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The 2017 Texas Longhorns: A tale of two sides of the ball

The ‘Horns are making progress are on defense, but the offense remains a tale of struggle.

NCAA Football: Texas at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

If defense wins championships, the Texas Longhorns should be headed for College Football Playoff, right?

The bad news for head coach Tom Herman's team is that the other half of that saying is offense wins games, and entering the most difficult stretch of their Big 12 schedule with showdowns against four of the nation’s top six scoring offenses still to come, the ‘Horns haven’t proven their offense can win games, especially high-scoring affairs.

With a third of the season now in the rear view, Texas is a tale of two sides of the ball.

Defensively, Todd Orlando’s unit seems to have erased a porous performance against Maryland from its memory and is now dominating in a fashion comparable to Texas defenses of the 2000s. The offense, on the other hand, has been a complete shell of itself after averaging nearly 500 yards per game in 2016. Of course, the loss of Doak Walker Award winner D’Onta Foreman to the NFL meant a slight regression was to be expected, but the offense has appeared completely incompetent at times.

Bad news first? Yeah, bad news first.

As noted, the Longhorns are about to enter the portion of the schedule where scoring points is a must.

Following Saturday’s meeting with a Kansas State offense that is dynamic in its own right, Texas will be pitted against four of the nation’s six most potent scoring offenses throughout its next six games — West Virginia (48.8), Oklahoma (48), TCU (47.8) and Oklahoma State (46.8). Herman’s debut regular season then concludes with Texas Tech and a No. 12-ranked scoring offense.

Thus far, the Texas offense has shown very little to prove it can keep up, despite how well the defense has performed.

In three games against Power 5 competition — Maryland, USC, and Iowa State — Texas had totaled just seven offensive touchdowns, and those efforts are even less appealing than they seem on the surface. In the Power 5 games, the offense has failed to score a first-half touchdown against Maryland and USC, while adding only a field goal in the second half against Iowa State, courtesy of a DeShon Elliott interception shortening it. Against the latter, each of the two Texas touchdowns came on drives aided by Iowa State personal fouls.

A more worrisome note entering such a stretch against elite units is that the Longhorns offense appears to be regressing.

Sticking with the theme of how the ‘Horns have fared against Power 5 opposition, despite the loss, the offense was at least respectable against Maryland. Tim Beck’s unit churned out six drives of at least 45 yards, including five that went for 50-plus yards and two that topped 70 yards. As a result, although the defense and special teams stole the show, the offense added three touchdowns of its own.

Then came the USC game , which wasn’t expected to become an offensive showcase with true freshman Sam Ehlinger manning the offense, and it certainly wasn’t. The Trojans defense, with help from self-inflicted wounds on the Longhorns part, held Texas to just two offensive touchdowns, with one coming in overtime.

In total, the offense produced just three drives that topped 40 yards, while seven of its drives totaled seven yards or fewer.

After more than a week and a half to reflect and make adjustments, Texas struggled even more mightily against Iowa State.

Once again, only three drives chewed up at least 40 yards — the final drive of the game, which was essentially meant to drain the clock, and 81 and 60-yard drives that were aided by the aforementioned Iowa State personal fouls. The latter two became the only Texas drives that ended in touchdowns, and considering how Texas concluded the game, it’s quite possible Texas’ offense would have remained scoreless without the Cyclones’ help.

Of course, play-calling still isn’t doing the Longhorns any favors, either:

To put into perspective just how poorly the offense performed against Iowa State, consider this: Aside from the final 40-yard drive to end the game, the previous seven full Texas drives dating back to the second quarter netted just 49 total yards. That’s an average of a mere seven yards per drive, courtesy of four three-and-outs and a turnover.

As the season has progressed, the offense is not only piecing together fewer lengthy drives, which is essential for allowing the defense to rest to perform the way it has been, but far more often than not, drives are producing virtually nothing.

Collectively, the ‘Horns offense has now endured 13 three-and-outs in its three Power 5 meetings, with that total climbing each time out — Maryland forced three, USC forced four and Iowa State sent Texas off the field after just three plays six times. To that end, a whopping 16 Texas drives in such match ups have stalled before totaling more than 10 yards, with eight being halted for no gain or a loss.

Of course, there’s much more contributing to the struggles than simply saying the offense isn’t good and can’t get anything going — namely, the personnel isn’t ideal.

Starting quarterback Shane Buechele suffered a bruised right shoulder against Maryland, leaving Ehlinger to orchestrate the offense the next two games. When Buechele did return against Iowa State, he did so without the comfort of left tackle Connor Williams protecting his blind side, who went down with an MCL injury against USC and is out indefinitely.

