Two weeks and two personnel tweaks into the season, and Texas finally found an offensive pulse. That means it’s time for coach Charlie Strong to turn his attention to a defense that is hitting its share of unwanted milestones, too.
Texas’ defense ranked No. 105 or below Monday in most statistical categories involving the nation’s FBS football programs. The Longhorns (1-1) were last in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 62.9 percent of the time (22 of 35) through the first two games.
Struggles in that department helped Rice run 96 plays and accumulate 462 yards last week, when the focus fell on Texas’ resurgent offense that proved pivotal in a 42-28 victory. But Strong stressed that such efforts cannot continue, especially with high-scoring California (54.0 points per game) headed to Austin for Saturday’s final nonconference matchup (6:30 p.m., KDFW/Ch. 4).
“We can play much better than what we’re playing on defense,” said Strong, who claimed his defensive linemen played like “shock absorbers” rather than play-making penetrators in the first two games. “You can’t allow guys to hand the ball off and run it right up the middle. I didn’t expect that.
“The frustrating thing is we’re not making teams one-dimensional. We’re not winning on first down.”
That has led to drive-extending problems later in the series, with Rice converting 66.7 percent of its third-down opportunities (14 of 21) while controlling the ball for 44:02.
No. 8 Notre Dame also fared well on third down in its 38-3 romp on opening night. That has created angst for Texas defenders preparing to face a Cal offense that projects as the most explosive attack the Longhorns will face before an Oct. 3 showdown in Fort Worth against No. 3 TCU.
The Golden Bears (2-0) run a spread offense directed by an NFL-caliber quarterback (Jared Goff) that has averaged 570.5 yards through two contests, including 396 per game through the air.
Texas will need to force as many three-and-outs as possible to slow down the Bears. But those have been scarce, said defensive tackle Desmond “Tank” Jackson, because of self-inflicted wounds.
The senior said the blame falls on a defensive line that has not lived up to preseason proclamations that it would be the strength of a rebuilt defense. Whether working from Texas’ typical 4-3 alignment or flashing a three-down look against Rice, the guys in the trenches know that they are the unit most responsible for forcing the opponent to punt.
“We’ve got to get off the field on third down, and it starts up front — and it starts with me, first and foremost,” said Jackson. “That’s something we’ve got to take pride in.”
But it’s impossible to be proud of a defensive performance that has Texas at the bottom of the FBS statistical pool in regard to third-down stops. Jackson said the performances have been underwhelming enough that he did not object to Strong calling the group “shock absorbers” instead of playmakers.
“That’s what we’ve put on film so far,” Jackson said. “We’ve got to do better.”
A major issue at all levels of the defense, said safety Dylan Haines and linebacker Malik Jefferson, has been a tendency for players to freelance too much in anticipation of teammates’ errors in execution.
Haines said coaches prepared a tape of failed third-down situations (a “lowlight” reel, he called it) that struck a nerve with him during a Sunday meeting.
“It’s as simple as getting on your assignment,” said Haines, noting a trend of players “trying to do too much” in quest of making a big play. “That’s where a lot of us have made mistakes ... trying to make a sack or do something that’s not needed. Let them have three or four yards, and then it’s fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-2 and we’re off the field.”
Jefferson acknowledged missing a pair of critical third-down tackles and watching teammates blitz at inappropriate times in third-down situations.
“We have to get on the same page to get better,” Jefferson said. “I think it’s just a lack of discipline.”
A harder area to improve, in his estimation, will be a run defense that has allowed 221 yards per game (4.02 per carry) and ranks No. 110 nationally. Jefferson said inexperience among a linebacker corps that regularly plays four freshmen has not helped compensate for struggles in the trenches.
“I think it’s just going to be tough for us until we find our true identity in the front seven,” Jefferson said. “We’ve got to make sure we get a push on the ball and stop getting pushed back.”
Better still, from a Texas standpoint, is if that push could come on third down. For a change.