The age old saying goes, “Offense wins games but defense wins championships.” In the quest to leave the Big 12 as conference champions, the Texas Longhorns will need the defensive unit to perform week in and week out.
In Pete Kwiatkowski’s third season in charge of the Texas defense, his unit has shown substantial improvement in multiple key areas since his inaugural season. In the first edition of this weekly installment, the performance of the Texas defense will be under the microscope in each of the four key areas Kwiatkowski identified before the season — third downs, fourth downs, turnovers, and sacks.
On Saturday, the Longhorns upset the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa behind noteworthy performances from new faces and veterans alike. Freshman linebacker Anthony Hill Jr. had six tackles, four of which were solo, and two sacks. Senior linebacker David Gbenda had six tackles and a sack. Senior safety Jalen Catalon led the team in tackles with seven and added a tackle for loss from the safety position.
Yet bigger than any individual performance was the ability to make big plays and get stops when needed.
But, when evaluated under the microscope, did the defense improve from last year in the four pillars that Kwiatkowski has identified? Let’s find out.
For the game, Alabama went 5 of 14 on third downs while facing an average down and distance of 9.5 yards — a full half of the third downs faced by the Crimson Tide were more than nine yards and Alabama only converted one. The tale of third downs for the Texas defense was a strong performance with a couple costly miscues as quarterback Jalen Milroe was 4-of-6 passing for 98 yards on third downs. As a whole, holding the Crimson Tide to 35.7 percent is more than enough to win, especially with the way Texas kept Alabama from prolonging drives.
Early in the second quarter, after Texas had scored a touchdown to make the score 10-3, Alabama was facing 3rd and 7 near midfield. Gbenda blitzed up the middle and was cut by Crimson Tide running back Jase McClellan, but Gbenda got up quickly and chased down Milroe for a huge sack.
The effort by Gbenda on that third down was remarkable and being able to stay in plays after taking contact or being blocked is a huge reason why Texas was able to get off the field so frequently. The sack also gave the offense the ball and the ability to rip off a 14-play, six-minute drive that ended in points.
Hill also came up huge on multiple third downs, including two sacks. The second sack came at quite possibly the most important moment in the game — a 3rd and 10 with 8:06 remaining and the Longhorns leading by 10 points.
Unfortunately, the third-down performance was not without a couple important mistakes. Worst of all, some conversions and miscues led to points for the Crimson Tide.
Perhaps the worst play for Texas on third down gave many Longhorn fans deja vu to the LSU game from 2019. On a 3rd and 17 in the fourth quarter, Milroe was able to find a wide receiver for a 27-yard gain. Three plays later, the Crimson Tide scored a touchdown to cut the Longhorns lead to 27-24 after a successful two-point conversion.
As a whole, the effort and timeliness of big plays should be a source of pride for the unit. Being able to put pressure on opposing signal callers will be critical to getting off the field. However, holding future opponents on third and long will be a must.
Season outlook: Through two games, Texas is limiting opponents to conversions on 33.3 percent of third downs, an improvement over the 41.3-percent rate last season and currently good enough to tie for 46th nationally.
For the game, Alabama converted their only fourth-down attempt on 4th and 3 from the Texas 42-yard line late in the first quarter, Milroe completed a six-yard pass to move the chains.
While Texas didn’t have many opportunities to perform on fourth down, the conversion they did give up was somewhat critical for two reasons.
First, the fourth down was inside Longhorn territory — the defense must tighten up in the most important parts of the field.
Second, the drive resulted in points for Alabama. Texas has to be able to end drives and by allowing the conversion, the defense gave Alabama the opportunity to continue down the field and eventually tack on a field goal.
Season outlook: The Longhorns have allowed two conversions on three opposing fourth-down attempts this season after tying for 86th nationally last season when opponents converted at a 57.1-percent rate on fourth downs.
Texas had five sacks against Alabama. Five. Not only were the sacks plentiful, but they came at critical junctures in the game. Besides Gbenda and Hill, sophomore Buck end Ethan Burke and senior defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat both recorded a sack with Burke also recording a tackle for loss when Milroe climbed the pocket. The lanky defensive end from Westlake had a significant impact on the game as he was able to disrupt the Crimson Tide offense multiple times.
The ability to get to Milroe may have come as a surprise to some. The Crimson Tide offensive line had over 45 starts collectively and were bigger than the average starting NFL offensive line. Not to mention, getting Milroe down once past the offensive line is a huge challenge because the Alabama quarterback is quick and shifty, but also strong enough to break tackles. Being able to bring him down behind the line of scrimmage five times is a great performance, especially after issues with the integrity of pass-rush lanes last week against Rice.
Season outlook: After 27 sacks last year, the Horns are already up to seven after two games, tied for 16th nationally in sacks per game. It remains to be seen whether Kwiatkoswki will try to continue pressuring opposing quarterbacks by bringing additional defenders or rely on the defensive line. Either way, five sacks got the job done against the Crimson Tide.
Perhaps the brightest part of the defense was its ability to capitalize on bad throws by Milroe and force turnovers as the secondary came up with two huge interceptions.
On Alabama’s first drive of the game, senior nickel back Jahdae Barron intercepted Milroe near midfield when Barron dropped off his receiver and watched Milroe’s eyes before stepping in front of the pass.
The play ultimately lead to three points for Texas to take the early lead and helped ensure Alabama couldn’t generate first-quarter momentum in front of its home crowd.
The second interception occurred at another critical point in the game. Leading by four in the fourth quarter, senior safety Jerrin Thompson stepped in front of a Milroe pass and returned it to the Alabama 5-yard line. Texas ran for a touchdown on the next play.
In a game that Texas won by 10 points, the Horns scored exactly 10 points off of those two interceptions.
Season outlook: With 14 forced turnovers last season, Texas ranked tied for 104th nationally, but through two games this year, the Longhorns have forced five turnovers. Since Texas hasn’t turned the ball over, the current turnover margin is plus-five.
As a whole, the Texas defense was up to the challenge against Alabama, performing at a high level in the key areas that Kwiatkowski identified as needing improvement. Under the microscope, the defensive unit held true in the biggest road win for the Longhorns in close to 20 years.