We are officially one third of the way through the regular season and the Texas Longhorns are 4-0, ranked in the top five, and just kicked off the farewell tour with a thrashing of the Baylor Bears. It’s a good time to be a Longhorn. But underneath all the media hype and talks of the college football season, is the defense performing well in their key areas of focus?
In this week’s rendition of Under the Microscope, we’ll unpack the performance of the Texas defense against Baylor in the four metrics coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski underscored before the year — third downs, fourth downs, turnovers, and sacks.
Against the Bears, the Longhorns defensive unit only allowed six points en route to a 38-6 victory, including a second-half shutout. The Texas front seven looked ferocious compared to the Baylor offensive line and were able to hold the Bears to 60 rushing yards on 31 attempts (1.9 yards per carry).
Junior defensive lineman Byron Murphy led the charge up front with two sacks and three tackles for loss. Senior linebacker Jaylan Ford and freshman linebacker Anthony Hill Jr. combined for 14 tackles and a tackle for loss as well.
During such strong performances, it’s easy to get lost in the sea of excitement and accurately evaluate specific metrics that the coaching staff wants to prioritize. So just how well did the defense perform when evaluated under the microscope? Let’s find out.
Baylor went 5-of-18 (27.8 percent) on third down and only gained a single first down in three of the four quarters. At halftime, the Bears were 3-of-11. The overall clip that Texas was able to get off the field was extremely impressive. This was undoubtedly aided by the performance on first and second down to set up third and long. In the first half, the Bears had third down distances of 10 or more on four different occasions, setting up any defense up for success and allowing Kwiatkowski to find creative ways to put pressure on the quarterback while simultaneously playing coverage.
Texas performed exceptionally well on a couple of key third downs. On the first drive of the game, Murphy sacked Baylor quarterback Sawyer Robertson to set the tone and force a punt. Later in the first quarter, Texas held Baylor to a field goal after getting a stop on 3rd and goal from the 5-yard line. As a whole, Texas was dominant in the red zone, but especially stepped it up another level on third down.
Season outlook: Texas continues to impress on third down. The Horns are currently holding opponents on 30.5 percent of third downs, a rate that places them 17th in the country and over 10 percentage points better than last year.
Fourth down-success has been tough to come by this year. The lack of many attempts and the fact that they are often short-yardage situations compound to make it tough to end drives when opposing coaches opt to go for it. On Saturday, Baylor only converted one fourth down on five attempts (20 percent) — Texas was able to hold strong for the most part.
Near midfield with the game beginning to slip out of hand in the second quarter, the Bears opted to go for it on 4th and two from their own 46. The Bears chose to run into the boundary behind two tight ends, but senior defensive lineman T’Vondre Sweat got enough penetration to stop the ball carrier near the line of scrimmage. Texas would go on to score a touchdown just five plays later.
Texas DL T'Vondre Sweat was the highest-graded interior defensive lineman in the Big 12 in Week 4. This is the second week this season that he's the highest-graded IDL in the Big 12. pic.twitter.com/uxoGrxtdWv— Hook'em Headlines (@HookemHeadlines) September 24, 2023
The next fourth down came in a critical part of the field. On 4th and goal from the Texas 4-yard line, linebacker Jaylan Ford intercepted a pass in the end zone to ensure the drive ended. The Texas offense once again capitalized and scored a touchdown on a 7-play, 95-yard drive.
The last key fourth down was another 4th and goal, this time from the 8-yard line. Sophomore edge Justice Finkley used his athleticism to glide past the Baylor left tackle for a sack, the first full sack of his young and promising career.
While Baylor was able to convert a 4th and 1 late in the fourth quarter, the Longhorns defense performed repeatedly on fourth down, especially when it mattered.
Season outlook: The performance against Baylor on fourth down represents a huge step in the positive direction. Coming into the game, Texas had allowed three conversions on four attempts (75 percent). After holding Baylor to 1-of-5 (20 percent), the season total for the defense comes in at 4-of-9 (44.4 percent). This is significantly below last year’s rate of 57.1 percent.
Last week, Texas had just one sack against Wyoming. Heading into Baylor, it wasn’t clear exactly how well Texas could successfully bring down opposing signal callers in the backfield. It seems as if Kwiatkowshki and the players up front wanted to prove they can live in the backfield. Texas had five (5!) against Baylor on Saturday night.
Party in the backfield pic.twitter.com/8J9BaEn9Cb— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) September 24, 2023
As previously mentioned, Murphy led the way with two sacks. He was joined by Vernon Broughton, Jett Bush, and Finkley, who each contributed one.
Texas set the tone in this aspect of the game early and often. On the second play from scrimmage, Bush lit up the Baylor quarterback for an eight-yard loss.
On the ensuing third down, Murphy was able to get home for back-to-back sacks to force a three and out.
The ability to get pressure from the lineman up front is an encouraging sign for Kwiatkowski, but especially when it comes from unique sources up front. For Broughton, Bush, and Finkley, it was their first sack of the season. Murphy had .5 to his name before the game. This now brings the number of Texas players with a sack to nine. As a whole, the pressure against Baylor was consistent and useful. Getting the quarterback down five times in a single game is not an easy accomplishment. Texas did its’ job in this area.
Season outlook: The Horns have tallied 13 sacks through four games, which is good for a tie for 18th in the country. Last year, it took the entire season to muster 27 sacks. This year, the team is nearly halfway to that total in only one third of the regular season.
Facing a 4th and goal at the 5-yard line from the right hash, the Baylor coaching staff sent three receivers and a running back on routes into the wide side of the field. Even with all those options, the ball ended up in the hands of Texas defense. After stepping up to disrupt a potential throw in the flat, Ford dropped back and stepped in front of the pass for a huge interception.
Texas LB Jaylan Ford is a game-breaker for the defense in the red zone! pic.twitter.com/7JW8bZE9Vf— Hook'em Headlines (@HookemHeadlines) September 24, 2023
For Ford, it was his second interception of the season, which ties him for the team lead. Texas as a unit has intercepted six passes on 134 attempts through four games, tied for 12th nationally. So far this season, fumbles have been hard to come by as Texas has not been able to consistently force ball carriers to cough up the rock.
Season outlook: Once again, Texas is well ahead of last year’s pace. After 14 turnovers all year, the team already has seven takeaways thus far. More work on creating fumbles is needed but the ability to step into passing lines and capitalize on poor throws has been a significant improvement from last year.
While Baylor does not boast a particularly dangerous offense, the Texas defense thwarted every option they had. Texas was regularly in the backfield and performed at a great clip on third and fourth down. Under the microscope, the Longhons put up their most well-rounded performance of the season.