Vince Campisi's Big XII Championship Preview
Texas Longhorns vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers
--by Vince Campisi
December 5th, 2009
7:00 PM CST
Television Coverage: ABC
#3 TEXAS (12 - 0) (8 - 0)
#22 NEBRASKA (9 - 3) (6 - 2)
Opening: Texas by 14.
Current: Texas by 14.
09/05/09 - vs. Louisiana-Monroe - W 59-20
09/12/09 - at. Wyoming - W 41-10
09/19/09 - vs. Texas Tech - W 34-24
09/26/09 - vs. UTEP - W 64-7
10/10/09 - vs. Colorado - W 38-14
10/17/09 - vs. Oklahoma - W 16-13
10/24/09 - at. Missouri - W 41-7
10/31/09 - at. Oklahoma State - W 41-14
11/07/09 - vs. Central Florida - W 35-3
11/14/09 - at. Baylor - W 47-14
11/21/09 - vs. Kansas - W 51-20
11/26/09 - at. Texas A&M - W 49-39
09/05/09 - vs. Florida Atlantic - W 49-3
09/12/09 - vs. Arkansas State - W 38-9
09/19/09 - at. Virginia Tech - L 15-16
09/26/09 - vs. Louisiana-Lafayette - W 55-0
10/08/09 - at. Missouri - W 27-12
10/17/09 - vs. Texas Tech - L 10-31
10/24/09 - vs. Iowa State - L 7-9
10/31/09 - at. Baylor - W 20-10
11/07/09 - vs. Oklahoma W 10-3
11/14/09 - at. Kansas - W 31-17
11/21/09 - vs. Kansas State - W 17-3
11/27/09 - at. Colorado - W 28-20
Saturday will mark the 13th all-time match-up between Texas and Nebraska, since first meeting in 1933. Texas holds the series lead (8-4), and is currently enjoying a 4 game win streak in the series. The Longhorns have won 7 of the 8 meetings since the Big XII formed in 1996. While the win-loss numbers might look one-sided, the games have been anything but and many meetings have been classics. Of the 8 games played since forming the Big XII, 5 of them have been decided by 4 or less points. The last time these two teams met was 2007 in Austin, TX. Nebraska was in the middle of then-coach Bill Callahan's final season, a season that is remembered as one of the worst in the school's history. Surprisingly, the Huskers held their own with the Longhorns, and actually lead 17-3 in the early stages of the third quarter. The Nebraska defense could not stop the rushing of RB Jamaal Charles in the fourth quarter, however, as he rushed for touchdowns from 25, 86, and 40 to take the lead. Down by 10, the Huskers added a touchdown with 1:55 remaining, but couldn't make a stop to get the ball back, as the Longhorns held on to win 28-25. These two teams have met twice in Big XII Championship games, splitting the pair. Texas shockingly won the inaugural 1996 game 37-27, knocking Nebraska out of the National Championship race in their quest for a 3rd straight title. Nebraska won the 1999 game 22-6 en route to a #2 finish that season.
Texas possesses one of the best passing attacks in the nation, but the running game isn't quite where they'd like it to be. Last week, things went smoothly on offense against Texas A&M, rushing for 293 yards and passing for 304 more. The Longhorns are currently ranked 11th nationally in total offense (451.58 ypg), 13th in passing (287.67 ypg), 14th in passing efficiency (148.45 rating), 47th in rushing (163.92 ypg), 3rd in scoring offense (43 ppg), 36th in interceptions thrown (9), 70th in fumbles lost (11), and 50th in giveaways (20).
QB: Sr. Colt McCoy (310 of 432, 3328 yds, 27 TDs, 9 INTs) is in his fourth and final season as starter for the Longhorns at QB. There's not much you can say about McCoy that hasn't already been said a million times. He's got a strong, accurate arm with a quick release that is matched with his good decision making skills, making him one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. He does a great job of reading defenses and attacking their weaknesses. After beating Texas A&M last week, he became the winningest starting QB in the history of college football. It will be somewhat of a surprise if he does not win the Heisman Trophy next weekend. The only time he really seems to struggle is if opponents are able to get a consistent pass rush and knock him around. Even when he takes a beating, however, he always manages to bounce right back up. He is deceptively fast, and has used this not only to scramble, but motor downfield quickly. On the season, McCoy has rushed for 368 yards and 2 touchdowns on 111 carries (lost 154). Last week he was very impressive on the ground, rushing for 175 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. He outran defensive backs on his 65-yard touchdown QB draw in the 2nd quarter. Behind McCoy is TFr. Garrett Gilbert (15 of 26, 124 yds). He's a bigger QB at 6'4", and can make all the throws you could ask of him. Gilbert has shown decent foot speed in his limited snaps, rushing for 11 yards and 1 touchdown on 6 carries (lost 16). He's the future of the Longhorns at QB.
RB: The Longhorns' running game has been by committee, with RFr. Tre' Newton (83 carries, 477 yds, 6 TDs) and So. Cody Johnson (83 carries, 331 yds, 12 TDs) seeing the bulk of the snaps this season. Newton has really come on strong as of late, and is now healthy. He isn't the flashiest of rushers, but has a good amount of speed and hits the hole quickly. He does a nice job of following his blocks downfield and also breaks his fair share of tackles. Johnson is a bulkier, power back that has also seen time at FB this season. Backs in the reserve rotation include So. Fozzy Whittaker (51 carries, 207 yds, 4 TDs) and Jr. Vondrell McGee (56 carries, 300 yds, 2 TDs). Both Whittaker and McGee bring good foot speed and hands to the table, but neither could hold onto the starting job this year. The backs are used every now and then in the passing game, with Whittaker (13 catches, 51 yds), McGee (8 catches, 37 yds), Newton (7 catches, 63 yds), and Johnson (7 catches, 42 yds) each catching passes this season. At fullback is Jr. Antwan Cobb (1 carry, 3 yds), with Cody Johnson backing him up. Sr. Lamarr Houston is also an option to come in on short yardage situations, however, the fullback is not an often used position in the Texas offense.
