October 27, 2008

Mack Brown faces his most critical week of the season

Will Muschamp keeps a close eye on the fatigue factor of his defensive linemen so he knows when to substitute because as he likes to say, "When the big guys are done - they're done."

I look at Texas' game this week against its third Top 10 team in four weeks - at No. 6 Texas Tech - and see yet another school declaring it the biggest in their program's history. Oklahoma State did the same last week, and the Cowboys played like it.

A WINNING MINDSET

Never has Texas' mental and physical well being been more important. There's not a doubt in my mind Texas is more talented than Texas Tech and will have better Xs and Os. And the biggest difference between playing Oklahoma State and Texas Tech is the Red Raiders aren't nearly the play-action threat of the Cowboys.

Graham Harrell is also no running threat - the opposite of Zac Robinson - and Harrell's prone to becoming too emotional and thus making mistakes. Harrell and Chase Daniel are a lot alike in that way. Both seem to press when they are on the big stage and things aren't going well.

"It's great to have the schedule we have right now because as long as we win every ballgame, they can't take it from us," said receiver Jordan Shipley. "We're fortunate to have a really strong schedule, and it's a great time to be a part of the Big 12 conference. It's amazing how many teams that are ranked, and even the teams that aren't are playing well."

But here's the question for Texas: What's the level of the gas tank after facing three straight teams ranked in the Top 11 - all of whom required total concentration for 60 minutes? Is it on full or nearing empty? The No. 1 ranking can start weighing a lot, too, especially on a team that has to work so hard for what it gets.

NO MARGIN FOR ERROR

Texas is No. 5 in scoring offense (45.6 ppg) and has made it look easy because Colt McCoy, Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby are playing at a near-perfect level this season. In games against Oklahoma, Missouri and OSU, McCoy is 95 of 112 passing (84.8 percent) for 1,005 yards and five touchdowns with one interception.

In that same span, Shipley has 34 catches for 369 yards and three touchdowns with a 96-yard kick return for a TD, and Cosby has 24 catches for 272 yards and a touchdown.

But this is not an explosive offense. Remember? It lacks speed and elusiveness at running back (where was Fozzy Whittaker on Saturday?). It still doesn't have a receiver who can beat press coverage consistently and get deep.

Texas is averaging eight points more per game this season (45.6) than last (37.2) - without the speed of Jamaal Charles, Jermichael Finley and Limas Sweed. It's a credit to the blue-collar work ethic of this offense - and McCoy's ability to throw passes through keyholes.

Even Mack Brown said a few weeks ago that he doesn't think UT will have many explosive plays in the running game.

"That's not who we are," Brown said.

FINDING THE RESOLVE

The answer about the team's emotional and physical gas tank is somewhat irrelevant because the coaches have to come up with a way to make sure it's on full by Saturday night at 7 p.m. in Lubbock. Whether it's Mack Brown burying footballs or dressing up like a pirate - this will be Brown's ultimate coaching test of the season.

As good as Muschamp is, Texas Tech has led the nation in passing five of the past six years. In that span, Tech has averaged 32.3 points per game against Texas, including the Red Raiders' last victory - a 42-38 upset in Lubbock in 2002.

No one wants to hear this, but Texas will be able to get away without playing its best and still beating Baylor in Austin on Nov. 8. If Texas has to manufacture fuel until then, so be it. There's no bye week coming to recharge batteries until after a road trip to Kansas on Nov. 14.

HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?

Coaches have to walk a fine line this week about whether to do a lot of hitting or more walkthroughs, a lot of screaming or reassuring. To a man after the Oklahoma State game, Texas players said it was the most physical game they'd played all year.

"Our bell was rung," said defensive tackle Aaron Lewis. "But we had to stop them."

Lewis and the Texas defense showed once again how desperate times call for extraordinary effort. Texas Tech will be desperate to finally knock off Texas in perhaps the program's biggest game in history. Will Texas have enough in the tank for a another extraordinary effort?


THREE THINGS …

… THAT GOT BETTER

1. Colt McCoy to Jordan Shipley -
If it's possible, these two found even more ways to connect. McCoy completed 18 in a row, and Shipley caught a school-record 15 balls. When Mack Brown was asked if he half-expected McCoy to complete all of his passes, Brown said, "Yes. I've become a Texas fan. My standard is way too high for him."

2. Big stop defense - Texas gave up huge chunks of yards on the ground while trying to protect against OSU getting even bigger plays in the passing game. The bend-but-don't-break approach was something Will Muschamp said he was willing to live with by design. In the end, Texas held OSU to less than half its season scoring average and stuffed the Cowboys when it mattered most - in the fourth quarter.

