October 7, 2008

The 5 Questions Texas Must Answer to Beat OU

The five questions Texas must answer to beat Oklahoma …

5. HOW GOOD IS UT'S OFFENSIVE LINE? - I think this group is going to be really good. But how good are they right now? Cedric Dockery got the Boss Hogg Award as the best offensive lineman against Colorado, but he has had to be pushed by the coaches - a lot - this season. Freshman David Snow got considerable time in favor of Dockery at right guard against Arkansas. Is it good that Snow held up well? Or bad that Dockery needed a kick in the pants? Is it good Dockery responded against CU? Or bad that a lineman needed a jolt two games out from UT's biggest game of the year?

Also, UT's tackles struggled against Colorado. Was that the perfect wakeup call? Or the sign of dark days ahead?

MY TAKE: The only thing I truly know is if these guys aren't all in synch on Saturday, OU will expose them. I watched the Sooners tear apart a prolific Missouri offense last year in the Big 12 title game. And while OU linebacker Curtis Lofton is now in the NFL, the Sooners never lack for playmakers on defense. Ends Auston English and Jeremy Beal are nice pressure players and NFL scouts have already taken notice of OU's redshirt freshman weakside LB Travis Lewis (6-2, 232).


4. WILL TEXAS BE AGGRESSIVE ON OFFENSE? - I compared this year's Red River Shootout to 2004 in The College Football Fix on Monday. I did that because all of the talk in the off-season about Mack Brown continuing to have the attitude UT exhibited in the Holiday Bowl against Arizona State is really about this week's game against Oklahoma.

Mack calling out his team before that Holiday Bowl was a high-stakes move, and he followed it up with aggressive play-calling in the game. We know Texas' defense is going to be aggressive and outside-the-box. Heck, that's all Will Muschamp does. Eight cornerback blitzes against Arkansas? All kinds of different zone pressures? Three-man fronts with Sergio Kindle roaming around picking a hole to blitz through? UT's defense is finally behaving the way OU's defense has been behaving for years.

The question comes on the mentality on offense because, let's face it, Texas has some serious questions on that side of the ball. Wanted list: a tight end, a 20-carry running back, a deep threat at receiver, a third receiver. Muschamp has had serious deficiencies (two freshmen safeties against a pass-happy schedule full of veteran quarterbacks for one) but has focused on rushing the passer to allow those young players in the secondary time to grow. And they have.

So do Mack and Greg Davis give OU the Holiday Bowl treatment - a double pass, reverse, some version of the Q Package, a throw to Roy Miller in the end zone, a throw down the field - or the same slants and screens to Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley and dump passes to Chris Ogbonnaya that OU has already seen dozens of times on film?

When Davis was asked Monday if it's a game where you have to be aggressive or conservative, he said, "I think you have to do both. Like a heavyweight boxing match, you don't want to go out and get knocked out in the first round. But at the same time, if you don't throw your haymakers, you're not going to win the fight. So you've got to balance when you take your shots.".

MY TAKE: For Texas to be successful, I think they have to be aggressive in the offensive game plan. Be bold. Send a message to your players and to OU that you have confidence in your offense and the incredibly efficient Colt McCoy. What says fun and relaxed like a game plan akin to the Holiday Bowl? Remember, Mack said one reason he wanted more trick plays this season is because "the kids like 'em." Loosen things up this week Mack. Get out the iPod and the 50 Cent and do a little jig with the fellas.


3. CAN UT SUBSTITUTE ON DEFENSE AGAINST OU'S UP-TEMPO OFFENSE?: Nobody is running the no-huddle quite like OU. Well, except for maybe Houston. It's not uncommon for the Sooners to go an entire drive without taking more than 10 seconds off the 40-second clock to snap the ball. It keeps defenses from being able to substitute. Texas experienced some of this against Rice, and Will Muschamp struggled to get Eddie Jones, Henry Melton and some other key depth onto the field in that game. Muschamp said he only substituted when the ball was on the near hash and not when the ball was in the middle of the field or on the far hash because it was too difficult to respond quickly.