WR/TE: The Longhorns' receiving corps is one of the best in the Big XII, if not the best. Starting at the receiver positions are Sr. Jordan Shipley (99 catches, 1292 yds, 11 TDs) at "Z", So. Malcolm Williams (35 catches, 494 yds, 2 TDs) at "X", and Jr. James Kirkendoll (48 catches, 461 yds, 6 TDs) at Sub B. Shipley is one of the best receivers in the nation, is a Biletnikoff Award finalist, and ranks 6th in receiving yards per game (107.67). He always finds a way to get open, has good quickness and great top end speed. He is tough to bring down, particularly in the open field. He'll drop a pass on occasion, but drops are typically few and far between. Williams has really come on strong this season, and is going to step into the national spotlight next season. He has very good hands and turns up-field quickly after the catch. He's a big, strong, and very fast target that is tough to cover by opposing corners. He does a good job of knowing where the sticks are and powering through defenders to get the extra yards needed. Kirkendoll also has good hands and great speed. He'll make opposing secondaries look silly if there's a slight opening, flying by them. He had 2 great touchdown grabs last week against A&M. Top reserves at receiver include TFr. Marquise Goodwin (25 catches, 205 yds) and Jr. John Chiles (34 catches, 319 yds, 3 TDs). Goodwin has sprinter speed and should become a great receiver over the next few seasons. Chiles is a converted QB that has great athleticism. At tight end is Jr. Greg Smith (6 catches, 48 yds), with So. Ahmard Howard backing him up. Smith is mostly used as a blocker, and is decent at that, but does get beat by defenders going to the outside. So. Dan Buckner (41 catches, 431 yds, 4 TDs) has served as the top receiver at the Flex TE spot. Buckner is a very good athlete and gets good yards after catch. He does drop easy catches, however.
OL: Texas' offensive line has been a solid unit this year, but has also had some problems blocking good edge rushers and consistently opening running lanes. Last week against Texas A&M, they did a pretty good job of pushing the Aggies' DL to the outside and allowing space for QB Colt McCoy to run. Starting at tackle is Sr. Adam Ulatoski (6'6", 310 lbs) on the left and Jr. Kyle Hix (6'7", 320 lbs) on the right. Ulatoski is typically a rock on the outside, but had severe troubles with Texas A&M star DE, Von Miller. Ulatoski was beaten often by Miller's speed, as he simply made a quick move to the outside before collapsing in to the QB. Hix is a quality blocker, but also has his share of troubles with quick defensive ends. The top reserves at tackle are RFr. Luke Poehlmann (6'7", 265 lbs) and Jr. Britt Mitchell (6'5", 310 lbs). Starting at guard is Sr. Charlie Tanner (6'4", 305 lbs) on the left and Jr. Michael Huey (6'5", 320 lbs) on the right. Tanner is a great run blocker and is very strong. Huey has also been good in run blocking, and hasn't been beaten all that often this year. Tanner and Huey did a nice job against the Aggies last week, as they didn't allow much penetration from the opposing tackles. Jr. Tray Allen (6'5", 315 lbs) serves as the top back-up at guard. Starting at center is Sr. Chris Hall (6'4", 295 lbs), with So. David Snow (6'4", 300 lbs) backing him up. Hall is one of the better centers in the nation, is a Rimington Award finalist, and does a nice job both rush and pass blocking. He's played all of the positions on the line over the course of his career, and center has been his best spot.
Texas' defense is one of the best units in the nation. Tough at all three levels of the defense, opponents have struggled to move the ball all season long. The one probable anomaly took place last week against Texas A&M. The Aggies were able to throw for 342 yards and rush for 190 more. Tackling was an issue, but one that hasn't been much of an issue in the other 11 games. The Longhorns currently rank 5th nationally in total defense (263.17 ypg), 39th in pass defense (201.42 ypg), 16th in pass efficiency defense (105.22 rating), 1st in rush defense (61.75 ypg), 9th in scoring defense (15.42 ppg), 2nd in interceptions forced (21), 32nd in fumbles recovered (11), and 3rd in total takeaways (32).
DL: The Longhorns' defensive line has been one of the top units in the Big XII this season. Starting at defensive end is Jr. Sam Acho (47 tackles, 8 sacks, 2 FF, 4 FR, 13 QBH, 3 PBU) on the left and Sr. Sergio Kindle (56 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 FF, 1 FR, 28 QBH, 2 PBU) on the right (Buck). Acho is tough against the run, having good quickness to get after the ball carrier. He has a good motor and is very good in pursuit, often tracking players down from behind. Kindle is a hybrid DE/LB that will play as a down lineman or standing up off the edge. He presents a lot of speed for opposing OT's to deal with, sticks to the ball carrier and rarely misses tackles. He's a very aware player that came up with a big unforced fumble recovery last week that led to the Horns extending their lead to two scores. Jr. Eddie Jones (21 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 13 QBH) and TFr. Alex Okafor (20 tackles, 1 FF, 6 QBH) serve as the top back-ups at defensive end. Okafor is a very good athlete, possessing linebacker-like attributes. Starting at defensive tackle is Sr. Lamarr Houston (50 tackles, 7 sacks, 2 FR, 26 QBH, 3 PBU), with TFr. Calvin Howell (4 tackles, 1 sack, 1 QBH), and So. Tyrell Higgins (3 tackles, 1 sack, 1 QBH) backing him up. Houston is tough against the run and gets into the backfield often. He does a nice job of getting his hands up when he can't get to the QB, and is a real playmaker for this defense. He leads the team with 20 tackles for loss. So. Kheeston Randall (20 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 FF, 8 QBH) starts at nose tackle, with Sr. Ben Alexander (27 tackles, 1 QBH) serving as his top back-up. Randall has a good mix of strength and quickness that has served him well in getting after the QB.
