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September 14, 2009

College Football Fix: Texas gets to show its ready for prime time

On Monday, Texas coaches and players refused to rehash last year's loss to Texas Tech. Revenge would not be part of the formula for success in the rematch Saturday night, they said. Just another game, they said. Big 12 opener, they said.

"They got us," Colt McCoy said. "Anytime you lose, you're disappointed. But what the team took away is how to take care of business.

"We didn't do that last year, so we're thinking this year about what we have to do each week to take care of business."

Added Mack Brown, "A lot will use last year's game as a motivating factor, but we won't. We've got GameDay coming in, 101,000 people will be at the game, a national TV audience - if that's not enough to get you motivated, you're not a Texas football player."

FANS WANT BLOOD

Fans probably want blood on Saturday. But fans are probably also taking Tums about where Texas fits into everything nationally after USC won at Ohio State and after Saturday's first half in Laramie.

The Longhorns' offense couldn't convert third downs (5 of 17) Saturday, committed penalty after penalty, including two holding calls and two false starts.

Colt McCoy looked uncomfortable for the entire first half and said the offense "wasn't playing well together."
Even Mack Brown said he thinks the team may be pressing because of the expectations this season.

JUST HAVE FUN

"Unlike last year, when there were no expectations, the guys just had a blast and had fun," Brown said after the game. "I do think now they are trying a little too hard. That's on me. Maybe I've pushed a little too hard, too. There were no expectations last year. And these players have to realize a 41-10 win on the road, in the altitude is a good win. I'll handle that."

Brown said Monday he had a long talk with McCoy about relaxing and having fun.

But if you remove all the clutter, Texas got better Saturday. The Longhorns discovered Tre' Newton may be this year's Chris Ogbonnaya, which would be a HUGE revelation.

HERE COMES TRE' NEWTON

Brown said Newton "earned the right to get more snaps" with his 7.8 yards per carry performance (8 carries for 62 yards). You also have to think Texas coaches were saving some razzle-dazzle with D.J. Monroe (reverse, wheel route, etc.) for this week's game against Texas Tech.

And McCoy may have remembered just how important his legs are to this offense (9 carries for 44 yards, 4.9 ypc).

So in two weeks, you now count Newton and Monroe as playmakers when you were unsure about them to start the season. Combine their efforts at running back with Vondrell McGee, who quietly rushed for 5.5 yards per carry (11 carries for 61 yards) Saturday, and you've got depth at running back suddenly.

Dan Buckner is already emerging as a bonafide STAR in this offense. Six catches for 86 yards on Saturday, including his 33-yard touchdown catch on third-and-6 in the third quarter to help stretch the lead to 27-10. He followed that up with a CLUTCH, 11-yard catch on fourth-and-5 from the Wyoming 38 on UT's next possession to help set up a Tre' Newton touchdown that put the Longhorns up 34-10.

RB PASSING GAME NEEDS WORK

With no Quan Cosby and no Ogbonnaya this season, McCoy has to get into a comfort zone with new faces. He appears to be doing that. Even John Chiles' burst on that slip screen for a 26-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter was Quan-like. That's two weeks in a row Chiles has shown he can take that same screen (that Cosby averaged 9 yards per catch last year) and make big plays out of it. That's another level of comfort for McCoy.

Quarterbacks are like the stock market. They want certainty. The more McCoy knows what works on third down or even fourth down, the more confident he becomes. Until he knows who he can depend on, there will be a shadow of doubt hovering over the offense. Then, penalties creep in. Then, third downs don't get converted.

That first half (a what-were-you-thinking interception, ridiculous intentional grounding penalty and missing McGee wide open in the back of the end zone on third-and-goal in the second quarter) was as bad a half as we've seen from McCoy since his 22 TD, 18 INT season in 2007.

I think the most important player on the offense outside of McCoy and Jordan Shipley right now is Tre' Newton.

McCoy made a living throwing the ball to Ogbonnaya last year. Go back and look at the biggest games Texas played in last year. Ogbonnaya was a factor in them (127 yards rushing and 27 receiving vs. OU; six receptions for 68 yards vs. Mizzou; seven catches for 73 yards vs. Oklahoma State; four receptions for 56 yards vs. Ohio State). Ogbonnaya was McCoy's third-down target four times against OU last year.

That's trust. McCoy is still trying to figure that out this season. Until he does, his third-down numbers that were so uncanny last year won't be there this season. But I think he's starting to figure it out.

