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One missing piece of Texas' puzzle: non-offensive TDs

AUSTIN, Texas -- The good teams create their own good luck. And Texas was not good in 2016.

There’s a stat that stands out when looking back on the Longhorns' third consecutive seven-loss season, one that really never got brought up during the final season of the Charlie Strong era.

Texas finished with zero defensive touchdowns and zero special teams touchdowns last season. The Longhorns never created those extra scores that can swing games. And considering they lost five games by one-score margins, a few non-offensive touchdowns could have gone a long way.

This was coach Tom Herman’s reaction upon hearing that stat after a practice last week: "Wow."

His Houston teams were among the nation’s best on that front. Todd Orlando's defenses scored seven touchdowns over the past two seasons. The Cougars' play on special teams produced six more. When it came to non-offensive touchdowns, Houston ranked No. 5 in FBS during the Herman era.

So what’s the secret? How do you coax that kind of playmaking out of players?

"Honestly, I think it’s a trusting in your training and the ability to go out and not think and just play. That puts you a step ahead rather than a step behind," Herman said. "When you’ve done something over and over and over 10,000 times and you’ve been trained mentally over and over and over, and you’re out there and your body is in great peak condition, and you stick your foot in the ground and go execute your training, really good things happen.

"When you’re out there thinking or tiptoeing or feeling around or evaluating, you’re going to be a step or two behind."

There was plenty of that going on with Texas' defense last fall. Orlando noticed it frequently when he watched the tape: players getting fatigued, miscommunicating, getting lined up incorrectly and getting beat. Those errors are bound to happen when you put so many young players on the field. They’re guaranteed to happen when you change defensive play-callers after four games.

On special teams, Texas had just two punt returns of 20-plus yards and two kickoff returns of 30-plus yards. Safety Brandon Jones did block two punts (one was a safety, the other set up a field goal), but the Longhorns’ return game was a relative nonfactor.

Texas was one of six FBS teams to score zero non-offensive touchdowns last season. The other five: Arizona, East Carolina, Fresno State, Louisiana-Monroe and UMass. These six teams went a combined 18-54. None of them went bowling.

As you might expect, Alabama is the best of the best with 25 non-offensive touchdowns over the past two seasons. Nick Saban tried to be secretive last season when asked how the Tide got so good in this area, but the truth he shared is simple: "These are all just fundamental things that we continue to emphasize. I think players make plays."

Texas might be close to turning the corner thanks to all the talent Strong stockpiled, but a dedication to detail can make a big difference. Herman’s success at Houston is a certainly proof of that.

Everyone remembers Brandon Wilson's 109-yard kick-six against Oklahoma, but several more defensive or special teams touchdowns helped swing games for the Cougars.

There was the fumble return touchdown in the final two minutes to beat Tulsa last season. There was a pair of pick-sixes to lock up a road win at Cincinnati in 2016, and another pick-six in a 33-30 win against the Bearcats in 2015. In Herman’s second game at Houston, Wilson delivered a 100-yard kick return touchdown in a comeback win at Louisville.

"People make mistakes," Orlando said, "and you’ve got to make them pay for it."

Orlando sees a bunch of factors at play here. He acknowledged his defense creates pressure which creates opportunities. He’s quick to point out that pulling off these touchdowns requires excellent blocking and a dedication to finishing plays.

The 13 non-offensive scores at Houston were also a product of confidence, no doubt, and that’s something the Longhorns lacked too often last season. They will have to start creating their own big breaks in 2017 if they intend to take a serious step forward. Just don’t call them lucky breaks.

"Those aren’t breaks," Herman said. "Those are earned and coached."