LB: Texas' linebacking corps is a very good group that has wreaked havoc on opposing offenses this season. Starting at middle linebacker is Sr. Roddrick Muckelroy (87 tackles, 2 sacks, 9 QBH, 5 PBU), with Jr. Dustin Earnest (25 tackles, 1 sack, 1 QBH) backing him up. Muckelroy is a big time defender. He seems to be omnipresent on the field, making plays all over the place. He's a big hitter and very strong, often throwing ball carriers backward. At weakside linebacker is So. Keenan Robinson (57 tackles, 1 sack, 1 QBH, 4 PBU), while RFr. Ryan Roberson (6 tackles, 1 QBH) backs him up. Robinson, similarly to Muckelroy, is a strong backer that muscles opponents to the ground with ease. He has given up some big plays in pass coverage, which is something he'll need to work on. Being just a sophomore, that is to be expected. So. Emmanuel Acho (45 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 3 FF, 2 FR, 3 QBH, 1 PBU) starts at strongside linebacker, with Robinson and Roberson providing back-up. Acho is a great athlete that has been the best in this unit at forcing turnovers, accounting for more than 3 on his own. He's another young linebacker that is going to do nothing but get better as time goes on.
DB: The Longhorns' defensive backfield has been solid this season, and one of the stronger secondaries that Texas has had in a while. Starting at cornerback is So. Aaron Williams (35 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INTs, 2 FF, 3 QBH, 6 PBU) at left corner and Jr. Curtis Brown (50 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF, 14 PBU, 1 BK) at right corner. Despite being just a sophomore, Williams is already looking like one of the better defenders for the Longhorns. He was injured last week and was unable to play, however, which resulted in some lackluster play from this bunch. Brown is a very good athlete that has done a pretty good job in coverage this season. He was not great last week, however, and missed a tackle on a running back that went for a touchdown. Players in the reserve rotation include Jr. Chykie Brown (43 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INTs, 1 FF, 1 QBH, 7 PBU) and Sr. Deon Beasley (15 tackles, 1 sack, 2 FF, 1 QBH, 2 PBU). Brown got beat a number of times last week, including one pass that went for a 70 yard touchdown. Starting at safety is So. Earl Thomas (66 tackles, 8 INTs, 1 FF, 15 PBU) at left safety and So. Blake Gideon (54 tackles, 4 INTs, 1 FR, 4 PBU) at right safety. Thomas is one of the best safeties in the Big XII this year, and as a sophomore is a finalist for the Thorpe Award. To put it simply, he's fast, hits hard, and just makes plays. He does a nice job in run support and doesn't often get burned over the top. He had an easy pick last week on a lofted ball into the endzone last week. Gideon is a big time hitter and just flat out clobbers the ball carrier. So. Nolan Brewster (22 tackles, 1 INT, 1 QBH, 1 PBU) is the top reserve at safety for the Longhorns.
Texas Special Teams
Texas' special teams units have been pretty good this season, but outside of the return teams, nothing spectacular. The Longhorns currently rank 99th in net punting (33.64 yd avg), 3rd in kickoff returns (28.31 yd avg), 15th in punt returns (13.45 yd avg), 63rd in kickoff coverage (21.78 yd avg), and 73rd in punt coverage (9.95 yd avg).
K: Sr. Hunter Lawrence has made 20 of his 23 field goal attempts with a long of 49 this season. He has made 11 of his last 12. So. Justin Tucker works as the kickoff specialist, pushing just 14 of his 92 kickoffs for a touchback this season, with a 63.5 yard average, kicking between the 6 and 7 yard line.
P: So. Justin Tucker is averaging 39.6 yards on his 33 punts with a long of 60 this season. 13 of his 33 punts have been downed inside the opponents' 20.
KR/PR: The top kickoff return unit for the Longhorns consists of Sr. Jordan Shipley (4 kick returns, 18.5 yd avg, 23 yd long) and TFr. Marquise Goodwin (11 kick returns, 24.1 yd avg, 1 TD, 95 yd long). Goodwin has track speed, and had a 95 yard return for touchdown last week against Texas A&M. The top punt return man is Sr. Jordan Shipley (23 punt returns, 13.3 yd avg, 1 TDs, 74 yd long). Shipley is one of the better punt returners around, ranking 18th nationally.
Coverage: The Longhorns' kick and punt coverage units have been fairly average this season, having some issues with missed tackles. On the season, the kick coverage unit is allowing an average of 21.8 yards on 80 kickoff return attempts with 1 allowed touchdown (98 yd long). The punt coverage unit is allowing an average of 9.9 yards on 19 punt return attempts with 1 allowed touchdown (32 yd long).
Nebraska's offense has struggled with consistency from drive-to-drive all season long. The Huskers had another less than stellar outing last week against Colorado, totaling just 203 yards. Out of the 28 points put on the board, the offense accounted for just 14 of those. Nebraska currently ranks 92nd nationally in total offense (334.75 ypg), 93rd in passing (187.33 ypg), 62nd in pass efficiency (128.97 rating), 64th in rushing (147.42 ypg), 72nd in scoring offense (25.58 ppg), 36th in interceptions thrown (9), 70th in fumbles lost (11), and 50th in giveaways (20).
