October 11, 2009

Could UT's D and special teams carry the O vs. OU

Let's get a few thoughts on the Oklahoma game this week out of the way. After failing to make a dent in the nation's 111th-ranked rush defense on Saturday against Colorado, no one believes Texas can run the ball on the Sooners.

Texas may be the nation's No. 1 scoring offense (47.2 ppg), but we all know the "offense" has been getting a lot of help lately from the special teams (five TDs in five games) and the defense (1 TD).

Texas is now the nation's top-ranked rushing defense, giving up 46.2 yards per game on the ground. Oklahoma's D is No. 3, giving up 53.6 rushing yards per game.

CALLING ALL RBs

When you consider UT's top two backs Vondrell McGee and Tre' Newton may be limited or out of the game, Greg Davis and Mack Brown will have to get in the lab and come up with some potent stuff this week offensively.

This could be the coming out party for Foswhitt Whittaker, who along with D.J. Monroe, probably suit the type of running game Texas has right now: outside the tackles.

Whittaker and Monroe have more wiggle than Cody Johnson, who might be the only other healthy back for the Longhorns. When the holes aren't there, you need a back with some patience, some change of direction. I know the coaches don't trust Monroe to pick up the blitz, but get him in the Wild Horn and find a way to get him the ball in space.

I'LL HAVE VANILLA

Against Colorado, which had terrible sideline-to-sideline speed, Texas didn't even test the edges of the CU defense in the running game the way Toledo and West Virginia did with GREAT success. (Only in the passing game with Jordan Shipley and a couple screens to John Chiles.)

You have to hope the coaches were trying to show nothing on offense heading into the Red River Shootout. With a schedule like UT's, you can certainly play hide and seek with your offense.

Texas Tech is the highest rated defense UT has faced - No. 42 in scoring D (21.3 ppg), followed by No. 74 Wyoming (25.8 ppg), No. 96 Colorado (30.0 ppg), No. 103 Louisiana-Monroe (31.4 ppg) and No. 110 UTEP (34.8 ppg).

A NEW WRINKLE

I keep going back to this point: UT dusted off an offense in 2008 for OU - the four-wide flex - that it hadn't shown in six years prior.

It was the perfect sneak attack because it featured Shipley in that flex slot position, where he could do all kinds of damage to the middle of the OU pass defense. That's been a consistent soft spot for the Sooners during the Bob Stoops era. That's where Texas got them last year, and where Jacory Harris and the Miami Hurricanes got them earlier this month.

When a national title appears to be a realistic goal, this will be the week the coaches and players probably look back for the rest of their lives and say either, "That was the week we turned the page as a team in 2009," or, "That was the week it all got away."


THREE THINGS …

…THAT GOT BETTER

1. Defense -
After holding Colorado to 3-of-15 on third-down conversions, Texas is now No. 1 nationally in getting offenses off the field on third down. Opponents are converting just 20.8 percent of third downs.

The pressure on third down is coming fast and furious from Lamarr Houston (three QB hurries vs. the Buffaloes), Sergio Kindle[db] (two tackles for loss vs. CU), [db]Eddie Jones, Sam Acho (three TFLs vs. CU) and Emmanuel Acho (three TFLs vs. CU).

This defense is a monster, and it will go up against arguably the weakest part of the OU team - the offensive line, and a quarterback still testing a sprained shoulder. A few hits on Bradford early in the game will be critical to getting him off rhythm and unable to set his feet in the passing game.

"You always want to play against the best," said Earl Thomas, who had two interceptions against Bradford last season. "Hands down, he's a good quarterback. We're going to go out there and see if we can get a rush on him and make him throw it a little early and see if we can get some breaks on the ball."

The defense only created two turnovers - one shy of its goal for every game - but the D made up for it by scoring on Thomas' 92-yard interception return.

"We're playing at a high level," Thomas said. "Our D-line is creating a lot of strength up front and in the defense in general . They're making the quarterback force throws, and that's just going to help us down the road.

"The coaches preach turnovers, and the last couple weeks they've just been coming in bunches. We're just going to try to keep the intensity up and keep it going."

Safety Blake Gideon said the experience level on defense is better than when UT faced OU last season.

"I think there's going to be more of a collective calmness, especially in the back end of the defense," said Gideon, who has interceptions in back-to-back games. "Last year, we were just trying to run around and get lined up right. I think we'll be more calm. We're a year better. We've been playing together, so we'll see."

Gideon said he expected to see Bradford back for Oklahoma.

"I knew he'd be out there against us," Gideon said. "A competitor like Sam, he's not going to back away from a challenge like that. What a great opportunity for us to go out there and play the best."

