Game Preview: Big 12 Championship – Texas Longhorns v. Nebraska Cornhuskers

December 5, 2009
7:00 p.m. Central
ABC

Texas’ 2009 “fourth season” is about to come to close exactly where the team wanted to be – in the Big 12 Championship game in Arlington on Saturday night. Head coach Mack Brown’s mantra this season has been “one game at a time” and focusing on splitting up the season in to four, three-game chunks to keep the team moving forward and delivering on their goal of reaching the conference and national championships. Check.

Last week, Texas showed some weaknesses – in particular, on the defensive side of the ball – and luckily, the offense and Mr. Heisman-hopeful carried the ‘Horns to a hard-fought victory in College Station. Things need to improve this week in order for the ‘Horns to tackle what might be their second-toughest opponent on paper in the Big 12. Don’t think the team isn’t locked on this game, though – if you saw or heard defensive coordinator Will Muschamp after the A&M game, you know the ‘Horns will have their act together defensively come Saturday night. Offensively, QB Colt McCoy has one last game to make his case for the Heisman Trophy in the two-horse race against Florida QB and the media-generated God-like figure Tim Tebow.

This Week
Eyes Of TX’s Prediction
Texas 38, Nebraska 17

Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-3)
At the beginning of the season, Eyes Of TX predicted Nebraska would win the Big 12’s North Division. In hindsight, it was surprising who they were competing with for that title, and how close it really was down the home stretch. At 9-3 on the season, the Cornhuskers started the season inconsistently, but in the last five games, they’ve shown that they deserve their spot in Arlington on Saturday to play for the conference championship.

Don’t let Bo Pelini’s squad fool you – they worked hard and earned this game with Texas. Their three losses – to Virginia Tech, Iowa State, and Texas Tech – were all different in their own right. Visiting the Hokies, they had a chance to win in the closing minutes and fell just short. Playing Iowa State at home, they had one of the most disastrous games a college football fan has ever seen (with eight turnovers), and they still only lost 9-7. Against Tech, well, anything is possible with this Red Raiders team this year, and the Cornhuskers caught them on a good week of football. Net-net, Pelini will not let his defensive-minded team roll over for this game. They will be amped up, ready to play against the odds, and potentially upset the ‘Horns the same way the James Brown-led Texas team did in the inaugural Big 12 Championship game in 1996 (when they were also three TD underdogs).

The mediocre Nebraska offense is based on and led by the running game, and we’ll start there. The Huskers bring two stud running backs to attack the stout Texas run defense in Roy Helu, Jr. and Rex Burkhead. Helu, at a solid 6’2” 215-pounds, is the lead back who is an inside threat with the speed to occasionally break runs to and up the sidelines. He’s tallied more than 1,100 yards rushing on the year, and many of those yards have come after contact, while his 5.4/yards per carry average has led him to 10 TDs on the season. He can also be an outlet for the Nebraska QBs, as he’s also caught passes for more than 149 yards on the season. Generally, however, you can expect to see his touches coming primarily in the I-formation with his feet attacking the Texas defense north-south. The Huskers second running threat is 5’11” 200-pound freshman Burkhead. Burkhead is the speed back, and he’s been successful in the offensive scheme running and catching the ball as a supplement to Helu’s grunt work in the inside. The Cornhusker’s success – both running and throwing the ball – lies directly on these two backs.