QB: Nebraska seems set with Jr. Zac Lee (158 for 260, 1931 yds, 13 TDs, 7 INTs) at QB, despite him not putting up great numbers. Lee looked great against Nebraska's Sun Belt opposition this year, but has yet to have a breakout game against a member of a BCS conference. He was just 9 of 14 last week for 73 yards and a touchdown. He's been playing not to make mistakes, which you could say he's been successful doing. In most games this season, he has been hesitant to throw downfield, instead choosing to check down to much shorter routes. He doesn't have great pocket presence, and when pressured chooses to run to the perimeter instead of stepping up into the pocket. This has been an issue because he just isn't great throwing on the run. When Lee has been "on", he's shown great arm strength and accuracy, but he hasn't been "on" against any defense of note. He has decent speed and has rushed for 94 yards on 79 attempts (has lost 102 yards on sacks). TFr. Cody Green (33 for 59, 313 yds, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) started at QB against Baylor and Oklahoma, but after getting pulled in the 2nd quarter of the Oklahoma game, has not played a snap. He didn't provide the spark many had hoped, but has a lot of potential to be a big-time dual-threat QB at some point down the road. He can run pretty well and has shown a very strong arm, but he just hasn't put it all together mentally yet. He has carried the ball 16 times for 123 yards and 2 touchdowns (lost 11 yards on sacks).
RB: Nebraska's running backs are led by Jr. Roy Helu Jr. (207 carries, 1111 yds, 10 TDs). Helu Jr. has a great combination of hard running, leaping, and cutting ability. He can beat defenders by running around them, by them, and over them. He has really turned into a complete back over the past year. He has been bothered by an injured shoulder since the Missouri game, but now looks more like his old self. Since getting healthy, he has picked up 446 yards in the past four games. The top back-up to Helu Jr. is TFr. Rex Burkhead (47 carries, 235 yds, 2 TDs), an impressive young back that does a very nice job running between the tackles. He hits the hole quickly and breaks tackles well. He has missed much of the season with a broken foot, but is back now and had his first 100 yard rushing performance last week against Colorado. TFr. Dontrayevous Robinson (38 carries, 159 yds, 2 TDs) is now the number three option with Burkhead back from his injury. He has shown a lot of potential in his limited carries, running with good power and decent speed. So. Marcus Mendoza (4 carries, 10 yds), So. Austin Jones (6 carries, 15 yds), RFr. Lester Ward (8 carries, 24 yds), and RFr. Collins Okafor (1 rush, 9 yds) are battling behind Robinson. Nebraska typically likes to throw the ball to their backs, with Helu Jr. (19 catches, 149 yds), Burkhead (9 catches, 75 yds, 1 TD), Mendoza (7 catches, 45 yds), Robinson (3 catches, 22 yds), and Jones (1 catch, 2 yds) each catching passes this season. Strangely, Nebraska has thrown to their backs just once over the past three games. At fullback, RFr. Tyler Legate (3 catches, 27 yds, 1 TD) is the top guy and but hasn't really seen much time on the field. When Nebraska has lined up in 2 back sets with Legate in as a lead blocker, the offense has moved the ball very well.
WR/TE: Nebraska's receivers need to be more consistent if the offense is going to come out of their shell before the end of the season. There have been too many instances of dropped passes and lackadaisical play throughout the season. Starting at "Z" is Jr. Niles Paul (35 catches, 669 yds, 3 TDs). He has a great combination of size, quickness, and route running skills. He is very inconsistent, however, as it seems for every great catch he makes, he'll drop just as many easy ones. Unfortunately for Nebraska, he's the only guy making plays in the group right now. Starting at "X" is RFr. Khiry Cooper (13 catches, 80 yds, 1 TD). He's probably got the most up-side of Nebraska's receivers, but needs to be more physical and work to get open. Reserves include Sr. Menelik Holt (15 catches, 175 yds, 1 TD), So. Curenski Gilleylen (16 catches, 299 yds, 1 TD), Sr. Chris Brooks (13 catches, 177 yds, 1 TD), Jr. Brandon Kinnie (11 catches, 99 yds), TFr. Antonio Bell (1 catch, 3 yds), Jr. Will Henry (1 catch, 1 yd), Sr. Wes Cammack (1 catch, 2 yds). Holt had been the starter at "X" for about half of the season, however, dropped passes and poor blocking led to his demotion. Gilleylen is a speedster that developed into a very dangerous deep threat, but he dropped a couple of passes early in the year and hasn't been targeted since. Brooks turned into a solid possession receiver this year and probably has the best hands of the entire group, but needs to be a better blocker. Kinnie has great measurables and is starting to show that he can catch the ball. Henry is a big body (6'5") but is yet to make an impact. Nebraska's top TE is Jr. Mike McNeill (25 catches, 240 yds, 4 TDs), with So. Dreu Young (5 catches, 78 yds), So. Ryan Hill (2 catches, 8 yds, 1 TD), RFr. Ben Cotton (5 catches, 43 yds, 1 TD), and RFr. Kyler Reed (6 catches, 54 yds) competing behind McNeill. McNeill does a nice job of picking up yards after catch, as well as getting open in the endzone. This is a deep and talented group of tight ends, which are a big strength for the Huskers' offense and are starting to get used more often.
