Defense was a major liability when Texas began the season 1-2, giving up 40 and 44 points in back-to-back losses to BYU and Ole Miss.
In Mack Brown's final game as head coach, however, defense was reason the Longhorns had the slightest chance to upset Oregon in the Alamo Bowl.
Texas didn't, of course. The Ducks won 30-7, and Brown ended his 16-year career in Austin in the loss column.
But the defeat can't be pinned on Greg Robinson's defense. Texas limited the Oregon offense to one touchdown: a 16-yard shovel pass from quarterback Marcus Mariota to receiver Josh Huff. In fact, the 'Horns had the play well-covered, but Huff broke a couple of tackles on a fine individual effort.
Other than that quick scoring drive—the Ducks covered 88 yards in 1:24—the Oregon offense failed to get in the end zone and was forced to attempt four field goals. Freshman Matt Wogan made three, with the fourth one bouncing off the right upright.
Texas gave up yards—469 to be specific—but when it mattered, the defense tightened up.
Simply put, it played more than well enough to win the game. As B/R's Michael Felder tweets, it was an energized effort from start to finish.
Man, yes. Seeing Greg Robinson fired up like that was great. A lot of fire on that sideline.— Michael Felder (@InTheBleachers) December 31, 2013
Now, go back to Week 2, when Texas lost to BYU and gave up a whopping 550 rushing yards. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was fired a day later and Robinson, a former defensive coordinator for the 'Horns in 2004, was promoted from an administrative role.
The turnaround under Robinson was not immediate. But after losing to Ole Miss, the improvement on defense has been nothing short of amazing, especially considering the injuries. Defensive tackle Chris Whaley and linebackers Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond are just some of the players who were lost for the season due to injuries.
During a six-game winning streak, Texas gave up just 22 points a game and was much better against the run. The Longhorns improved at every level, all the way down to the tackling problem that had plagued them for the past two years.
Robinson can just coach a defense. He simplified the scheme from Diaz's blitz-happy philosophy, and the results followed.
Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat went on to become the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Robinson even put Jeffcoat at middle linebacker in a 41-16 win over Texas Tech on Thanksgiving with outstanding results.
Imagine if Diaz had been let go after last year, and Robinson had a full offseason with his players.
Even in two losses at the end of the season against Oklahoma State and Baylor, Texas' defense wasn't as problematic as it had been previously. Senior quarterback Case McCoy threw five interceptions and only one touchdown pass in those games.
It's unrealistic to expect a defense to pitch shutouts when it's on the field all the time and/or backed up in its own territory.
Against Oregon, McCoy threw two pick-sixes, technically accounting for more points for Oregon than his own team.
For 2nd straight game #Longhorns QB Case McCoy has more passing yds to other team (75) in INTs than to Texas players (48).— Chip Brown (@ChipBrownOB) December 31, 2013
In the last three Qs, Case McCoy has thrown for 85 yards. During that time, opponents have returned his passes for 97 yards. Yup.— Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) December 31, 2013
Freshman Tyrone Swoopes, who had his redshirt burned earlier this year, wasn't any better. He finished 1-of-6 passing for eight yards and was promptly returned to the sidelines after a three-and-out.
The irony of that McCoy pick-six is that Swoopes was taken out of the game because they feared he'd make a back-breaking mistake.— Geoff Ketchum (@gkketch) December 31, 2013
Without McCoy's interceptions, the Alamo Bowl is possibly 16-7 and a completely different game.
Promoting Robinson two games into the season may not have saved Brown's job, but it proved to be the smartest move he made.
It's also why Robinson should get some consideration by whoever becomes the next Texas coach.
It's common for a coach to come into a new job and clean house, and there's a good chance that happens with Texas. For all anyone knows, Robinson may be ready to move on to something else.
However, Brown was adamant about Robinson being the team's defensive coordinator—not the interim defensive coordinator—when he was promoted in September. That decision was met with cynicism, especially given Robinson's recent track record at Michigan and Syracuse, but it turned out to be the right call.
The job Robinson has done flies under the radar because the 'Horns finished 8-5 and got pounded in all their losses. But anyone coming in as the next coach will know Robinson deserves to be evaluated to see if he should retain his job.
It doesn't mean Robinson will be retained, but it wouldn't be a shocker if he is either.