College Sports

December 1, 2013

Texas’ improved defense gets ultimate test against Baylor

Robinson’s defensive tweaks have Longhorns in position for Big 12 title

College football’s signature Saturday beckons, with more than 20 FBS schools in the mix to earn at least a share of a league title by winning high-stakes games this week.

For history buffs, there’s a chance four private schools with histories of intermittent football success could win 2013 conference titles: No. 9 Baylor (Big 12), No. 7 Stanford (Pac-12), No. 20 Duke (ACC) and Rice (Conference USA). If that occurs, research indicates it would be the first time for all four to win football championships in the same season.

No. 25 Texas (8-3, 7-1 in Big 12) also could do something believed to be unprecedented in Saturday’s regular-season finale. The Longhorns could clinch a share of a conference title while taking orders from a defensive coordinator who began the season watching games on his couch in California.

Official records for midseason replacement coaches are sketchy. But it is rare to see the type of turnaround that has happened at Texas since Greg Robinson began tweaking the schemes and calling the defensive signals following the September firing of predecessor Manny Diaz.

Texas has righted its listing ship to the point it will meet Baylor (10-1, 7-1) in a Saturday showdown in Waco with title ramifications for both teams (2:30 p.m., KDFW/Ch. 4). The contest will mark the acid test of Robinson’s turnaround efforts.

Saturday’s winner is guaranteed a share of the Big 12 championship with No. 6 Oklahoma State (10-1, 7-1). But OSU would receive the Fiesta Bowl berth reserved for the Big 12 champion because of head-to-head victories over the Bears and Longhorns.

If the Cowboys stumble in their Saturday game against No. 17 Oklahoma (9-2, 6-2), the Texas-Baylor contest becomes a winner-take-all matchup to determine the Big 12 champion and the Fiesta Bowl representative. It could even serve as a one-game referendum on the future of embattled coach Mack Brown in his current role.

“There’s no reason to talk about the rewards at the end unless you win the game,” Brown said. “I’m proud of our team. At least they’ve given themselves an opportunity to go to Waco and play for a championship.”

For Texas, that seemed little more than a pipe dream when Brown fired Diaz on Sept. 8, following a 40-21 loss to Brigham Young in which Texas surrendered a school-record 550 rushing yards. At the time, Brown said Robinson would be charged with getting a dysfunctional defense turned around in time to make a run at a Big 12 title.

Robinson has done that, improving statistical efforts across the board while winning seven of eight Big 12 games. Some of his most impressive work came in last week’s 41-16 victory over Texas Tech.

Robinson slid defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, the team’s sack leader (10), to linebacker or defensive tackle at various points in that contest. Jeffcoat recorded two sacks, both while rushing from a linebacker spot, and the team finished with a season-high nine sacks while limiting a Tech team that averages 35.7 points to one offensive touchdown.

Brown credited Robinson with doing “a super job” of tweaking existing personnel to the situation despite mounting injuries at linebacker. Asked about the team’s “spinner” package, where Jeffcoat lines up at linebacker, Robinson said: “Using Jackson in different ways with it, that can be helpful. It gives you some options. It creates a different style of defense to the offense, how they block those kinds of things. Most times, it helped us. People that are really intent about throwing the football, you want to create some different scenarios for them.”

Few teams are more effective through the air than Baylor, which leads the nation in scoring (55.4 avg.) and total offense (635.1 yards per game). But the Bears’ offense, hampered by mounting injuries, has struggled in its past two contests. Baylor fell 49-17 to Oklahoma State and managed a season-low 370 yards in a 41-38 victory over TCU.

In September, a matchup between the Bears’ point-per-minute offense and Texas’ dismal defense appeared to be a mismatch waiting to unfold. That has changed under Robinson.

In Texas’ first three contests, the Longhorns allowed 491.3 yards and 30.3 points per game. Opponents ground out 308.7 yards per contest. With Robinson calling the shots, those season averages have dropped by 98.9 yards and 5.2 points per contest. Through 11 games, the rushing average is down to a respectable 176.6 yards per outing.

Texas remains a two-touchdown underdog, but a September matchup between these teams might have trigged a line twice that size. The biggest difference in these Longhorns, said cornerback Carrington Byndom, is mental. Byndom said Texas seeks to adopt a “mindset of dominating” Saturday despite facing the nation’s most explosive attack.

“We know it’s going to be a challenge,” Byndom said. “But we can still get better. We know that.”

With Robinson’s input, Saturday’s showdown no longer projects as a blowout waiting to happen. Whether it morphs into a memorable game on college football’s signature weekend is anyone’s guess. But in December, that seems possible. In September, it did not.

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