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What happened to Texas’ defense? And can it be fixed any time soon?

Did Texas’ defensive implosion against Maryland have more to do with Texas or Maryland?

NCAA Football: Maryland at Texas John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

The Tom Herman era could not have begun any better in Austin. On the third play of the season, Texas' Holton Hill picked off a Tyrrell Pigrome pass and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown to give the Longhorns a 7-0 lead on Maryland. Then Maryland went three-and-out to boot.

To put it lightly, things got worse from there. Texas turned the ball over twice, turned it over twice more on downs, missed two field goals, and tossed in a three-and-out for good measure. Meanwhile, the Maryland offense required just 12 plays to score three touchdowns. Despite a second Hill touchdown (he also scored on a blocked field goal return), the Longhorns found themselves trailing the Terrapins, 18-point underdogs, by a 30-14 halftime margin.

The good news: the Texas offense eventually got on track. The Horns scored 27 points in the second half, aided by a third return touchdown (this time by Reggie Hemphill on a punt return).

The bad news: Maryland kept scoring, too.

By the end of Maryland's 51-41 win, the Terps had gained 482 yards in just 58 snaps. Pigrome completed 12 of his final 14 passes, and when he left the game with an injury on the final play of the third quarter, freshman backup Kasim Hill went 3-for-3 for 44 yards in the fourth and generated two more scores. Explosive back Ty Johnson rushed 11 times for 132 yards.

What in the name of Brian Orakpo is going on here?

What in the name of Tommy Nobis has happened to the Longhorns?

Maryland v Texas
Tyrrell Pigrome scores in the first quarter
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Between 2008-14, Texas only once ranked worse than 23rd in Def. S&P+. The Horns fell to 40th with a young unit in 2012, and after a single bad performance the following fall, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was scapegoated and run out of town.

Oh, to be 40th once more. In the final two seasons of the Charlie Strong era, Texas ranked 62nd and 60th, respectively. The Longhorns’ offense took a step forward in Strong’s final season, but a defense loaded with underclassmen — nine of the top 12 tacklers were either freshmen or sophomores — found no traction.

It was reasonable to expect that to change in 2017.

For one thing, freshmen and sophomores become sophomores and juniors. For another, Herman brought defensive coordinator Todd Orlando with him to Austin. Orlando’s Houston defense held opponent to 16 or fewer points 10 times in two years at UH and ranked a healthy 25th in Def. S&P+ last fall.

For all we know, there could still be a good season in store for the Horns. Overreacting to a single game typically isn’t smart — just ask anybody who proclaimed Texas BACK!! last year after a season-opening win over Notre Dame.

Still, Maryland exposed plenty of issues to work through.

How many issues? Depends on what the issues actually were. If this was specific to Maryland’s run-heavy style of offense, then maybe that isn’t the end of the world. USC and Oklahoma aren’t going to bust out an option-heavy attack. Kansas State might, but the Wildcats don’t have Ty Johnson.

If this was an issue of discipline and the ability to execute a game plan, however, it’s going to be a very, very long year in Austin.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Texas
Kasim Hill scores in the fourth quarter
John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

So what exactly did the Terps do to Texas?

  • They came out testing the perimeter. Eight of their first 11 rushes were off tackle or off end, and their first two passes were short and to the edge of the defense. Their first six plays of the game were unsuccessful, but 15 of their next 19 snaps were successes, and if you have that run of success and a good play-caller, you can stay a step ahead.
  • Once Texas began to hedge toward the outside, Maryland broke the Longhorns up the middle. Their first two rushes up the middle gained just two yards, but their next 21 gained 165, including rushes of 50 and 40 yards by Johnson.
  • When you’ve got them paranoid about the perimeter and you’re gashing them between the tackles, what do you do? Go deep. Maryland attempted six passes 20 yards or further downfield; they completed an astounding five of them for 179 yards.

This was the case of a defense always being a step behind. And to Maryland’s credit, the Terps never moved into full play-it-safe mode, even when Pigrome got hurt.

Texas should find a rhythm in a tune-up against SJSU, and then we’ll find out exactly what the Longhorns’ defensive issues are at USC. If they got burned deep because of the success of Maryland’s run game, then perhaps that doesn’t automatically mean the Trojans will gain 1,000 yards. But if this was a problem with personnel — one that simply having more experience can’t fix — then we’ll learn in the Coliseum.

Great coaching tenures have often featured awkward first-year losses.

This doesn’t have to say anything long-term about Herman or his time at UT. But we’ll know in a couple of weeks if Texas is destined for a few of those bad losses in Herman’s first go-round.

As for Maryland, the Terps’ grueling schedule just took a happy turn. With a schedule that featured five games against projected top-20 teams, they needed to pull an upset or two to create a realistic bowl path. Mission accomplished. The extent of Pigrome’s injury is still unknown, but a 4-0 or 5-1 start is now on the table.