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Texas Longhorn Defense: Getting the Band Back Together

Well, that’s more like it!

Charlie Strong’s much-maligned defense came out on Saturday against ISU with plenty to prove. And while the Cyclones’ incoming 1-5 record didn’t make them appear to be the most impressive of foes, their prior two games against Baylor and Oklahoma State had shown them to be plenty capable of dropping 40 if the Longhorn D had come out anywhere near as discombobulated as they had in the past three contests.

Instead, the front four was electric and a back seven that had collapsed like the Bluesmobile against any passing offense with a pulse:

Suddenly spent four quarters making pretty sweet music:

Everybody needs somebody to love, and it was clear that just about everybody on the Longhorn defense needed a little help from their friends...and their get off the schneid. Was it the wristbands? Was it the scheme? Was it the opponent’s specific weaknesses? Or do our guys just hate Illinois Iowa Nazis?

Let’s dive in and find out. But first, let me giddily note that thanks to the nifty humans at I’m now able to grab actual game clips from teh Youtubez and embed them right in an article! I still can’t figure out how to get games either from my DVR or from YouTube into Final Cut Pro and properly carry on the legacy of LonghornScott*, but nonetheless this development still has me feeling all:

OK, NOW let’s dive in.

Texas’ first big defensive play of the game came on 3rd and 5 during the Cyclones’ first drive as the Cyclones lined up in a five-wide look:

The wonky linebacker positioning in that diagram denotes real-life wonkiness as guys appeared to run on/figure out assignments late, but all was well when Kris Boyd made a fantastic play on an out route to kill the drive:

In the stands I started delightedly yelling, “We finally ran Two Read! We finally ran Two Read!” since the play unfolded more or less as it would have had Texas been running the coverage change-up that I’ve been stumping for since Notre Dame:

If this had been a standard Two-Read/Palms call, Boyd would have reacted just as he did - breaking on the slot’s out break to lay a lick and break up the throw. Upon further review, it’s hard to tell if that’s actually what Texas was running - it might have been more of a 2-Man/Cover 5 with both McCulloch and Boyd manning their guys with Haines rolling over to play atop both routes. McCulloch probably would have stayed more in the middle looking for work rather than chasing the slot if it was a classc Two Read call (and Haines was playing a pretty dangerous alignment game if he knew he possibly had to get over the top of #1), but with McCulloch’s late run-on and our overall comms breakdowns to this point in the season it’s hard to tell exactly what was on.

Irrespective of the call, this would have gone in the books as a classic cluster had Lanning pumped to the slot, thrown it up the sideline and Haines hadn’t managed to get over the top of the throw. But irrespective of the call, it was a great reaction and play by Boyd to set an early tone of aggression in the secondary.

Texas fans were also treated to the rare sight of some actual, factual, competent play against the Zone Read on Saturday. They didn’t bat 1.000 in that department, but anything north of .300 was going to be a treat after some of the shenanigans we’ve seen previously. One of the Cyclones’ first-quarter reads was defused by a classic scrape exchange between Naashon Hughes from the weakside end spot and Anthony Wheeler at WLB:

That setup allowed Hughes to crash from the backside with Hagerian abandon without the C gap suffering abandonment issues. Lanning saw the scrape coming and handed the ball off, but thanks to one of many stout plays from Chris Nelson at the nose, Mike Warren got jammed up and snuffed from behind by Hughes:

The other key way to play the Zone Read is to have the unblocked defender who’s being read realize what’s happening and bounce inside with his shoulders square, allowing himself to squeeze the tailback and deny a big cutback lane while also being able to string out the QB on a keep. Malcolm Roach did a pretty good job of that to help keep the Cyclones out of the end zone following a turnover:

Throughout the contest, Texas was willing to swap roles with Haines and Hall - one would frequently drop down to cover a slot receiver or slide into a traditional weakside linebacker alignment while the other would either roll to center field or play deep coverage over a half. Texas lined up that way while also deploying Locke in a Hall-style edge man/micro-Fox alignment and breaking out another encouraging sign - a stunt that looked like we’d ever run a stunt in practice - in the first quarter:

