Longhorns run defense passes first test

AUSTIN, Texas -- The numbers Texas put up against the run Saturday in a 56-7 win over New Mexico probably satisfied defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. But one in particular got his attention after the game.

Diaz looked over the stats and couldn’t figure this one out. The Longhorns had given up an 18-yard rush. But when?

He racked his brain and was angry to realize he was coming up empty on an answer. He figured it out eventually.

“It was a fake punt,” Diaz said. “A fake punt was the longest run we gave up all night.”

Keep in mind that in the entire 2012 season, Texas gave up 34 rushes of 18 yards or more last season, third-worst in FBS, including four or more in five consecutive games. So, yes, this was a good first step.

On a night when the Longhorns offense rightfully stole the show, Texas’ defense quietly and convincing passed its first test of the 2013 season.

The Longhorns held New Mexico State to 104 rushing yards and 2.7 yards per carry. Texas’ front seven accounted for six tackles for loss and was consistently disruptive for four quarters.

Holding the Aggies to just two of 12-plus yards was a solid feat simply for two reasons: Texas had said all along it had no idea what NMSU would run on offense under a new coach and offensive coordinator and, in the course of 38 rushing attempts, odds are a few are going to break past the first line of defense.

Not on Saturday. David Cazares, a safety, was responsible for the 18-yard run on the punt in the fourth quarter, and quarterback Andrew McDonald has a 15-yard run to end the first quarter.

More importantly, the Aggies went three-and-out on seven occasions. Getting off the field and making third- and fourth-down stops was a legitimate issue for the Longhorns last season, so that’s at least promising.

“I think we set the season up right,” UT defensive end Cedric Reed said. “We weren't sure we could tackle, but I don't think we missed many tackles. I think we came out with a fire and a great intensity that we wanted to show the country that we can play, that we're not the team we were last year and that we're a lot better.”

Diaz is quick to dismiss any comparisons to last season, though. To him, that's a futile exercise.

“For me, it’s not about better. It’s just about who we are. We cannot continue to try to compare ourselves to the past,” Diaz said. “That’s the same way whether the past was really good or wasn’t really good. It’s just different. These kids are different.

“This is as honest an answer as I can give you: We can never slay that dragon. And why would we try to do that anyway? Now we’re just looking in the past. We’re not trying to do that.”

The immediate future for Texas brings a challenge that New Mexico State couldn’t bring to the table.

Running back Jamaal Williams will lead the way for BYU’s aggressive offense Saturday in Provo. He had 144 yards on 33 carries in a monsoon at Virginia. The sophomore had three 100-yard games and 1,090 total yards last season.

Texas must also account for Taysom Hill. The dual-threat quarterback rushed for 42 yards and a key touchdown in BYU’s opener, and averaged 6.1 yards per carry in a more limited role in 2012.

The Longhorns have seen more than their fair share of talented rushing quarterbacks in recent years. That by itself won’t be a new challenge. But the struggles Hill and his receivers had last week in the passing game -- plus the possible absence of top receiver Cody Hoffman with a hamstring injury -- suggest new offensive coordinator Robert Anae could dedicate much of his game plan to exploiting a Longhorns run defense that was notoriously porous last season.

Because of that, Texas coaches are cautious to read too much into what they saw against New Mexico State. This will be a far more accurate measuring stick of just where Texas stands in stifling the run game.

“The front seven is playing better,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “The thing that concerned me is, we saw it was good in preseason last year and then just went away for whatever reason. We’ll know more on Saturday night."