AUSTIN, Texas – For the past two seasons, the Texas Longhorns were a disaster on defense and that spelled doom in the Big 12.
That may be changing.
Under first-year coach Tom Herman and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, the Texas defense is playing faster, hitting harder and creating more opportunistic turnovers than it had in previous seasons. And it has carried the Texas offense through a two-game slump.
But now the Longhorns (2-2, 1-0 Big 12) head into the heart of the conference schedule, starting Saturday night at home against Kansas State (3-1, 1-0).
Since giving up 51 points at home in a season-opening loss to Maryland, the Longhorns shut out San Jose State and nearly blanked Iowa State. Even in a 27-24 loss at Southern California, the defense was impressive. An early goal-line stand bolstered the Longhorns' confidence and the Trojans scored 10 points on a short field in overtime. The here-we-go-again performance against the Terrapins was a wake-up call to improve, not get angry, Orlando said.
"We tried to correct the mistakes and figure out the why. Why can't we set an edge? Why can't we do this? Sometimes you need to get your butt kicked and be humbled. Sometimes that's the best thing that can happen to you," Orlando said.
Texas struggled to contain Maryland's quick, running quarterbacks. They'll face another running quarterback in the Wildcats' Jesse Ertz, who isn't quick but is methodical in running behind his blockers for first downs.
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said he is impressed by what he sees in the Longhorns' defense.
"They have good size and they also have good range. You look across the entire defense and you do not see small guys," Snyder said.
Here are some things to watch the Longhorns and Wildcats play Saturday night:
YOUTH MOVEMENT: Texas freshman running back Toneil Carter should get a chance for a bigger role in the offense. Herman isn't happy that running backs Chris Warren III and Kyle Porter aren't shedding tacklers and said the shifty Carter is likely to get more carries. Of the group, Carter may also be the most explosive as a pass catcher. He had a 22-yard touchdown catch in last week's win over Iowa State.
IN THE TRENCHES: Defensive tackle Will Geary anchors a Wildcats defense ranked No. 1 overall in the Big 12. The former walk-on was an All-Big 12 performer last season and at 6-feet, 306 pounds, he's a disruptive force at the line who can stuff the run and push the pocket in passing situations. He's a matchup nightmare for a Texas offensive line that has been battered by injuries in recent weeks.
TEXAS TEAM SPEED: Ertz is a patient runner who is a master of following his blocks. Texas can counter that with the backside speed of linebackers Malik Jefferson, Naashon Hughes and Anthony Wheeler to catch him from behind and prevent Ertz from making big gains. And Texas will want to get as many big hits on Ertz as possible.
"They recruit tough guys at that position. And they play tough guys at that position," Herman said. "And there's a lot of single wing principles to their offensive, the quarterback is the main ball carrier."
INTERCEPTION MACHINE: Texas safety DeShon Elliott has four interceptions in the last two games with one returned for a touchdown. Elliott has shown good hands to snag tipped balls, and a knack for being in the right place at the right time from deep safety to grab overthrown passes. The ability to create more turnovers and possibly give the offense a short field could be huge for Texas on Saturday.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Snyder turns 78 on Saturday and Herman said this week he'd like to get him a card. At 42, Herman said he can't fathom coaching another 36 years.
"No. But if all goes according to plan we're going to be here quite some time. I would say 36 years might be a little bit long, though," Herman said.