Tom Herman was kidding. We think.
On Monday, when a reporter asked the Texas head coach to elaborate on his defense’s perplexing tendency to get off to slow starts, having allowed points on opponents’ first possessions six times in eight games, Herman couldn’t resist.
“I don’t know, it’s funny you asked that, because I was doing some math in my head, too,” Herman said. “First time I thought about it even was yesterday.”
Uh, no. Funny guy, this Herman.
“You know, I brought it to Todd’s attention yesterday, and we’re going to talk about it some more tonight,” Herman continued, referring to defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. “But yeah, last year was the opposite. So we’ve just got to figure out why and make sure, but I don’t have a great answer for you right now.”
He’d better have one by Saturday afternoon because West Virginia will come in full-throttle at Royal-Memorial Stadium. And if he doesn’t have some answers, this season will not so much go up in flames for the Longhorns, but their scorching first half of the season with six consecutive victories will go up in smoke.
Texas sits at a solid 6-2 and a very-much-in-contention 4-1 in the Big 12. Seventeenth-ranked Texas shares the top rung in the standings with Oklahoma and West Virginia, which also still must play each other. But if the Longhorns get stung with a second loss in a row with tough remaining games against Texas Tech on the road and Iowa State here, it will threaten to undo all the momentum they built up since the season-opening disaster at Maryland.
As to Herman’s comments about just now contemplating those slow starts, Orlando said Wednesday, “I’m aware of everything.”
So what is wrong with the Texas defense? It’s given up 45 points to Oklahoma and 38 to Oklahoma State. Now here come the Mountaineers, who average 40 a game.
“I don’t know if it’s wrong,” Orlando said. “Our objective last game was to stop their run game and (wide receiver) Tylan Williams, and we didn’t do either. They scored two touchdowns on fourth-down plays, and we didn’t get a lot of pressure on Taylor Cornelius. Obviously, we have to play better.”
Texas currently ranks a lowly 90th nationally in pass defense, a scary number since Mountaineers quarterback Will Grier ranks second in college football in seven different categories and first in wanting some payback. Plus he’s a Heisman candidate that all the Longhorns players this week described as “legit,” and his coach Dana Holgorsen said on our “On Second Thought” podcast that Grier is deserving of a first-round NFL draft pick if he finishes strong.
Oh, and Grier might still be ticked off that Texas rearranged one of his fingers last year in Morgantown and ended his season on a dive at the pylon. Holgorsen, by the way, said he has expunged that play from the playbook.
Orlando blames Texas’ sluggish starts on missed tackles and “over-thinking” and the failure to get off the field on third downs. And a couple of suspensions. And himself. That’s also when opponents show off their new wrinkles.
Before we go further, know this.
- In Todd, we trust. Still. Even though his defense hasn’t played well since the fourth quarter of the OU game and ranks a pedestrian 57th nationally overall, he knows that falls on him. But he’s too smart and too good a defensive coach for anyone to think he’s lost his touch.
He couldn’t resist needling a little when he was asked if the defensive slide could hurt his candidacy for head coaching jobs. He said, “We’re at the University of Texas. And you’re always beating us up. We’re only concerned with getting better and making sure these kids are getting developed. The rest of this stuff means nothing.”
- Texas has some inexperience on that side of the ball with two true freshmen starting in the secondary and two other freshmen forced into action in that disastrous first quarter last week when two starters were suspended. That said, Texas has eight senior starters on defense and should be better. To his credit, Orlando said, “We don’t make excuses.”
- The Longhorns don’t have game-changing personnel on defense. There’s not a first-round draft choice on that unit even though they have some really good players like undersized linebacker Gary Johnson, blossoming defensive end Charles Omenihu and, yes, enigmatic cornerback Kris Boyd, who has been hit and miss. Texas doesn’t have a Devin White or a Rashan Gary or an Ed Oliver.
- The defense sorely misses the sonic booms that were Michael Dickson punts, which more often than not would start opposing offenses some 80 to 90 yards away from the end zone. The field has gotten shorter with his replacement, Ryan Bujcevski, handling those chores.
- Hey, it’s still the Big 12. Asked if Texas’ defense looked vulnerable to him after looking at the Oklahoma State game, Holgorsen replied, “It sounds like a Big 12 football game to me. Texas has a good defense, but teams like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are going to put up points.”
Texas offense’ hasn’t always helped Texas’ own defense. It’s had horribly bad starts against Maryland and OSU, scoreless second halves against Kansas State and Baylor and put up just seven points in the second half versus Maryland and Tulsa.
For sure, the best defense can be a good offense. Or it can just be good on its own.