Every conference game is important, coaches say. But some just stand out much more than others.
For Missouri, these include match-ups with Nebraska and Kansas; even though the games might not determine the division champion (although they might this season), there is too much history and frustration on the line for it to be just a normal game. Texas has a few of these games, too, but they usually have major ramifications in the standings. None of them is more important than the Red River Shootout, Texas' annual meeting with rival Oklahoma.
As you already know, Oklahoma controlled Texas in this year's contest last Saturday, cruising to a 12-0 win and frustrating the Texas offense all afternoon long. Now, a week later, Missouri gets the Longhorns on the rebound, a team looking to reassert itself as a conference powerhouse. The Tigers have the same mindset, but face the difficult task of winning on the road against one of the nation's elite teams. Texas had the edge in talent across the board, meaning the Tigers will have to do something special to earn a win.
Texas has an athletic defense, which was near the top of the country before it was lit up by Oklahoma. Statistically, it remains one of the best in the Big 12, ranking first in passing defense (148 yards), second in total defense (299.2 yards) and second in scoring defense (11.8 points). Its weak link, as the Sooners exposed, is rush defense, where Texas allows 151.2 yards per game, ranking ninth in the conference and 69th in the league. This is where the Tigers must expose the Longhorns.
The discussion begins with LB Derrick Johnson, but it definitely does not end there. Johnson may be the best defender in the conference and is close to a lock to win the Butkus Award. At 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, he has the size and the speed to take over a game. He has already recorded 64 tackles and an amazing seven forced fumbles. Johnson likely made the Longhorns' best play of the game against the Sooners, punching the ball away from Heisman Trophy winner Jason White as the sixth-year senior scrambled toward the sideline. Johnson has the ability to dominate a game and will likely make at least one or two big plays against the Tigers.
Up front, the Longhorns are solid but less experienced. Tackle Rodrique Wright is the line's best player; at 6-foot-5 and 305 pounds, he stuffs the middle without much effort. Wright has not recorded a sack yet, but will likely get the most attention of anyone on the defensive line. Texas' ends are young and undersized, but boast a lot of talent. Sophomore Brian Robison, a standout on the Longhorn track team, is a former linebacker that the coaches bulked up and placed on the line. At 265 pounds, he is similar to Missouri's Brian Smith, but capable of playing every down, which Smith has yet to prove he can do. Tim Crowder, another sophomore, anchors the other end. If the Missouri offensive line can move its smaller opponents off the line of scrimmage, its running game could have a strong afternoon.
After losing Nathan Vasher to the NFL, the Texas secondary was reshaped this season, leaving a senior, two juniors and a sophomore as starters. The Horns probably have more depth at the positions than anyone in the conference not named Oklahoma, so it will not be easy for the Tigers to move the ball through the air. Ranked seventh in the country, the pass defense had two interceptions against Oklahoma, giving them five for the year. Safety Phillip Geiggar is the group's most experienced player and the only starting senior. Sophomore Tarell Brown has replaced Vasher at left cornerback and has fared well, recording 18 tackles, including three for loss. Missouri will likely struggle to pass the ball against this group, making the team's tight end play key.
Texas uses a 4-3 base defense.
Quarterback Vince Young may be one of the most celebrated players in the Big 12. Without a doubt, he is one of the most athletic players in the conference, probably in the country. After taking over the reins midway through last season, he threw for 1,155 yards, but never for more than 213 in a game. It is Young's running ability that makes him such a threat, racking up 998 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 135 carries.
Young, who has thrown for 739 yards and run for 278 this season, must find a way to become more consistent. He struggled mightily against Oklahoma but could be due for a breakout game. The Tigers have first-hand experience of what a mobile quarterback can do for an offense; if they can keep Young between the tackles, they have a chance to stay competitive in this game. If Young runs wild, it could get ugly.
The same could be said for TB Cedric Benson, who ranks second in the conference (and fifth nationally) in all-purpose yards, without the benefit of being a returner like Kansas State's Darren Sproles, who leads the league. Benson tops the conference in scoring, having already found the end zone six times. Although Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson overshadowed him last weekend, Benson remains a force to be reckoned with and one of the best backs in the country. At just 6-foot but 225 pounds, Benson is difficult to drag down and quick enough to beat anybody to the outside. After managing just 92 rushing yards against the Sooners, he will be looking to reestablish himself against the Tigers and will test Missouri's linebackers and secondary all afternoon long.
Up front, Texas boasts a big line, with all five starters at least 6-foot-2 and two starters--right guard Will Allen and left tackle Jonathan Scott--above 6-foot-6. Scott and Justin Blalock may be the best pair of tackles in the conference, a scary thought since Scott is a junior and Blalock just a sophomore. Jason Glynn is in his third season as the starting center, forcing Allen, who could not beat him out Glynn, into a starting role at guard. The line has allowed just four sacks, good for third in the conference.
Texas' receivers are, without a doubt, the offense's weak link. Not a single Longhorn appears in the conference's top dozen in terms of both yards and receptions, leaving Texas with few downfield options. Many times, this is not an issue, as Texas is more than willing to run, run, run. But if the power game struggles, there are few options through the air. The team's best receiver, senior Tony Jeffery, is banged up but leads the team with 16 catches for 168 yards. No other receiver has more than four catches.
Texas runs a pro-set offense, employing two receivers, a tight end and a fullback.
K Dusty Mangum had a fantastic 2003, before missing the final game of the regular season with a leg injury. Statistically, he has not recovered, making just 3-of-6 field goals this season, good for 50 percent accuracy and ninth in the Big 12. Mangum still has quite a leg, but will need to prove he has regained his accuracy if he needs to make a big kick against the Tigers.
P Richmond McGee has also struggled, ranking ninth in the conference in averaging 38.7 yards per boot. Missouri would have a big edge if Brock Harvey were healthy, but even with McGee's struggles, he still tops Missouri's Matt Hoenes in average. McGee also handles kickoffs.
CB Aaron Ross is one of the conference's top punt returners, averaging 10.6 yards. Hoenes' inexperience, coupled with Ross' speed, could prove dangerous for the Tigers. Geiggar and Brown form Texas' top kick return unit.
Both teams face an opportunity to make a statement. Texas, undoubtedly one of the nation's most talented teams, needs to prove it can win every game it should after continuing to lose the big ones. Missouri, meanwhile, could show how far the program has progressed with a strong showing. A win would earn the Tigers the national respect they lost on a late-summer evening in Troy, Ala.
Missouri is in great shape to win the North, so a loss to Texas would not be catastrophic by any means. The Tigers know what kind of challenge Texas offers and think they can answer the bell. If this game were at Missouri's Memorial Stadium instead of Texas', the Tigers would have a better chance. This game should not be a blowout, but Texas should win handily.