All we heard from McCoy last year was how happy he was to accept a check-down pass (mostly to Ogbonnaya) to keep the chains moving. Yesterday, Wyoming was playing its defensive backs in nearly a prevent zone all day, leaving the check-down wide open. But McCoy was still forcing passes down the field, such as his interception into quadruple coverage on second-and-1 from the 50.

MCCOY'S LEGS ARE BACK

One other thing on McCoy. He will have to run more to REALLY open up the team's running game and put defenses on their heels.

The coaches didn't want to run McCoy in games like ULM and Wyoming. But he will have to run more against better competition. And Mack Brown said Monday McCoy would run more.

Texas didn't call a QB draw (a bread and butter play last season) until the second half - on second-and-10 from the UT 12, midway through the third quarter. McCoy ran for 11 yards. Those plays are there, and if called earlier in a game, I think they'll help McCoy get into the game more quickly, the same way a run early seemed to ignite Vince Young.

One of Wyoming's few NFL prospects, defensive end John Fletcher, who was hounding McCoy all afternoon Saturday, said he couldn't believe McCoy's speed and strength.

"He doesn't look it, but he's really hard to get down, and he's got another gear when he decides to run it," Fletcher said.

OFFENSE STILL FINDING ITS WAY

I said going into the season my concerns were ALL on offense for these very reasons. You don't convert 48 percent of third-and-7s or longer with guys like Quan Cosby and Chris Ogbonnaya and expect that to magically continue without those guys. Those were veterans in the program who helped tutor McCoy.

Now, McCoy is doing all the tutoring with a redshirt freshmen like Newton and Monroe, with a sophomore like Buckner and a new receiver like Chiles. It's one thing to be a talented back or receiver. It's something completely different to be talented and ALWAYS ON THE SAME PAGE with the quarterback. That takes time.

I saw the second half Saturday as a day to quietly relish the future of this offense … but Texas can't wait until the second half for things to happen this week against Texas Tech.

THREE THINGS …

… THAT GOT BETTER

1. Tre' Newton -
The third play to Newton was a flare pass on first down from the UT 12 with 9:54 left in the third quarter. It would have gained about 4 yards, but Newton dropped it. He shrugged it off like a veteran and came back three plays later with an 18-yard run up the gut in which he stepped through an arm tackle.

Later that quarter, he popped a 13-yard touchdown run for his second explosive run of the game. In the fourth quarter, he ran for 3 yards on third-and-1 to help keep a TD drive alive.

Newton also had a 15-yard reception on third-and-16, one play before Jordan Shipley attempted a fake field goal that was thwarted. Newton is a heady kid who has the respect of his teammates.

He's also averaging 7.5 yards per carry (12 for 90) and has yet to have a zero or negative yardage run (his shortest run is 3 yards - twice).

2. Third-down defense - Last week, ULM converted 5 of 15 third downs on offense. This week, Texas limited Wyoming to 3 of 17. That's flat-out filthy. Even with some quarterback runs and some scramble passes, Wyoming could sustain nothing offensively.

The Cowboys had 10 drives that failed to reach 10 total yards. Seven times, the Texas defense got Wyoming off the field in three plays or less. Wyoming averaged just 2.5 yards per carry. Texas held Wyoming without a first down in the entire second quarter.

The Cowboys' offense had the ball five times in the second quarter, and in 14 offensive plays, they mustered 23 yards. The average length of those five drives was 4.6 yards.

Wyoming scored all of its 10 points in the second quarter - one off a blocked punt for a touchdown and on a field goal after inheriting the ball at the Texas 14 following a botched fake punt. But the defense carried the team until the offense could finally figure things out right before the half.

3. Eddie Jones - Jones didn't have a big headline game at all. He was credited with only two tackles. But he got pressure on the quarterback twice on third-down Saturday to help end drives. The reason I'm putting him in my top three this week is if he can continue to contribute like that after his latest shoulder surgery (in the spring), then Texas' four-man rush will continue to get the desired results. Jones' tenacity and perseverance will serve as a great example to young players like Tevin Mims, who got into the game on Saturday.

…THAT STAYED THE SAME

1. Dan Buckner -
Buckner followed up a career game against ULM (five catches for 62 yards) last week with another career game against Wyoming (six catches for 68 yards and a touchdown). The thing to watch is how Colt McCoy is starting to turn to Buckner on the big-money downs.

