October 15, 2010
Texas' final showdown with Nebraska as conference rivals is a pundit's dream: Between the Cornhuskers' string of futility against Texas, the North Division's string of futility against the South in general and the near crack-up of the Big 12 with Nebraska's impending departure to the Big Ten, it doesn't take a subtle hand to draw out the narratives. Nebraska was specifically aiming for this Saturday as the defining point in its season as early as July.
Now that the moment is afoot, the hype is distinctly lacking in grandiose sweep. No, the urgency is slightly more immediate than "Big 12 pride," or any other storyline that doesn't directly involve a) Texas patching up its rapidly submerging Titanic of a season, or b) Nebraska entrenching itself among the national frontrunners with its most high-profile showcase prior to the Big 12 Championship Game. You don't have to drum up the "Roll Left" or the extra second to put the stakes in perspective.
For the Longhorns, the bye week off the back-to-back flops against UCLA and Oklahoma is either the best thing or the worst thing that could have happened to them. On one hand, it gave a young lineup an extra week to stew in the bad vibes that come with being the first Texas team to fall out of the top 25 in a decade; at kickoff Saturday, it will be just shy of a month since they shut down Texas Tech for their last win.
But UT also had an extra week to lick its wounds and come out with a renewed sense of purpose and fight – and also, perhaps, with a renewed emphasis on airing it out on offense, since all that preseason talk about reviving the physical mentality of the first half of Mack Brown's tenure obviously isn't going so hot:
Against that backdrop, expect the Longhorns to do something in Lincoln, Neb., that they should have done sooner: Build a game plan around quarterback Garrett Gilbert, a five-star signee with NFL-caliber arm strength, and downscale plans to jump-start a ground game that ranks 82nd nationally, at 129.8 yards per game.
From the outset, Brown has stressed that his off-season emphasis on an improved ground game -- a failed bit, for multiple reasons -- stemmed from a desire to minimize pressure on his first-year quarterback. Now, coaches deem Gilbert ready to shoulder more of the offensive load.
"We thought our offense would grow with Garrett," Brown said. "We liked a lot of things he did in the second half against Oklahoma."
Among those things: 208 yards passing, three scoring drives and three big-play strikes covering more than 30 yards. They also like that Gilbert's getting back two of his top targets, Mike Davis and John Chiles, who didn't play at all against the Sooners. Partisans on both sides may recall that it was in Lincoln that unheralded redshirt freshman Colt McCoy first asserted himself as the focal point of the offense in a 22-20 comeback win in 2006. Texas wasn't a 10-point underdog going into that game, but if it ever needed another coming-out party from a talented second-year quarterback in lieu of a consistent running game, Saturday is it.
The best thing the Longhorns have going for them is still probably the defense, currently sitting sixth nationally in total D and among the best in the nation at disrupting opposing backfields. But those numbers certainly didn't held up against UCLA's newfound running game or Oklahoma's more balanced attack, which combined for 62 points.
If this was still the no-holds-barred Big 12 of 2007-08, that number would look pedestrian amid the charred remains of entire defenses – Nebraska's Blackshirts included – that were being mercilessly bombarded from every direction on a weekly basis. In 2010, Texas comes in averaging barely 24 points per game, against a 'Husker defense allowing just thirteen. Over the last nine quarters, the Longhorns have mounted two sustained, non-garbage time touchdown drives. Over its last nine quarters, Nebraska has allowed zero sustained, non-garbage time touchdowns drives.
The gradual taming of the Big 12 offenses works both ways: Taylor Martinez and Co. should find UT somewhat less accommodating than the hopelessly outmanned units they've shredded to date. But without some kind of spark from Texas' offense – and from Gilbert's right arm, specifically – the Longhorns seem to be in short supply of the kind of firepower they need to keep the last strains of optimism from being overrun by what has certainly been to date a superior force.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.