OL: Nebraska's offensive line continues to be far too inconsistent at this late stage of the year. At times they do a nice job, but they are also committing costly penalties and getting beat by opposing linemen. Starting at tackle is Jr. Mike Smith (6'6", 295 lbs) on the left and So. Marcel Jones (6'7", 310 lbs) on the right. Smith is typically among the best linemen for the Huskers, but has had his share of issues as well this year. Jones is the largest of the linemen, and has potential to be a rock on the right side. However, he's young and has made a number of mistakes. Jr. D.J. Jones (6'5", 315 lbs) is listed as a co-starter with Marcel Jones, even though Marcel sees more snaps. D.J. doesn't have great torque in the hips and gets beat often by athletic linemen. TFr. Jeremiah Sirles (6'6", 310 lbs) is another possibility to see in a reserve role at tackle. Starting at left guard is Jr. Keith Williams (6'5", 315 lbs), while Jr. Ricky Henry (6'4", 300 lbs) starts at right guard. Williams is a pretty solid blocker, but still has a lot of room for improvement. He does very well as the pulling guard, plowing through his man and opening holes. Henry is a player known for his strength and his nasty streak, which has caused a few personal foul flags this year. Sr. Andy Christensen (6'3", 305 lbs) and Sr. Derek Meyer (6'5", 315 lbs) are Nebraska's top reserves at guard. Sr. Jacob Hickman (6'4", 290 lbs) starts at center, with So. Mike Caputo (6'1", 275 lbs) backing him up. Hickman is the leader of the group and a typically solid center. Caputo isn't a prototypically sized center, but he has very good technique and leverage.
Nebraska's defense has been very good this season, and the best that the Blackshirts have performed in about a decade. They have had some issues over the last few games, but still doing a nice job. Last week was not a performance they'll be proud of, giving up 403 total yards, with what was essentially a 62 yard hail mary touchdown pass as time expired to leave a sour taste in their mouths. The Huskers are currently ranked 11th nationally in total defense (291.42 ypg), 25th in pass defense (189.50 ypg), 4th in pass efficiency defense (91.25 rating), 15th in rush defense (101.92 ypg), 3rd in scoring defense (11.08 ppg), 13th in interceptions (16), 74th in fumbles recovered (8), and 31st in total takeaways (24).
DL: Nebraska's defensive line is one of the best in the nation. They're big, strong, athletic, and make plays all over the field. Starting at defensive end is Jr. Pierre Allen (45 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 QBH, 4 PBU) on the right, with Sr. Barry Turner (42 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, 11 QBH, 3 PBU) on the left. Both are very good athletes and are playing well, but not quite as well as expected going into the season. Turner seems to have been stepping his game up lately, however. Their play has been helped by the excellent play by the d-tackles this season. RFr. Cameron Meredith (19 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FR, 2 QBH, 1 PBU) and RFr. Josh Williams (3 tackles) are the top reserves at defensive end. Meredith has been impressive in his back-up role, and is pushing for more playing time. Starting at nose tackle is Sr. Ndamukong Suh (70 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 22 QBH, 10 PBU, 3 BK), with So. Terrence Moore (2 tackles) backing him up. Suh is an elite defensive player that has a motor that doesn't quit, flies to the ball and forces turnovers. He very rarely comes off the field, yet still has the energy to bring it in the fourth quarter. He was named the Big XII Defensive Player of the Year and is likely to take home many more post-season awards. So. Jared Crick (67 tackles, 9 sacks, 2 FR, 14 QBH, 4 PBU, 1 BK) starts at defensive tackle, with RFr. Baker Steinkuhler (17 tackles, 2 PBU) providing back-up. Crick has really turned into a big time d-tackle this season, making opponents think twice about always doubling up on Suh. He leads the team with 9 sacks.
LB: Nebraska's linebacking corps is led by starting weakside linebacker Sr. Phillip Dillard (70 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 4 QBH, 2 PBU). Dillard is a former starter at MIKE that that has been doing an excellent job at WILL this year. He brings athleticism and experience to the field that has been invaluable. Behind Dillard is So. Matthew May (10 tackles). May has not seen much action this season. Starting at middle linebacker is RFr. Will Compton (38 tackles, 0.5 sack, 2 QBH, 2 PBU), while Sr. Colton Koehler (5 tackles) is the top reserve. Compton works hard to get after the ball carrier, but is still learning the defense and makes mistakes. Starting at buck linebacker is RFr. Sean Fisher (34 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FR, 3 QBH), with TFr. Eric Martin (11 tackles, 1 BK) and RFr. Micah Kreikemeier providing back-up. Fisher stands at 6'6", and like Compton, should get better each week as they learn how to quickly read and react to the opposing offense. Unfortunately, with Nebraska playing so much Nickel and Dime, Compton and Fisher haven't really had a large amount of playing time, which has slowed their progression. Martin is a special teams dynamo and has the ability to be a force for the Huskers at LB when he gets the mental aspect of the game down to match his physicality.
DB: Nebraska's defensive backfield has played very well this season, and kept up a high level of play no matter the competition. Other than a few of big plays given up, they have done a nice job in coverage and making solid tackles. Jr. Prince Amukamara (54 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 INTs, 1 FF, 1 FR, 10 PBU) starts at LCB, with Jr. Dejon Gomes (40 tackles, 3 INTs, 3 FF, 3 QBH, 5 PBU) and TFr. Andrew Green listed as the top reserves. Amukamara is a great athlete and has been solid in coverage this season. Gomes has looked very good when on the field, but has missed some tackles against physical ball carriers. So. Alfonzo Dennard (30 tackles, 7 PBU) took over the role as starting RCB about a month ago and has performed very well. He's a physical corner that makes plays on the football and is a solid tackler. Jr. Anthony West (11 tackles, 3 PBU) backs up Dennard, but has only been average, and needs to play more with his head on a swivel. So. Lance Thorell (6 tackles, 1 PBU) is another reserve at corner that occasionally sees time. At strong safety is Sr. Larry Asante (70 tackles, 2 INTs, 2 FF, 7 PBU) starts, with Jr. Eric Hagg (37 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 FF, 3 QBH, 4 PBU) and RFr. P.J. Smith (13 tackles) backing him up. Asante has great athleticism and is a big hitter. He's probably the best of the defensive backfield, and earned 1st team all-Big XII this season. Hagg is used often as a blitzing safety, and also as a nickel back. He's been fairly weak in coverage this season. Sr. Matt O'Hanlon (59 tackles, 1 sack, 5 INTs, 1 FF, 2 FR, 4 PBU) starts at free safety. O'Hanlon is often picked on and has been burned in the past, however, has made some big plays in his career as well. He is a dependable tackler and blitzes well. Behind O'Hanlon is Hagg, So. Austin Cassidy (9 tackles, 1 PBU), and RFr. Courtney Osborne (1 tackle).
