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Rose Bowl Preview

Happy New Year to everyone! I hope you've enjoyed your holidays as much as I have, and I have no doubt that everyone's as excited as we are about the Rose Bowl. Finally, it's time for our official Burnt Orange Nation Rose Bowl Preview. If you've been watching ESPN, you'd think the game had already been won by USC, but not so...

Texas Offense vs USC Defense
Have the Trojans faced an offense as explosive or as balanced as Texas's is? The Pac 10 has some nifty offensive teams this year, but none that also feature a quarterback as mobile as Vince Young. That's Texas' "X Factor" that makes their offense a cut above almost everyone else's. The Trojan defensive line is stout, and the unit as a whole played its best game of the season to date in their final regular season game against UCLA.

What Texas will try to do on offense
The staple of the Horns offense is the "zone-read option." The Horns snap the ball to Vince in the shotgun and he has to make a quick read to determine what the defensive ends are doing for the Trojans. If they are crashing down toward the middle, Vince is to fake the handoff and keep the ball, sprinting to the corner around the end. If the DE rushes hard straight up the field, Vince is to hand the ball off to the back who will take the run inside on his own.

Vince Young has emerged this year as a terrifically efficient passer (he led the nation in QB rating), and the receivers--a huge question mark entering the season--have stepped up to become a pretty reliable group. Billy Pittman leads the nation in yards per catch, giving Vince his best deep option, while David Thomas remains one of the best possession tight ends in the country.

The key for the Trojans will be to try to get pressure on Young while not allowing him big scrambling yards. Easier said than done, of course, but Ohio State pulled it off for most of the game against the Horns. While USC's defense has been over-criticized a bit, the unit is not as strong as last year's Trojan team.

What they are good at, though, is creating turnovers. The Trojans led the nation in turnover margin, and Texas MUST take care of the football on Wednesday. Texas rushers (including Young) have put the ball on the ground too many times this year, a mistake they cannot afford with an offense like USC's waiting to take the field. The Horns simply cannot hope for the defense to bail out the offense, as it did against Ohio State. USC has too many playmakers to give extra chances.

USC Offense versus Texas Defense
USC simply hasn't faced a defense as athletic as Texas' this year. That said, the Horns haven't faced an offense nearly as dynamic as USC's this year. They have a Heisman quarterback, a Heisman running back, another excellent running back, two of the best receivers in the country, a solid tight end, and an elite offensive line. With apologies to the ridiculous Texas offense, USC has the most explosive offense in the country.

What USC will try to do on offense
The Trojans will not be shy about trying to pound away at the Texas defense with Lendale White, while at the same time using that Reggie Bush kid all over the field. Along with regular rushing duties, the Horns can expect to see Bush lined up as a receiver, further complicating the defensive scheming.

Leinart has the skills to work the passes in the mid and short range, but he loves to go for the home run, and Texas' cornerbacks will be tested early and often in this regard. Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik will have some interesting choices to make in this regard. Given the personnel needed to stop the USC rushing attack, Chizik may decide to leave his cornerbacks in isolation with USC's talented wide receivers. Cedric Griffin will likely be on the enormously talented Dwayne Jarrett for much of the game, a matchup that will be vital for Griffin to win.

The main thing on everyone's mind, of course, is Reggie Bush. The most explosive runner in college football, containing him has become a relative term. There's no stopping him, or even containing him in `normal' terms. There's simply limiting his ability to totally break down your defense consistently. Much of this responsibility will fall on Horns' All American safety Michael Huff. But the real keys will be (1) how well the Texas front four can penetrate the backfield and (2) how well our linebackers can tackle.

The problem is that the USC offensive line is truly outstanding. Their OL is every bit as good as Texas, if not a touch better. The Horns defensive line must find a way to get pressure into the backfield or the linebackers will be taking on too many blocks to make the plays to stop the run.

WWJCD?

