December 29, 2009

Defensive showdown with Texas may fit UA to a T

TUSCALOOSA _ When ESPN had Heisman Trophy candidates Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy do a sit-down segment over lunch for the broadcast of the award announcement they talked about a variety of subjects both football and non-sports related.

But when the subject of the national championship came up, the conversion immediately shifted to one person in particular, University of Alabama All-American nose tackle Terrence Cody.

"He's very tough to block," Coach Nick Saban said. "Most of the time they have to use two blockers on him which means that somebody else is not getting blocked, primarily the linebackers and those guys have a better opportunity to make a lot of tackles and plays."

If it's true that defenses win championships, then there probably couldn't be a better pairing than Alabama vs. Texas in the BCS title game, Jan. 7 at the Rose Bowl. While the Crimson Tide leads the nation by allowing just 11 points per game, the Longhorns have been nearly as impressive.

Coordinator Will Muschamp's unit ranks first in rushing defense (62.15 yards), third in total defense (251.08), and eighth in scoring defense (15.15). It leads the nation with 24 interceptions and is seventh in both sacks and tackles for a loss.

"They also have the most non-offensive touchdowns scored, which means the defense is scoring some too," Saban said. "I think it's because of the pressure and not just the players on the back end.

"The challenge is that all the guys do their job well."

However, a closer look demonstrates where Texas may be vulnerable, or at least untested.

Overall, opponents have had 407 carries for 808 rushing yards and five touchdowns. The longest run yielded was 43 yards and the average carry 2.0 yards. Texas A&M had the most success with 190 rushing yards on 40 carries followed by Oklahoma State's 134 on 43 attempts.

No other opponent was able to establish the run and in many cases didn't try, with the number of attempts ranging from 18 to 38. That's not surprising, especially considering how the Big 12 has become a pass-friendly conference.

For example, the conference had the person listed 22nd nationally in both passing and rushing yards. But while Oklahoma's Landry Jones was sixth among Big 12 quarterbacks, Kansas State's Daniel Thomas topped the conference in rushing.

Texas didn't play the Wildcats or a Big 12 opponent with a running back who averaged 100 yards per game. The closest was Oklahoma State's Keith Tolston, who went into the postseason with 1,177 yards (98.8 average).

In comparison, Alabama saw five running backs who averaged at least 100 rushing yards this season, four on Southeastern Conference teams. Despite that, the Tide still ranks third nationally in time of possession (33:31 per game, while Texas is 31st at 30:53).

Additionally, Texas faced twice as many teams ranked nationally in the bottom 25 in rushing (102. Kansas; 108. Baylor, 113. Colorado; and 115. Texas Tech), than the top 25 (24. Oklahoma State; 25. Texas A&M).

Statistically, the best running back it opposed was David Buckram of UTEP, who had 1,594 yards and had his best performances against Houston (262 yards), SMU (241), and Tulane (234). But he also had just 25 yards vs. Marshall and 31 against Kansas. Buckram tallied 46 yards on nine carries against Texas, almost all in the first half before the running game was shelved in the 64-7 rout.

Consequently, just how well the Longhorns might stand up to Alabama's pounding running game is a huge question mark and figures to be a crucial factor in the game's outcome. The Tide had at least 40 carries against nine opponents, including the 251 yards on 53 attempts against Florida, which entered the SEC Championship Game ranked first nationally in total defense (233.08 yards per game) and scoring defense (9.83).

Meanwhile, the Longhorns struggled against physical, attacking defenses and is ranked 80th in sacks allowed with 2.31 per game.

"We just have to come out and dominate the line of scrimmage," Cody said. "They're kind of like Florida, their playing style."

But not in their execution. While both teams try to take advantage of space they do so in very different ways, with Florida essentially having a wildcat-type offense centered around Tebow's running while pass-first Texas boasts four receivers with at least 38 catches each.

"I think they're totally different-style guys," Saban said. "Colt McCoy runs the ball because their offense demands it on occasion, he's not the focal point of running the ball a lot. The four or five times he runs the ball in game are usually very effective and he makes a lot of big plays doing it. He's also very capable scrambler.

"But the offense is not built around him running the ball."

Texas faced two teams ranked in the top 10 in both total and scoring defense. With Sam Bradford out for Oklahoma, the Longhorns played ball-control and averaged 3.36 yards per play to pull out a 16-13 victory. McCoy was limited to 21-of-39 for 127 yards with one touchdown and a costly interception that that could've turned into a go-ahead touchdown for the Sooners.

Oklahoma blitzed the daylights out of the Longhorns, but Nebraska had even more success racking up nine sacks - which figures to be a sort of blueprint for Alabama. McCoy threw for 184 yards, but also had three interceptions that opened the door for Mark Ingram to win the Heisman Trophy.

"They are obviously a very good team," junior linebacker Rolando McClain said. "They have a great quarterback who has good receivers around him. We just have to do what we've been doing this entire year and that is just playing our style of football. Coach always says it is not about what they do, it's about what we do. So we just have to go out and play our game and I think we'll be all right."



 

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