After struggling to pressure the quarterback and stop the run early in the season, Texas’ defensive line has found its stride in the last three games.
The unit’s dominant performances against Baylor and Oklahoma State carried over to Saturday’s 17-13 win over West Virginia, as the defensive line forced the Mountaineers to avoid traditional inside runs and dropbacks for most of the afternoon. Instead, the Mountaineers relied on screen passes, draw plays and other quick throws to neutralize the line.
“It shows that we don’t fold under pressure. When the pressure is on, that’s when we try to play our best,” senior defensive lineman Ta’Quon Graham said. “I feel like we (were) pretty locked in, and we stayed calm and collected, and we executed the things we’re coached to do. We’re playing like a disciplined defense.”
The line held a much-improved Mountaineer running game to 21 rushing yards in the first half, 12 of which came on a draw play for West Virginia’s lone touchdown. The Mountaineers’ average of 4.2 yards per carry entering Saturday was smashed, as they only averaged 1.4 yards per carry at halftime.
West Virginia took a different approach in the second half.
The Mountaineers began running plays away from the defensive line, using hitches, screens and perimeter plays to exploit matchups with Texas’ secondary. Five of its first seven plays of the second half picked up 50 total yards through the air and moved the Mountaineers inside the red zone for the second time Saturday afternoon before the defense stiffened on second-and-three.
Leddie Brown, junior West Virginia running back who had been held to under 40 yards rushing to that point, couldn’t find a hole on the second-down handoff. Texas’ overpowering defensive line collapsed the inside zone play and dragged Brown down for a one-yard gain to set up a third-and-two.
Having little success running on the Longhorns on third-and-short situations throughout the game, West Virginia dropped back to pass on third down. Sophomore defensive lineman T’Vondre Sweat, in for the injured sophomore defensive lineman Keondre Coburn, jumped off the line at the snap. Sweat collapsed West Virginia’s protection inside, drawing a double team before he crossed back toward the quarterback. Jarret Doege, redshirt junior West Virginia quarterback, felt the pressure and fired a dart over the middle.
Sweat threw his hand up immediately, batting the ball back behind Doege and forcing a field goal. One quarter later, clinging to a four-point lead on two fourth-and-short situations in Texas’ redzone, the defensive line forced the Mountaineers to throw twice more. Texas’ defense held both times, turning the ball over on downs.
“Common logic in this game is on fourth-and-one, you’ve got to stop the run, and you’ve got to sell out to stop the run,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said. “We forced them to be one-dimensional, and our secondary did a great job covering them.”
Texas’ defensive line finished with 18 tackles, three tackles-for-losses and two pass breakups in arguably the unit’s second-best showing of the season. But unlike last week against Oklahoma State, the line didn’t have a statistically dominant standout. Its best statistical performance came from sophomore defensive lineman Moro Ojomo, who finished with five tackles and a sack, although Herman was quick to credit the entire unit for its performance in stopping West Virginia’s offense.
Graham was just happy to play sound defense and win a close game.
“Some people around the country are going to be surprised that we won a game 17-13, but on the outside looking in, you can say that good defense was played, and it was a heck of a fight,” Graham said. “We definitely fought, and we came out with the outcome that we wanted.”