Strong talks red zone, road woes, Red Raiders

Daje Johnson (IT)

Daje Johnson (Will Gallagher/IT)

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Now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Texas hits the road to face the nation’s top passing offense.

But has Charlie Strong’s porous defense found a recipe for Red Zone success? And why, oh why, was D’Onta Foreman used as a decoy in critical, short-yardage situations against Baylor?

Saturday’s defensive effort redefined bend-don’t-break.Texas gave up a whopping 624 yards in the 35-34 win but allowed just one TD during four trips inside the 10 after intermission. By then, Strong knew his front four wasn’t generating a consistent pass-rush. So, he dialed-up Red Zone blitzes – and kept them on speed-dial.

“Any time we got into the Red Zone, we came with all-out pressure,” Strong said Monday.

“We weren’t getting there with our four-man pressure. If we can’t get there with four, we’re going to bring five. If we can’t get there with five, we’re going to bring six. If we have to bring eight, bring ‘em. I told our guys in the back end that you’ve just got to cover them.”

A critical, fourth-quarter stop inside the Red Zone was the turning point. Baylor held a 31-26 lead but, on 2nd-and-goal from the two, blitzing linebacker Edwin Freeman lassoed Seth Russell for a three-yard sack. Next play, blitzing MLB Malik Jefferson teamed with Breckyn Hager to drop JaMycal Hasty for a one-yard loss. Baylor settled for a 24-yard FG to keep it a one-possession game.

“At one point, we blitzed seven times in a row,” Strong recalled. “When the players come off the field and say, ‘Coach, keep running that defense’, then you know they’re feeling good about it. I told them we need to be able to cover them because we were coming with the pressure.”

A pass defense, susceptible to chunk-yardage, could hold its own within the restricted environs of the Red Zone. Come Saturday morning, however, the Longhorn secondary must traverse the wide-open spaces of the high plains where Texas Tech is averaging an NCAA-leading 500.6 passing ypg. Fortunately, CB Kris Boyd and NB P. J. Locke are coming off their best performances of the season.

“Boyd is really coming on,” Strong said. “He made the hit (on the WR) and P.J. came up with the interception (on Baylor’s second series). Boyd’s focus is at a different level now. He’s separating himself from the rest of those defensive backs. We stressed to P.J. how important he was in that game because he was on the slot receiver. The inside receiver (K D Cannon) was the biggest threat for us, and P.J. did a really good job on him.”

PJ Locke. (Gallagher/IT)

PJ Locke. (Gallagher/IT)

It all starts, of course, with getting the QB out of his comfort zone. The memory of Quandre Diggs knocking QB Patrick Mahomes out of the game during UT’s last visit was the backdrop for Breckyn Hager’s ill-advised comment Monday that the plan was to “injure the quarterback.”

Hager was later apologetic, insisting his statement was not intended to be taken literally. Earlier, Strong recalled “the night Diggs hit the quarterback and knocked him out of the game. After that, (Tech) didn’t play so well.”

Tech’s offense remains one of the nation’s most prolific, but it’s also the most one-dimensional.

The Red Raiders’ rushing offense is an oxymoron; it’s 99.6 ypg ranks 125 out of 128 programs. And, for the first time this season, Texas faces a statistically worst defense than its own. The 518.4 ypg that the Red Raiders allow ranks No. 126.

D’Onta Foreman, start your engine.

No Longhorn RB (in recent memory) has been so devastatingly productive while toiling in anonymity.

A 4-4 record will do that do you, but Foreman’s 157.9 rushing ypg ranks No. 2 nationally. Foreman is coming off a career-best 250 yards on 32 carries, while his ninth straight 100-yard rushing game is just two shy of Earl Campbell’s school record. The junior “for sure” should be in the Heisman conversation, Strong said.

The place where Foreman wasn’t, on a few short-yardage situations Saturday, was in the backfield. Notably, Tyrone Swoopes was stopped up the middle on a late, two-point conversion that forced the last-minute, game-winning FG. It was poor execution of the right call, Strong said.

“If (Swoopes) just goes outside, it’s there. He’s gonna get the two points. They all crashed inside. He could have walked in.”

Swoopes will continue to take snaps at RB to give Foreman a breather. And there will still be times when Swoopes will takes snaps at RB with Foreman out wide.

“There’s a reason we’ve got him out there. One play leads to another. He wasn’t out there 20 times. That was on the 18-Wheeler package. When he was out wide, they had to adjust. They had to move linebackers out of the box.”

Texas has won 17 of the past 20 in Lubbock, but the Horns are a 1-7 road team dating back to last season.

“We have to do a better job with the whole mindset of mentally being into it (on the road),” Strong said. “That’s what we haven’t had. That’s no excuse. We haven’t had that mindset.”

Saturday’s win significantly curtailed inquiries from beat reporters about Strong’s job security. Last Monday, Strong fielded more questions about his status than he did about Baylor. A few days later, Strong indirectly surmised that he might not be Texas’ head coach in 2017. That’s when he told ESPN that whoever has the Longhorns job should win 10 games next year.

His message to the team, however, is to ignore outside chatter about his job situation. Instead, he told them to approach each Saturday as if it was a “one-game season.” The only stats that matter, Strong said, are wins.

“Whatever we have to do to go win,” he concluded, “we have to get it done.”