If Nebraska is smart, they keep the ball in the hands of the backs, and allow their QBs Zac Lee and Cody Green to supplement their efforts while eliminating mistakes from the playcallers. There has been some back-and-forth at the QB position this season, but Lee’s managed to maintain the starting job, and he is the more adept passing threat. Lee has completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,931 yards and 13 TDs, although he’s thrown seven INTs, and has been under the microscope all season. Let’s be honest, his role on Saturday will be to help control the clock, hand the ball of to his stable of backs, make timely throws, and keep the Texas offense off the field. After the A&M game, the positive for the Texas defense is that they can count on Lee always being in the pocket to throw the ball as his running ability is limited – especially after an injury to his ankle/knee last week against Colorado. He’s accounted for less than 100 yards rushing this year, and has no rushing TDs to his credit – in other words, Nebraska let those position players do the work, and they do it well. If the Huskers do decide to run the option, they will use Green, who is more of a dual-threat QB using his feet to move the chains. As alluded to above, Lee is the better passer, as Green has only completed 56 percent of his passes on the season, so Texas can expect to see Green primarily coming in to the game for rushing plays. On Saturday, Nebraska’s passing threat will completely be dependent on the rushing attack, as they are most efficient when they get opposing defenses to bite on play-action.

The wide receivers for Nebraska are solid, but not spectacular – and, they don’t have to be in Pelini’s offensive scheme. Their leading receiver is Niles Paul, who at 6’1” 215-pounds is a sizable target for Lee or Green downfield. He leads the team with 649 yards receiving, while scoring three TDs. The bigger threat, especially in a play-action offense, is the tight end and the Huskers have a good one in 6’4” 240-pound Mike McNeill. While he’s the third leading receiver on the team with 237 yards receiving on the year, he is their red zone threat, with a team-leading four TD catches. There are other playmakers, but those two will be the keys for the Texas secondary. It will be important for the ‘Horns to chip block McNeill at the line of scrimmage on play-action, and the safeties to key on him downfield, to throw off the timing of the legitimate QB-TE tandem.

The Nebraska offensive line doesn’t have any big names to shout about, but they do their job by creating a huge push off the line of scrimmage and creating running lanes for the backs to work their way downfield. Led by center Jacob Hickman, the line will need to create holes for the running game, and give Lee time to throw in the pocket on passing downs, and play-action plays could help slow the Texas pressure. While solid, they do give up 1.5 sacks/game, and expect Muschamp to dial up pressure when Nebraska is forced to throw.

Overall, the Huskers’ offense ranks mid-pack in the NCAA, and is 92nd in total offense with 334 yards per game, good for only 11th-best in the Big 12. They take a further step backward in pass offense, ranking 93rd nationally. But, in scoring offense (72nd) and rushing offense (64th), they show off some of their strengths. While not mind-blowing offense statistics, when their defense is holding opposing offenses to well under their season-averages, the offense just has to be good enough, and they’ve proved they are capable by winning nine games on the year.

The defense is the strength of this 2009 Nebraska team, hands-down, and they are led by Eyes Of TX’s Heisman candidate in defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The future NFL first-rounder (and potential top pick) is the kind of all-around tackle that controls the line of scrimmage, scares the daylights out of QBs and RBs, and is legitimately a one-man show on the defensive side of the ball. Check out this stat line (and remember he’s doing all of this at nearly 300 pounds): 70 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 10 passes deflected, 17 quarterback pressures, a fumble recovery and an interception. Whoa. The Texas offensive line should be worried about just Suh, but because of his abilities, the rest of the defensive line benefits as well. Suh’s sidekick on the line is Jared Crick, who has contributed 65 tackles and leads the team with nine sacks. Between Suh and Crick, this will be the toughest inside match-up for the ‘Horns offense this season outside of oklahoma. The defensive ends aren’t anything to shake a stick at either, although they provide more run support than pass rush, tallying six sacks and 16 tackles for a loss this season. It will take a legitimate group effort from the ‘Horns offensive line to keep the Nebraska front four at bay.

