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No. 7 Texas 26, Iowa State 16: Evaluating the four areas of defensive emphasis for the Longhorns

How the Longhorns defense performed on third down, fourth down, sacks, and turnovers in Ames.

Texas v Iowa State Photo by David K Purdy/Getty Images

In the final trip for the No. 7 Texas Longhorns to Ames for the foreseeable future, the Longhorns pulled away with a 26-16 victory against the Iowa State Cyclones. The Texas defense gave up just 16 points and held Iowa State to nine rushing yards on 21 attempts.

The Texas linebacker corps played exceptional.

Senior David Gbenda had six tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and a pass deflection. Senior linebacker Jaylan Ford added six tackles. Freshman linebacker Anthony Hill Jr. recorded six tackles and a half tackle for loss. Together, they were dominant against the run and made enough plays for Texas to remain victorious.

Yet, before the season, Texas defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski set out four areas of emphasis that he wanted to see improvement in. The four areas — third downs, fourth downs, sacks, and turnovers — can completely alter the trajectory of a game. How well did the defensive unit perform in each of these areas? Let’s find out.

Third downs

Grade: A

Syndication: The Ames Tribune Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

Texas held Iowa State to 3-of-11 (27.3 percent) on third downs. This rate is phenomenal. Forcing a team to punt or go for it that frequently is a recipe for success. The Longhorn defense was even better when it mattered. Iowa State converted zero third downs in the fourth quarter and was unsuccessful on many third and shorts throughout the game.

In general, the recipe for Texas has been creating third and longs; however, the performance against Iowa State demonstrated that this defense has the capabilities to win on third down regardless of the distance to the chains. All three of the sacks by the Longhorns and a pass deflection came on third down. Not only did the defense stop the Cyclones, but they made key plays.

Season outlook: Texas has established itself as one of the best third down defenses in the country and the national ranking reflects that. Through 11 games, Texas is tied for first nationally in third-down defense with a rate of 26.6 percent.

Fourth downs

Grade: C+

Syndication: The Ames Tribune Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

Iowa State converted 1-of-2 (50 percent) fourth-down attempts in the game. While this isn’t a terrible rate, the lone conversion ended up being a 66-yard touchdown. Like most fourth downs the defense has faced this year where the opposing offense goes for every fourth down in the fourth quarter given the deficit they face, Iowa State attempted to move the chains in the fourth quarter while losing.

With the score 23-9 in favor of Texas, Iowa State faced a 4th and 1 with 12:56 left in the fourth quarter at their own 34-yard line. The Cyclones faked a QB power while a tight end slipped down the seam. He was completely unguarded and scampered 66 yards for the touchdown.

Every Texas player had their eyes in the backfield and collapsed on the line of scrimmage. While it’s unclear exactly who was responsible for the tight end, junior linebacker Morice Blackwell Jr. and senior safety Jerrin Thompson each had an opportunity to bump or cover the opposing player.

When a team goes for fourth down deep in their own territory, a defense has to step up. A change of possession is this area of the field can have a huge swing on the game. It’s never ideal to give up a fourth-down conversion but to allow the opposing team to scamper untouched for 60-plus yards and a touchdown is unacceptable.

Season outlook: Texas is currently tied for 46th nationally in fourth-down conversion defense. This year’s defense has allowed conversions 45.8 percent of the time, an improvement from last year’s 57.1 percent rate.


Grade: A-

Syndication: Austin American-Statesman Aaron E. Martinez/American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

Texas recorded three sacks on the day for a loss of 19 yards. Perhaps most importantly, each of the sacks occurred on third down and one of the three came inside Texas territory.

On third down at the 21-yard line, Iowa State was threatening in the first quarter. Texas only rushed four but utilized a T/E stunt that collapsed the pocket immediately and forced the Iowa State quarterback to scramble. After being pulled to the ground early in the play, junior defensive tackle Byron Murphy II popped up and grabbed the quarterback for a drive-ending play.

Being able to get home with just four defensive lineman is a blessing for this defense. The skill and effort of the defensive line was on full display on this play.

A few minutes later in the game, Iowa State was backed up deep in their own territory and facing 3rd and 10. Texas brought a blitz which eventually swarmed the pocket and brought down Iowa State quarterback Rocco Becht. Senior defensive tackle Alfred Collins was responsible for bringing him down, his second sack of the year.

Texas v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

The final sack of the game came with the Cyclones trying to mount a comeback. Down 10 with four minutes left in the game, Iowa State gave up a huge sack near midfield that would ultimately cripple any comeback attempts. Texas once again elected to rush just four defensive linemen, but it did not matter. Sophomore Ethan Burke and Murphy II combined to bring down the Iowa State signal caller and set up a 4th and 17.

This sack foiled the drive for Iowa State and gave Texas the ball back for the remaining 3:20 of the game.

After their performances against the Cyclones, Burke (5.5 sacks) and Murphy II (5.0 sacks) rank first and second on the team.

Season outlook: Three sacks against Iowa State pushed the season total to 28 which surpasses the 27 sacks Texas accumulated last year. Texas is currently tied for 29th most sacks in the country.


Grade: B

NCAA Football: Texas at Iowa State Aaron E. Martinez-USA TODAY Sports

Texas created one turnover on the day, an interception by Thompson. However, it occurred in one of the timeliest parts of the game. On their previous possession, Iowa State had just marched down the field on a seven-play, 83-yard drive to cut the deficit from 13-3 to 15-9. Texas blocked the PAT and returned it for two points. The Cyclones then forced a three and out.

Down six points with one minute left in the third quarter and all the momentum, Iowa State could smell an upset. On the first play of the drive, Iowa State sent three receivers down the field. From his deep position in the middle of the field, Thompson picked up one of the receivers trying to run across his face and undercut the pass for the interception.

Suddenly, the momentum and ball were back with Texas. The offense would capitalize with a touchdown drive that all but sealed the deal.

For Thompson, it was his third interception of the year, tied with sophomore Michael Taaffe for most on the team. While more than one turnover in a game would be ideal, the timing of the interception outweighs the lack of another one.

Season outlook: A year after producing 14 total turnovers and tying for 104th in the country, the defense has already forced 17 with multiple games to go. Texas is tied for 30th in the country through 11 games.

The Texas defense made huge plays in critical moments in three of the four areas of emphasis. While more consistent wins in those three areas is always desirable, the defense undoubtedly performed well when it mattered most.

However, the final key area, fourth downs, deserves attention. Texas must ensure it does not give up broken plays on fourth downs in the remaining few games. All in all, the performance against Iowa State once again demonstrated the unit has greatly improved from a year ago.