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Texas run defense dominated USC, but the secondary is still a work in progress

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The ‘Horns run defense had its way with USC’s dynamic backfield, but the secondary is yet to match such dominance.

Texas v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Much was made all offseason of what a Todd Orlando-coached defense would look like in Austin. As Tom Herman famously said, he’d seen Orlando make chicken salad out of some lesser parts and now at Texas, Orlando’s recipe for success would include guys Malik Jefferson, Malcolm Roach, Jeffrey McCulloch and Holton Hill.

Then Maryland happened.

The product on the field was unsavory, to say the least, and the Terrapins feasted to the tune of 482 yards and six offensive touchdowns in what was expected to be a fairly easy Texas win in Herman’s debut.

Flip forward a few pages to the prologue to Big 12 play and the narrative is dramatically different; the tone is surprisingly positive.

After an embarrassing home display to open the season, the Longhorns defense overwhelmed San Jose State, allowing just 172 total yards en route to a shutout. Sure, shutting an opponent completely out is praiseworthy to an extent, but keeping San Jose State off the scoreboard in Austin is nothing to write home about.

Then USC happened.

The ‘Horns entered as 17-point underdogs, and justifiably so, yet the Trojans 17th point didn’t come until a Chase McGrath field goal split the uprights as time expired to force overtime.

So what exactly went right for Texas to slow a Swiss Army-esque USC offense that entered the evening averaging upwards of 40 points per game throughout its 11-game winning streak?

As Herman said during his Monday afternoon press conference, the defense simply cut it loose.

“For the last two weeks they've played like a real big-boy defense. They've cut it loose. They've played aggressive. It wasn't learning. They know the defense. They knew it week one. It was learning what playing championship level defense looks like from an effort and intensity standpoint. They have done a fantastic job of that in the last couple weeks. I'd be lying to you if I told I wasn't impressed.”

More specifically, though, the front seven cut it loose and in doing so, tremendously hindered USC’s ground game and Sam Darnold’s comfort level.

A look at the raw numbers will tell you that USC’s dynamic offense still totaled 468 yards against what was arguably Texas defense’s toughest showing in recent memory.

In this case, though, the raw numbers are a bit misleading, and that’s most apparent when looking at the success USC found on the ground, or the lack thereof.

Collectively, what’s been dubbed as the most explosive backfield in college football in Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr carried the ball 27 times for just 75 yards. Factor in a trio of Darnold sacks and Vavae Malepeai finding virtually no room on his four carries the Trojans total rushing output was just 71 yards on 37 attempts — nearly 200 yards per game below their previous season average.

Only four of USC’s 37 carries gained more than eight yards, with one being a 10-yard pickup on third-and-25 with Texas in a prevent defense. More remarkably, considering the talent in the backfield, 21 of The Trojans carries were bottled up as minimal gains of three or fewer yards, with 12 getting stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage.

As a result, bearing in mind that exactly half of USC’s first 36 plays were designed runs, the Trojans remained scoreless after six drives, with three fourth down stops being following by as many three-and-outs — it’s miraculous what getting off of blocks, properly reading gaps and swarming to the ball can do.

When USC did finally find the scoreboard with 2:40 remaining in the first half, the effort was aided by a shanked Michael Dickson punt that was ruled out at Texas’ 37-yard-line. Moments later, USC exploded for a 56-yard touchdown, but Texas defense responded out of the break and held the Trojans offense almost completely in check in the second half, giving way to just 163 total yards prior to USC’s game-tying drive in the final seconds.

Aside from the final five seconds of the first half and 30 seconds of regulation, USC’s highly-touted offense managed just 360 total yards and seven points, punting six times after doing so just four times against Western Michigan and Stanford combined.

Similarly, after totaling just two sacks and five tackles for loss through two games, Texas sacked Darnold three times and tallied nine tackles for loss against the Trojans.

Such an effort promoted high praise from Darnold, who said following USC’s 27-24 double overtime win, "The defensive coordinator for Texas [Todd Orlando], he knows what he's doing for sure."

That’s the good news.

Yet, despite how improved the overall defensive product is, Orlando’s secondary is still very much a work in progress, although steps are being taken in the right direction.

Once again, Holton Hill performed up to par and if the early efforts are a sign of things to come, there’s a slight chance the Thorpe Award returns to Austin for the first time since 2006. Safety DeShon Elliott threw a coming out party of his own, picking Darnold off twice and returning one to the house for Texas’ third defensive touchdown in as many games this season.

Overall, though, the secondary was still gashed for 397 yards, allowing six Darnold completions to go for at least 20 yards, and it could have been much more if it weren’t for five USC drops.

It was expected that USC would find its share of success with a Heisman candidate and potential No. 1 NFL Draft pick in Darnold orchestrating the offense, but what could have easily become a 450-yard aerial show isn’t the most encouraging sign considering four of the nation’s 10 most potent passing offenses reside in the Big 12.

That said, Texas’ rush defense looked equally as suspect when Maryland scampered for 263 yards in Week 1, and the ‘Horns have since allowed 114 total yards on the ground in two appearances. The considerable uptick in productivity doesn’t appear to be a fluke either, but rather, a blend of talent, experience and a coach with a reputation for his aggressive approach meshing.

If what we’ve seen from the ‘Horns defensive front against San Jose State and USC holds true entering Big 12 play, the likelihood of opposing offenses being forced into a fairly one-dimensional approach seems high.

Can the secondary now follow suit and take the same necessary steps forward?

The answer to that question will have a significant say in how successful this season ultimately becomes.