After beating Iowa State, 17-7, in Ames, Tom Herman summed up the first month of Texas’ 2017 to ESPN’s John Anderson: “I think our defense is progressing very nicely.” Whether he meant for it to or not, it said a lot about both his offense and defense.
Part of that is based on where the Longhorns set the bar. In their first game under Herman and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, they got torched in every possible way by Maryland. The Terrapins (who were only down one quarterback at that point, not three) made big plays left, big plays right, big plays on the ground, and big plays through the air, posting 51 points and 482 yards in just 53 snaps during a 10-point Week 1 upset in Austin.
Since then, Texas has allowed just 4.4 yards per play and 34 total points, 10 of which came in two overtime periods against USC.
Orlando’s defense shut out San Jose State and held explosive USC to 17 points in regulation, and on Thursday night, the Horns pulled off maybe their most impressive feat of the year.
Against an Iowa State offense that came in averaging 6.5 yards per play and 41 points per game, they allowed four yards per play and a single touchdown. And the touchdown came at the end of only a 28-yard drive.
Orlando takes over a unit with extreme continuity. Two years ago, in prepping for his first year at UH, Herman told me, “I've gotta tell you, I think I hit a home run in getting Todd Orlando.” Orlando proved his boss right. Houston ranked 25th in Def. S&P+ last year, combining solid (if passive) pass defense with dominant run D.
The Horns have options, that’s for damn sure. Four returning linemen recorded at least 4.5 tackles for loss in 2016 — they’re all at least 270 pounds, too, which means the shift to a system with three down linemen might hold — and three returning linebackers logged at least 8.5.
I was optimistic about Texas’ front heading in, and it showed massive progress in holding USC’s Ronald Jones III and Stephen Carr to 2.8 yards per carry two weeks ago in L.A.
ISU clearly didn’t think much of its run potential against this defensive front, choosing to run David Montgomery just nine times and gaining just 34 yards.
And once the Horns had rendered ISU one-dimensional (it didn’t take long), they teed off.
ISU quarterback Jacob Park entered the game with a 153.9 passer rating. He’d torched Iowa for 347 yards and four touchdowns in an overtime loss, but he was harassed and frustrated all Thursday night, completing just 50 percent of his passes, taking four sacks and six hurries, and throwing three interceptions.
Since the Maryland debacle, Texas has played three straight complete games on defense. The Longhorns of course have talent and potential, and Orlando and the rest of Herman’s staff are quickly figuring out how to maximize it.
In soccer, a team can “park the bus,” so to speak, going all in on defense, giving up few open scoring chances, and hoping to spring a counter-attack on the opponent at some point to eke out a less-than-thrilling 1-0 win.
This was basically that. Texas scored on its opening possession, thanks in part to an ISU celebration penalty that prolonged the drive. The Horns stretched the lead to 14-0 by scoring on a 60-yard drive in the second quarter, thanks in part to another Cyclone personal foul. From there, they parked the bus. Their last seven full drives netted just 89 yards and resulted in five punts (four three-and-outs), a turnover, and a charity field goal following an interception at ISU’s 38.
Herman pointed out in his postgame chat with Anderson that Texas has had to deal with the loss of “three of our best run-blockers.”
The injuries in the trenches have piled up quickly: All-American left tackle Connor Williams is out indefinitely with a knee injury, and guards Elijah Rodriguez and Patrick Hudson and tackle Garrett Thomas are out as well. Texas entered the season with eight linemen having racked up starting experience, but the Horns still had to start a three-star true freshman (Derek Kerstetter) at right tackle on Thursday night.
The result was predictable. Chris Warren III scored the night’s opening touchdown but combined with Kyle Porter to gain just 83 yards on 33 carries (2.5 per carry). The most effective runner was quarterback Shane Buechele, back from injury. He took two sacks but added 52 yards in 11 non-sack carries.
A quick passing game helped Texas for a while. Buechele completed 19 of 26 passes (73 percent), but for only 171 yards. He did complete two big third-down passes on the opening touchdown drive (an 11-yarder to Armanti Foreman and a 28-yarder to Lil’Jordan Humphrey), and his 22-yard touchdown pass to Toneil Carter in the second quarter basically put the game away.
Still, this game affirmed what we were already suspecting: Offense is going to be an issue if Texas can’t run the ball, and you can’t run if you can’t block.
That makes Texas a rather unique entity heading into the meat of Big 12 play.
In the next three weeks, the Longhorns will host Kansas State and Oklahoma State, with a Red River date against Oklahoma sandwiched in between.
We know Herman teams are great underdogs, and they might be just that against OU and OSU. But they’re also a defense-dependent team in an offense-heavy conference. S&P+ gave them a 59 percent chance of beating ISU on Thursday, but it was just the first of five conference games in which they had between a 44 and 61 percent chance.
Texas’ pass defense was brilliant on Thursday. Safety DeShon Elliott and corner Kris Boyd combined for three interceptions and four breakups. Ball-hawking linebackers Holton Hill and Naashon Hughes combined for eight solo tackles, three assists, a sack, and two more breakups.
Memories of the pass rush likely kept Park from sleeping too well last night. But the challenges for this defense are just beginning, and it’s no easier to get a read on Texas’ capabilities now than it was a month ago.