3. Penalties - Texas had only one penalty - an illegal substitution.

… THAT STAYED THE SAME

1. Pass rush -
Zac Robinson had been sacked only five times through seven games. Texas got him five times on Saturday - primarily rushing four.

2. Time of possession - Despite being a pass-first offense, UT has been able to dink and dunk with McCoy's accuracy and keep the clock moving - giving Texas the time of possession of a strong running team. Texas has held the ball for at least 33 minutes in each of the last five games. This is huge because it keeps opponents' explosive offenses off the field.

3. Third down conversions - After converting 10 of 12 third downs against Missouri, Texas converted 11 of 14 against Oklahoma State. Folks, this is crazy - 21 of 26 third-down conversions the last two weeks against ranked opponents? That's an 80.8 percent conversion rate. Anything around 50 percent will make a coach's day (Florida currently leads the nation at 53.4 percent. UT is 47.4 for the season). Again, chalk it up to the efficiency of McCoy and his receivers.


THAT GOT WORSE

1. Kickoff coverage -
Someone named Victor Johnson ran a kick back for 52 yards Saturday. Then, Perrish Cox did the exact same thing. Mack Brown said his team got confused trying to cover pooch kicks, so UT just kicked away in the second half and corrected the problem. It's time for Justin Tucker a.k.a. Touchback Tucker to re-emerge. He's had one touchback in 14 kickoffs the last two weeks.

2. Running the ball when it matters - This was the worst the ground game has looked since Week 2 at UTEP. Oklahoma State has improved its rush defense (OSU was only giving up 116.7 yards per game on the ground) and had a lot of men around the line. But for Texas to rush 32 times for 113 yards and average just 3.5 yards per carry when UT had been averaging 193.4 and 4.6 ypc - is a big step back. Where it was most obvious was on its final drive when Texas wanted to kill clock running the ball, couldn't and had to throw a 20-yard pass to Jordan Shipley on third-and-9.

3. Run defense - After looking at the national stats today, I'm convinced there's no better team in the country at play-action right now than Oklahoma State. (Georgia might be the second-best with Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno.) So Texas' linebackers should be relieved that test is done - because it was rough. Time and again, UT's linebackers were caught between thinking run and pass and were a step late, missed a tackle or allowed backs to bounce outside. Texas wanted to make OSU one-dimensional - it didn't happen. That being said, Texas held OSU to 217 yards rushing - 66 yards below its average (even though OSU averaged 5.9 ypc and its season average was 5.5).


NEXT OPPONENT - No. 6 TEXAS TECH (8-0)
(7 p.m. Saturday at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock, ABC)

The Red Raiders reached their highest ranking in 32 years Sunday - moving up two spots from No. 8 to No. 6 - by knocking out Kansas 63-14 in Lawrence. Tech hasn't been ranked this high since Nov. 15, 1976, when the Red Raiders were 8-0 heading into a big home game against No. 9 Houston. Texas Tech lost to Houston, 27-19, and finished that season 10-2 with a loss to Nebraska in the Bluebonnet Bowl.

The question is never Tech's offense. It's Tech's defense, which has adopted the saying "rise to the occasion." The Red Raiders held Kansas to 315 yards of total offense and forced three Jayhawk interceptions. KU was held 12 points below its season average of 33.0 points entering the game.

Tech is giving up 21.1 points per game under defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill, an improvement over the 25.9 ppg surrendered in 2007. But Texas has averaged 45.7 points per game against Tech over the last seven years and has scored at least 50 points in three of the last four years (59 in 2007, 52 in 2005 and 51 in 2004). Junior defensive end Brandon Williams has eight sacks for the Red Raiders.

Sophomore placekicker Matt Williams may be one of the most popular players in college football right now. Williams, a student at Tech, won a halftime promotion at the UMass game Sept. 20 and made a 30-yard field in the Lynwood Townhomes Kick-For-Rent contest. It drew the attention of Mike Leach who quickly found a spot for him on the team. Williams turned down a year of free rent to kick for Tech. After receiving word from the NCAA this week that Williams was eligible, he was named the starter in the extra point role. Williams kicked nine of them against Kansas.

Quarterback Graham Harrell finished the KU game 34-for-42 for 386 yards and five touchdowns. Harrell moved into fourth place on the NCAA's career passing yards list, passing former NC State quarterback Phillip Rivers who threw for 13,484 yards (2000-03). All-American WR Michael Crabtree already has 60 catches for 794 yards and 14 touchdowns.


BIG 12 POWER RANKINGS

1. TEXAS (8-0)

Last week:
No. 1

This Saturday: at Texas Tech

Bottom line: The Red Raiders will turn this into a crusade on par with Braveheart, so Texas and Will Muschamp will have to be at their best.

Chip's pick: Later this week

2. OKLAHOMA STATE (7-1)

Last week:
No. 2

This Saturday: Iowa St.

