In the offense-first Big 12, Texas hopes to ride its defense to a title

Second Park INT kills Iowa St. drive (0:41)

The Cyclones were looking to put points on the board before halftime, but Texas DB Kris Boyd intercepts the Jacob Park floater. Park is 1-for-11 with two picks on throws over 10 yards tonight. (0:41)

Late in a performance last month that awakened observers to the intriguing possibilities ahead for Texas, USC marched 52 yards in the final 39 seconds of regulation to kick a game-tying field goal.

The Trojans won in overtime, a crushing setback for Texas despite the progress shown in just two weeks after a season-opening loss to Maryland that warned of a lengthy adjustment in this first season under coach Tom Herman.

But after a 17-7 win at Iowa State on Thursday behind a smothering defensive effort, it sure seems like a lot more than a month has passed. In the wake of his first Big 12 coaching victory, Herman offered praise for his defense, which has advanced dramatically since that 51-41 loss to the Terrapins on Sept. 2.

No, the Longhorns have not yet called on the experience gained against USC. They've only begun to draw on the lessons of the loss to Maryland. But it's all there now when Texas needs it -- part of a growing process that, combined with an evident abundance of skill, has turned this defense into an interesting storyline in the developing Big 12 race.

"Our plan to win," Herman said, "the very first thing, is to play great defense."

The Longhorns (2-2) open a three-game stretch Saturday at home against Kansas State that figures to tell us resoundingly just how far defense can carry a team in the Big 12. Texas gets No. 3 Oklahoma on Oct. 14 in Dallas and No. 10 Oklahoma State a week later in Austin.

"We know what our defense is capable of," tackle Poona Ford said.

Several Longhorns said after the win against Iowa State that no reason exists to concede anything in league play this year.

Linebacker Malik Jefferson said the Longhorns weren't necessarily "sending a message" with the win against the Cyclones, who were averaging 41.3 points and 460 yards of offense in three games before running into Texas. "But we've got to understand that we're going to be a great defense no matter who we play," he said.

Texas surrendered 256 yards to Iowa State and left quarterback Jacob Park mumbling on the sideline into the face of his coach. Meanwhile, the Longhorns filled up the stat sheet with four sacks, three interceptions, three pass breakups and six quarterback hurries in much the same way they disrupted the play of USC's Sam Darnold on Sept. 16.

"We've had to lean on them, obviously, the last two games," Herman said.

The coach stopped to consider his words.

"We're going to lean on our defense," he said, "for the whole time I'm here."

Through four games, Texas ranks second in the Big 12 and 17th nationally against the rush at 96.5 yards allowed per game. It leads the league in opponent time of possession and defensive third-down conversion rate.

The key, according to Herman, involves the belief that Texas defenders have found in their teammates. They didn't have it, clearly, in Week 1.

"You can't play great defense if you’re evaluating, if you're thinking, gauging, tip-toeing," Herman said. “You've got to stick your foot in the ground and go and trust that the other 10 guys are going to be there right behind you.

"Our defense for the last three weeks has been doing that."

Jefferson serves as something of a catalyst for the Longhorns. Among a unit of former elite prospects, he came with likely the most hype. ESPN ranked him as the No. 31 recruit nationally in the Class of 2015.

He struggled last year, though, and was benched briefly at midseason. It's early, but the junior appears on track for a breakout season. He recorded 11 tackles at USC. In the win at Iowa State, Jefferson had six stops, including a fourth-and-4 sack of Park on a play from the 50-yard line early in the fourth quarter.

Safety DeShon Elliott, who's known Jefferson since their high school days around Dallas, said he's never seen the linebacker hit so hard.

Elliott grabbed two interceptions in Ames. For that, he credited the defensive line.

"They're the ones doing the work," Elliott said. "We're just back there looking pretty."

Perhaps Jefferson summarized the situation best.

"We understand that it's not just us making those plays," he said. "It's the other people around us giving us the opportunity to make those plays. That's what makes us a strong unit."

Last season en route to the first 9-0 finish ever in Big 12 regular-season play, Oklahoma four times allowed more than 500 yards and held just one foe to fewer than 17 points. The top two teams in the league -- Oklahoma and Oklahoma State -- in 2016 also averaged the most yards per offensive play.

Offense still drives the Big 12. Unless, that is, some team fields a defense strong enough to stave off the standard high-scoring affairs.

Why not Texas?

These next three weeks ought to provide an answer.