TEXAS LONGHORNS' RUN DEFENSE REGRESSING

Most of Texas' early problems on defense this season seemed to be tied to an ineffective offense and lack of play-making at quarterback, thus leaving the defense on the field too long. That excuse went out the window in a 45-44 loss to Cal that included a star-making performance by redshirt freshman QB Jerrod Heard.

The excuses seem to be running out for a defense that ranks near the bottom of FBS in every important statistical category and appears to be getting worse at stopping the run.

With Big 12 play about to start - Saturday at home against an Oklahoma State team averaging 41.7 points per game - the Texas run defense is in crisis.

The Longhorns gave up 214 yards rushing (4.1 ypc) in a 38-3 loss at Notre Dame; 228 yards rushing  (3.9 ypc) in a victory over Rice; and 280 yards on the ground (6.8 ypc) in a 45-44 loss to Cal on Saturday night. Texas kicker Nick Rose missed an extra point with 1:12 left that could have forced overtime.

Having a defense ranked No. 119 of 127 against the run, giving up an average of 241 yards per game on the ground, was the last thing Texas fans and coaches were expecting this season with a veteran defensive line. But the biggest worry is the problem isn't getting better - it's getting worse.

"It's a major concern right now," Charlie Strong said after Cal totaled more yards on the ground (280) than through the air (268) with star QB Jared Goff.

Even without its senior, 1,000-yard rusher Daniel Lasco (hip), Cal had six runs of 12 yards or longer - 12, 37, 49, 16, 18 and a 74-yard TD run that gave the Bears 31 unanswered points (21 in the third quarter) and their biggest lead, 45-24, late in the third.

"It's been three straight games where we have not played very good defense. What we've not been able to do is make a team one-dimensional. We're going to have to play much better, and it probably can be fixed. Guys need to stand up and start playing better."

Texas lost both starting safeties in the first quarter against Cal. Dylan Haines was ejected for targeting, and Jason Hall was sidelined by a left shoulder injury. They were replaced by junior Kevin Vaccaro and freshman P.J. Locke.

Still, defensive players were embarrassed and stunned.

"You can not give up 21 points in the third quarter," said Vaccaro, who forced a first-quarter fumble as Cal was about to score. "That's just unacceptable."

"We have a whole lot to fix," said senior DE Shiro Davis, who also forced a fumble by Goff. "Giving up those kind of rushing yards is definitely shocking, and it's not how we want to perform."

Senior linebacker Peter Jinkens said, "We just have to make plays and make tackles. Everything has been said. Now, we just have to be accountable to each other and go."

Texas has struggled to replace DT Malcom Brown, DE Ced Reed, LBs Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond, CB Quandre Diggs and S Mykkele Thompson - three of whom are getting lots of playing time in the NFL (Brown, Hicks and Diggs).

The Longhorns are now relying on true freshman Malik Jefferson at middle linebacker. But Strong raved about a defensive line in training camp that he said was three-deep at every position.

"We should have came out in the second half ready to fight, and they came out and punched us in the mouth, and it made it to where we had to come back late," Jefferson said. "We should have won that game by making plays earlier, so that it didn't come down to putting all the pressure on (kicker) Nick Rose. It's not his fault."

When asked what's wrong with the run defense, Jefferson said:

"There were some gaps guys just couldn't get in. There were a couple gaps that were open tonight, and, of course, the scheme that we ran. But there are times we just don't execute. It's all correctable.

"We know teams are going to come out and try to run it down our throat. So the job is to stop the run. Oklahoma State is going to test us with that run, and we're going to be real prepared for it next week."

About giving up 21 unanswered points in the third quarter, Jefferson said:

"We were looking for the right answer and couldn't find it. The offense and defense were both shaky. We had the turnover and some bad field position a couple times. But you have to come out and execute, no matter what situation we are in."

Strong's defenses have always ranked near the top of conference and FBS statistics. At Louisville, from 2010-14, the Cardinals' never gave up more than 148 rushing yards per game on the ground in a season. Last year, Texas gave up 164 yards per game on the ground.

Strong hinted last week that DT Desmond Jackson, who rehabbed a Lis Franc (foot) injury in the off-season, still may not be 100 percent. DT Hassan Ridgeway missed the first part of training camp with a lower back injury. But he's said he's fine.

"It's guys not doing what they're coached to do, and it's just gap control," Strong said. "It's coverage principles. It's so many things that can be fixed."

Jefferson said he's going to do everything he can to make sure UT's gut-wrenching loss to Cal strengthens the resolve of the team.

"This definitely made us stronger. I hate the situation we're in. But I'm just really excited about where we can go from here.

"It's a wake-up call. We know how good we can be. That's also the frustrating part. When we played Notre Dame, it was frustrating to lose that bad, because we knew we weren't that type of team. Tonight, it makes it frustrating to come so close and know how many mistakes we made that hurt ourselves."

The defense sounded fed up after losing to Cal, especially with the emergence of redshirt freshman QB Jerrod Heard, who broke Vince Young's single-game total offense record (506 yards, 2005) with 527 yards against Cal.

"I'm excited about our offense, but it's negated by how poorly we're playing right now on defense," Strong said. "We have to play better, especially going into conference, because it's a conference where teams can score a lot of points.

"Offensively, we can match them, if the quarterback continues to play well."

With Big 12 play starting next week against Oklahoma State, Texas needs actions from its defense - not words.

 

 

 


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