Another week, another loss, another dissection of a defenseless defense. For Charlie Strong and Texas, the last month has been full of Groundhog Days–without the satisfaction of punching Ned Ryerson.
That program-changing double-overtime defeat of No. 10 Notre Dame on Sept. 4?
“It feels like three years ago,” Strong said Monday.
Three-game losing streaks can make time fly and also warp. It seems like Strong’s weekly 30-minute interview sessions have become record, rewind, play. For another Monday, the coach and now defensive coordinator was having to explain why the Longhorns can’t stop the opponent.
“As a defensive staff, we just got to continue to work,” Strong said. “And I have a really good staff, we’ll get it fixed.”
That’s what Strong said after the loss at California and the loss at Oklahoma State and now after the loss to Oklahoma. In Saturday’s 45-40 loss, Texas allowed a 300-yard passer (Baker Mayfield), a 200-yard rusher (Samaje Perine) and a 200-yard receiver (Dede Westbrook). That’s a feat accomplished just five times by an FBS team.
Against OU and Oklahoma State the last two weeks, Texas has given up passing TDs that have averaged 52.6 yards. Through five games, Texas has allowed four passes of 50 or more yards and 13 passes of 30 or more yards. Last season, the Longhorns allowed 14 completions of 30-plus yards.
“Without a doubt, we’ve got to stop the deep pass,” Strong said. “The ball is going to be thrown deep. If you’re not knocking the ball down, the receiver’s usually coming down with it or there’s pass interference. It’s smart on the offense’s part.”
The current depth chart for the secondary lists three seniors, two juniors, five sophomores and one freshman. Strong rose to becoming a head coach because of his acumen as a defensive coordinator. When he talks about what needs to happen to defend long passes, it’s obvious he knows what he’s talking about.
“We practice it every day,” he said. “We throw deep balls in our offense, so our defensive backs cover our wide receivers. We can make the play in practice, but sometimes we get in the game and freeze for some reason.
“I tell them all the time, when the ball goes up, it’s your ball, too. Everyone thinks it’s the wide receiver’s ball. It’s your ball. Go make a play on it. That’s what we’re not doing. You have to continue to drill it, practice it, and guys have to get in the habit. You have to play the deep ball.”
Cleaning up the “cesspool”
ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit raised some hackles on the 40 Acres when he referred to the Texas football culture as a “cesspool.” The 90 seconds of commentary regarding Strong and UT came during College GameDay which was conveniently in College Station. Herbstreit’s comments fired up the pro-Aggies crowd – but he wouldn’t have been pandering to the audience, would he?
Herbstreit referenced comments made by UT booster Red McCombs when Strong was hired. But other than chat rooms and media speculation, Strong has been strongly supported by athletic director Mike Perrin, President Greg Fenves and Chancellor Bill McRaven. They all want Strong to succeed.
In an interview with Chris Low of ESPN.com, Strong talked about his relationship with those mysterious power brokers – boosters.
“I know the guys to keep in touch with, and I do,” Strong said. “They’ve been great and always want to know if there’s anything they can do to help. Now, I don’t go to dinner with those guys, so I’m not going to be seen in public with them. I’m not a member of their country club and I don’t play golf, so I don’t go play golf with them. But I pick up the phone and call them, keep in touch.
“They want the same thing I do, to see this program continue to make strides. We need to finish strong, where we’re on an upswing. We don’t want to be going backward, and we’re not.”
After two seasons of a miserable offense, Texas finally has an attack that can keep up with the rest of the Big 12 – and the irony is the Longhorns’ defense is porous.
UT was 92nd in total offense last season but is 20th in this week’s NCAA stats; it’s a balanced approach, averaging 244.8 yards on the ground and 254 through the air. Big 12 teams average 37.5 points per game and the Longhorns are third in scoring in the Big 12 averaging 41 per game.
“It’s reassuring that we’re scoring more points,” offensive tackle Connor Williams said. “It helps us think that we’re doing something right, but then again, we’re still losing. There’s plenty of room for us to get better where we can actually score enough.”
Something to add to the list of concerns for Strong and his staff: Will the offense, led by freshman quarterback Shane Buechele, start feeling pressure to score on every possession because of the defensive problems?
“However many they score, we need to score one more,” Buechele said. “That’s our mentality.”
Asking for fan support
Texas will return home for the first time since a 51-7 victory over UTEP on Sept. 10 when the Longhorns face Iowa State. There’s plenty of incentive because the Cyclones embarrassed UT, 24-0, last season. But there’s concern that the home fans will lack numbers and enthusiasm because of the low-profile opponent and the suddenly sour season.
“Sometimes we don’t play as well as we should and I understand that, but we need their support,” Strong said. “They’re gonna give it everything we’ve got; they’re gonna leave it out there. We need our fans. I see the frustration in year three, but the whole thing is come and yell … They want to hear it. They want people to know they really appreciate what they’re doing.”