Texas is undefeated. (Let's give that a moment to sink in.)
The Longhorns go into this year's Rose Bowl with confidence, and for good reason: they have a pretty great history in that legendary stadium. That said, they also have some pretty miserable history with the UCLA Bruins, a team that has owned the Longhorns over the last few years. Few have forgotten that it was UCLA who started Texas' indescribable meltdown last season.
Head coach Mack Brown hates talking about playing for vengance, but in this case, Texas has every reason to walk into the Rose Bowl and destroy the Bruins: this is a game about self-respect and dignity. The Horns go on the road against a decent football team in need of a signature win for Rick Neuheisel, their embattled coach, and Texas needs to prove it can win on the road.
The Bruins are not a great team; decent is kind, mediocre might be a better word. But they bring a punishing ground game that will test Texas defensive line and linebackers, and UCLA plays a speed defense (quite different from BYU and a great test for the Texas offensive line).
The Longhorns have played two identical games so far.
"This Texas football team has started to develop an identity on both sides of the ball and as a team. The ability to run it and the ability to stop the run is one of the first things we want to hang our hat on. Our guys are starting to believe."
Against both Rice and BYU, the Horns came out flat and unmotivated in the first half, followed by a near perfect second half—and they've dominated the fourth quarter.
"[As to] our fourth quarter dominance, we've scored 21 points to the opponent's zero," says Brown. "We've had 14 first downs and the opponents have had one. We've rushed for 159 yards and the opponents have rushed for 29. We've passed for 107 yards, the opponents have passed for 21. We've had a total offense of 266 yards, and the opponents have had a total offense of 50 yards. We've had 46 plays compared to 21. Third downs, we're 7 of 9 or 77.8 percent, and the opponents are 0 for 6 on 3rd downs in the fourth quarter."
That, my friends, is domination. If Mack can figure out how to do that throughout an entire game, he will have a very special football team.
So to start in that direction, he decided to do what anyone would do in his position: play the second half guys in the first half.
Out go Gilbert and Whitaker; in come QB's McCoy and David Ash, and soon-to-be-superstar taiback Malcolm Brown. "He’s made yards after contact. The first guy typically doesn’t bring him down," said co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite about Brown. "He’s very intelligent. He’s been able to learn a complicated system right off the bat as a true freshman. Those are some of his upsides. He has great vision, one step quickness, all those little tag-lines that you hear coaches talk about."
Brown made it clear at the start of the season: "We don't care who you are or what your name is, we're going to play the guy that gives us the best chance to win—period." And he's backing that statement up, insisting that those changes alone will make all the difference on Saturday and set the stage for Texas to enter the bye week undefeated.
Starting the season, this Longhorn football was one big question mark, many of which have been answered:
Who will play quarterback?
Garrett Gilbert answered that question himself last week; Texas will let another McCoy see what he can do. Case McCoy will start at quarterback Saturday, and David Ash will probably come in as early as the second play from scrimmage. Texas is now officially a football team with a two quarterback rotation. Gilbert moves to third string and is just trying to get into the game.
How will Texas run the ball?
Pretty damn well... so far. The Longhorns average just under 200 yards on the ground per game. That is a key stat and one that needs to continue in order for a young quarterback to survive.
Senior tailback Fozzy Whitaker is moving over. Freshman Malcolm Brown may not start (he should but he might not) but he will certainly see action in the first series of downs. Brown has led the Longhorn rushing attack in both games so far and he's only played in the second half. It's time to see what he can do throughout an entire game.
How will the young offensive line play?
Wow. They gave up no sacks against BYU and average almost 200 yards rushing. Those are stats to be proud of.
Will the defense get their nasty back?
Apparently. Texas D held BYU to just 43 yards rushing and has intercepted two passes—those are the marks of a budding great defense.
Who will round out the defensive tackle position next to Kheeston Randall?
Ashton Dorsey. A big, fast "finisher" as described by defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, Dorsey had to sit out against Rice for breaking team rules, but against BYU, he dominated.
Here are my goals for Texas coming out of this game:
1) Be consistent on offense
Texas need not blow out UCLA in the first half. They might not even be ahead, but they must play well and keep the game close. If this team can play a good first half on the road, in the Rose Bowl, against a good UCLA defense, these young guys will gain enormous confidence. If they play poorly, look out, UCLA could roll all over them.
2) Stick with the young guys
Two games into the season the team—what is it now, dozens of freshmen and sophomores—have begun to learn the system. They may not be great yet, but they learn quickly and have avoided making the same mistakes twice. These guys are not just the future anymore, they are the present, and they have grown up before our eyes.
3) Play shut down defense
Texas' nasty defense is allowing just over 200 yards of offense per game. Certainly they haven't played against great offenses, but that is a key statistic worth repeating over a beer in the bar to a group of disbelieving fans. Texas D must continue shutting down the run, especially against UCLA.
Specifically here the keys to this game:
- Win the turnover battle - We say this every game, but it is especially true on the road, in the Rose Bowl. Texas has done a great job holding onto the football. They need to create more chaos on defense, forcing turnovers, but they cannot win if they let go of the ball.
- Give the ball to Malcolm Brown 24 times - I will keep saying this until they do it. "He's got great eyes to see the cut, and he is a powerful runner," says Mack Brown. "He's one of those guys like Cedric Benson that just seems—you look up and he's made 70 yards, and you don't remember all of them." Sounds like Coach Brown sees the same things Longhorn fans see.
- Take care of the quarterback - Garrett Gilbert won't play, and while Case McCoy and David Ash have looked good, they have all of one quarter of big game experience, that being the fourth quarter against BYU. That turned out pretty well. They will not survive a bunch of sacks, dropped footballs and missed blocking assignments. The entire offense must bring their "A" game for this one. It's not that UCLA is so good—they are mediocre at best—but these Longhorns have a young and therefore fragile offensive psyche. Bad things will lead to more bad things.
This week defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said something that should make nervous Longhorn fans start to smile.
"This Texas football team has started to develop an identity on both sides of the ball and as a team," he said. "The ability to run it and the ability to stop the run is one of the first things we want to hang our hat on. Our guys are starting to believe."