Football

With No. 22 USC knocking at the door, will the Texas defense rise up in prime-time clash?

One year after terrific matchup, Trojans come to Austin with 18-year-old QB JT Daniels

Posted September 14th, 2018

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Story highlights
  • Todd Orlando: “Don’t be afraid to fail. Cut is loose, trust your training and just go.”
  • Longhorns have just one sack, two quarterback hurries in two games against subpar passing teams.
  • Charles Omenihu on Daniels: “He’s young, but age don’t mean nothing. Age is just a number.”

In a gambit meant to catch the Longhorns unprepared, coach Tom Herman opened Tuesday’s practice with a short-yardage drill. Offense vs. defense, fourth down, who’s tougher?

More important, who’s ready?

“I think our guys just have to learn to rise to that occasion when everything’s on the line,” defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said. “Don’t be afraid to fail. Cut it loose, trust your training and just go.”

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Two games into the season, the Texas defense has yet to find its footing. Coaches believed they could overcome the losses of Poona Ford, Malik Jefferson and DeShon Elliott to the NFL, but it hasn’t been so easy. There is no plug-and-play solution, either.

The Longhorns (1-1) have just one sack and two quarterback hurries in the first two games. Maryland and Tulsa combined for 10 rushing plays of 10 yards or more, mostly via the jet sweep. Defensive backs have gotten beat over the top enough times to cause worry.

Next comes Saturday’s date with No. 22 USC (1-1). It’s a marketer’s dream, two historic programs clashing in prime time at Royal-Memorial Stadium. This game has been sold out for weeks. And it’s a chance for UT fans to swap stories about the 2006 Rose Bowl — even if the details are now fuzzy. It has been 13 years, you know.

Running back Tre Watson grew up in Southern California and got asked 13 different ways about the Trojans this week. Watson, who grew up wearing jersey No. 5 because of Reggie Bush, saw UT differently after Vince Young scored on fourth-and-5 to win the national title.

“He changed my life. Just an incredible performance by a player,” Watson said. “SC, back in the day, that was then. This is now.”

This current USC team is radically different from the one Texas saw last year in the Coliseum. Quarterback Sam Darnold is now impressing New York Jets fans (along with the Detroit Lions, too). Running back Ronald Jones II, the one who sliced up UT’s defense on the last play of the first half, is now with the Tampa Bay Bucs.

In this rematch, USC is expected to start JT Daniels, an 18-year-old freshman who graduated high school a full year early. He threw for 282 yards in the opener against UNLV but had three turnovers last week against Stanford with a slight hand injury.

“He’s young, but age don’t mean nothing. Age is just a number,” UT defensive lineman Charles Omenihu said. “We’re going to have to game plan for him, obviously, and get to him. That’s just facts. We’re going to have to hit him.

“I don’t think that young quarterback wants to get hit that many times,” he continued. “But if you keep hitting him, hitting him and hitting him and pressuring him, he’s gonna fold, you feel me? Just like any quarterback would. That’s what we’ve got to do.”

The Horns haven’t hit many quarterbacks so far this season. One sack and two quarterback hurries in two games against two passing attacks that rank around 100th nationally? That looks like a misprint at first glance.

Orlando’s crew got off to a slow start last year, too. Texas had two sacks and only one hurry against Maryland and San Jose State to open the 2017 season. The USC game was a major turning point despite losing 27-24 in double overtime. Texas went on to record 31 sacks, the second-highest total in the Big 12.

“I’m not going to sit there and say Breckyn Hager and Charles Omenihu are not working their tails off because they are. I can help them a lot, too,” Orlando said. “We’re going to try to crank those guys up a little bit more.”

Orlando has long said that no defensive coordinator can trick the opposing offense. You cannot fool teams with pre-snap movement. “I hope he comes with something good,” defensive tackle Chris Nelson said. “I know he will. He’s got something schemed up. We trust in him.”

Quarterback JT Daniels #18 of the USC Trojans throws a complete pass in the second quarter of the game against the UNLV Rebels at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 1, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

Sometimes, the defensive call just doesn’t match up with the offensive play, Orlando said. For example, Orlando said Tulsa had success on two jet sweeps when the Horns ran blitzes. In those situations, the Horns didn’t have one defender to match up with every offensive player. Tulsa won a numbers game.

Given that Maryland and Tulsa both had success with jet sweeps, the Horns should expect to see that a lot more in the weeks ahead. Orlando said USC doesn’t have to invent new plays. The Trojans already run the jet sweep, a play designed to stretch the whole field and expose slower players.

USC running back Aca’Cedric Ware, from Cedar Hill, is the Trojans’ leading rusher with 159 yards and one touchdown.

“We’ve got to shut it down for at least four weeks,” Orlando said of the jet sweep, “because if you don’t, everybody’s going to do it every week because it will be on the tail end of their (video) cut-ups.”

Other times, players simply make mistakes. How did Maryland’s Jeshaun Jones get so wide open on that 65-yard touchdown catch in week one? Brandon Jones came on a safety blitz but didn’t get there in time. Meanwhile, Davante Davis and P.J. Locke III accidentally collided into each other on the left edge, allowing the Terrapin to run free into open space.

Bad luck doesn’t excuse some of the other mistakes. Kris Boyd dropped an interception that could have gone for a pick-six against the Terps. Boyd and Davis both had pass interference penalties in that game, too. Two Tulsa receivers beat their defenders only to drop touchdowns in the end zone.

Running back Aca’Cedric Ware #28 of the USC Trojans breaks loose from defensive back Dalton Baker #33 of the UNLV Rebels for a seven yard gain in the fourth quarter of the game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 1, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

At least UT freshmen Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster both had momentum-building moments last week. Both made impressive interceptions against the Golden Hurricane.

“It’s your first game in DKR, the stadium is rocking, you’re in front of hometown fans and you go out there in the first part of the game and create a takeaway,” Locke said. “That’s a huge confidence boost to let you know, yeah, I can play on this level. I just tell him keep building on it.”

It’s impossible to tell how this defense will fare long term after just two games. The entire outlook changes if Texas can ruin Daniels’ trip to Austin.

Citing all the energy created by the new Bevo Boulevard, Orlando said his players felt a sense of electricity last week against Tulsa. This week, it should multiply, he said.

“I think it’s going to be a really special night, I do,” Orlando said. “Our kids will get a sense of that, and we just need to play better.”

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

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