Oklahoma averages 80 plays per game on offense and ran 92 plays last week against Baylor. To put that in perspective, UT averages 72 plays, and the Longhorns are also a no-huddle offense. The Sooners have run 399 offensive plays in five games. Only Houston, whose head coach is Kevin Sumlin, a former assistant of Bob Stoops, has run more (412) nationally.

"They get to the line of scrimmage and they've got options to snap the ball immediately, which means you've got to get a call in defensively," Muschamp said Monday. "Then they can look back to the sideline and check the offense based on the look they get in the run game or pass game.

"A lot of teams are doing this. We're doing it. But their tempo is a little quicker than some other teams we've seen. You can throw the 40-second clock out the window for this game. It won't matter."

MY TAKE: Muschamp will have to be one or two plays ahead of Oklahoma in terms of anticipating their every move. It also means Texas will probably have to make nickel their base defense for much of the game. That will allow Texas to have the flexibility of using Sergio Kindle at end in a four-man front or at linebacker in a three-man front. It also means Kindle should be ready to play a ton. So get the IVs on the sideline if necessary. Muschamp will probably just have to substitute certain players every three or four plays, especially on the D-line, regardless of OU's personnel, just to keep guys fresh.


2. CAN TEXAS RUN ON OU?The only player to run for 100 yards on Oklahoma this season is Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin, who ran 21 times for 102 yards in a 49-17 loss last week. So that may bode well for Texas, considering the Longhorns' leading rusher is QB Colt McCoy, who has 317 yards on 45 carries (7.0 ypc).

But Texas historically has not run well against OU. In 10 years against the Sooners under Brown, Texas has averaged only 3.6 yards per carry and four times failed to average 3 yards per carry (2000, -.4 ypc; 2001, 1.1 ypc; 2002, 1.5 ypc; and 2007, 2.1 ypc).

On Monday, Chris Ogbonnaya was listed as the starter at tailback. Ogbonnaya had nine carries for 71 yards at Colorado. Two runs - of 51 and 13 yards - made up the bulk of those yards.

"We would start Chris (Ogbonnaya) right now," Brown said. "But running yards have been hard to come by for 10 years against OU. Chris is not going to carry it 25 times. That's not who he is. He's going to get 10 or 15 touches."

Brown said the offense has a lot of work to do this week.

"We did not think we played in synch on offense (against Colorado) like we can," Brown said. "The good news is we scored 38 and walked off mad."

Greg Davis said he thinks Colt McCoy can be effective running the ball against OU.

"And we need him to be the way he's been the first five games," Davis said.


Getting a running back to be a ground threat is critical to UT's play-action passing game, which has been non-existent this season.

"It's huge to be able to sell the zone in there and then throw the ball from that," Davis said. "We haven't done a whole lot of that, but when you look through a season, a play-action off the zone is really huge."

MY TAKE: I think McCoy will have to make plays with his legs off schedule because I don't think OU is going to let Colt get loose on draws, the zone read or a bunch of designed QB runs. As for Ogbonnaya, yes 64 of his 71 rush yards at Colorado came on two plays, but that's better than what anyone else has done this year except for Foswhitt Whittaker against UTEP. But Fozzy has missed four games with injuries to both knees. So Ogbonnaya is the right guy to be the lead back this week and hope Cody Johnson and Vondrell McGee come to life when called. Texas has been averaging 198 yards per game on the ground - 63.4 of that from McCoy. McCoy ran seven times for minus-24 yards last year against OU. So McCoy needs to think back to last year's games against Oklahoma State (106 yards) and Arizona State (86 yards), when he ran out of desperation with great effectiveness. I think it will be that kind of day for UT's run game.



1. CAN TEXAS PRESSURE SAM BRADFORD?

Sam Bradford, the nation's second-leading passer with 18 TDs and three interceptions, has been sacked three times this season - all in a 35-10 victory over TCU. The sacks helped kill three OU drives and force punts. But two of the sacks came after Bradford had already thrown two long TD passes and led an 80-yard scoring march for a 21-3 lead in the first quarter. The third sack came after OU was up, 28-3. Once TCU started blitzing more, the Horned Frogs finally got to him - but it was too late. It was a moral victory to hold OU to just seven points in the second half. The damage was done.