While it wasn’t quite textbook, Hughes’ stunt was tight enough that he was able to close the playside A gap and force the back into the B - which, in turn, gave the climbing center a tougher angle to get a block on Wheeler. Wheeler, seeing a clear picture in front of him and (maybe? hopefully?) understanding that Malik had leverage from inside, attacked the block with the proper shoulder and came off to dump the back for a two-yard gain:

Texas didn’t go hog wild schematically and was usually content to bring four-man pressure (largely because the Cyclones’ tackles were completely unable to handle guys like Hager, Roach and Hughes), but they did a good job of mixing in some diverse looks and keeping things clean on the back end.

Shark bagged his first sack when Strong got frisky on 3rd and 7 with a light 3-3 stack package featuring Poona, Roach and Hager as down DL and McCulloch, Wheeler and Malik as the backers. Texas ran what looked to be a 3 deep 3 under Fire Zone with Hall dropping down, Shark coming off the edge and Malik dropping into a zone after bluffing a blitz:

It wasn’t what you’d call textbook coverage from Bonney on the boundary, but he stayed over the top of his man and the threat of Hall robbing underneath might have been enough to dissuade a throw until Shark could thrash the back and swallow Lanning whole:

As I may or may not have run up and down the upper deck of Texas Stadium with a foam Kenny Gant Shark on my head back in the day, any fin-to-the-helmet gesture automatically fills me with joy.

Texas mixed in some press man alongside their Cover 2/Cover 3 off looks, and seldom did they do so more successfully (despite the marginal result) than when Iowa State tried to run the old “fake bubble, throw deep” play in the second quarter:

Bonney and Locke do great jobs of attacking the screen action and then sticking with their men downfield, Vaccaro was ready to snuff the screen, and was almost a happy highlight for everyone...

...until we were once again left wondering whether Malik Jefferson has done a single deadlift since arriving on campus in 2015.

Grip strength, yo.

Even Texas’ most ostensibly clownshoes moment of the night on D came not from a busted assignment, but from the simple (and chronic in its own way) issue of Charlie’s safeties simply playing too deep and too cautious and opening up intermediate throwing windows. Texas played deep halves behind a five-man pressure in the first quarter:

And wasted an actual inside blitz from Malik that reached the QB (which is pretty much the football equivalent of snapping a picture of Bigfoot with your lens cap on) when Jason Hall gave Alan Lazard acres of space to catch an easy out throw and turn it up for more:

That play would set up Iowa State’s only legitimate score (their other field goal followed a Foreman fumble and a ten-yard drive), and if that’s your worst play of the day then you’re doing all right.

But rather than wrap up on a down note, let’s sit back and watch some sacks together, shall we?

So what’s the verdict here?

People who look for super-simple “it was all X” or “if only we’d do Y” answers in football tend to be disappointed, and it’s likely that there were multiple facets to this one.

Our first zero-blown-coverage game seems to provide some strong prima facie evidence that the wristbands were a help in getting everyone on the same page. We also didn’t see primary blown-coverage culprits Sheroid Evans and Davante Davis until garbage time while Cypress Holton Hill was a healthy scratch yet again, so simply playing your most reliable guys no doubt helped the Longhorns keep things straight**. And it must be acknowledged that the Cyclones’ tackles were hot garbage, and we may have seen some things break down on the back end had their QBs not spent quite so much time on their backs.

But, as noted at the outset, this Iowa State team had been putting up plenty of points and yardage heading into this one. Saturday’s game was only one step, but it was a legitimate step in the right direction with plenty to build on despite the disappointing loss of Jordan Elliott. The challenge will be integrating athletes of Davante Davis’ caliber back into the “We’re all playing the same coverage, right, guys?” model before facing an opponent who can simply blow Bonney’s doors off in single coverage.

Namely, Baylor in two weeks. The clock is ticking.

*If you know how to do this and have the patience to walk an utterly technically inept person through the process, give me a shout! Please!

**Everyone who had Kris Boyd in the “most reliable guys” group heading into the season, raise your hands!