In Texas’ 45-37 victory over Texas Tech on Saturday, there were two Charlie Strongs.
There was the head coach Charlie Strong, who nearly cost the Longhorns the win via a poor display of offensive play-calling and clock management. And then there was defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, the coach who engineered clutch stops in the contests’ waning minutes — including a game-winning interception.
“I kind of wanted the game to fall on the defense’s hands there at the end,” Strong said. “It’s a real confidence builder for them to go out and make a stop.”
Saturday’s battle in Lubbock was Texas’ fifth game with Strong filling the defensive coordinator role — he took over for defensive coordinator Vance Bedford following Texas’ 49-31 loss to Oklahoma State on Oct. 1. And after some initial shakiness, Strong’s defense has settled in over the past four weeks.
By no means is Texas’ revamped defense among the best in the nation, let alone the conference. The Longhorns allow far too many yards to opposing attacks and have proved vulnerable against mobile quarterbacks. Prior to the Longhorns’ win on Saturday, they ranked No. 8 in the Big 12 in scoring defense.
“I don’t know if it’s a confidence thing, if it’s a preparation thing [or] it’s an atmosphere thing,” senior safety Dylan Haines said following Texas’ loss to Kansas State on Oct. 22. “We haven’t been playing consistent enough to beat teams, in the Big 12 especially.”
However, Texas has shown legitimate improvement since Strong took over the defense. The Longhorns have revamped their pass rush over the past five games, and have proven adept at forcing turnovers with five interceptions in the past five games.
One of the most significant improvements in the Longhorn defense has come from its most talented player. Sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson had a
miserable start to his 2016 campaign, often looking out of place and out of position. Through the season’s first five games, the Mesquite native compiled only one sack and one tackle for loss.
But Jefferson’s production has markedly increased since being benched for the first series of Texas’ matchup with Baylor. He ended that contest with nine tackles and a sack and continued his hot streak with another 1.5 sacks and eight tackles against Texas Tech. He spent his afternoon in Lubbock constantly in the face of Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, forcing a slew of errant throws.
“When I got back in, I knew I had to go play different,” Jefferson said. “You have to keep fighting. You don’t give up. There’s a lot of competition on the field, and I accepted that.”
Jefferson’s improvement has sparked a revival amongst the Longhorn defenders — they have forced nine sacks over the past two weeks along with four turnovers. And more importantly, Texas’ defense has gotten stops when absolutely necessary.
Both Baylor and Texas Tech had opportunities to either tie the game or take the lead within the last two minutes of their respective matchups with the Longhorns, but neither could convert. Baylor ended its chances by turning the ball over on downs, while Texas Tech threw an interception deep in Longhorn territory.
Texas’ defensive effort certainly hasn’t been perfect since Strong took over for Bedford. But in the past two weeks, the Longhorn defense has gotten stops when it has needed to. As head coach Charlie Strong has continued to fight for his job, he’s been saved by his defensive coordinator, who just happens to be himself.