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Five Things to Watch Against Missouri

Horns_bullet_mediumWhich Blaine Gabbert will the Longhorns see today? During the four non-conference games, Gabbert was exceptional, particularly for a first-year starter -- he threw 11 touchdowns with no interceptions and averaged more than 10 yards per attempt in victories over Furman and Nevada. However, once he reached Big 12 play, the numbers started to drop, as he's thrown five interceptions to only one touchdown in losses to Nebraska in the monsoon and Oklahoma State in Stillwater. It may simply be that the increased level of competition has brought Gabbert back down to earth, but he did also sprain his ankle when tackled by the beastly Ndamukong Suh in the Nebraska game and re-aggravated it last week.

The reason that's a big deal is that Gabbert is much more athletic than generally expected of a 6-5, 240-pound quarterback. An effective runner and scrambler, Gabbert has had those elements of his game either taken away or significantly reduced by his injury, leaving Missouri without a running threat at the quarterback position and Gabbert without the same ability to make plays downfield on the run.

The question, then, is whether Gabbert is healthy enough now to make those plays and if the Longhorns can put pressure on him to test that ankle and his ability to move. The Missouri offense is 88th in the country on third down, while the Longhorns have the best third-down defense in the country. If the Longhorns can stop Missouri and first and second down, then Gabbert may be in trouble and Texas has a good chance of forcing him to make bad decisions with the football, creating turnovers or simply forcing Missouri to give up the football.

Horns_bullet_mediumCan the offense finally get off to a fast start, particularly the offensive line? It's no secret at this point that Texas has been ranging from mediocre to terrible at the start of football games this season. Can the Longhorns open up the game with a successful drive running the football? And why is it that the offensive line plays so terribly and makes so many mistakes early in the game? The adrenaline level of opposing teams probably makes a difference, but, ultimately, there's really no excuse for not executing assignments. Michael Huey may not play much this week with his ankle still bothering him considerably, so Tray Allen may receive his first extensive snaps in a close game this season, while David Snow looks to back up Chris Halle exclusively at the center position.

On a related note, do the Longhorns try to push the tempo early in the game to get the Tigers back on their heels? It has been an effective tactic at times, but teams are really starting to sell out towards the line of scrimmage when the Longhorns go jet tempo and quick-snap the ball from under center. Where is the package of play-action passes and bootlegs from this set? Texas has only passed once in that situation, a screen pass that resulted in a hold by James Kirkendoll because he didn't have time to fully line up and see his blocking assignment.

The other aspect in this is that Faurot Field, while not a massive homefield advantage for the Tigers, will host the largest crowd in 25 years for Homecoming, at the school that invented homecoming, and the fans will have all morning and afternoon to imbibe all the liquid courage they can handle. Getting off to a fast start could calm down a potentially raucous crowd and start removing some of that homefield advantage.

Horns_bullet_mediumWill the run defense continue to dominate? Despite the worries nearly every week from Mack Brown, the Texas run defense has been dominant. In fact, dominant doesn't even seem to describe it well -- but the numbers tell the tale. Missouri isn't a good running team, ranking 101st in the country by Bill C.'s numbers. As mentioned above, if the Longhorns can stop the Tigers on early downs, then they can tee off on Blaine Gabbert on third downs, when Missouri is not particularly effective. It may be that Texas forces the Tigers to abandon the run early in an attempt to actually pick up yards on the early downs and that plays into the hands of Muschamp and his Legion of Boom, as Chip Brown now refers to the Texas defense -- I like it and I'm going to steal it. The sincerest form of flattery and all that, Chip. If the scenario just laid out comes to pass, Texas has an excellent chance of running away with the football game if the offense can produce at a reasonably high level.

Horns_bullet_mediumWhat will the passing offense look like? Between BON and Barking Carnival this week, plenty of attention has been paid to the new Texas offense by numerous writers (here, here, and here). What is the result of all those changes? Wide receiver is a position to watch especially, with Jordan Shipley moving to flanker, Marquise Goodwin taking over in the slot, and Malcolm Williams now manning the split end position. Can Shipley and Goodwin create more separation than Chiles and Kirkendoll? Can Williams catch the football when it's thrown in his direction and can the Longhorns get a downfield passing game going to him?

Something to consider here is that Missouri has played the exact defense with their secondary that has been giving Texas problems this season -- sitting back in coverage, keeping everything in front of them, and allowing the underneath passes. The defense hasn't produced many turnovers, but it has limited big plays, the exact type of plays that Texas is now hoping to produce in the passing game. Will the Longhorns then be able to complete passes underneath and move the ball down the field or will Missouri be able to sit on nearly every single route Texas runs as Oklahoma did last week and opponents have generally been doing throughout the season?

Horns_bullet_mediumWhat will the rushing offense look like? The running game is the next question mark. This week, Greg Davis admitted that he abandoned the running game in the first half against Oklahoma, to the overall detriment of the team. If Missouri is going to sit with two safeties deep and only seven men in the box, Texas has to be able to run the football, particularly early in the game to try to draw up the safeties and run some play-action passing downfield.

Will the misdirection continue to be a part of the offense? Texas last week actually ran a real, actual counter play with misdirection and a counter step -- they need to run it several times against Missouri, especially if the linebackers are flowing on the zone runs. McCoy was beat up last week, but needs to be a part of the running game, particularly running draws and the zone read, which re-appeared last week and helped McCoy make the long run on which he eventually fumbled near the goalline.

The other aspect of the running game is the Monroe series -- it's similar to the WildHorn, but instead uses Monroe in motion. The stealer-type play the Longhorns used last week needs to be run more than once for Monroe -- this season, he's only taken the one handoff on the first appearance of the series and one in the WildHorn, both times picking up 5-6 yards without particularly successful blocking, just his pure speed taking effect. The other two plays, a counter to the short side of the field and a quarterback counter that worked well, also need to see the light of day. Another play may surface this week, which is a power play for the quarterback used once in the WildHorn, as well as any pass plays the Longhorns have built into the formation.

Basically, the point is that Davis needs to commit to the series as a massive help to the running game and punish defenses for what they are giving up -- the whole idea behind series-based football is that the defense doesn't have enough resources to always be right. Abandoning this helpful series in the running game would be classic Davis stupidity -- here's hoping he knows better.