Bottom line: Cowboys earned national respect with narrow loss at Texas.

Chip's pick: Okla. St. 42, Iowa St. 12

3. OKLAHOMA (7-1)

Last week:
No. 3

This Saturday: Nebraska

Bottom line: The Sooners are giving up points in bunches but Sam Bradford[/B) and Co. are scoring enough just keep winning.

Chip's pick: OU 55, Nebraska 21

4. TEXAS TECH (8-0)

Last week:
No. 6

This Saturday: Texas

Bottom line: Red Raiders made a statement by thrashing Kansas in Lawrence 63-21.

Chip's pick: Will come later in the week

5. MISSOURI (6-2)

Last week:
No. 5

This Saturday: at Baylor

Bottom line: Tigers bounced back from loss to Texas by drilling Colorado 58-0.

Chip's pick: Missouri 41, Baylor 21

No. 6 KANSAS (5-3)

Last week: No. 4

This Saturday: Kansas St.

Bottom line: Jayhawks got pounded by Texas Tech, but should be good enough to beat K-State.

Chip's pick: Kansas 44, Kansas St. 40

No. 7 NEBRASKA (5-3)

Last week:
No. 10

This Saturday: at Oklahoma

Bottom line: The Cornhuskers can make their season with a win in Norman this week.

No. 8 KANSAS ST. (4-4)

Last week:
No. 8

This Saturday: at Kansas

Bottom line: Wildcats had six turnovers in last visit to Lawrence.

No. 9 BAYLOR (3-5)

Last week:
No. 9

This Saturday: Missouri

Bottom line: Robert Griffin is learning he can't do it alone.

No. 10 TEXAS A&M (3-5)

Last week:
No. 11

This Saturday:
Colorado

Bottom line: The Aggies are suddenly finding some offense after putting up 49 points and 509 yards in a 49-35 win at Iowa State.

Chip's pick: Texas A&M 31, Colorado 28

No. 11 COLORADO (4-4)

Last week:
No. 7

This Saturday: at Texas A&M

Bottom line: Buffs have bottomed out offensively after being blanked 58-0 by Missouri.

No. 12 IOWA STATE (2-6)

Last week:
No. 12

This Saturday: at Oklahoma St.

Bottom line: Life doesn't get any easier for the Fighting Gene Chiziks in Stillwater this week


COAST TO COAST

THE TOP FIVE

1. TEXAS
- Three teams in the Top 11 down, one to go.

2. ALABAMA - Tide has a one-game schedule - at LSU on Nov. 8 - to reach the SEC title game.

3. PENN STATE - This team has a Texas quality about its chemistry

4. USC - No. 1 scoring defense in all the land, giving up 8.1 ppg

5. FLORIDA - The offense is back, and the defense has been stout all along

THE NEXT FIVE

6. OKLAHOMA STATE
- The balance on offense is a killer, and the defense is improved

7. OKLAHOMA - Sam Bradford and Co. have to score because the defense - without Ryan Reynolds - has been exposed

8. GEORGIA - Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno help compensate for an OK defense

9. TEXAS TECH - Texas has shown the last five years, good defense blows up this offense, but it's still scary

10. UTAH - The Mountain West is the third-best conference in college football this year

THE PICKS
(Slim pickins as far as marquee matchups this week. Last week 3-2 vs. spread.)

FLORIDA (-6.5) vs. GEORGIA (in Jacksonville) - Gators are clicking and Bulldogs could be still celebrating win at LSU.

Chip's Pick: Florida 38, Georgia 28

AUBURN at OLE MISS (-5.5) - Auburn should be desperate after an embarrassing loss at West Virginia. But do the Tigers still have it in 'em? Who knows, but they should cover.

Chip's Pick: Ole Miss 24, Auburn 20

TENNESSEE at SOUTH CAROLINA (-5.5) - Phillip Fulmer's team got drilled at home by Alabama. If the Vols can't get up for this one, then Fulmer has lost the team. Besides Fulmer hates Steve Spurrier.

Chip's Pick: Tennessee 24, South Carolina 21

PITT at NOTRE DAME (-5) - Two of the great coaches in college football square off. Kind of like Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne, so give me Dave Wannstedt (and LaSean McCoy).

Chip's Pick: Pitt 27, Notre Dame 24


ONE FINAL THOUGHT

I can't get the image of [db]Mike Leach out of my head at the Big 12 meetings in Colorado Springs in May, wearing out the ear of the Big 12's new assistant commissioner for football Ed Stewart about the league's officiating. Leach has been all but calling out the refs after games against Texas the last two years like a basketball coach working the officials in hopes of getting the makeup call when he needs it most - in Leach's case … this year.

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