January 06, 2010
Breaking down the mythical championship game.
With the Alabama's kneecapping defense looming large on Thursday night, there's been no shortage of hand-wringing over Texas' offensive flops against the only other top-10 Ds on the Longhorns' schedule, for obvious reasons: Where UT ripped 11 mediocre-to-bad defenses for a little over a 45 points per game, the elite units from Oklahoma and Nebraska both held the 'Horns to a single touchdown in tense, low-scoring battles that weren't decided for Texas until late field goals in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Colt McCoy was sacked 13 times with five turnovers in those two games alone, which joined the 2008 loss at Texas Tech as the only occasions in the last two years that saw McCoy's phenomenal completion percentage drop below 60 percent.
The consistent pressure from the Sooners and Cornhuskers forced another disturbing anomaly, specifically on third downs: In their other 11 games, the Longhorns converted a little over half of their third down attempts and beat the national average of 40 percent in every game but one, which would have put them among the best third-down teams in the nation if they hadn't struggled so dramatically to keep drives alive in the harrowing neutral-site games. Texas converted just 5 of 19 (26 percent) against Oklahoma and 6 of 19 (32 percent) against Nebraska, with half of the conversions in the latter game coming on a fourth quarter drive that ended with the 'Huskers' third interception of the night. The Longhorns' only touchdown drives in both games were extended by defensive pass interference penalties on critical third-and-long attempts, without which McCoy and Co. may not have found the end zone at all in either case.
The defense's ability to get to the quarterback on obvious passing downs is one thing, but it's only a byproduct of its ability to force those situations in the first place. Oklahoma and Nebraska did -- on average, Texas faced more than nine yards to go on third down in both games, with more than half of those attempts coming from at least six yards out and nearly a third of them from more than 10 yards out (often a direct result of the sacks, or the penalties created by the pass rush).
There couldn't be a much worse defense to face in such third-and-long situations than Alabama's. Nick Saban has long been regarded as a master of the dizzying third-down scheme, reflected this year not only in his "you never see the same blitz twice" reputation but also the raw numbers: The Tide finished third nationally for the second straight year by holding 11 of 13 opponents below 40 percent on third down and all of them below fifty. Among the victims, Virginia Tech was 2-of-12, Arkansas was 2-of-14, Ole Miss was 0-for-9, Auburn was 4-of-12 and mighty Florida -- the best third down offense in the SEC for the third year in a row -- was just 4-of-11 in the SEC Championship game. If Saban can get you to third-and-medium/long, he's almost always going to get you off the field.
One key difference between Alabama's top-notch D and the ones that gave Texas such problems in the regular season, though, is in the pass rush: Oklahoma and Nebraska both finished among the best in the nation in getting to the quarterback and featured All-American rushers up the middle in tackles Ndamukong Suh, Jared Crick and Gerald McCoy, respectively; the Sooners also got 10 sacks out of their defensive ends, Jeremy Beal and Auston English. Alabama was just on the high side of average (32nd nationally) in getting to the quarterback, and didn't feature any single great rusher; Marcel Dareus' 6.5 sacks is a relatively paltry number for a team leader, and the Tide's own All-American defensive tackle, Terrance Cody, is a gargantuan space-eater against the run who often leaves the field altogether on passing downs, reflecting Saban's well-documented emphasis on stopping the run first, bringing the exotic blitzes second.
If the Texas offensive line holds its own physically well enough to keep its quarterback clean, that tendency may give McCoy and wily receiver Jordan Shipley a chance to keep themselves out of trouble by exploiting holes in the 'Bama zone; as a QB-receiver combo, roommates and confirmed BFFs, that's pretty much what they were made to do. But if the Longhorns can't also find a way to cobble together some semblance of a running game that will keep the Tide off balance and keep the down and distance manageable, McCoy could be at great risk of ending his career in the fetal position.
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Previously: Can Alabama run on Texas?