Football

Just like in 2017, Texas defense started slow but showing ‘a lot of grit’ in late September

One sack in the first two games? Now, the Horns have four sacks, 17 pressures as defense finding its groove

Posted September 26th, 2018

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Story highlights
  • Todd Orlando on the TCU performance: “I thought we showed a lot of grit.”
  • About those tummy rubs, "We’re at the University of Texas. We don’t need to do that,”
  • Running game can improve. “Our backs are running hard.”

Remember all that hand-wringing about the Texas defense in early September? No pressure on the quarterback? No turnovers?

Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando doesn’t remember, either.

With October just days away, the Longhorns look like a completely different unit after two solid wins over top-25 opponents and a three-game winning streak overall.

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No. 18 Texas (3-1, 1-0 Big 12) had just one sack and two quarterback hurries after the first two games. The defense has tallied up three sacks and eight hurries in the last two. The unit corralled four interceptions and broke up 10 other passes against USC and TCU. Tack on four forced fumbles, too.

The defense settled down and became one of the Big 12’s top units after a rough start in September last season. That storyline appears to be repeating itself this year.

“I thought we showed a lot of grit,” Orlando said after Wednesday’s practice. “We gave up plays, and then we boned up in the tight red zone. We gave up a play, and then we get an interception. They battled. That was the part I was really proud of.

“It seemed like every positive that TCU got, we came back and kind of took a deep breath where I’ve see us beforehand buckle a little bit,” he added.

Texas defensive lineman Charles Omenihu (90) sacks USC quarterback JT Daniels (18) causing a fumble on fourth down in the second half of an NCAA football game at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Kansas State (2-2, 0-1) is averaging a pedestrian 21 points per game so far this season. That’s the second-worst total in the league. The offense averages just 347 yards per game. Still, UT offensive line coach Herb Hand said this will be a “fist-fight game.”

Orlando said his unit is preparing to face both junior Alex Delton and sophomore Skylar Thompson. Both quarterbacks have played in all four games for coach Bill Snyder, but both have struggled. Thompson has thrown four touchdowns and completed 59.1 percent of his passes.

Respect the game: When Orlando saw linebacker Gary Johnson and defensive tackle Chris Nelson do back-to-back tummy rubs on big plays against TCU, he had to say something. Johnson got warned by one official, but it looked like Nelson’s celebratory move went unnoticed.

Orlando told both players that stuff needed to stay on the sideline. He doesn’t want to risk a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty.

“You know, I get it. But we’re at the University of Texas. We don’t need to do that,” Orlando said. “I just told them on the bench. Hey, you want to celebrate with each other on the bench, I’m good with that. But let’s not self-promote. That’s just not the way… I think the game needs a certain type of respect, and when you start self-promoting, it takes away from the team.”

Building out depth: Defensive line coach Oscar Giles has been cognizant to rotate backups Ta’Quon Graham, Gerald Wilbon and Marqez Bimage into games to give Nelson, Charles Omenihu and Breckyn Hager some rest.

“This is a long, long road,” Orlando said. “If you burn the wheels off those guys you’re going to get nothing in November.”

Bimage made a key play against the Horned Frogs when he reached in and forced quarterback Shawn Robinson to fumble. That was part of a key third quarter when Texas scored twice off two turnovers.

That particular play was a great example of something coaches always preach. Just find the football and go make something happen.

“That was the one thing that really attracted us to him,” Orlando said of Bimage. “OK, what are we getting out of this guy? He’s not 6-foot-4, he’s not this or that, but what does he do? He’s a tough kid that plays extremely hard, got a great motor, a great human being. So let’s go on him, and we’re getting production out of him.”

Texas running back Tre Watson (5) looks to avoid a tackle by TCU safety Niko Small (2) in the first half of a Big 12 Conference football game at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Run game developing: Texas has the eighth-ranked rushing offense in the Big 12. The Horns are averaging 163.8 yards per game.

Still, there have been bright moments at various points in the first four games, like Keaontay Ingram’s six carries against Maryland. Daniel Young’s 30-yard run late iced the Tulsa win, and Tre Watson’s 72 yards led the way against USC.

There have been some ill-advised moments, too. Young got stopped on a fourth-down pitch play near midfield to the short side of the field against the Frogs.

The running backs and offensive linemen all must work together to help the Horns carve out running room.

“Our backs are running hard,” Hand said. “We’ve left tons of yards out on the field at times whether it be missed opportunities with reads or not finishing blocks. That’s probably one of the bigger areas where we can improve on.”

Hand said center Zach Shackelford (foot) has returned to practice, but it’s still unclear if he will be cleared to play against Kansas State.

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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