But the pass defense has already set new program records for futility. The 2,739 total yards through the air, the 249 passing ypg and the 217 completions are the most ever surrendered by a Longhorn team. The pass defense is rated No. 108 nationally out of 119 D-I programs.
"We're being really aggressive against the run and people are having a hard time running it," Co-Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik said. "Obviously, we're vulnerable to some passing issues. We're really trying to address those problems this week."
It's just that it's the fourth consecutive week that defensive coaches are trying to "address those problems." Opponents have thrown for an average of 316.7 yards during the past four ballgames. By now, Texas fans are fully aware of the season-long emphases on stopping the run and creating turnovers. Chizik, relative to most of his peers, instructs both safeties to play the run first. And they have. Last season, FS Michael Griffin and SS Michael Huff led the team in tackles. This year, Griffin again leads the squad with 98 total stops, while LCB Aaron Ross (68 tackles) and FS Marcus Griffin (66 tackles) are in a virtual dead-heat for the runner-up spot. But one of the criticisms directed at Chizik is that his safeties are so keyed to stopping the run that they become susceptible to run-fakes and continue to give up big passing plays.
"That's just how our defense is done," said Michael Griffin. "The safeties help on the run, and the corners are put in a hard position with man-to-man every play. I think Coach (Duane) Akina and Coach Chizik will tweak it here and there, but we're going to run the same defense...The coaches teach safeties to help on the run. That's the main thing. If we don't show up on a run, it could be out the door and create an open-field tackle. We may bite on play-action passes, but sometimes that's not our (safeties) responsibility in the middle of the field. Everybody has their opinion. We just have to continue to play our game, and our game only."
There is some evidence that defensive coaches are making some adjustments this week, particularly with regard to striking a balance between run-support and pass defense.
"Coach Akina and I have talked long and hard about what to do to give our kids a better chance," Chizik said. "That's an issue we're addressing now. There is a delicate balance, and we've got to try to find it."
Chizik has strayed very little from his base defense throughout the season. We have been told there is some reluctance to put younger, inexperienced DBs on the field in nickel- and dime-packages. The flip side is that some have questioned if the reliance on the base defense might be limiting, particularly with regard to disguising coverages.
"Base defense is what you hang your hat on," Chizik said. "It's what you start out with. Everything goes off of that. I think we've been pretty good with our base defense."
No matter what happens the rest of the season, the 2006 Longhorns will finish with statistically the best run defense and the worst pass defense in program history. It begs the question: is it the philosophy or the personnel?
The rash of injuries in the secondary and among the linebackers is well-documented and, other than the emergence of QB Colt McCoy, may be the story of Texas' otherwise enviable 9-2 season.
Texas' most critical injury (before Kansas State) probably occurred when Texas lost its best pass-coverage linebacker for much of the season. Junior Drew Kelson, who was stride-for-stride against Reggie Bush in the Rose Bowl, missed most of the non-conference slate after suffering a high ankle sprain just before the home-opener. Kelson has yet to become a consistent fixture in the rotation. Longhorn linebackers, when they manage to wrap up, are bonafide run-stuffers. But their pass coverage skills have been a liability.
Tarell Brown continues to play with a broken toe while both Griffin brothers have played on gimpy ankles. For some, Aaron Ross became the defensive poster child for the Kansas State game after giving up two TD passes and dropping an INT that had Pick-Six written all over it. But Texas doesn't beat Nebraska or hold off Oklahoma without his big plays. Several have criticized Michael Griffin's coverage skills, and he will be the first to admit that he'd rather hit a WR than try to blanket him. Griffin earned his scholarship long before his momentum-turning goal line INT against USC, but there is a notable drop-off in his level of play and that of his twin brother Marcus.
One constant, however, is that Chizik does not permit finger-pointing at any specific player or any particular unit.
"Blaming one group is ludicrous," he said. "There's 11 guys out there, but you only see one guy. If a pass is completed, or if a tackle is missed in the secondary, that can be catastrophic to some degree. But you don't see it when the defensive tackle does it or the linebacker does it. Everybody's involved. We all have to get better right now in a lot of areas. We know what our shortcomings are. There are no excuses. We're just going to go back to work and try to fix them."