Longhorns hope to slow down West Virginia

Mack Brown’s got jokes this week.

Brown on Monday was asked if he had spent much time in defensive coordinator Manny Diaz’s office as the Longhorns prepare to play West Virginia, which hung 70 points and 807 yards on Baylor last week.

“I’ve been down there three times,” Brown said, “and he’s got his door closed and he’s under the desk.”

Sometimes it’s easier to laugh than cry.

There is no trick to this. Brown will relieve you of that notion right away. No. 11 Texas (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) does not intend to “stop” No. 8 West Virginia (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on FOX in Austin, Texas, any more than a parachute stops a top fueler.

The Longhorns, rather, would like to keep this game within the realm of recognizable modern football.

“You’re not going to stop them,” Brown said, “So you’re trying to figure out how to slow them down.”

In the final analysis, of course, football will always come down to blocking and tackling, and Brown is putting extra stress on the latter this week in practice. He hasn’t been happy with the way Texas’ talented defense has tackled this season, particularly last week in a matchup against an Oklahoma State offense that was at one time coordinated by current West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen.

“We’ll give up 70 this weekend if we don’t tackle better than we did Saturday night,” Brown said.

The Longhorns surrendered 576 (301 passing, 275 rushing) yards to Oklahoma State in a 41-36 win last week, and they gave up 399 to Ole Miss the week before, which means that against Bowl Subdivision opponents Texas is allowing an average of 488 yards and 33.5 points.

Granted, both Oklahoma State and Ole Miss run high-tempo offenses that have put up yardage on everybody they’ve played, but this nonetheless is a troubling trend for a defense that Texas is counting on being one of the nation’s best.

Texas ranks 63rd out of 120 in total defense.

So, you know, yikes.

But this all adds up to an awful lot of consternation for a 4-0 team ranked 11th. Frightening as West Virginia’s offense is, we should not forget its defense allowed 63 points last week. Baylor quarterback Nick Florence, who had thrown for 400 yards just once in his career (2009 against Missouri), threw for 581 against the Mountaineers, who rank 106th in total defense.

And Texas has a promising trend on its side, too. Quarterback David Ash has completed at least 73 percent of his passes in every game this year and is coming off back-to-back 300-yard passing games. He has 10 touchdown passes against one interception which – and this is not exactly a scientific calculation here – makes him approximately three times better than he was last season.

“If you know David, he works like no other,” Longhorns running back Jeremy Hill said. “So I’m not really surprised. But I am impressed. I’m not surprised because hard work pays off. And he’s outworking everybody.”

Which shows that football teams are living, breathing organisms, like plants. You can have a plan for your tomato vine, but you aren’t totally in control of where it grows.

Brown entered this season talking about playing what we’ve all come to know as “SEC-style” football, which is to say he was going to ask his quarterback to take care of the ball, ask his running backs to churn out yardage and ask his defense to win the games for him.

Maybe that sort of a gameplan can defeat West Virginia, but the Longhorns look more like a typical Big 12 team with each passing week. Game by game, they look more like a team that relies on its offense to make a play than trusts its defense to stop one.

That isn’t good, but it isn’t bad, either. It just is. And if Texas is trending in that direction, if the Longhorns are, indeed, more comfortable in a shootout than a land war, well, this week’s game against West Virginia will be the ultimate test of that idea.

“I think they may be as good as any offense we’ve ever seen,” Brown said.

And that wasn’t a joke.