The linebackers, like the secondary, are dependent on the front four being productive and disrupting opposing offenses. When the offensive line isn’t getting to the second level, the linebackers are great at cleaning up and taking advantage of the gaps to get in to the backfield to create momentum-killing tackles for a loss. They also have the ability to cover sideline-to-sideline, although Texas’ speed should prove overwhelming over four quarters. The secondary is more than capable of making McCoy make more than one read in the pocket. In particular, safety Matt O’Hanlon has the ability to watch the QBs eyes and make big plays down the field to get the Nebraska offense off the sidelines. Overall, the Huskers secondary has snagged 16 INTs on the year, and O’Hanlon has five. Pelini also likes to use his corners and safeties to bring additional pressure, and it’s fair to say, McCoy and the Texas running back corps will see some looks they haven’t seen all season long. Picking up the blitz and blocking downfield will be paramount to helping the Texas offense break some plays open.

The Nebraska specials have the benefit of Alex Henery, a kicker with a leg developed by some branch of the military for all intents and purposes. He is 16-of-20 on field goals this season while not missing any extra points, and as a punter, he averages 42.3 yards per kick. The way Texas has played on special teams, Henery’s leg could pose field position problems all day long. The Huskers kick coverage is mediocre on both punts and kick-offs, so there is some potential for Texas to take advantage, especially if Jordan Shipley and Marquise Goodwin can hit some holes.

#3 Texas Longhorns (12-0)
For the ‘Horns, it’s time to go out and take what is rightfully theirs. They’ve fought through adversity all year long – sickness, injuries, lapses in the offense and defense – and they are still in a position to go undefeated and play in the national championship game in January. The focus needs to be Nebraska this week – no looking ahead – because Pelini’s team will be ready to spring the upset and earn a BCS trip they feel they deserve.

On offense, the key is the offensive line. Nebraska’s defensive line will give the ‘Horns trouble all game long, and the smallest lapse or hesitation will give the Huskers the opportunity to capitalize. If the offensive line can drive off the ball, and Greg Davis can keep the defense guessing (in other words, throwing downfield and giving up on the bubble screen already), then Texas has a shot both running and throwing the ball. While all Texas fans want McCoy to stay healthy and avoid big hits, his production in the running game was critical in last week’s win and could prove valuable again this week if the Nebraska defense over-pursues in pass rush or the defensive ends crash down on the zone read. With the emergence of WR Malcolm Williams in addition to Shipley, the Huskers will have to commit to eyeing them. That opens the door for James Kirkendoll and TE Dan Buckner to get their opportunities. Nebraska will look to control the clock and keep McCoy and the offense on the sidelines, so when they get their chance, they’ll have to make the most of it.

The defense needs to come in with a chip on their shoulder, and they will if Muschamp has anything to say about it. They were absolutely embarrassed in College Station, although the Aggies top-10 offense is nothing to ignore when looking at the stats. Missed tackles and coverage assignments were prevalent last week, and in order for the ‘Horns to stifle the Nebraska offense, things need to get fixed…fast. The good thing is, those starters know it – and they’re a proud bunch who wants to go back out and prove that they just as stout as Pelini’s squad. The play of the defensive line will be key in stopping the run, and the secondary will need to play up in run support, while not being fooled with play-action passes. If the line can keep the linebackers clean, expect Rod Muckelroy and Keenan Robinson to have big stat days. Keep your heads, and make sure tackles. Gang tackle, as they say, especially against Helu, who is a big back that keeps his legs churning through the interior of the line.

This is Texas’ game to lose. If they game plan correctly, the offense can have a hey-day in Arlington on Saturday. If the offensive line doesn’t play up to snuff – and Suh and Crick will make plays – it will be a long day for McCoy and the pass-happy Texas offense. The special teams has had three horrible weeks in a row, and they need to figure out how to tackle all over again to be effective. Get it fixed. This is the shot the ‘Horns have wanted for 365 days. No asterisks. Make it happen, and Texas fans will be enjoying the sun in Pasadena in January.

Pre-game Resources
2009 Texas Longhorns Roster
2009 Nebraska Cornhuskers Roster
University Co-op Gameday Newsletter / Pod casts

Hook ‘em!

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Filed under Big 12, Cornhuskers, Longhorns, NCAA Football

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