TCU loaded up to stop the run and did - limiting OU to 25 yards on 36 carries. But Bradford threw for 411 yards and TD passes of 24, 76, 55 and 63 yards.

The Sooners' offensive line - when it wants to be - is the best in the country with four seniors and a junior. A couple NFL scouts I talked to last week said left tackle Phil Loadholt and left guard Duke Robinson are mega-talented but are inclined to rest on their press clippings from time-to-time. The player both scouts pointed to was right tackle Trent Williams, who they say has a strong motor and a nasty attitude.

All that experience up front coupled with the Sooners' quick-snap approach to the no-huddle has made getting to Bradford like trying to get Matt Millen out of the NFL the last seven years. But if anyone can get pressure on a quarterback, it's a Will Muschamp-led defense. Muschamp was the architect of the LSU defense that rocked and socked Jason White and OU in the 2003 national title game won by LSU 21-14.

"We've gone back and looked at that game," Muschamp said. "And we've looked at a lot of other games. That's what you do during your summer study."


Muschamp believes Texas will get pressure on Bradford. So do his players.

"I believe we can and I believe we will," said defensive tackle Aaron Lewis. "We're not like any other defense. We're Texas. We have great athletes, and we bring a little something different from anything OU has seen."

Added Roy Miller, "They haven't played Texas this year. That guy sits so comfortably back in the pocket, it's a shame. It's a shame how much time he has to throw that ball. They max protect for him and run only two receivers downfield. But we just have to get there. We have to get there."

MY TAKE: Muschamp has the depth and firepower to get to Bradford and at least hit him, even if the Longhorns can't sack him. Muschamp's zone pressures have left quarterbacks completely perplexed. Most importantly, Muschamp said Monday he's been able to add to the gameplan more each week because his players have grasped everything he's teaching. Players say Muschamp has a lot saved for OU. To me, this is THE key to the game. If Texas can't pressure Bradford, he gets to pick on the Longhorns' young safeties. UT has to slow down the Sooners' offense, which is outscoring opponents 103-3 in the first quarter. If OU scores on its opening series, and Texas' offense goes three-and-out, that second OU possession could set the tone for the entire game. I think Muschamp and Co. will have to carry the Texas offense for much of the game, but I think they can. If OU's line has a vulnerability it's a speed rush, which Texas can provide in waves with its depth.

ONE FINAL THOUGHT

I've witnessed Michigan-Ohio State and Alabama-Auburn in person. And while those games are incredible and mean so much to their fan bases, the reason Texas-OU is like no other game in all of sports is the division of the Cotton Bowl right down the middle.

It's a tug-of-war of hearts, passion and the larynx.

One side booms support for their players, and the other responds by trying to pick up theirs. The result is deafening sound for three and a half hours or until the scoreboard causes one side to tap out and head for the corny dogs.

The uncontrolled sound and fury from the fans reaches the players in profound ways. Those who make big plays start feeling like Iron Man. A negative play can drain every last bit of confidence from a weak-minded player. Everything is magnified - for better or worse.

Mistakes start to feel bigger than they are. A penalty feels like a sack. A sack feels like a fumble. A fumble feels like a score for the other team. And if enough bad happens to one team without an answer, it can turn into a landslide like the games in 2000 and 2003, when OU hung 60-plus on Texas, or in 2005, when UT hung 40-plus on OU.

And if the same players are part of enough games in which negative stuff happens, and they don't react well to it, you see streaks in the series like the one OU had from 2000-2004. Or like the one UT had from 1989-92 (Can you say Peter the Great?)

It truly is the best guaranteed atmosphere for a single game in all of sports for that very reason - the seating arrangement of the fans. It creates an environment not even the Super Bowl can promise and should be savored and appreciated.



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