Rose Bowl previews and matchup breakdowns all read about the same. We've broken down the matchups and the skill position players for both teams for a while now, so let's spend the rest of this time offering our prediction on how the game will unfold.

*    A nickel for your thoughts  I think we're going to see a lot of nickel packages from Gene Chizik on Wednesday night. USC has so much team speed (and Reggie Bush), something the Horns must plan for. Gene Chizik has always favored speed over size on his defense, which is why you will often see him move linebackers to the defensive line, and DBs to linebackers. Maybe the best example of this for Texas is Drew Kelson, a former DB who Chizik converted to a linebacker. Expect to see Kelson in many of the nickel packages to give the Horns as much speed on defense as possible.
*    Matt Leinart can be rattled  Watching the Notre Dame game, I was truly surprised by Matt Leinart's ability to get rattled after taking a hit. It's not like he falls apart and plays horribly, but he can be knocked out of his rhythm after taking a hit or two. If the Horns can lay a big hit or two off Leinart, I'll be watching closely to see how he hangs in there. If he's uncomfortable in the pocket, that helps the Horns' defensive chances tremendously.
*    What Would Jamaal Charles Do?  If you were to sum up the Burnt Orange Nation Texas football analysis for 2005, it would read something like this: "We freaking love Jamaal Charles and see him as the key offensive weapon that must play well with Vince Young." Never will this be more true than in the Rose Bowl. When the Horns were sputtering against Ohio State, JC came in and gave the Horns a receiving option out of the backfield. After he was given the keys to the car and made the starter, he showed running instincts that are not exceeded by any Texas back that we've seen in a long time. And best of all, the kid doesn't play like a freshman. He blocks well and he plays with confidence and poise. There is no bigger key to the game than Jamaal Charles.
*    Limas Sweed will be a factor in this game  The guy has a tendency to be a goat or a hero, and we think this could be true again. We can see Limas getting pushed around by a defensive back and allowing a ball his way to get picked off, or we can see him stepping up to make the kinds of plays you'd expect from a kid with his body. Texas can win without Sweed, but if he's having a good game, look out. Texas will be tough to stop.
*    Special Teams count  Perhaps the only area where the Horns have a true advantage over USC is in special teams. They return kicks and punts better, they cover kicks and returns better, and they block a hell of a lot of kicks. USC doesn't punt much, but if they have to against Texas, they'll need to be solid. The Horns love to go for the big special teams play, and they often succeed.

There are so many ways that this game could go, but given how closely matched these teams are in talent, you have to expect a good game. USC blew out Oklahoma last year with a dynamic offense and a ridiculously talented defense that got overshadowed by said offense. This year's USC defense isn't as bad as advertised, but they aren't nearly as good as last year's team, which is why you aren't going to see them shut down the Horns. USC will not blow out Texas unless Vince Young just plays poorly.

On the other side, it's not clear that USC's offense isn't every bit as explosive as last year's. It's equally unlikely that Texas could blow out USC unless Leinart, Bush, or both, just played like crap. And that just doesn't seem likely.

So what does that all mean? It's going to come down to big plays. Can Texas block a punt? Will USC dominate the turnover battle? Is Vince going to have another sick Rose Bowl? Can anyone stop Reggie Bush?

I think that the streak is going to come to an end. The 34 straight wins is as impressive as anything in sports right now, but it's coming to an end on Wednesday night. USC is a brilliant football team, but they aren't the 2004 Trojan team, which really might have been the best of all time.

This game should come down to the wire, but ultimately, the Horns will prevail. As much praise as we have for the USC offense, the Texas attack has become just as lethal. Ramonce, Jamaal, Billy, Limas, David... Vince. All the weapons are there, and Pete Carroll isn't the only one in town who hasn't lost in forever. Gene Chizik is up for this challenge, and that will be the difference in the game. There's no stopping USC, but there are ways they can be slowed.

Texas Longhorns, National Champions, 38-35.