Circumstances have shifted the focus of Saturday’s Texas-Brigham Young game to the Longhorns’ unsettled quarterback position.
Reality suggests the true burden of proof for a successful Longhorns season, from now through any potential bowl appearance, rests on the shoulders of the team’s experienced defense. And that is a comfortable fit for first-year coach Charlie Strong, who called the defensive signals for two national championship teams at Florida (2006, 2008).
Ideally, Strong would love to have quarterback David Ash (concussion) running his offense against the Cougars in Austin (6:30 p.m., FS1). But the oft-injured player sustained his third concussion in the last three games he has played in last week’s victory over North Texas, clouding Ash’s football future.
Texas fans should brace for a quarterback tandem of Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard for the rest of the regular season. Because the two have combined to throw 13 passes at the college level, with zero career starts, that makes a defense that did not allow an offensive score in the 38-7 rout of UNT the Longhorns’ unit charged with making the difference against BYU. And all games that follow.
For defensive players who were on the field in last year’s BYU debacle, when the Cougars rushed for 550 yards in a 40-21 victory, it marks a welcomed change of expectations.
“We still hear about it,” cornerback Quandre Diggs said of last year’s performance against BYU that triggered the postgame firing of then-defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. “Until we go out and prove anything different, then you guys are going to continue to bring it up and it’s going to be on ESPN. I can’t wait until you see us on Saturday.”
Asked about a BYU rematch, Texas safety Mykkele Thompson said: “As a whole team, we do feel embarrassed. But it’s nothing about revenge.”
But it is clearly about payback, a close cousin to revenge. It’s also about regaining national respect for a defense that limited UNT to 94 yards on 60 snaps (1.6 per play) in last week’s debut under new defensive coordinator Vance Bedford.
That contest, carried by the Longhorn Network, drew attention primarily from Orangebloods. The BYU showdown, a national telecast with lots of juicy subplots, will draw far more curiosity seekers who wonder if Texas can win without Ash or ever tackle BYU quarterback Taysom Hill, who rushed for 259 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Strong understands the bottom line, particularly with veteran safety Josh Turner suspended for a second consecutive week because of an unspecified violation of team rules during the summer.
“The defense has to go play well again and has to play well like that each and every week,” Strong said.
Translation: Texas must win its share of low-scoring defensive slugfests until Swoopes or Heard emerges as a capable passing threat that can prevent opposing defenses from stacking the box to stymie tailbacks Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray. Whether that takes one quarter, one game or a full season is anyone’s guess.
“Other players have to step up,” Strong said, referencing Ash’s injury. “It’s not just all about one person.”
Nor is it all about one side of the ball. Defensive players have had this game circled on their mental calendars for months. Ash’s injury merely heightens the need for them to keep Hill and the rest of the Cougars in check after allowing 679 yards in last year’s matchup.
Defensive tackle Desmond Jackson said Strong’s staff has stressed better tackling skills, improved football fundamentals and proper positioning to stop BYU’s option game. And not just this week.
“That’s all we worked on this whole off-season,” Jackson said.
Under Strong, players confirmed Texas has been tackling on a far more frequent basis in practice than it did under predecessor Mack Brown. Linebacker Jordan Hicks, a fifth-year senior, said the practice mindset is “opposite of what it used to be” under Brown.
“Now, if the defense is having a bad day, it’s a bad day in general,” Hicks said. “In the past, when the offense had a bad day, it was considered a bad day for everybody.”
Against BYU, the burden of proof is on Texas’ defense to determine if the Longhorns have a good day or a bad one. Expect that to remain the case for the rest of the 2014 season.