Nebraska Special Teams
Nebraska's special teams units have been excellent this year. There have been some instances of inconsistent play, but more often than not, they are performing at a high level. They have some of the best kickers in the nation, however, the return and coverage units can be hot and cold. The Huskers rank 80th in net punting (34.68 yd avg), 38th in kickoff returns (23 yd avg), 37th in punt returns (10.95 yd avg), 16th in kickoff coverage (19.53 yd avg), and 101st in punt coverage (12.48 yd avg).
K: Jr. Alex Henery has one of the strongest and most accurate legs in the nation. He has made 16 of his 20 attempts this season, with a long of 46. He's made 29 of his last 30 kicks from under 50 yards. Jr. Adi Kunalic has a booming leg and is arguably the best kickoff specialist in the nation. Kunalic has pushed 26 of 65 kickoffs for touchback this season, with an excellent 68.6 yard average, kicking between the 1 and 2 yard line.
P: Jr. Alex Henery has averaged 42.3 yards on his 65 punts with a long of 76 this season. 26 of his 65 punts have been downed inside the opponents' 20 so far this year. He added punting duties to his repertoire this season, and has been a big reason as to why Nebraska is in the Big XII Championship game. When directional punting or attempting to get the ball downed inside the 10, he's been incredible.
KR/PR: Nebraska's top kickoff return unit is made up of Jr. Niles Paul (14 kick returns, 25.4 yd avg, 44 yd long), and RFr. Tim Marlowe (10 kick returns, 24.7 yd avg, 40 yd long). At punt returner is Jr. Niles Paul (32 punt returns, 9.8 yd avg, 1 TD, 59 yd long). These units have been very good at times, but have been pretty average since starting conference play. Paul came up with a 59 yard punt return for a touchdown last week against Colorado.
Coverage: Nebraska's coverage teams have been pretty good this season, but are not immune from occasional tackling problems. They have seemed to allow about one good sized return each week. The kick coverage unit is allowing an average of 19.5 yards on 40 kickoff returns (76 yd long), while the punt coverage unit is allowing an average of 12.5 yards on 29 punt returns (62 yd long). They have done a really nice job the past two weeks, keeping returners from doing any real damage.
Texas' Offense vs. Nebraska's Defense
Texas' offense is one of the best in the nation and everything is run through QB Colt McCoy. Not only does he lead the team throwing the football, but he is also second on the team rushing the ball. He's got all the tools to beat opposing defenses and is hoping to send his Longhorns to the national championship with a win on Saturday night. Last week against Texas A&M he was dynamic, completing 24 of 40 for 304 yards and 4 touchdowns. He also rushed for 175 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, looking like the Heisman frontrunner. He isn't immune from making mistakes, but they are typically few and far between. After playing in twelve games, McCoy is completing an impressive 71.8% of their passes, while Nebraska's defense is allowing their opponents' quarterbacks to complete just 48.2% of their passes this season.
Texas possesses some outstanding receivers for McCoy to throw to, including Jordan Shipley, Malcolm Williams, and James Kirkendoll. When you add Flex TE Dan Buckner to that group, it gives opposing defenses a lot to deal with. Shipley is the most complete receiver in the group, is a bit banged up, but nothing that would keep him out of a game or cut his production either. The Longhorns like to go with a lot of WR screens and quick slants, and pick up yards after catch. There have been some issues with occasional drops within the group, but overall this group is probably the best in the Big XII right now and most defenses simply can't cover all of these guys when they are on the field.
Nebraska's pass defense has been among the best in the nation this season (189.50 ypg). They have allowed just 7 passing touchdowns this season while picking up 16 interceptions. The secondary has been excellent since getting the right personnel grouping together. There is a lot of quality depth within this group as well, and they have been rolling nickel and dime without having too much of a weak link within the unit. Nebraska allowed Colorado to throw for 269 yards and 3 touchdowns, however, they also managed 3 interceptions including one that went for a touchdown. It should also be noted that one of Colorado's touchdown passes came on a hail mary pass as time expired in the 4th quarter. Nebraska has had some issues covering teams that could effectively throw quick slants, which Texas does very well. It will be important for them to get tackles on first contact. In pass coverage, the Huskers' secondary ranks 4th nationally, allowing a rating of just 91.25, while Texas QB Colt McCoy ranks 11th nationally with a pass efficiency rating of 152.93.
Texas' running game probably hasn't produced to the degree that the Longhorns were hoping, but they still are putting up pretty solid numbers. There really hasn't been one go-to guy this season, and it has really been by committee. Tre' Newton has been the top guy now that he is healthy, but guys like Fozzy Whittaker, Cody Johnson, and Vondrell McGee also see carries. Last week against Texas A&M's defense, they gained 305 yards on 37 carries (when taking sacks out). Colt McCoy's 175 yards led the way, however, Newton also eclipsed the 100 yard mark (107 yards).
