Defense hitting stride after early struggles

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Photo Credit: Amy Zhang | Daily Texan Staff

Texas’ defense seemed like a liability in its first five games. Big plays, assignment mistakes and porous run defense all contributed to the team’s early 1-4 record.

But the unit is making nearly a complete turnaround since its underwhelming start. The defense surrendered 38.2 points per game in its first five contests. Since, it’s given up just 13 points per game — including holding No. 14 Oklahoma’s top-7 scoring offense to just 17 points. 

“Just everybody is being more confident in themselves, in this team,” senior linebacker Peter Jinkens said. “I felt like everybody is on board now with what we’re trying to do.”

Texas’ defensive success stems from its stout play up front. Junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway and sophomore defensive tackle Poona Ford  consistently cause chaos up in the trenches on both run and pass plays. The duo also commands double-teams, leaving the outside rushers in one-on-one opportunities to blow up runs and pressure the quarterback.

The defensive line’s improved play is most apparent in the pass rush. The Longhorns racked up 11 sacks in the last two games after notching seven in the previous five contests.

“Every team moves at a different pace,” Ridgeway said. “I mean, once we get our groove, we’ve got our groove. [We’ve] got to keep it going.” 

The Longhorns are also taking a more aggressive approach with a variety of blitz packages. Opposing offensive lines are preoccupied trying to contain Texas’ pass rushers, and the Longhorns’ linebackers have easier routes to the quarterback. The linebackers alone have 3.5 sacks in the past two games. 

“We have to call an aggressive game,” defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. “If you go back to [the Oklahoma game,] the key was we got after them and hit the quarterback early.” 

Bedford attributed some of the blitzing success to a new personnel package where a cornerback – usually senior cornerback Duke Thomas – comes off the edge. He said that the extra speed is key to getting to the quarterback. It showed when redshirt freshman cornerback John Bonney recorded a key third-down sack against Kansas State. 

The newfound pass rush is also yielding a massive turnaround on third down, as quarterbacks are unable to get the ball off in the face of pressure. Texas ranked No. 126 in opponent third-down conversion percentage through September. In October, the team is top-20 in that same category.

 “A lot of balls are coming out because the pressure’s coming,” head coach Charlie Strong said. “We’re getting some guys where we’re creating a good pressure package on third down. We’re bringing a lot of pressure, so we’re not allowing the quarterback just to hold the football.” 

The Longhorns will look to keep their defensive surge going on the road against Iowa State. The Cyclones present an ideal opportunity for Texas to sustain momentum. Iowa State ranks No. 7 in the Big 12 in sacks allowed and No. 9 in the conference in third-down conversion rate. Team morale is up after two outstanding performances. However, the Longhorns are still focusing on preparation and fundamentals to
sustain momentum.  

“Confidence is preparation, and that’s what we have been taking to heart,” junior safety Dylan Haines said. “We’ve been preparing not better, but harder. We’ve been taking things more seriously after we started the season 2-4 … now we’re just trying to roll through the rest of the conference undefeated.”