NCAA Football: Texas at Alabama

No. 3 Texas boasts an offensive-minded head coach, three offensive preseason All-Americans and a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback. But during the Longhorns' 4-0 start, the defense has been the real star on the 40 Acres. 

Texas trailed Wyoming 10-7 after the first quarter. It led Rice just 16-3 at the half and mustered just 13 points through three quarters on the road against then-No. 3 Alabama. Overall, only 20 of Texas' 140 points have come in the first quarter. But when the offense sputters, the Texas defense has stood up at an elite level. 

"I feel like they've gotten tremendously better," wide receiver Xavier Worthy said. "They bail us out sometimes." 

The Longhorns defense ranks No. 6 in defensive SP+ and No. 12 in scoring defense, holding opponents to just 12.5 points per game despite a road game against Alabama. They hold opponents to a success rate of just 29.8%, per CFB Graphs, which ranks No. 3 nationally. All of these marks rank better than the comparable offensive statistics for Texas. 

"It's three years in the making of putting a staff together, putting a scheme together, making adjustments to that scheme," Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said. "I think we've added depth to the roster on the defensive side of the ball at all three levels. I think we have a really good veteran leadership on defense. And now what comes with that is confidence." 

That confidence has shown up in a significant way during Texas' run to its highest AP Top 25 ranking since 2009. 

Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski was a savvy hire after Sarkisian was able to pluck him from the Chris Petersen coaching lineage at Washington

Kwiatkowski coordinated against Sarkisian three times, beating Sark's Washington squad while at Boise State and later edging USC while at Washington. In the victory over the Trojans, Kwiatkowski held Sarkisian's USC offense to 12 points, the lowest mark of the Sarkisian era. At Washington and Boise State, "Coach K" played primarily quarters and Cover 3, according to Sarkisian. At Texas, Kwiatkowski has embraced more man coverage. 

"That's one thing I admire about Pete K, he's not one of those guys who's stuck in how he's always done it," Sarkisian told reporters on Thursday. "He's evolved as a coach… he's willing to evolve and change and fit his scheme predicated on the talent that he has." 

Valero Alamo Bowl - Washington v Texas
Texas defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has adjusted his schemes this season. Getty Images

But outside of scheme tweaks to fit a changing Big 12, the roster has also grown up. More than half of the defensive starters played on Texas' 5-7 squad in 2021. Now, standouts like linebacker Jaylan Ford, defensive tackle T'Vondre Sweat and defensive lineman Byron Murphy II are taking on major leadership roles. 

"We're running the defense like it's our own," Ford said. "I feel like I've got such a tight bond with… [Kwiatkowski] that I can almost kind of understand what they're calling or what we want to do in certain situations." 

The experience has been felt most on the interior defensive line, where the Longhorns have struggled to produce NFL talent. Fifth-year senior Sweat joins Alfred Collins, Byron Murphy II, Trill Carter and Vernon Broughton as upperclassmen getting major snaps. Projected first-rounder Sweat is the only interior lineman to play more than 50% of Texas' defensive snaps, and even he's only at 51.6%. 

The talent has paid off in a big way. Texas is holding opponents to just 2.7 yards per carry, a top-15 mark in the nation. Alabama rushed for just 107 yards on 3.1 yards per carry. Texas has not sent an interior lineman to the first three rounds of the NFL Draft since 2015. On Sept. 27, CBS Sports NFL Draft analyst Chris Trapasso projected Sweat to land in the first round of his latest mock draft.

Of course, the Texas offense has taken the baton down the stretch. Texas went on a 21-7 fourth quarter run to upset then-No. 3 Alabama, and had similar 21-0 runs in the second quarter against Baylor and in the fourth quarter against Wyoming. The offense ranks among the most explosive in the sport. 

Two years ago, Texas ranked bottom 30 in yards per play, giving up more than 6.0 yards. Now, the Longhorns are squarely within the top 25 at barely 4.5 yards per play. If Texas' defense can continue to set the tone, the Longhorns have a legitimate shot to play for a national title for the first time since 2009. 

"Whenever the defense gets the first stop, it's almost like a sigh of relief," Worthy said. "Every time they get off to a hot start, it feels like we get off to a great start."