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Inside the Numbers: Texas defense continues to grow under Kwiatkowski

The defense is good enough to float Texas against Rice, but will the offense be able to catch up?

Syndication: Austin American-Statesman Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Texas Longhorns finally took the field for the 2023 season on Saturday at Darrel K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and it was definitively a mixed bag in spite of the 37-10 win over the Rice Owls.

Offensive frustrations carried over from a year ago with the deep passes not finding the mark while the defense may have improved over what was an elite unit from a year ago. It may feel like more of the same from the Longhorns coming out of the season opener, but a drama-free win with plenty to coach up is close to an ideal situation for Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff.

Texas defense: 27 rushing yards (1.1 ypc)

Starting with the good, the Texas defense was nearly lights out, with the first unit giving up just three points on a short field gifted to them by the offense after the opening drive ended in a turnover on downs. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of a defense that allowed just 3.5 yards per play was the run defense that allowed just 27 rushing yards, the lowest total since the -5 yards against USC in 2018. Perhaps more impressively, with the sack yards added back in, the 48 yards would rank as the second-best performance since that 2018 game, when compared against the games with sack yardage removed from the totals.

This unit has gotten progressively stingier against the run under Pete Kwiatkowski, having just one double-digit game in rushing yards allowed in 2021 and three in 2022.

Illustrative of the stinginess of the defense, the Owls did not manage a rush longer than three yards until their first drive of the second half, a five-yard scramble by Rice quarterback JT Daniels on 2nd and 12. In fact, the first called run to go longer than five yards came in the fourth quarter against the second unit, a six-yard rush by Tre’Shon Devones.

Jaylan Ford: Five tackles, INT

Picking up right where he left off last year, senior linebacker Jaylan Ford once again came up with a big play right as the opposing team was trying to build some momentum.

Daniels took advantage of a defensive mismatch and connected with Braylen Walker on a crossing route that he turned into a 36-yard run to put the Owls on the Longhorns side of the field. Two plays later, Ford reached up and batted a ball back to himself and created the turnover for Texas, a turnover the Longhorns turned into three points to extend their lead.

Ford got started with creating turnovers much earlier than he did a year ago, with his first interception of 2022 coming in the seventh game against Iowa State. That means all four of his interceptions, a single-season record for a linebacker, came in the final six games of the season. That marks his fifth career interception, putting him No. 4 among Texas linebackers, tied with Kyle Richardson (1994-97) and Glen Gaspard (1971-73). If Ford can manage to tie last season’s number, he’ll finish second for a career, tied with Fred Edwards at eight. If Ford can break the single-season record and manage five, he will tie Derrick Johnson atop the record books.

Quinn Ewers: 19-30 (63%), 260 yards, 3TD

Much was made of the changes for the Longhorn quarterback, but it may have looked like more of the same to some Texas fans, in spite of a somewhat solid output from the second-year gunslinger. Texas struggled to connect on called deep shots, going 0-of-7 on routes 15 yards or longer, a mark that they must improve on. Four of those attempts came to the right side of the formation, a frequent call for head coach Steve Sarkisian.

Conversely, Texas went 9-of-10 on routes for 174 yards on routes from 5-14 yards, including 5-of-5 for 68 yards on the right side of the field.

The 63-percent completion total for Ewers is just above his 2022 total (58.1 percent), a number dragged down by a four-game stretch from Oklahoma State to Kansas in which he particularly struggled and Texas went 2-2. On the positive side, in spite of his struggles, Ewers managed to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers, with three touchdowns registering as the second-best performance of his year.

With the season-opening win securely in the books, Texas now turns its sights to Tuscaloosa and the Alabama Crimson Tide, hoping to exact some revenge from a year ago. The Crimson Tide had a different experience in their opener, topping Middle Tennessee 56-7, with former Texas commit Jalen Milroe racking up 242 total yards and five touchdowns.