True, Arkansas is coming off of a five-touchdown home loss to Alabama; the program is lucky not to be 0-3 after rallying from a pair of double-digit deficits in its first two outings. But the Hogs are putting the ball in the air to the tune of 277 ypg (NCAA No. 16). And the offensive line is anchored by 2007 Rimington Trophy winner Jonathan Luigs. That's why Saturday's contest is a litmus test for how Texas' pass rush might fare against what promises to be its most demanding Big 12 slate to date.
This week, six Big 12 QBs -- including four on UT’s schedule -- are ranked in the nation's Top 10 in passing efficiency (Longhorn Colt McCoy is at No. 3). Meanwhile, Missouri's Chase Daniel, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell and Kansas' Todd Reesing rank in the nation's top four in passing yards. Combine that with the fact that the Horns’ 2007 pass defense was the worst in program history, mix in a couple of freshmen starting just their fourth game at each safety spot, and it reinforces why Muschamp placed such a premium on pass rush during spring and pre-season drills.
The Horns rank fourth nationally in sacks (336) since 1999, but those numbers have trailed off as of late. Texas notched just 28 sacks in 13 games last season and just 22 in 2004. The proliferation of spread offenses with those wiiiiiide splits have made it much more difficult to get to the quarterback, coaches have said. Conversely, Muschamp continues to preach that the best pass defense is an effective pass rush.
Texas has recorded nine sacks during the past two contests. The defense has produced 45 pressures and 35 hits on the QB during this season’s first three contests. It's a sign of progress, but Muschamp's assessment is cautionary.
"I don't pay attention to game-by-game numbers because it all depends on who you're playing," the Texas defensive coordinator said. "We do our stats different. We do it like the NFL does it. When a quarterback drops back, and then he scrambles for 23 yards, that's in the passing stat. That's a passing game breakdown. The NCAA counts that as a run, but that's not a deficiency in the running game. That's a deficiency in the passing game. It's the same thing when the quarterback drops back to throw and you sack him for 18 yards (because) that's a positive in the passing game. It has nothing to do with running the football. Technically, the Rice quarterbacks dropped back 62 times Saturday, but the stats don't show that. That's why our numbers don't match up with the NCAA's because our numbers are more reflective of how you're doing."
Many Texas fanned have pinned their hopes on Muschamp's hardhat approach that values a team's collective attitude as much as it does speed and attention to fundamentals. He comes from the line of thought that a confused player is an ineffective player. He keeps it simple; then, it's about reps, reps and more reps (somewhere Darrell Royal is smiling).
"You have all these D-line coaches teaching 84 different pass rush moves," Muschamp said. "Let's get good at one of them, and then let's have a counter off of it. You've got to reduce the pocket for the quarterback, but you often have all these guys going in there throwing their hands around with all these different pass-rush moves. And they're not getting any ground on the quarterback. We play to our strength. Let's use our speed, and let's convert speed to power. That's what we've been coaching."
It begins with a DE being told to imagine an imaginary 'X' four yards behind the inside leg of the offensive tackle.
"The most important thing about pass-rush is how you get off," Muschamp continued. "You've got to get a great take-off at the snap. We need to beat him (OT) to that point ('X'). Some kids just have the natural ability to get to that point. The tackle will usually soft-set you to block a speed rusher; that's what they do when you have a guy with good speed. That's where you want to convert speed to power. You power the tackle to the quarterback instead of running by him. I always tell our players that if they run past the quarterback, then it's like we're playing with just 10 guys. Nobody makes a sack when they run past the quarterback. You want to beat them with speed, and then you want to convert speed to power in the rush based on the set of the tackle. We talk to our kids in terms of horizontal pads and vertical sets. You're not going to beat the guy on the edge when he turns his pads. Those are the little things you have to look for."
Texas' top two defenders who convert 'speed to power' are DE Brian Orakpo and SLB Sergio Kindle, according to Muschamp. Already, offenses have schemed to try to stop them. Rice frequently motioned out a back to hold the edge in Texas' 52-10 win Saturday.
"That was something Rice had never shown," Muschamp observed. "We're going to see more and more of that."
It comes with the territory as, more and more, Texas sees a higher caliber of a football team.