Good not good enough for Texas defense

September, 2, 2012
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Kenny Vaccaro wasn’t smiling.

The senior safety stared straight ahead during Texas’ postgame press conference late Saturday night, focused not on what happened but what he felt should’ve happened.

Texas’ touted defense gave up 17 points to Wyoming. Good enough to win a game. But not good enough.

“Honestly, we need to get our head out of the magazine and start fast and play hard,” Vaccaro said.

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro's interception in the first half against Wyoming helped Texas surge ahead.
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireKenny Vaccaro's interception in the first half against Wyoming helped Texas surge ahead.
Chalk it up to first-game jitters if you want, but this Longhorns defense got a bit of a wake-up call -- and perhaps a much-needed one, if you ask Vaccaro -- when Wyoming came out firing in the first quarter.

After forcing a quick Texas three-and-out, the Cowboys got to work on a well-scripted opening drive that moved 56 yards on 10 plays.

Though that drive ended with a field goal, it’s exactly what the Cowboys needed to start off. Wyoming’s slippery sophomore quarterback Brett Smith was locked from the get-go, undaunted by the pressure of Texas’ elite defensive line.

His next pass, on Wyoming’s second drive, went along the left sideline to Robert Herron. Carrington Byndom and Adrian Phillips whiffed on a tackle. The wideout made them pay with an 82-yard dash.

Next possession, another bust: Smith, standing in the shadow of his own end zone, fits in a perfect 45-yard pass to Herron.

By the end of the first quarter, Wyoming was sitting pretty with 178 total yards.

And Texas? Well, the defense had learned its first valuable lesson of the 2012 campaign.

“It was a reminder,” defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat said. “It’s never going to be easy to shut teams down.”

From there, Texas got better. It only gave up 167 more yards in the final three quarters. Interceptions by Vaccaro and Byndom swung the game.

But Brett Smith didn’t back down. He played every snap. He was sacked only once.

“He made more plays against us tonight than I thought he would,” Texas head coach Mack Brown said. “He hung in there. We hit him. We blitzed him. He avoided people. I really have to credit him for a really great job.”

Smith’s resilience offered a fine sample of what Texas’ defense should expect to face in its next dozen games.

This year’s foes will have to bring their very best from the start and will aim to outsmart, outfox and try to poke tiny holes in Texas’ scheme until something pops.

Wyoming got a few things -- most notably the deep pass -- to pop on Saturday. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

“I think it’s probably good that the defense gave up some big plays tonight,” Brown said, “because that’ll get their attention for next week and the coaches’ attention for next week.”

Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz saw things he expected from an opener. Missed tackles. Poor communication. Young players showing inexperience.

But the Cowboys went 1-for-11 on third downs. They ran the ball 30 times for 69 yards. In many ways Texas’ defense did exactly what it aimed to do.

The expectations are for something much greater, though.

“We’ve got to be able to be the defense that everybody has been hyping us as,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “We’ve got to be that defense. This team needs us to be that defense and tonight we weren’t that defense.”

When Texas trailed 9-7 at the end of the first quarter, its coaches didn’t pause to make a movie-caliber speech to this defense. Neither did its players.

When Smith took another shot downfield on his first attempt of the second quarter, Vaccaro plucked it out of the air.

The rally began. The veterans led the way this time. The others caught up.

“Our best parts were, I thought, our best players,” Diaz said. “They know exactly what the defense and the team needs and what we want. We just have to bring the other guys along.”

That process resumes Sunday. When Diaz turns on the projector and his defense gets down to business, they’ll start with the bad tape. They’ll run through the mistakes, the misses, the tiny holes.

No need to celebrate the interceptions and hard hits. That’ll come later. Besides, those are expected.

These Longhorns are dedicated to detail, and what they did wrong matters more. The great teams, the ones on the magazine covers at the end of the season, are the ones that embrace that mentality.

“It’s definitely fixable,” Hicks said of the defense, "and it’s going to be fixed.”

Max Olson | email

Big 12 reporter

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