As excited as we all are about the direction of the team and what it suggests about the possibility of closing out the year with three or four more wins, Saturday's game against Missouri looks very much like a defining test of whether we're going to get there. It's easy to see how a loss in Columbia spells trouble the next two weeks against Kansas State and Texas A&M. Likewise, it's not hard to envision a win that supports the optimistic view that we might well win out.
Keys to the game always sound so obvious, and in many ways they are -- Don't let them score! Don't fall behind! Make them defend you! -- but it's nevertheless worth articulating the specific ways some of these things particularly matter for a given opponent/game. Here are five to keep in mind:
1. Limit Missouri's big play offense.
The Tigers offense has struggled to convert third downs but has thrived making big plays. Quarterback James Franklin is a solid quarterback with the ability to run a bit and steadily improving passing, and sophomore tailback Henry Josey is the most explosive tailback in the conference. Josey's racked up 1,149 rushing yards on just 134 carries, tops in the country among backs with at least 100 carries. Though against Oklahoma State the Longhorns turned in an impressive defensive effort overall, the two big runs for touchdowns were the difference in the game. Josey will similarly make us pay for any mistakes, while the Tigers may struggle to get in the end zone if they have to sustain drives all the way through.
2. Get off to a good start.
We've had a lot of important games versus Missouri in recent years, but Scipio's right: they've consistently failed to give us their best shot. I won't complain if they wilt again, but the one thing this Texas team really can't afford is to fall behind early. A fast start for Texas allows both our offense and defense to do what they do best. On the flipside, this Texas team doesn't look like it's ready to mount any substantial comebacks. We don't necessarily need to jump out to a big lead, but falling behind quickly could spell real trouble.
3. Make Missouri defend the whole field.
Missouri's defensive line is physically impressive and their front seven as a whole does pretty well with the running game (34th nationally in S&P+). It's the Tigers secondary that has struggled this year. Obviously that's not the ideal fit for our offense to this point, and if Texas is unable to inflict some damage on Missouri down the field in the passing game, it'll be that much easier for them to really load up their focus on keeping our run game in check. We need to force theTigers defense to defend the field vertically, but we'd also benefit from forcing Missouri's linebackers to have to do some work both in coverage and defending speed on the outside.
4. Get a complete performance from David Ash.
We've gotten bits of goodness throughout the season, but Ash has not yet put together a complete performance in a competitive game. He's run the ball well at times, he's made some great passes over the course of the season, and he's been steadily developing as he gains more experience. We need him to start putting everything together for a full game if we want to win our next four. Ash's legs can be a useful weapon in Columbia on Saturday, but we especially need him to connect on some of those downfield play action passes like he did last week against Tech. A couple long completions off play action will be as valuable to our running game as anything we can do.
5. Avoid mistakes on the margins.
This Texas team is good enough to beat Missouri -- even on the road -- but not so good that it's likely to do so if it has to overcome avoidable setbacks. Playing sound football on the margins means avoiding mistakes like a kickoff out of bounds, dumb penalties, and fumbles. It means maintaining gap discipline and not allowing busted plays like the 4th and 1 TD runs by OSU. And so on. When you have Vince Young or Colt McCoy playing quarterback, you can overcome setbacks to win. When you're a young team that's still learning how to win, the margin for error is a lot smaller.
I'm feeling cautiously optimistic but not nearly as confident as I felt about last week's game versus Texas Tech, not so much because it was in Austin but because the match ups complemented our strengths, and kind to our weaknesses. The match ups this week are much less favorable, but Mack Brown's teams have tended to play very sound football on the road, and if that trend holds I like our chances to wear down Missouri.
How are you feeling heading into this week's game? What keys are you focused on?