Simply put, this may decide the game, right here. For all the hubbub about Case McCoy's performance against Oklahoma, it was primarily a game-managing outing. And there isn't anything wrong with that. For the most part, McCoy took Texas out of bad plays, made good plays and connected on two beautiful shot plays to Marcus Johnson and Mike Davis. But how much of that happens without Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown combining for 243 rushing yards? And more specifically, how much of that occurs without Texas's offensive line routinely winning the battle up front? The Oklahoma game is one where the Longhorns have typically been manhandled up front of late, but Texas flipped the script to come out with a solid win. The left side of the line — left tackle Donald Hawkins and Trey Hopkins — has been particularly dominant. What's their reward? How about the best front since Texas faced off against BYU? It will be tough to move defensive tackles Chucky Hunter and Davion Pierson out of the way. But the reward, if Texas can do it, would likely be a nice road win.
Texas receiver Mike Davis versus TCU cornerback Jason Verrett
The post-game spotlight in Austin last year focused on Texas quarterback David Ash, who played in the game with broken ribs without telling the coaches and put up an ugly stat line to go along with the ugly injury, suffered a week earlier. But here's the thing: there weren't many receivers running open anyway. Could Ash have played better? Sure. But it wasn't like he was going to have a 250-yard passing day if he were healthy. A big part of that was the job that Verrett did on Davis. Verrett's confidence is sky high, and he's been pretty crafty about baiting quarterbacks to throw his way. Davis, too, has a high level of craftiness. Can Davis beat Verrett for a deep play? In a game where points will be at a premium, that could swing this contest in a big way. Of course, when/if Davis does beat Verrett, McCoy still has to make the throw.
Texas defensive tackle Malcom Brown versus whoever the TCU center is
Malcom Brown has emerged as arguably the Big 12's top defensive tackle — we'll see some of his competition on Saturday — a player with outstanding strength in his hands and great quickness and athleticism down the line. He has six tackles for loss so far this year, and could get some more against an offensive line that is likely to shuffle. TCU has struggled to snap the ball consistently this year, and while Joey Hunt is listed as the starter on the two-deep, TCU coach Gary Patterson has hinted that a change is coming. That could be dangerous against Brown, who has helped to shore up the Texas run defense between the tackles. If he's dominant, as he can be, the TCU ground game will have trouble.
Texas linebackers versus Trevone Boykin, TCU quarterback
Could Casey Pachall play? Sure. Will he play? Probably. But the talk about Pachall kind of shadows what should be an easy question: why would you play him over Boykin? Sure, Boykin has struggled to link up with his receivers this year. But I would argue that TCU probably doesn't win last year's game without Boykin's ability to run, not only on zone read plays, but more importantly on unscheduled scramble plays. The point about Mike Davis above also holds true for TCU: last year, there weren't a whole lot of open Frog receivers running around. Boykin's athleticism won the day, with him continuing enough drives to score the points needed to win. This year's Texas team has shown a weakness when it comes to running quarterbacks … even in the Longhorns' win over Oklahoma, one of the first questions in the OU press conference asked Bob Stoops why he didn't employ more QB run game. For the Texas linebackers (including Dalton Santos, who has been banged up), it represents a unique challenge. Stop the run, keep an eye on the quarterback to keep him from scrambling while also dropping back well enough to take away easy throws over the middle.
Daje Johnson versus the world
In the season opener against New Mexico State, Johnson (a former TCU commitment) looked like a future star, taking his six carries for 62 yards and a touchdown while also catching three passes for 67 yards and another score. A week later, Johnson was hurt, missing the middle stretch and costing Texas a key weapon. In his first game back, against Iowa State, Johnson caught two passes for 25 yards, including an 18-yarder. Oklahoma managed to hold down Johnson on offense, with him rushing for nine yards on six carries and catching one pass for three yards. But that didn't stop Johnson from having a huge impact on the game, returning a punt 85 yards for a crucial score. Texas will try to get the ball in Johnson's hands on both offense and special teams, and a big play would be huge.
X-Factor: Staying the course
It's fitting that Patterson graduated from Kansas State (though he never played for, or coached with Bill Snyder), because his team presents a lot of the same challenges as the Wildcats do. Except where K-State's offense is the equivalent of Novocaine — just give it time, and it'll work — Patterson's squad has more of that emphasis on defense. Snyder has tweaked his offense to make defenses pay for every over-pursuit or mental error. TCU's defense is especially adept at turning offensive mistakes into turnovers. The chance for a big play here or there might come, but if it doesn't, or when it isn't there, McCoy needs to stay within himself and not try to win the game with one throw. The same actually goes for Texas's defense of TCU's sputtering offense. There's a tendency to want to play hero ball, to create a big play in a close game. But TCU's offense should struggle to score points, especially if Texas isn't handing away big plays on a silver platter. Play solid, assignment sound football and don't worry about winning pretty; just grind it out.
TCU is a tough matchup for Texas because the Horned Frogs' primary strength, stopping the run, happens to coincide with what Texas needs to do to be effective on offense. At the same time, if TCU does embrace the quarterback run game, the Horned Frogs could produce some problems for the Texas defense to solve.
But in reality, this is a matchup between two teams whose defenses are playing pretty well. And TCU CAN be run on — LSU, Southeastern Louisiana and Oklahoma all had 195 or more rushing yards against the Frogs — though all of them were aided by breaking big running plays. But TCU's offense hasn't proven that it can score; the Horned Frogs have had 400 or more yards in just two games this year, and have scored over 20 in one of four Big 12 games, 27 against Kansas. Texas has been less anemic, and hasn't been held under 21 this year.
In a matchup of two good defenses, I'll go with the team that also has an offense.
TEXAS — 27
TCU — 17