Is it Manny Diaz or is it Manny Diez?
Because through the first third of the season, and given our LB utilization against Oklahoma State, the Longhorn defense might as well be playing with ten men. Oklahoma State pummeled the Longhorn defense with 576 yards on only 67 plays (an amazing 8.6 yards per play) and if it were not for Bryan Harsin's ball control offense that robbed OSU of its customary 80+ plays and shortened the game (Harsin essentially denied OSU of the ball for the entire 2nd half), the Longhorn defense would have seen 650+ yards of offense and a couple of touchdowns more than their 36 points surrendered.
For the season, the Texas defense is allowing 6.2 yards per play - a level of performance that can only be termed Mackovickian. Despite the fact that John Mackovic's worst defense in 1997 yielded 5.7 yards per play. So we're currently aspiring to be Mackovickian. And if any of you make an adjusted stats argument, I'm going to choke you through your computer screen.
After Ole Miss, I realized that our problems were a lot deeper than "one little play or adjustment here or there" as Diaz has suggested in his press conferences. Although a coach shouldn't be expected to be speak squarely about our precise issues or throw players or other coaches under the bus, this game made it pretty clear that Diaz didn't use the bye week to address the fundamental issues that have plagued the Longhorn defense, and the healthy athletes on his LB unit actually regressed. And he put together a horrible game plan for Oklahoma State. That's a bad grade as a coordinator, that's a failing grade as a position coach, that's a poor grade as a tactician and play caller.
Other than that, a solid use of two weeks.
If there's any praise for this unit, it's that they limited OSU to three field goals in the red zone and for the most part continued to run their bad play calls at full speed while being dominated. Golf clap. Praise sequence over.
The Longhorns came out in a base nickel 4-2-5 with Dalton Santos and Steve Edmond at LB employed as single gap stunt monkeys meant to inflict negative plays and put OSU behind the chains. Perhaps Diaz didn't get the memo on Joe Wickline and the OSU running game? It's built to exploit stupid and lazy. They don't dumbly run where they're supposed to - they bounce, they help, they ignore your defenders who run themselves out of plays, and they double the real threats. My gut reaction to this strategy from the first snap was "oh, so we're running junk defense" - the kind of gimmick bad basketball coaches pull when they realize that they haven't taught help defense all year.
The intent of the defense - amazing as it is to type given the results - was to stop the run, remove our LBs from pass coverage responsibilities, and force J.W. Walsh to carry the game in 2nd/3rd and long. I favored a different approach in my preview, but we'd probably have screwed that up as well. The Cowboys didn't get the run-stopping memo as they amassed 275 yards at 6.9 yards per pop and they had a number of single coverage match-ups in the passing game. Factor out sacks, and they averaged around 8 yards a run. Two plays in, the fantasy of the concept was laid bare when Joseph Randle took a simple inside hand off 69 yards for a touchdown. Apparently, LBs who are either run blitzing the wrong gap or are standing mesmerized by base blocking they've seen since junior high don't make for an effective numbers game.
And - as amazing it is to type again - our cornerbacks and defensive line actually played well enough to win. Not great. But OK. Truly. So what's going on?
Basically, we're breaking down at a fundamental level. And we have players behaving like automatons executing single assignments within a specific call against a specific offense instead of applying broad principles of football and good teaching that will help them recognize and win against 99% of the game situations they'll encounter. We're Carl Reesing our LBs with mindless run blitzes on one gap trying to outguess the opposing coordinator, our DTs aren't transcendent enough to cover two or three gaps at once, our DEs were were neutralized with simple containment threats, and the secondary continues to tackle like gridiron Washington Generals.
Quandre Diggs played well, though I'm sure he would have liked to have made the play on the diving interception. He, along with Vaccaro, has been our most reliable defender to date. Kenny Vaccaro lost his jock on Randle's open field feint, but he recovered to make a nice interception, and he finished the game solidly despite the walls falling down around him. Adrian Phillips was solely responsible for two OSU touchdowns with missed tackles, and although benching him is now the only answer if we have any player accountability, his replacements are less physical than he is (see Joseph Randle Josh Turner trucking) and will still be asked to tackle ball carriers surrounded by green and untouched by linebackers. Carrington Byndom played well enough for the defense to work and we're asking a hell of a lot of our cornerbacks with no real tangible benefit in other areas of the defense where single coverage should be freeing guys to make plays.
When you play a numbers game exposing your corners with no upside, it's the dumbest football possible. At least OSU's defense was able to stop our running game for three quarters by exposing their corners.
So far, the decision to move our base coverage to single safety has been a failure. When you have good players on your DL, your LBs are clueless, and you have good theoretical talent in the secondary, perhaps exploring some concepts around defense-in-depth might be useful.
I'm not interested in coming down on a young unit that is being employed like Cockneys at The Somme, but when Santos and Edmond weren't running Diaz's Three Card Monte run blitz guesses, their base play was even worse. They were either cut, put on their backs, or tied up. No play recognition. Totally paralyzed. Except for two excellent plays Edmond flashed near the goal line, these guys - because of inexperience, terrible utilization, and general confusion - were operating at a sub FBS level. We'd have been far better off running 5 DL or swapping one of them out with a DB so we could walk Vaccaro up at LB. Demarco Cobbs can chase things, but he's more beagle than border collie. Kendall Thompson showed on a couple of plays, but over the course of the game he operated comparably to Santos and Edmond.
There are no easy solutions here without Jordan Hicks and it's not ideal with him. At some point, Diaz may have to buy a Lou Tepper book and position coach these guys instead of pounding away with run blitz alchemy hoping to weave straw into gold.
Jackson Jeffcoat and Desmond Jackson don't have the strength to singlehandedly squeeze down the playside run gap as 3 against 2 is generally math that favors the offense, so I can't really fault the DL for a lack of dominance when even adequate linebacking and run support in the secondary would have cut OSU's rushing numbers in half.
Jeffcoat had four tackles for loss, a sack, and 7 tackles. Okafor finished with six tackles, 1 sack, 1 tackle for loss. That written, OSU offered the game plan for any OC who wants to copy it on how to remove them from constant game impact. Run inside, have a little boot threat, run some fly sweep, and force our DEs to honor outside containment knowing that our LBs can't help them. It's not coincidence that their greatest impact was felt on traditional passing downs without much deception.
Whaley and Dorsey combined for 3 tackles for loss and Jackson led the DTs in tackles, but I thought OSU made some hay running at Jackson and eventually wore him down, even before the injury. Moore would have helped from a depth standpoint, but his absence wasn't really our issue. That excuse is obscuring much more fundamental truths.
Football is an open-ended game. Assignments are important. But assignments are strait jackets when they aren't conveyed within the context of fundamental, broadly applicable principles. This is true at all positions, but most certainly linebacker and safety - particularly against sharp offenses. If you're teaching the positions as merely a pawn in the execution of your Grand Schemes - a little chess piece that just moves to Gap X, or a series of one-offs and rules against a 100 different looks that they roladex through pre-snap, instead of a football player that operates with natural instincts informed by certain precepts - then you're pretty much trapped in an endless recycle of your own bullshit. It's Carl Reese in a more sophisticated package.
The worst insult for a football coach is to be told he has a bunch of great athletes who have no idea what they're doing. Right now, Diaz has no comeback for that. This is a terrible defense with a fair amount of NFL talent. I'm a fan of Diaz on a number of levels, and while he gets a number of fundamental truths about football results, he's really struggling with causation.