The narrative surrounding the Texas Longhorns’ recent struggles seems to always focus on the program’s inability to find its next quarterback.
Finding someone to write the next chapter in the book that Vince Young and Colt McCoy authored has been, for some incredibly astonishing reason, one of the tallest tasks for the Longhorns.
But this narrative, this idea that Texas’ success is solely predicated on the quarterback position, is misleading.
Texas needs an intimidating, aggressive pass rush, and it needs one in the worst way.
The Longhorns welcome No. 22 USC to Austin on Saturday, and in doing so they have an opportunity to establish an identity that has escaped them the first two games of the season.
Texas entered 2018 without its sack leader from a year ago, Malik Jefferson, who also compiled 10 tackles for loss in his final season on the Forty Acres. The Longhorns are also missing the presence of reigning Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year, Poona Ford, who had eight tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in 2017, as well as safety DeShon Elliott, who added 1.5 sacks in 2017.
So far this year, a viable pass rush has not been a part of Todd Orlando’s defense. The Longhorns are toting just one sack after two games; a 34-29 loss to Maryland and a less-than-impressive 28-21 win over Tulsa.
In just two games, Texas has only managed 10 tackles for loss in addition to its lonely sack.
Last year, when the Longhorns visited Los Angeles and had then-No. 4 USC on the ropes with 43 seconds left in the game, it had to try and shutdown a potential Heisman hopeful and eventual top-three pick, Sam Darnold.
We’ll circle back to that in a moment.
The good news for Texas fans: The Trojans arrive for a much anticipated rematch with a true freshman quarterback, JT Daniels, and last week Stanford put a lot on film that should provide a blueprint for a Texas defense in desperate need of big results from its pass rush.
First, and most importantly, USC is allowing three sacks per game, which ranks 99th in the nation. That alone should be encouraging for the Longhorns.
In their Week 1 matchup against UNLV, the Trojans’ offensive line allowed six tackles for loss and two sacks. UNLV not only got to the quarterback, but it took advantage of the misfortune it created for USC by capitalizing on the opportunity and leading the Trojans late in the second quarter. USC would go on to win by a large margin, but the takeaway there is UNLV causing some fits for Daniels and the Trojans’ offensive game plan.
In their Week 2 showdown with No. 10 Stanford, the Cardinal defense went to work on USC. Stanford’s 17-3 victory over the Trojans included four sacks — one of which forced Daniels to fumble — seven tackles for loss, and two interceptions.
So what’s stopping Texas from having a similar performance? Let’s be clear about one thing: Texas is not Stanford. The talent gap, at least as it currently stands, is vast between the pass rushers on the Cardinal, the No. 10-ranked team in the country, and the Longhorns’ defensive line.
The question is much less complex than it reads. What is stopping Texas from putting together a similar show on defense?
The motivation should already be there, and the desire to put the first two weeks of the season to rest goes without saying. The Longhorns need this type of a game to right the ship. As I said last week, this matchup with USC is either going to serve as a springboard into successful conference play, or it will be quicksand, sinking Texas back into the same routine of mediocrity.
And there may not be a single spot on the field with more pressure on it to put a stellar game together than the defensive line.
Daniels is a true freshman — one who graduated early, or otherwise he’d still be suiting up for Mater Dei — and he’s coming off a loss in which he was knocked around, making several game-deciding mistakes.
That’s not to say Daniels won’t come into Austin and put on his own stellar performance. Texas’ defense is certainly vulnerable to such a letdown, and its very own Sam Ehlinger went into the Coliseum in Los Angeles a year ago as a true freshman and all but solidified himself as that answer Texas has been seeking at the quarterback position.
Daniels leaving Austin with a multi-touchdown performance and a big road win under his belt is, for now, probably more believable than the alternative — leaving the Forty Acres with a loss at the hands of a Texas pass rush that turned his evening upside down. But if there’s anything the Longhorns can learn from last year’s overtime loss to USC, in addition to the first two weeks of the 2018 season, it’s the inability to get pressure on the quarterback serving as a detriment Texas just can’t overcome.
Last season, this general inability to hurry the quarterback and create a sense of urgency and panic that can force just about anyone into mishaps and mistakes was probably the biggest reason the Longhorns lost to the Trojans. Two plays, in particular, stand out.
With five seconds remaining in the first half, the Longhorns opted to settle into more of a prevent defense, which allowed Darnold to connect with Ronald Jones II for a 56-yard touchdown. That drive, just as it was on USC’s previous scoring drive, was successful because of Darnold’s ability to allow the play to develop and evolve due to so much time in the pocket.
This was a trend that was never stumped by Texas, and the final drive of regulation was the icing on the cake for USC. With 43 seconds remaining in the game, Darnold methodically marched USC down the field and put it in position to kick a game-tying field goal. Again, the common denominator was Texas’ inability to get to the quarterback quickly, or simply hurry Darnold out of the play he wanted to make.
Texas ended its night at the The Coliseum with three sacks, but even more telling was the Horns failing to register a single quarterback hurry otherwise.
What Saturday’s rematch in Austin will bring is anyone’s guess, but Daniels is capable of putting Texas through the same exhausting evening of “close, but not close enough.”
It isn’t a surprise to see Texas as the Vegas favorite (-3.5). The Longhorns can and should win this game. But the fact remains the same for this Longhorns defense, just as it was last year in Los Angeles, and Week 1 against Maryland — if Texas doesn’t disrupt the quarterback, it feels very unlikely that the Longhorns will have a day on defense that they can build off of with huge conference matchups on deck in the coming weeks.
Get to JT Daniels, knock him down, sack him, force ill-advised throws, and create opportunities for your secondary to make plays.
No other aspect of this game matters more than what Texas is going to be able to do with its pass rush.
Texas’ defensive success against USC will begin and end with its pass rush. The Longhorns defensive line has to put together a stat-stuffing performance on Saturday night.
The rest of the 2018 season depends on it.