Nebraska is among the best in the country at defending the run, ranking 15th nationally (101.92 ypg against). The Huskers' front four has typically done a great job of not just filling space, but making plays, evidenced by the fact that defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick are some of the top tacklers on the team. Colorado had some success last week against the Husker defense, rushing for 134 yards on 28 carries. They alternated doubling Suh and Crick, and even doubled both at times. Nebraska's defensive ends need to be more active and take advantage of these one-on-ones they are always facing. Texas will probably need to get some solid production out of their running game to open up more through the air, and while it won't be easy, it's not impossible to have a good day against Nebraska on the ground. Nebraska has allowed just 6 rushing touchdowns this season, with Texas rushing for 27.
Looking at how these teams perform on third downs and red-zone opportunities, Texas has converted a very good 47.70% of their third downs (14th nationally), with an excellent 95% red-zone scoring average (39 TDs, 13 FGs) (5th nationally). The Longhorns converted 41.66% (5 of 12) on 3rd downs last week against Texas A&M, and were 4 for 4 in red-zone chances (4 TDs). Nebraska's defense is allowing their opponents to convert just 33.33% of their 3rd down attempts (19th nationally), and has allowed an excellent 65% red-zone scoring percentage (10 TDs, 5 FGs) (1st nationally) this season. Against Colorado last week, the Huskers allowed the Buffaloes to convert on 43.75% of their 3rd downs (7 of 16) and were 2 for 5 in the red zone (2 TDs).
Up front, Texas' average offensive lineman is 6'5", 310 lbs, while Nebraska's average defensive lineman comes in at 6'4", 279 lbs. On the season, Texas is averaging 4.88 yards per carry (when taking sacks out) while Nebraska is giving up 3.91 yards per carry (when taking sacks out). The Longhorns have allowed 78 tackles for loss and 21 sacks in their twelve games, while the Huskers have picked up 88 tackles for loss and 33 sacks in their twelve games. Texas' offensive line has done a nice job this year keeping opposing defenses from making plays in the backfield. They did have some problems against Texas A&M's great DE Von Miller, as he was able to get a good rush off the edge throughout the night. Nebraska doesn't possess that caliber of a Miller on their ends, but they do have the best interior defensive front in the conference and possibly the nation in Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick. Texas might be able to double-up both Suh and Crick, putting a TE on the line to block one of the Nebraska DE's one-on-one. Colorado attempted this, and at times had success. Texas has much better athletes on the line than Colorado, and probably won't have to resort to such measures, however.
Nebraska's Offense vs. Texas' Defense
Nebraska's offensive coordinator Shawn Watson attempted to run a hybrid offense with equal parts West Coast, Spread, and Power earlier in the season, but in recent weeks he has heavily cut down on the fancier elements. The Huskers just don't have a QB that can run such a multiple offense with any high degree of success. QB Zac Lee is running the offense pretty efficiently, but doesn't appear capable of being prolific against any defense outside of the Sun Belt Conference. He has decent wheels, and has picked up some yards on the ground, but is going to have to be better through the air this week than he has been required to be in the past month or so. The Longhorns' defense has allowed their opponents to complete 56.8% of their passes this season, while Nebraska QB Zac Lee is completing 60.8% of their attempts on the year.
While Nebraska's quarterback might not be one of the better in the Big XII, its receivers really need to step up to help out. WR Niles Paul is the only receiver that has shown he can be a fairly consistent playmaker in the group, however, he'll drop easy passes too. WR Curenski Gilleylen is second among wide receivers in receptions this year (16), and hasn't caught a ball since October 24th. The offense is getting their tight ends more involved in the gameplan in recent weeks, and there is no sign that will change this week. TE Mike McNeill is the best of the group, but the ball will be spread throughout the very deep unit.
Texas' secondary is a very good unit that is one of the better groups the Longhorns have had in a while, despite being pretty young. The Longhorns are giving up 201.4 yards per game (3rd in Big XII) through the air while allowing 14 touchdowns and picking up 21 interceptions. S Earl Thomas is the star of the group and might be leaving early for the NFL as a third year sophomore. The best corner in the group, Aaron Williams, was injured last week, but will play Saturday. In his absence, the defense installed some extra zone coverages and really struggled against a hot QB. A&M QB Jerrod Johnson was on fire last week, completing 26 of 33 for 342 yards, 4 touchdowns and an interception. Johnson is much better than any QB Nebraska has on their roster, so don't look for the defense to be giving up those kinds of numbers this week. Despite that, the middle of the field, both shallow and deep was open often last week, which is something to watch for this week. In pass coverage, the Longhorns' secondary ranks 16th nationally (3rd in the Big XII), allowing a rating of just 105.22, while Nebraska's QB's rank 62nd nationally (8th in the Big XII) in pass efficiency (128.97).
Nebraska's running game is being leaned on right now to get the job done for the offense, and there is certainly talent in the backfield to warrant it. Unfortunately, they aren't getting enough of a consistent push up front to be a dominating rushing attack. They are 6th in the Big XII right now in rushing (147.4 ypg), over 16 yards less per game than Texas rushes for, and they have been somewhat disappointed in their production. The duo of Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead has worked nicely since Burkhead came back from a broken foot a couple of games ago and if they get more consistency from their blockers, they can wear a defense out by the 4th quarter. They did a decent job of this last week against Colorado, rushing for 161 yards on 36 carries (when taking sacks out), but will need to be better on Saturday night.
Texas' rush defense gives up just 61.8 yards per game on the ground, which is the best in the nation. They're tough up front and have quality linebackers that don't often miss tackles. Last week's game against Texas A&M was a bit of an oddity, however, as the Aggies rushed for 212 yards and 1 touchdown on 37 carries. There were a number of missed tackles and players getting caught out of position, which led to the big day for A&M. QB Jerrod Johnson had the Longhorns on their heels with his arm, and was able to reel off 97 yards on the ground and picked up 43 of those on one long run. Nebraska probably won't have much success in the game if they can't run, and it won't be an easy task to run on this defense. Texas has allowed just 5 rushing touchdowns this season, with Nebraska rushing for 18.