2. Special teams - This was a bit of a mixed bag because UT's kick coverage was shaky against Colorado as was the punting. (Justin Tucker had a 5-yard punt Saturday night. That's not a typo.)

But the bottom line is Texas continues to get game-changing plays from its special teams when it's needed most.

The offense couldn't finish in the red zone in the first quarter, and Texas was trailing 14-10 when Marquise Goodwin darted around a CU defender to block a punt and S Ben Wells returned it 3 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.

Throw in Jordan Shipley's 74-yard punt return in the fourth quarter, and Texas now has scored on returns in four of five games this season. Last season, Texas had two returns all year - Shipley's 96-yard kick return against OU and his 45-yard punt return at Texas Tech. (Shipley didn't even really begin working on punt returns until the Tech game last year.)

"Special teams are huge, especially in close games," said Shipley, who is fourth nationally in punt returns (18.9 ypr) and is only one of two players with two punt returns for scores.

"Sometimes we have to make plays in special teams to swing the momentum, and I think we were able to do that (against Colorado) with the punt block and the punt return."

Asked if he has the confidence to take every return to the end zone, Shipley said, "I know I have confidence in the guys blocking. They're having fun. I feel like they're working so hard, I do feel like there's a chance we can take it back."

Shipley's 74-yard return was notable also because he picked up a block from the referee.

"Those guys are out there, you gotta use them every once in a while to set the screen," Shipley joked.

3. Colt McCoy's completion percentage - Don't look now, but McCoy completed 82 percent of his passes (32 of 39) against Colorado, including 21 of 24 in the first half, and appears to be more confident in where he's going with the ball. There were times in the first half against Colorado, when McCoy didn't set his feet, and it was probably because he got whacked on a sack in which Michael Huey failed to pick up a stunt by the defense.

McCoy has still yet to play a clean game this season (he had a fumble and interception that appeared to go through Jordan Shipley's hands against CU). He has at least one interception in every game this season and has six picks through five games. But McCoy has a career 74.3 percent completion rate against Oklahoma (58 of 79 for 709 yards with five touchdowns and one interception in three previous meetings). McCoy has been spectacular throwing the ball against the Sooners.


… THAT STAYED THE SAME

1. The offensive line still struggles with run blocking - Check the stats in "The Running Blame." The coaches get plenty of blame for a vanilla game plan against CU. Again, they better have more in store for the Sooners, or Texas will be 5-1 at this point next week.

2. No one has been able to run on Texas - Still.

3. Jordan Shipley - He caught 11 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown and is now No. 2 nationally in receptions per game (9.4) and No. 7 nationally in receiving yards per game (116.6). Defenses know they have to stop him, and they haven't so far.

… THAT GOT WORSE

1. James Kirkendoll - Kirkendoll has looked jittery at times in each of the past two games. He's had big drops in critical situations - one would have been a TD (against UTEP) and on a third-down pass (against Colorado). Might be time to give Marquise Goodwin a few more snaps with that electric speed.

2. Injuries - If Texas doesn't have Vondrell McGee (left shoulder) or Tre' Newton (mild concussion) for OU that would be a blow. McGee seemed to have a little more confidence after his 100-yard game against UTEP and seemed to be healed from an ankle injury. Now, he's nursing a shoulder injury. Newton seemed like the team's third-down back.

If Newton can't go, expect to see Fozzy Whittaker as the third-down back. Not sold at all that Cody Johnson needs to be on the field in any capacity other than short-yardage and goal line against OU.

Defensive linemen like OU's love tackling big, straight-ahead runners because they don't have to worry about change of direction. Texas needs OU to worry about change of direction. That would mean Fozzy.

3. Punting - Clearly the rugby punt was something Texas wanted on film for OU to waste valuable practice time stressing about. But something tells me OU is hoping to see the rugby punt because of how it self-destructed against Colorado. Bring back John Gold.


ONE FINAL THOUGHT

The Texas offense carried the Longhorns through the OU game last season, when Sam Bradford threw for five touchdowns, and Bradford had his full complement of weapons (Juaquin Iglesias, Manuel Johnson, Jermaine Gresham, that offensive line, etc.).

I remember watching Will Muschamp running and jumping into the arms of Greg Davis on the floor of the Cotton Bowl after the game. Muschamp knew how much McCoy's dizzying performance (28 of 35 passing for 277 yards and a touchdown without a single turnover as a team) meant to UT and a young secondary that day.

This year, it could be the Texas defense and special teams carrying the team if McCoy and the offense find themselves in another slow start against OU's loaded defensive front.



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