiple games with just a single sack.
Although Texas was able to bring down Gabriel once after failing to record a sack of the Kansas quarterback last week, the lack of a bounce-back performance under a game plan that appeared oriented more towards creating pressure as opposed to keeping contain made this key area a bigger disappointment.
Season outlook: The defense has sacked opposing signal callers 13 times in six games. Though the halfway mark of the season, this puts the unit on pace to amass 26 total sacks, a projection that would be one less than last year’s team, a disappointing trend line with the boom-or-bust nature of the pass rush in 2023.
Texas did not force a turnover for the first time this season. The Longhorns have primarily relied on interceptions with a couple of timely fumble recoveries, but against the Sooners, Texas was unable to force a fumble or intercept a pass.
The Longhorns were credited with six passes broken up in the game, 15.8 percent of the attempts by Gabriel, including two each by sophomore cornerback Terrance Brooks and senior safety Jerrin Thompson. One of those passes broken up by Thompson represented the best chance Texas had of creating a turnover against Oklahoma when Gabriel threw late and over the middle on a 3rd and 8 from the Texas 9-yard line early in the second quarter. Thompson was in position and broke on the ball, but was unable to come up with the interception, a play reminiscent of his struggles to finish in 2022 and one that resulted in the Sooners kicking a short field goal instead of facing a sudden-change situation defensively.
In a game decided by just four points, it is hard not to imagine that a turnover could have swayed the outcome in favor of Texas. Not only would a turnover have ended an Oklahoma drive and given the offense possession of the ball, but also created momentum for the entire Longhorns team in the split Cotton Bowl. In a game with such high energy and emotion, the incalculable swing of energy could have been monumental.
Season outlook: Texas has still shown improvement from last season. While the performance in this metric against Oklahoma was not successful, the season outlook remains relatively positive given the body of work in all six games. However, the eight turnovers forced so far this year ranks tied for 58th nationally after the Longhorns tied for 104th in the country in 2022 with 14 forced turnovers. After the bye week, Texas needs to create more turnover opportunities and capitalize on them.
With two weeks to recover and improve, look for the defense to regain its focus on these key areas. The performance against a quality Oklahoma offense was far from perfect, but still largely fits into a body of work that has improved from last year and as the season has gone on.