Focusing on third downs and red zone play, Nebraska is converting a mediocre 39.52% of their third downs (59th nationally), and scoring on an average of just 79% on red-zone opportunities (23 TDs, 11 FGs) (81st nationally). The Huskers were just 3 of 10 on 3rd downs (30%) and 1 for 1 in the red zone (1 TD) last week against Colorado. Texas' defense is allowing their opponents to convert just 28.49% of their third downs (4th nationally), and have allowed those opponents to score on 79% of their red-zone chances (15 TDs, 8 FG) (41st nationally). The Longhorns allowed Texas A&M to convert 56.25% (9 of 16) of their 3rd downs and score on 5 of 7 red-zone opportunities (4 TDs, 1 FG) they had last week.
Sizing up the lines, Nebraska's average offensive lineman is 6'5", 300 lbs, while Texas' average defensive lineman is 6'3", 275 lbs. On the season, Nebraska is averaging 4.58 yards per carry (when taking sacks out) while Texas is giving up 3.13 yards per carry (when taking sacks out). The Huskers have allowed 18 sacks and 78 tackles for loss in twelve games this year, while the Longhorns have picked up 21 sacks and 78 tackles for loss in their twelve games this season. Nebraska's offensive line continues to be up and down each week. As a whole, the group is pretty mediocre as pass blockers, and is just marginally better in opening running lanes for the backs. On the plus side for the unit, they have been getting better about limiting penalties, which have been extremely high at times this year. Last week against Colorado, there were just 2 false start penalties, the only penalties called on the offensive line. They also were wearing on the Buff defensive front through the game, and were pounding the rock pretty well in the 4th quarter. Texas' defensive line is the best group that Nebraska has seen since the Oklahoma game, and is miles ahead of Colorado's. The Longhorn defense has given up just 5 rushing touchdowns all season long, so it is going to be a tall task for the Huskers to find a way to get the ground game going consistently. Nebraska really doesn't have much of an answer at tackle for UT DE Sergio Kindle, and you could easily see him giving the Huskers fits.
QBs: Texas +++
RBs: Nebraska +
WR/TE's: Texas ++
OL: Texas ++
DL: Nebraska +
LB: Texas ++
Special Teams: Nebraska +
Coaching: Texas ++
+ = Slight
++ = Moderate
+++ = Large
CB - Clark Ford - Ankle - Out for Game
LB - Jared Norton - Shoulder - Out for Season
S - Christian Scott - Academics - Out for Season
WR - Brandon Collins - Academics - Out for Season
TE - D.J. Grant - Knee - Out for Season
TE - Blaine Irby - Knee - Out for Season
TE - Ian Harris - Neck - Out for Season
CB - Alfonzo Dennard - Toe - Probable
OT - Marcel Jones - Leg - Probable
FS - Rickey Thenarse - Knee - Out for Season
CB - Jase Dean - Knee - Out for Season
QB - Kody Spano - Knee - Out for Season
LB - Blake Lawrence - Concussions - Ended Career
Keys to the Game
1.) Load the Box - Stack the box with 8 defenders and dare Nebraska QB Zac Lee to prove he can do something with the ball against your defensive backfield. He hasn't shown the ability to do so this season.
2.) Fix Defensive Breakdowns - Far too many breakdowns last week against A&M including some poor zone coverage and missed tackles let the Aggies hang in to the very end. This was uncharacteristic of the Longhorn defense and needs to be just a one game anomaly.
3.) Don't Turn the Ball Over - Nebraska has to have help to win, don't give them anything easy off turnovers.
1.) Shorten the Game - Run the ball consistently and pick up first downs, limiting Texas' offensive possessions and keeping the score down.
2.) Stop the Run - Had trouble with this against Colorado, and helped open up their passing game. Can't allow Texas to be multi-dimensional on offense and expect to hang in the game.
3.) Play Mistake-Free Football - There needs to be a large gap in your favor in turnover differential and you cannot afford to draw many penalties.
Another year, and another Big XII Championship game with national title implications. This will be the third time Texas and Nebraska have faced each other for the conference crown, and the first time since 1999. The stakes are high for both squads, although higher for Texas. If the Longhorns win, they're headed to Pasadena to play in the BCS Championship game. A Texas loss will knock them down to an at-large bid in another BCS bowl game. For Nebraska, a win puts them in the Fiesta Bowl, while a loss sends them to the Holiday Bowl. None of the options are bad for either team, however, a win definitely puts both in a much better situation. Texas hasn't been in the conference title game since 2005, while the Huskers last made it in 2006. There aren't many players on either side of the field that have experience in this game.
Texas is clearly a better team than Nebraska this season. The Longhorns are bringing in a top rated offense and defense, while the Huskers bring in a top defense and a struggling offense. Both teams are coming off wins, but neither team was impressed with their performances from last week. Because of this, expect both teams to be really focused and ready to put forth their best efforts of the season.
Texas' defense is going to make it tough for Nebraska to put many points on the board, but the Huskers should have some success if they commit to pounding the ball between the tackles and mix in some play action. They'll likely lean on RB's Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead to get that done. If Nebraska can do so, they'll keep the explosive Texas offense off the field and keep the score from getting out of hand. More than anything, though, Nebraska will need their defense and special teams to set their offense up in great situations, if not score for them. The Longhorns' offense will be facing the best defense they've seen in months, and they won't be scoring at will like they have been recently. Texas QB Colt McCoy will be looking to put a stamp on his Heisman campaign with his first Big XII Championship, and he'll lead his squad to a couple more scoring drives than Nebraska and QB Zac Lee can muster. Texas wins by about 10-13.
Texas - 24
Nebraska - 13