Defense, confidence key to Texas' revival
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The Texas team that arrives Saturday night for a game with West Virginia is a bit of an enigma.
The trials the Longhorns have gone through have been well documented, as is everything regarding Texas football.
There was the 1-2 start after being ranked No. 15 in the preseason. There was the defensive implosion that resulted not only in allowing BYU to roll up 679 yards - including 550 rushing - on 99 plays in a lopsided loss, but with the forced departure of coordinator Manny Diaz.
There was the pressure on veteran coach Mack Brown and the five-game winning streak that has followed that 1-2 start. The latter has eased the former only slightly, almost imperceptibly.
And there is the not-so-subtle suspicion that the biggest reason Texas has been able to do a 180 this season is that the schedule the Longhorns have played over the past month or so was not all that challenging in the grand scheme of things. Among the five teams UT has vanquished in this run, only Oklahoma has a winning record, which helps explain why Texas has not yet climbed back into the Top 25.
As a matter of practicality, however, none of that matters as Texas (6-2, 5-0 Big 12) gets ready to visit West Virginia (4-5, 2-4), one team fighting for a Big 12 title and the other for bowl eligibility. All that really matters is that Texas is playing better and with a lot more confidence these days. If a team with the talent of the Longhorns has confidence, a lot of other things don't matter.
"It looks to me like their effort and their energy has been increasing as the year goes on,'' WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. "And that probably has something to do with confidence.''
Texas coach Mack Brown agrees.
"The No. 1 thing that's happened, outside of their confidence, is they're getting confident in each other and they really believe in each other,'' Brown said. "And we're playing better defense than we've played in the last few years.''
For this group of Longhorns, that's where it all starts - on defense. It's the reason Texas was so bad, and it's now the primary reason it is not.
Talent? That has never been an issue. It never is at Texas, which populates virtually every position on its team with four- and five-star recruits.
Coaching, though, was apparently a huge problem. A team with that much talent just can't surrender the kind of numbers Texas did against BYU without having some sort of fatal flaws in design or motivation or any of a number of other things coaches are charged with installing or instilling.
So, three games into the season, Manny Diaz was out as UT's defensive coordinator. Greg Robinson - who of late had been the head coach at Syracuse and Rich Rodriguez's defensive coordinator at Michigan, neither with much success - was brought in. He was readily available because he didn't have a coaching job at the time.
It was a gamble, of course, by Brown because acts such as that are usually those born of desperation. And this one was.
But it's worked out pretty well so far.
"I'm really happy for Greg Robinson that he's back in coaching and he's had such a positive effect on our staff and on our team. He's really done a great job for us,'' Brown said. "I'm still sad that Manny had to leave and, really and truly, I've said it many times, Manny is a great coach. For whatever reason the chemistry wasn't working.
"Greg is the old, gray-haired guy that's been around and he came in smoothly and he put things in place. We were talking this morning about it was sad that he wasn't here a little bit longer for Ole Miss [which scored 44 points and beat Texas a few days after the change was made] because that's one we'd like to have back with him. But since that time we've played great defense most of the time.''
But while the defensive adjustments and revitalization have certainly played a big part in Texas' revival, it's not the only thing. The entire team has more confidence, if for no other reason than it is winning, and winning tends to breed confidence.
Well, it also helps if you can run the football, play good special teams and force turnovers.
"All of those things are coming together,'' Brown said. "We weren't as sharp on offense [last week in a 35-13 win against Kansas] as we'd like to be, but it's there and we've seen it there. When you run the ball the other stuff happens more easily.''
The bottom line is that Texas is a team that now plays as if it expects to win. Perhaps a lot of that has something to do with the Longhorns' schedule. Save for Oklahoma, they were supposed to beat all the teams in this five-game stretch. But doing it was another matter entirely.
"You can't just make [confidence] happen if it's not there,'' Brown said. "But we've got some older guys who have really been good leaders and who have stepped up. They didn't panic. They're smart young people.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.