Run Defense, Turnovers Key To Stopping Huskers

For Texas to beat Nebraska Saturday for the fifth time in six Big 12 outings, the Longhorns have to stop the run and win the turnover battle. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

"(Run defense) is a key for this weekend," head coach Mack Brown said. "If we don’t stop the run better, we get beat. We have got to do a better job of stopping the run. I was disappointed in the first half against Baylor because Baylor rushed for over 100 yards. In the second half we stopped it. But if you can’t stop the run, you’re not going to win. Against Arkansas, we didn’t stop the run consistently because we gave up big plays. Against Oklahoma, we didn’t stop anything."

Brown continues to be disappointed, if not baffled, by his team’s porous run defense. Texas is giving up 166.2 rushing ypg (NCAA No. 76) and is on pace to become his lowest rated rushing defense during his six-year tenure.

"Some people have questioned our toughness and some people have questioned our tackling," Brown said. "It’ll be a great day to try to answer that on Saturday because we’re playing one of the toughest teams in America and the fourth best rushing team (259.1 ypg) in America."

Part, though certainly not all, of Texas’ defensive woes can be attributed to injuries. Defense coordinator Carl Reese told me in August that "half the battle" this season would be keeping his defensive ends healthy. LDE Bryan Pickryl is out for the season (shoulder) while RDE Kalen Thornton (knee) had been a shell of his former self before suffering a re-injury against Iowa State. Backup LDE Austin Sendlein is also injured and did not make the trip to Baylor.

"Last year we got in trouble out at Texas Tech because we lost about eight guys on our defense and we were playing a lot of young guys that we didn‘t prepare well for that time of the season," Brown said. "We’ve lost five guys on defense this year, but we’re still hanging in there and a lot of guys have played. Hopefully we can get some of those guys back and some of these other younger guys are getting experience now to play a great offense like Nebraska’s."

Sophomore RDE Mike Williams emerged from rehab to log his first career start at Baylor and was named Texas’ defensive player of the week after posting three tackles, a sack, one TFL, a forced fumble and, of course, that 33-yard fumble return for TD, capped by his swan dive into the end zone. Williams brings the kind of explosiveness off the edge that will be sorely needed when Texas faces Tech on Senior Day but will be counted on to help contain QB Jammal Lord and Nebraska’s relentless option attack.

"It’s a relief to be able to show what I can do," Williams said. "I knew the (playing) time would come and I’m just trying to make the best of it."

With an excruciating home loss to Arkansas and the program’s worst-ever loss to Oklahoma, the pressure is on for Brown to shake up his staff like Nebraska coach Frank Solich did following last year’s 7-7 disappointment. Solich canned six assistants, including both coordinators, and has fashioned a 7-1 record to lead the Big 12 North.

Of course, the Huskers have played only one team with a winning record. Still, the biggest difference between last year’s Cornhusker team and the ninth-ranked (AP) squad visiting DKR is its NCAA leading turnover ratio, Brown said.

"They’re protecting the ball much better," Brown said. "If you look at our six wins, we protected the ball. If you look at our two losses, we haven’t. Turnovers are still the biggest factor in football. Period. If you look at Nebraska last year, they had a lot of trouble with turnovers. Now, they’re number one in the country in turnover ratio (plus 15, while Texas is plus 5). So, that’s the difference. It gives them more swagger. Lord is taking care of the ball better. And if you’re not behind, you take fewer chances. You have fewer sacks, you have fewer interceptions, you have fewer turnovers. They’ve been in more ballgames (this year) where they didn’t get behind early and did not have to play catch up."

Nebraska has forced 32 turnovers in eight games, but eight of those take-aways came in a single game against Texas A&M. The Huskers +15 turnover margin is tied with Michigan State for first in the nation. Texas, meanwhile, has +5 turnovers for the season (NCAA No. 32).

"They got behind in some ballgames last year early and were forced to open up more and they turned the ball over a lot more," Brown added. "What that does is make their team look worse than it was because scores got out of hand, like our Oklahoma game."

Nine of Texas’ 15 turnovers came against OU and Arkansas.

"As long as we protect the football we’re pretty good," SE Roy Williams said. "If our offense doesn’t turn the ball over we’re still in those ballgames (Arkansas, OU). It might have been a different outcome or the score might not have been so bad."

Turnovers told the story the last time Nebraska came calling four years ago. That day, No. 18 Texas upset No. 3 Nebraska, 24-20. It was the Huskers’ only loss of the season.

"In 1999, they were the best team in the country," Brown said, "but they turned it over five times. We didn’t turn it over. That turnover thing, it just jumps up and grabs you."

Now if only the Longhorn defense can grab the Cornhuskers.

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