We've set the stage for the stakes, we've talked about how the Aggies should approach this game, and now it's time to turn to what Texas needs to do to secure victory on Friday.
The A&M defense is 61st in the nation in yards per rush, 102nd in yards per pass attempt, and 104th in opponent quarterback rating. In short: the village is ripe for plundering. Teams that have torched A&M most painfully this season (Miami, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Missouri) have done so with a ruthless aerial attack. Those four opponents combined to complete 99 of their 128 pass attempts (77.3%) for an average of 334 yards per game. For those scoring at home, that's a whopping 10.4 yards per pass attempt. Did I mention 13 touchdowns against 0 interceptions? I probably should have.
Those four opponents also beat Texas A&M by a combined score of 151-64. Needless to say, a team which shows up against Texas A&M with its passing game working is primed for an afternoon of video game fun.
Lest we get too excited, though, each of those four games were road contests for the Aggies, and on the season, A&M has a drastic split between home and away pass defense. In College Station, the average opponent QB rating has been a solid 114.7; on the road that number rockets up to 178.2. Some of that should be attributed to better play at Kyle Field, but a significant factor has been the Aggies' misfortune of playing its stiffest competition away from home.
Turning to A&M's rush defense, the picture isn't much prettier. Five of the Aggies' last six opponents have rushed for over 4.0 yards per carry. No matter how you slice and dice the numbers, set up the splits, or look for niches where the Aggies play well, the overall defensive picture is grim. Not only has Texas A&M failed to stop any good offense from taking care of business - they managed to make a putrid Miami offense look like an unstoppable force. And if you've ever seen Kyle Wright play football, you know it takes a special kind of incompetence to make him look any kind of good.
And that's the big picture heading into the game. I covered the A&M offense in great detail in Part 2 of this series, and the above makes clear just how shaky the Aggies are on defense. Does Texas even need to do anything special to ensure a win?
Despite the big edge on paper, I have to say yes. Though there is not, and will not, be any excuse for a loss in College Station on Friday, the Longhorns cannot simply show up and expect to win. This Texas team, improved as it appears to be, cannot afford to go through the motions. This is the last game of Fran's Aggie career. It is the most important game of the season for A&M every season. And this Texas team is at its worst when it plays tentatively - when it plays not to lose. And it is at its best when it is pushing, pushing, pushing - seeking big plays and scrambling to save its life.
So if I'm Mack Brown? These are my keys to the game:
1. Play to win. Above all else - all the little stuff we have talked about and will talk about - this is the biggest one. Mack Brown's Longhorns are at their worst when the gameplan is to Survive And Advance, and at their best when playing desperately to win. Greg Davis and Mack Brown have hit their low points when they've approached a game tentatively, and achieved their greatest successes when their backs have been against the wall. Accordingly, the approach on Friday should be to seek and destroy. Getting into a slugfest with A&M is a mistake, and relying on this defense to win the game would be a backwards strategy. Attack, and play to win.
2. Make A&M be extraordinary. Frantana's Aggies do one thing and one thing well: play grind 'em out, ball-control slugfests. This goes with the first point, but along with doing what we do best - playing aggressively - we need to disallow A&M from settling into what they do best - playing conservatively. Make Stephen McGee beat us with his arm. Make A&M defend us across the board: the run, the deep pass, the intermediate stuff to Finley/Cosby/Jones. All of it. Anything but a game that Frandullah is comfortable with.
3. Get the special teams in order. One of the things we've glossed over this season has been the utterly pedestrian special teams play from the 'Horns this year. Quan Cosby, Receiving HeroTM, has been a zero factor on returns. If there's one change Texas could make that might have an immediate tangible impact, it would be subbing in for Cosby someone with better playmaking ability. On the flipside, though Texas did a fabulous job a week ago stealing a posession on a pooch kick against Tech, there've been serious breakdowns in kick coverage this season. This isn't an opponent to whom we want to afford any free yards. Make. A&M. Score. With. Long. Drives.
4. Use Shipley and Finley. Among the things touched on in part two of the preview was the likelihood of A&M swarming the box, trying to keep Jamaal Charles in check, and hunting McCoy. When earlier this season Texas was trying to succeed offensively with an offense revolving around McCoy using Sweed to stretch the field, it made a lot sense for teams to sit in Cover-2 and watch us flail. A&M surely will have noticed our shift in priority, though, and it's likely that they'll spend a good chunk of their defensive capital trying to stop the run. Though run we must, it would be criminal not to exploit the Aggies in the vertical passing game. Even if they were sitting back trying to stop that, they've proven no ability to do so. Again, this gets back to Texas dictating the game, rather than reacting to the kind of game A&M wants.
All told, this isn't terribly complicated. If Texas plays the game it can and should play, the Aggies will struggle to keep pace. Conversely, if Texas allows A&M to dictate the game's pace, this game easily could slip into a low-scoring affair that remains tight through four quarters.
Like I said from the beginning, this game is critical for Mack Brown. Do it right and we'll all be excited about the rest of the year. Lay an egg and we'll all be wondering if this staff can ever win a conference championship without Vince Young.
It's that simple.