Against Wyoming, Buckner converted two third downs and a fourth down. When a quarterback is struggling to figure out who he can trust in this year's offense, those are statement plays. One of Buckner's third-down conversions came on third-and-6 from the Wyoming 33 in the third quarter, and Buckner turned it into a much-needed touchdown, giving Texas some breathing room at 27-10.

On UT's very next possession, Buckner came up big with an 11-yard reception on fourth-and-5 from the Wyoming 38. The play kept alive a drive to Tre Newton's 13-yard TD burst that put the Longhorns up 34-10.

2. Another interception from Colt McCoy - I firmly believe McCoy is looking downfield and throwing places he shouldn't because he hasn't developed the chemistry in the passing game with his running backs.

Even though Vondrell McGee has been running the ball well (he's averaging 4.8 ypc in two games), he's 0-for-3 on third-down passes. Three times McCoy has thrown to him on third down, and three times Texas has failed to convert. And one of those came when McGee was wide open in the end zone and McCoy missed him Saturday.

For whatever reason, the mojo between McCoy and McGee isn't there yet. McCoy's chemistry with Tre Newton in the passing game seems to be a bit better. For whatever reason, the running back passing game has been slow to develop. And in an offense like Texas', the back is often the check down when nothing else is open. UT didn't have a single completion to a back in Week 1.

Against Wyoming, McCoy completed three to backs and one of those - to McGee - went for no gain. A 15-yarder to Tre Newton came up just short of converting third-and-16, and a 9-yarder to McGee in the first quarter went for a first down on second-and-7.

Through two games last year, McCoy had already completed 10 passes to backs, and the offense was thriving. The backs have to be more involved in the passing game or McCoy will continue to look places he shouldn't.

3. Sam Acho - After two games, the guy has nine tackles, three fumble recoveries, two pass breakups and four tackles for loss, including a sack. The guy is balling. He's doing exactly what he should be doing - taking advantage of the protection being turned toward Sergio Kindle.

… THAT GOT WORSE

1. Special teams -
Oh boy. All 10 points given up by Texas on Saturday can be traced to two plays - Justin Tucker trying to go Earl Campbell from his own goal line, and Wyoming totally exploiting a tendency in UT's punt that resulted in a block for a touchdown and a 10-6 lead.

Wyoming sent speedy freshman CB Luke Ruff on a hidden, delayed rush twice, because Wyoming saw that Antwan Cobb, who has replaced Rashad Bobino as the up-man on UT's punt team, would start blocking to one side if he didn't see anyone coming initially.

So Ruff hid behind his own defenders for a one-second count, then came zipping up the middle, after Cobb had committed to a side and pulled off the block untouched. Wyoming nearly pulled off the block midway through the first quarter but roughed John Gold.

Because Texas made no adjustment, the Cowboys made the exact same move and blocked the punt in the second quarter. No need to rehash Tucker's tuck-and-run.

But there can be plenty of second-guessing on the fourth-and-1, failed fake field goal dive by Shipley (Why not line up the Jumbo Package and ram it for 1 yard?), and a block in the back by Emmanuel Acho on a punt return by Shipley that cost the team field position. And there was another holding call that negated another nice Shipley return in the fourth quarter.

2. Penalties - There were 12. Let's count them up: (1) Offsides on Lamarr Houston; (2) unsportsmanlike conduct on Chykie Brown; (3) false start on David Snow; (4) intentional grounding by Colt McCoy; (5) illegal block in the back by Emmanuel Acho on a punt return; and (6) holding on Chris Hall.

THOSE WERE ALL IN THE FIRST HALF.

On to the second half: (7) holding on Adam Ulatoski that negates what would have been a first-down pass to Tre Newton on third-and-6 early in the third quarter; (8) defensive offsides; (9) Curtis Brown pass interference; (10) false start on Chris Hall; (11) officials called holding on a punt return by Shipley to the 40. Instead UT took possession on the 30 (officials called holding on "No.10" - one problem - No. 10 is up in the north end zone at DKR); (12) delay of game on Garrett Gilbert.

3. Offensive line - Folks, this could easily be No. 1 on this list. The problems on the line were everywhere Saturday. Maybe it was the altitude. Coaches better hope so because the line looked and blocked like they were fatigued throughout the game.

Even in the third quarter, when things were turning around, Colt McCoy had to be David Blaine and make a free blitzer miss on his TD pass to Dan Buckner.

