Iowa State Joel Lanning(7) looks to avoid Texas Breckyn Hager(44) and Jeffery McCulloch(23) in the first quarter at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Cedric Golden

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Golden: Texas defense takes a much-needed step forward in win

Posted October 16th, 2016

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Story highlights
  • The Horns held Iowa State out of the end zone.
  • Texas held Iowa State to 280 yards of offense and 3.6 yards per play.
  • The Horns are 3-3 overall going into Saturday's game at Kansas State.

They got stops when it mattered.

When’s the last time you heard that about a Texas defense?

It’s been a minute. OK, longer.

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And please don’t give me that Iowa-State-isn’t-that-good talk. Sure, the Cyclones came in at 1-5 and are one of the worst Big 12 programs year in and year out. But this team is capable offensively. It’s the same offense that scored 42 points against Baylor and 31 against Oklahoma State, a pair of losses that saw Iowa State hold second-half leads.

This wasn’t just a Big 12-quality defensive performance. What Texas put down Saturday night was good for any conference. The Horns were solid against the run and got pressure on the quarterback. Most important, for this defense to hold a team without a touchdown is cause for celebration, especially when we’ve seen more 45s on opponents’ scoresheets than a 1970s record store.

Texas Longhorns Chris Nelson tries to bring down against Iowa State Cyclones Mike Warren during the second half of a NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016 at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium/Jamail Field, Austin, Texas. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas Longhorns Chris Nelson tries to bring down against Iowa State Cyclones Mike Warren during the second half of a NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016 at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium/Jamail Field, Austin, Texas. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The 27-6 win was sweet music to Charlie Strong’s ears because it’s the first time the Horns have held an opponent out of the end zone since that 23-9 win over Kansas State last season. We all remember what happened after that one: The 24-0 no-show in Ames that ultimately cost Texas a bowl game.

That’s in the rear view now for a team that has evened things up at 3-3 after a soul-testing three-game losing stretch that led to speculation about Strong’s job security and Austin’s ability to overcome its new reputation as a college football cesspool.

Texas cornerback John Bonney(24) takes down Iowa State Allen Lazard(5) in the second quarter at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)
Texas cornerback John Bonney(24) takes down Iowa State Allen Lazard(5) in the second quarter at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

There aren’t any really good defenses in the Big 12, so you can’t overlook what Texas did. Shoot, West Virginia going into Lubbock and allowing 17 points to the nation’s top-ranked offense was a real coup, but for this Texas group — ranked statistically as the worst in school history — to hold an opponent (any opponent) to six points and no touchdowns is nothing short of remarkable.

RELATED COVERAGE: Bohls: This Texas win looked good — from the stands or anywhere else

It not only provided the offense with some needed relief, but creates hope for next Saturday’s road trip to Manhattan. Texas hasn’t won away from Royal-Memorial Stadium since the win over Baylor in Waco to close out last season. And that Bears team was playing with its fourth-string quarterback.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say the Longhorns had this Iowa State game circled on their calendars before the season, but there definitely was a little spring in their step defensively. Even as the offense went through its most sluggish first half of the season, the defense gave us a great bend-but-don’t-break evening of football.

Texas linebacker Jeffery McCulloch (23) and safety Kevin Vaccaro(18) break up a pass to Iowa State Deshaunte Jones(8) in the fourth quarter at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)
Texas linebacker Jeffery McCulloch (23) and safety Kevin Vaccaro(18) break up a pass to Iowa State Deshaunte Jones(8) in the fourth quarter at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Iowa State finished with only 280 yards of offense and averaged a scant 3.6 yards per play. Add eight sacks and it was arguably the most complete defensive performance of the Charlie Strong era.

“Personally, they beat us 24-0 last year,” defensive end Naashon Hughes said. “So for us to not allow them to score (in the second half), we returned the favor.”

If Texas turns around its defensive fortunes, many of us will point to the third quarter of the Iowa State game when Texas got key stops deep in its own territory, one on Poona Ford’s fourth-down tackle of Mike Warren and the other when Hughes capped his career night with one of his 2.5 sacks of Cyclones quarterback Joel Lanning.

“It was good to see them step up,” Strong said. “We stopped them.”

With the performances we’ve witnessed from this defense, any confidence Texas can milk out of one game should taste like fresh strawberries. No one is saying Texas has to be the 1985 Chicago Bears every week, but a timely stop or two will go a long way in getting things headed in the right direction, especially for a unit that’s been starving for a performance like Saturday night’s.

“We’re a very talented team,” defensive tackle Paul Boyette Jr. said. “We just had to put it all together today and that’s what we did.”

Those words can’t be understated.  Remember, this is the same bunch that gave up 21 points in the third quarter to Oklahoma, 21 points in the second quarter to Oklahoma State, and 21 points in the second quarter to Cal. Stops have been at a premium, to put it mildly. On this night, Texas played with the kind of desperation that will be needed with games still remaining against some quality attacks.

So what flipped Texas’ switch?

Perhaps it came as a result of a much-discussed team meeting during the week.

Maybe it was simply guys getting fed up with sub-par defensive performances and playing with the type of intensity we haven’t seen in a good long while.

Possibly a step down in competition?

Or it may be as simple as defensive coordinator Charlie Strong getting through to this group in his second week at his new gig.

Either way, the defense shrugged off the thoughts of some like yours truly who have harped on the enigmatic nature of a defense that just hasn’t played up to its talent level.

“Sometimes you have to let the criticism go in one ear and out the other,” said John Bonney, who got the start at cornerback. “But you also have to be your own worst critic. We really focused hard to bring this win home.”

Now the question is whether the Horns can take this new-found act on the road. Strong has said before  each away game that his team must pack its defense, and so far on all three occasions, that hasn’t happened.

Kansas State isn’t a wild spread attack circus like Texas Tech and Baylor, but the Wildcats can move the ball and rarely make critical mistakes. Plus Bill Snyder Family Stadium has been a house of horrors for Texas teams that were better than this one.

Texas will have its hands full once again, but will go in there knowing the defense can get stops. Saturday night, for the first time against a Power 5 opponent, Texas didn’t just talk about playing good defense.

Texas played good defense.

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