Consequently, Texas is now without each of the two tackles that were projected to anchor the line after senior Brandon Hodges announced that he was transferring in late June. The reserve options haven’t been ideal, and it’s negatively impacted the offense as a whole.

Without quality blocking, the run game has been rendered completely ineffective at times. For example, in sticking with the theme of how the offense performed against Power 5 defenses thus far, the ‘Horns have rushed for just 307 yards in three outings. Through its first three Power 5 matchups in 2016, Texas matched that 307-yard total against California, alone, while surpassing it with 329 yards against Oklahoma and totaling 903 rushing yards with a 237-yard effort in the season opener against Notre Dame.

As SB Nation’s Bill Connelly said, "Offense is going to be an issue if Texas can’t run the ball, and you can’t run if you can’t block."

Consequently, without Texas forcing opponents to respect the ground game, defenses are able to drop numerous bodies back in coverage or simply tee off on the quarterback. As a result, Texas ranks 109th nationally by allowing three sacks per game. and ranks 92nd in offensive efficiency.

As Herman often says, Texas can’t go to the waiver wire to address its needs — the coaching staff simply needs to make the most of what’s in the cupboards, and they’ll need to do so in a hurry or the losses could pile up.

Now for the good news.

While the offense has regressed, the defense has taken some tremendous steps forward after allowing Maryland to erupt for 482 yards and six touchdowns in the opener.

In the three games since, Orlando’s unit has looked every bit like a championship-cabilber defense. Of course, shutting San Jose State out isn’t exactly worth writing home about, but what’s taken place since has proven such a dominant showing was no fluke.

On the road against No. 4 USC, a potent, Sam Darnold-led offense was expected to run Texas off the field, and it did manage 468 yards of offense, but very few of those came easy. An elite Trojans rushing attack was held to just 71 yards on 37 carries and Darnold required 49 pass attempts to reach 397 yards, but it’s how successfully Texas kept USC off the scoreboard that’s so praiseworthy.

The Trojans remained scoreless through the first six drives and ultimately finished regulation with just 17 points. That total could have quite easily been just seven points if it weren’t for a broken play with five seconds left in the first half and the defense playing a bit too soft during the final 30 seconds of regulation while leading 17-14. When it was all said and done, Texas prevented an explosive offense from picking up at least 40 yards on nine drives, with four failing to advance more than 10 yards and three netting no gain or a loss.

The defense improved once more last Thursday against Iowa State.

The Cyclones entered the evening averaging 41 points per game and were held 34 points below their season average in the 17-7 loss — Iowa State’s only score came after a shanked punt that place the ball at the Texas 28-yard line. After holding SJSU and USC to 10 or fewer yards on nine drives, the 'Horns did so four times against Iowa State, limited the Cyclones to fewer than 40 yards on all but one drive, thanks in large part to flustering Jacob Park into three interceptions and a stout front seven holding Iowa State to just 10 rushing yards on 15 attempts.

Bunched together, the Longhorns defense has forced three-and-outs on 25 percent of its appearances in the last three games and forced turnovers on eight others. When opponents have tested the waters on fourth down, the Longhorns have risen to the occasion, stopping all seven attempts.

And, of course, the run defense will get most of the praise, and rightfully so after allowing just 123 total yards the last three games, which would lead the nation by nearly 30 yards at 41 yards per game if Texas began the season with such dominance, but the secondary is also becoming a praiseworthy unit.

Of the eight turnovers forced in the last three games, all but one were interceptions, with three returned for touchdowns after Texas failed to register a single non-offensive score in 2016.

As a result of all the aforementioned success, the defense is giving way to just 4.4 yards per play and has allowed just 34 points in its last three games — 10 of which came in double overtime vs. USC — holding each opponent well below their season average.

All things considered, the Texas defense is essentially 35 seconds of game time versus USC and a shanked punt against ISU from shutting out two of its last three opponents and holding the Trojans to just seven points, which would have meant a 3-1 record. With very little help from the offense, a defense that ranked No. 8 nationally in efficiency has nearly lifted Texas into a much more respected light than currently seen in entering Week 6.

At 1-0 in league play, the Big 12 championship is still very much an achievable goal, and the defense is doing its part to assure Texas has a say in the matter. Of course, Beck’s offense simply shouldn’t be expected to keep up should any of the potent offense looming turn things into a shootout, but the early showings indicate Orlando’s defense will likely hold aforementioned offenses well below their scoring average.

With an offense that’s averaging just 2.3 touchdowns per game against Power 5 competition, though, the defense has more than enough work cut out for itself just to keep Texas within reach going forward.

In the meantime, now seems like an ideal opportunity for Herman to put his reputation as an offensive guru to good use — the success of his debut season depends on it.