I have said many times that I believe spite to be the most powerful human emotion. It is certainly the most useful motivator. So when you are a Texas Longhorns team that is showered in adulation, preseason awards, and become the consensus pick to win the Big 12 in its final year of relevance — how do you keep yourself motivated? Where do find the spite? You channel the pompous commissioner’s remarks, you “Embrace the hate,” and you constantly remind yourself that every opponent spent their entire offseason dreaming of getting the eternal “scoreboard” on you the way the Horns did to the Aggies (though none have a 66-percent win percentage like the Horns hold over Little Brother).
When the 2024 SEC schedule came out? The entire team tweeted out the 2023 schedule with a message that they aren’t looking ahead. When they beat the Baylor Bears 38-6 on Saturday in Waco, you heard many Longhorns, including quarterback Quinn Ewers, remark that they are 1-0. The goal is the Big 12 championship. The goal is a perfect romp through the conference. The goal is to stay focused on the hater across from you each week, until you can look down from the mountaintop in Arlington and say “smell ya later, losers.”
Like Lauren Boebert in a dark theatre, senior linebacker Jaylan Ford continues to get his hands on balls. With a quick-change defense after a muffed punt that found Texas defending in the red zone, Ford got his second interception in four games. Don’t forget that he had another red-zone interception opportunity deflect off his hands for a Bama touchdown that was ultimately called back for an illegal lineman downfield (Texas obviously would’ve declined if he could’ve secured that). The preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year now has six interceptions for his career — all of which have come in his last 11 games.
While Ford is the leader and arguably best player on the Texas defense, the entire unit is playing at a championship level. They actually improved upon their stellar non-conference numbers, now averaging only 12.5 ppg allowed with opponents converting only 30.5 percent of third downs (Baylor was 6-of-23 on money downs — 26 percent). Through four games they have 13 sacks and have forced seven turnovers. Texas continuously got pressure on Saturday — they had a sack with a three-man rush against a six-man protection! Their run defense was stellar: 31 carries for just 60 yards (1.9 ypc) and it didn’t matter if Baylor went 12 or even 13 personnel. Texas dominated the line of scrimmage all night.
The other area Texas dominated Saturday (and all season) is red-zone defense. Baylor had six trips to the red zone, ran 23 plays, and gained exactly 30 yards. Texas had an interception, two sacks, and limited all that dangerous possession to two field goals. On the year, Texas is second nationally in red-zone scoring percentage, allowing only one touchdown and four field goals in 10 opponent trips.
The young guns on defense are looking like they belong. Anthony Hill was second on the team with six tackles, Derek Williams played over 50 snaps and continues to look like our future at safety, and Malik Muhammed showed glimpses of an NFL cornerback with a perfect break and PBU on a fourth-down attempt (I wish he would’ve gotten his first interception, which he dropped in the end zone late in the fourth). In a game where 31 players took snaps on defense, there were plenty of promising players to celebrate, but the takeaway is that future looks good even after this experienced starting unit matriculates.
Not to simply focus on one side of the ball, this was exactly what offensive efficiency should look like for Texas when they have the opponent outclassed (which should be every game except Bama and Oklahoma). On first down, Ewers completed 11-of-12 passes for 138 yards. Texas rushed 18 times on first down for 117 yards (6.5 ypc). All told, they had four touchdowns and 11 first downs on first-down plays (I LOVE when first downs beget first downs). Texas put up over 500 yards on only 59 plays. Of Texas’ 10 possessions, five were touchdowns, one was a field goal, and one was a… frustratingly missed field goal from inside the 10-yard line.
Ja’Tavion Sanders showed what it looks like to be more talented than whoever tries to cover you. His one-handed catch in stride and subsequent 40 yards of YAC will feature on his draft-day highlight reel. He was PFF’s highest-graded tight end for his passing game play, but this was also a great blocking day for JT.
Look for him to be exploited throughout conference play, as he is the poster for the difference between a five-star player and even the best five-star culture. On the year, Sanders is averaging 2.53 yards per route run (ahead of even Brock Bowers at 2.44).
There wasn’t a ton of “bad” as the Longhorns dominated from the outset, but they still left some meat on the bone, again. Texas got to 38 points in the third quarter… and finished with 38 points. The aforementioned missed field goal came after an efficient fourth-quarter, five-minute, 11-play, 74-yard drive that got to the 2-yard line. Texas was about to go for it on 4th and goal from the 3, until an illegal snap… that frustration was then followed with a missed field goal from the 8-yard line. The only other drive in the fourth quarter featured a low throw from backup quarterback Maalik Murphy that DeAndre Moore couldn’t bring in. I’m sure Sark would’ve loved more Maalik time, and possibly even an Arch cameo.
Third downs continue to plague this offense, though this was an interesting way to go about achieving 3-of-9. They converted their three longest attempts (10, 10, and 15, one each in the first three quarters) while failing to convert four third and shorts (three of which were less than three yards). Execution when the defense knows what you want to do is currently the ceiling on this being a truly elite offense.
After weeks of singing the praises of each sub-unit and coach Jeff Banks, special teams as a whole had its worst showing of the year (and possibly the Banks/Sark era). Two muffed punts that resulted in Baylor starting around their own 20-yard line and a bobbled kick return make you wonder if the wind was super weird in Waco, or this elite unit just had an off night. Punt returner Xavier Worthy’s best play came off a usually ill-advised fielding of a punt off the ground, but forty yards later, you see why is he so dangerous back there. I am choosing to believe this unit will bounce back in big way against Kansas as Banks and Joe DeCamillis get this group focused and fired up. Even on a night that lands them in “The Ugly” section, Ryan Sanborn continues to be such a reliable and professional punter and Tre Wisner laid the hit of the season thus far in a kickoff coverage.
A great performance to open conference play on the road (Texas’ two best performances this season coming on the road has been a welcomed revelation), with room to still improve. If I’m Sark (or likely Torre Becton), all week I’m reiterating: “Clean up the mistakes. Lean into being the bullies. Embrace the hate. Keep improving. Win them all!”