Texas' defense looks to improve versus Bears

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Freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson (46) provided a spark with a 26-yard fumble return for a touchdown, but the defense still struggled, giving up 462 total yards to Rice on Saturday.
Photo Credit: Graeme Hamilton | Daily Texan Staff

Texas’ defense flashed some brilliance with big plays in the team’s 42-28 win over Rice, but the performance didn’t come without issues.

Most glaringly, the defense struggled to finish drives and get off the field. The Longhorns forced Rice to 21 third down attempts but allowed the Owls to convert 14 of those attempts — a 67 percent conversion rate. Now, after two weeks of poor third down play, the Longhorns rank last in the nation in opponents’ third down percentage.

To address the issues, head coach Charlie Strong showed his defense film of every third down conversion. After watching the tape, junior safety Dylan Haines said that the issues are mental, therefore correctable. Now, it’s about execution.

“It’s as simple as getting on your assignment,” Haines said. “It’s about not trying do too much. … Let them have three, four yards, and then it’s fourth and one or two. They’ll punt the ball, and we’re off the field — it’s about discipline.”

The Longhorns specifically showed a lack of discipline in their tackling. Texas consistently let Rice senior quarterback Driphus Jackson slip away from pressure, while the secondary regularly gave up extra yardage with blown tackles. Strong said that the team had its opportunities but failed to execute when the time came.

“I told Vance [Bedford] during the game, I said, I guarantee you, I said we have 20 missed tackles or more,” Strong said. “God almighty, what did we miss, about 10 sacks?”

Frustrated with the miscues, Strong said that the team has to focus on its mechanics before playing California’s explosive offense. The Golden Bears emphasize putting their playmakers in space, and the Longhorns will need to make the one-on-one plays to get off of the field.

“We just have to get back to the practice field and really work on tackling. If you miss a tackle, everybody else is pursuing to the ball, so it makes things a lot more manageable,” senior cornerback Duke Thomas said.

Strong also preached the need for improvement in pass rushes. Texas consistently found itself in Rice’s backfield but failed to bring Jackson down. Now, with tackling practices several days per week, the team is focusing on taking better angles and converting those chances when they get into the backfield.

In particular, Strong said that he needs his defensive line to step up. Coming into the year, he emphasized the unit’s depth and its potential to anchor the defense. However, his front has underperformed thus far, as both Notre Dame and Rice consistently found success running at Texas’ defensive interior. With a stout offense in California looming next week, the Longhorns’ defensive line will try to right the ship and justify the offseason hype.

“We are not getting to the ball fast enough,” junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway said. “We need to make sure somebody has to go back there and make a play. Eventually, we are going to do it and get it right. We’ve got to go back and practice.”

Texas has shown the flashes of becoming a big-play defense. It forced four turnovers against Rice, including a fumble recovery for a touchdown and made several jarring hits. While consistency has been the issue so far, the Longhorns are optimistic that they can take the next step.

“We’re always confident in what we do,” sophomore safety Jason Hall said. “We just have to capitalize and execute.”