Of the six penalties on offense, four were on the line. There's no need to name names because everyone will get a stern talking to from coaches after watching the film. Maybe things will improve back at sea level with Texas Tech coming to town (the film from that game last year should be inspiration enough).

UP NEXT UP FOR TEXAS

Opponent:
TEXAS TECH

When: 7 p.m. CT, Saturday

TV: ABC

Scouting Texas Tech: Taylor Potts threw three interceptions in the Red Raiders 38-13 victory over North Dakota in Week 1. Potts rebounded with seven TD passes and zero interceptions in a 55-10 pounding of Rice on Saturday.

Tech is leading the nation in passing - no surprise. The Red Raiders thought they'd have a better running game at this point, but they are 114th nationally. We know nothing about the Tech defense after these two games.

When Texas Tech agreed to move this game from Nov. 7 to this weekend, every Texas fan said it would be a huge advantage for the Longhorns to get the Red Raiders early in the season, when Potts was still transitioning at quarterback. The Texas pass rush will get a heck of a workout on Saturday. And ESPN's GameDay will be here to document every bit of it.

This GameDay comes at a great point for Texas. With people starting wonder if USC should be the No. 2 team in the country and the Big 12 barfing all over itself in Week 2 (see Oklahoma State, Missouri's near loss to Bowling Green and Colorado's tank job after OU's loss in Week 1), Texas gets a chance to make a statement in prime time.


BIG 12 RANKINGS

1. TEXAS (2-0; Last week: 1)

Last week:
Beat Wyoming 41-10
Next up: Texas Tech
Bottom line: Longhorns can make a statement to a national TV audience and GameDay this week that they are truly the class of the Big 12 and deserving of their No. 2 ranking.

2. OKLAHOMA STATE ( 1-1; Last week: 2)

Last week:
Lost to Houston 45-35
Next up: Rice
Bottom line: So much for that season-opening, Sports Illustrated cover-inducing win over Georgia. Even though the Cowboys just lost, they are still the second-best team in the league. Houston was a dangerous game for the Cowboys.

The Cougars were No. 2 nationally last year in passing and total offense, and QB Case Keenum was the nation's leader in total offense in 2008. That Cougar offense has eight starters back (and plays host to Texas Tech on Sept. 26).

But how does Oklahoma State battle back from a 24-7 deficit, hold Houston scoreless in the third quarter to go up 28-24 … and then give up 21 points in the fourth quarter? Pitiful. Somewhere, Boone Pickens is throwing barrels of oil around in frustration.

3. OKLAHOMA (1-1; Last week: 3)

Last week:
Beat Idaho State 64-0
Next up: Tulsa
Bottom line: Even Landry Jones looked good against the spuds from Idaho State. Tulsa should provide more of a test for OU's remade offensive line because the Golden Hurricane has eight starters back on D from last year's 11-3 team.

4. KANSAS (2-0; Last week: 4)

Last week:
Won at UTEP 34-7
Next up: Duke
Bottom line: We've come to expect big things from Kansas' offense, and the Jayhawks did not disappoint with 576 yards, including 104 yards rushing by Jake Sharp and eight catches for 154 yards by WR Dezmon Briscoe, who came back from a one-game suspension for violating team rules.

But the story in this one was the KU defense shutting down a UTEP offense with eight starters back from last year, including QB Trevor Vittatoe. UTEP had just 4 yards rushing and didn't score until there was 12:39 left on the clock.

5. BAYLOR (1-0; Last week: 5)

Last week:
Off
Next up: Connecticut
Bottom line: Baylor has had two weeks to prepare for the defending co-champion of the Big East. The Huskies led North Carolina most of the game last week before the Tar Heels scraped out a late touchdown and a 12-10 win over UConn.

A win this week for Art Briles, a.k.a. "McGuyver Briles," and Baylor starts becoming a national story and should be 4-0 going into a road game at Oklahoma on Oct. 10 (with games against Northwestern State and Kent State up after UConn).

6. NEBRASKA (1-0; Last week: 6)

Last week:
Beat Arkansas State 38-9
Next up: At Virginia Tech
Bottom line: The Huskers have taken care of business the first two weeks. Let's see how far QB Zac Lee and the Big Red offense have really come against Virginia Tech's vaunted defense in Blacksburg.

Bo Pelini called his defense soft after a season-opening, 49-3 victory against Florida Atlantic. That defense will have to track down Hokie QB Tyrod Taylor this week. An upset by NU would be the signature win of the young Pelini Era.

