A shocking season reached its peak Saturday night when Kansas dog-piled in the end zone following a successful two point conversion to beat Texas in overtime. The Texas program has had a lot of low moments over the last 12 years, but Saturday was rock bottom. The Longhorns let a third string QB lead the Kansas offense up and down the field with little resistance. The Jayhawks ran for 218 yards and threw for 202 despite the fact they probably didn't need to throw the ball the entire game. The Longhorns were gashed on the the ground.....again.
Pete Kwiatkowski arrived at Texas as a highly decorated defensive coordinator who had built dominating defenses at Boise State and Washington. It appeared to be a home run hire for Steve Sarkisian and Texas, but right now it is turning into a disaster.
What is going wrong for the Texas defense right now and is it fixable?
It can not be overstated how much Texas misses Joseph Ossai, Chris Brown and Caden Sterns. All 3 players played key roles in helping Texas play solid football against the run last year. Right now, Texas is coming nowhere close to matching the production those 3 provided. The Longhorns have been unable to set the edge all year against the run. The outside linebackers they are using are undersized and unable to hold up at the point of attack. In the secondary, BJ Foster, Brenden Schooler and Jerrin Thompson have all taken turns struggling against the run.
One of the biggest concerns when Kwiatkowski was hired was that Texas might lack the personnel to run his ideal system. The Longhorns were extremely thin at outside linebacker, a need they tried to address in the transfer portal. Texas also lacked experience and depth at linebacker. While Texas was able to add bodies at both inside and outside linebacker, it hasn't resulted in much production on the field.
Pete Kwiatkowski seemed to realize his talent deficiency as well, because about halfway through this season he made a key decision......
After starting the season in Kwiatkowski's usual 2-4-5 scheme, Texas suffered a key injury to Jacoby Jones. In response to Jones' injury and after allowing a massive comeback to Oklahoma, Kwiatkowski opted to roll out more of a traditional 3-4 alignment. The 3-man front allowed the defensive staff to move Alfred Collins and Moro Ojomo out to defensive end in an effort to beef up the edge of the defense and better hold up at the point of the attack. The results have been mixed. The Longhorns had solid first half performances against Oklahoma State, Baylor and Iowa State but were then gashed in the second half in all 3 games and the entire game against the Jayhawks. The 3-man front has put a bigger emphasis on funneling the ball to the linebackers, which is perhaps the biggest weakness on the Texas defense right now. Against the Jayhawks, the defense repeatedly had instances where players were stunting into each other and just looked plain confused on what their assignment should be.
If we are being completely honest, it's hard to truly grade what Texas is doing defending the pass because teams haven't needed to throw the ball much to have success against the Longhorns. Regardless, Kwiatkowski deploys his corners and safeties in a way that makes it seem like he is deathly afraid of getting beat by the deep pass. Kansas was rolling with a 3rd sting QB yet Texas seemed perfectly okay with giving up free yards underneath. Just a very confusing gameplan and scheme all around.
The argument could be made that Texas severely lacks talent on defense, and that is a perfectly fine argument to make. But at some point you have to adjust to what is at your disposal and it certainly doesn't seem like Texas is doing a good job of making the necessary adjustments. The biggest adjustment Kwiatkowski has made was the switch to the 3-4 defense, which hasn't come close to producing the desired results. Look, it's hard to make wholesale changes during a season considering the limited amount of practice time teams have but Texas has taken it on the chin the last 5 weeks and aren't doing much to punch back.
So now what?
Steve Sarkisian gave his entire coaching staff a vote on confidence in his weekly press conference this morning, saying that these guys "haven't forgotten how to coach". While his statement is true, Steve Sarkisian is going to have to take a long look behind the curtain and figure out what is going on with his defense. Sarkisian himself mentioned that he was going to start getting involved with the defense more and that he could provide valuable input. His words certainly didn't appear to be hinting towards a change at defensive coordinator.
So let's assume Pete Kwiatkowski will be returning next year because that's probably the likeliest outcome. Now the question becomes are the issues with the Texas defense fixable? Look, anything is fixable if you are able to look in the mirror and truly figure out the root cause of the issue. The worst thing Pete Kwiatkowski (and Steve Sarkisian) could do this offseason is assume taking a handful of transfers is going to be what fixes the defense. Texas has a problem right now with the fundamental requirements of playing defense at a high level, beginning with how to line up and how to play complimentary football at all 3 levels. Raising the talent level is only going to help so much. The Texas defense needs to go back to basics. Kwiatkowski needs to pick a scheme (2-4-5 or 3-4) and stick with it. The scheme needs to be taught with clear responsibilities and an understanding for why certain positions have certain responsibilities. The players need to trust the coaches and the players more than anything have to trust each other when it comes to doing their jobs correctly.
If that trust doesn't develop, 2022 has a good chance to be a repeat of 2021.