7. TEXAS TECH (2-0; Last week: 7)

Last week:
Defeated Rice 55-10
Next up: Texas
Bottom line: After Mike Leach went 11-1 in the regular season last year, including the biggest win of his career - over then No. 1 Texas - and then nearly got fired over a contract dispute, he brings his team to GameDay in Austin, where he's never won.

8. MISSOURI (2-0; Last week: 8)

Last week:
Defeated Bowling Green 27-20
Next up: Furman
Bottom line: After new QB Blaine Gabbert looked like the second coming of Chase Daniel last week while thumping Illinois, he stunk it up for most of three quarters against Bowling Green. But after trailing 20-6 midway through the third quarter, Gabbert and the offense finally mustered three TD drives, the final score coming with 5:38 left in the game.

9. TEXAS A&M (1-0; Last week: 10)

Last week:
Off
Next up: Utah St.
Bottom line: The Mike Sherman Era looks to keep rolling this week against a Utah State team that went 3-9 last season.

10.IOWA STATE (1-1; Last week: 12)

Last week:
Lost to Iowa 35-3
Next up: at Kent St.
Bottom line: After the Cyclones, under new head coach Paul Rhoads, ended a 10-game losing streak left over from the Gene Chizik Era against North Dakota State, they were snapped back to reality against Iowa. Kent State is a winnable game this week.

11.COLORADO (0-2; Last week: 10)

Last week:
Lost at Toledo 54-38
Next up: Wyoming
Bottom line: This program is teetering on completely coming off the rails. Dan Hawkins had better get the players together because this was some of the worst-coached football I've seen in a long time, especially for a coach who had such success at Boise State.

12.KANSAS STATE (1-1; Last week: 11)

Last week:
Lost at Louisiana-Lafayette 17-15
Next up: At UCLA
Bottom line: Hey, Bill Snyder had his feel-good moment with a season-opening win at home over UMass. The good news is K-State is catching a UCLA team coming off the high of beating Tennessee on the road and now has quarterback issues (QB Kevin Prince has a busted jaw). The bad news is K-State has no chance. (But Tennessee Tech is in Manhattan on Sept. 26 and could be another feel-good moment for the old man).

THE TOP TEN

1. FLORIDA -
The Lane Kiffin Bowl is already here. Tim Tebow may rip the plaque of his speech after the Ole Miss game last year and beat Kiffin over the head with it.

2. TEXAS - Colt McCoy says he's going to have more fun and relax. Sounds like a good plan.

3. ALABAMA - QB Greg McElroy gets to show his old coach at Southlake Carroll - Todd Dodge - just how far he's come this week against North Texas.

4. USC - After winning in the Horseshoe with a freshman QB, nine new starters on defense and two new coordinators, it's official: Pete Carroll takes his jogs ON the Pacific not next to the Pacific.

5. CAL - Jahvid Best gets to pad his stats against Minnesota and Tim Brewster this week.

6. MISSISSIPPI - Ole Miss had a bye last week to rest up for ... SE Louisiana.

7. LSU - Jordan Jefferson completed 20 of 29 passing in 23-9 win over Vanderbilt.

8. PENN STATE - Nittany Lions may have only won the NIT in hoops, but they took down Greg Paulus last Saturday.

9. VIRGINIA TECH - QB Tyrod Taylor and the Hokie defense get a chance to make up for that Alabama loss with Nebraska coming to town.

10. OHIO STATE - If Jim Tressel would loosen things up a bit, he probably would have beaten USC.

THE PICKS

Georgia Tech at Miami (-4)
Georgia Tech 23, Miami 20

Tennessee at Florida (-28)
Florida 42, Tennessee 10

Michigan State at Notre Dame (-11)
Notre Dame 28, Michigan State 27

Rice at Oklahoma State (-31.5)
Oklahoma State 44, Rice 10

Tulsa at Oklahoma (-15.5)
OU 35, Tulsa 10

Utah State at Texas A&M (-17.5)
Texas A&M 37, Utah State 10

Florida State at BYU (-7)
BYU 28, Florida State 17

Nebraska at Virginia Tech
Va. Tech 24, Nebraska 17

Connecticut at Baylor (-10.5)
Baylor 31, UConn 17

ONE FINAL THOUGHT

If you haven't seen the Mack Brown strumming a guitar on the commercial for ESPN's GameDay, you are missing out. Hilarious.


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