How well will the interior of the Texas line play? Obviously, the big match up here is Chris Hall and a guard against Ndamukong Suh, the massively athletic "House of Spears," literally -- that's what his name means. Hall and Charlie Tanner have been much maligned around these parts at times, but their play has been more consistent as the year has gone on and they've played a big role in the improvement in the running game. The other offensive linemen who will have shot at helping Hall with Suh will be Michael Huey, another inconsistent performer this season whose problems resulted more from the ankle injury he suffered early in the year than any technical or athletic shortcomings. He's finally healthy and playing well.
The double team on Suh will leave Huey or Tanner consistently on Jared Crick, a player known for using his hands well, but one who doesn't always play with great pad level -- not overly surprisingly for a young defensive tackle with his height (6-6). If the Longhorn guards can get under his pads and into his body, they should be able to handle them, but if they allow Crick to get his hands on them and get extended, the other big Husker could make some plays inside as well.
All three interior linemen struggled against Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy, but because Huey was hobbled during the game with his injury and Tanner and Hall have taken their play to a higher level, it's probably safe to say the Longhorns have a better shot of slowing down Crick and Suh than they did McCoy. However, it's a big question whether or not David Snow can help out in this game because he was absolutely destroyed by McCoy and is probably still suffering from some lingering PTSD after his nightmare in the Cotton Bowl. If Tanner or Huey need a blow at some point in the game, Snow will have to play better than he did against Oklahoma and it's possible that he may only be asked to help out Hall with Suh, which should be easier than going one-on-one with Crick.
The double team on Suh will have a trickle-down effect on other aspects of the line's play, most notably having only one combination block at the line of scrimmage even with EBS (unless they leave the backside end unblocked), putting a lot of pressure on the outside linemen, Kyle Hix and Adam Ulatoski, to make their plays in space and get off the combination block quickly -- not always a strength of Ulatoski in particular.
How will the Longhorn gamplan work around Suh in the middle? Not only is Suh tremendous at putting pressure on the quarterback, but he also has the elite ability to knock down and/or intercept passes, having broken up 10 on the season and intercepted one other. Last season, he returned both of his interceptions for touchdowns. Suh's rare ability to play in space as a 300-pound defensive tackle allows him to drop back into coverage over the middle when Nebraska zone blitzes. Just like Colt McCoy has to know where linebackers dropping off into zone coverage are heading, he must also recognize Suh dropping back into coverage, particularly on any throws over the middle, whether short to a running back or to a receiver running a shallow cross.
Of course, devoting more resources to Suh means leaving all the other linemen one-on-one. As a result, the Longhorns will need an extra blocking surface to even have one other combination block and get anyone to the second level -- fortunately, Texas has a more than adequate Extra Blocking Surface. Woo, Greg Smith! In all seriousness, Smith has been blocking as well of late as he ever did when he was heavier last season and perhaps even better, an impressive accomplishment.
Since the weakness of the Nebraska defensive is their linebacking corps, the Longhorns might be well served to exploit the perimeter. One obvious way is to bring back the Monroe Series that was not used against A&M, the group of plays based around the fly sweep to get the ball to a fast player in motion to take the edge on the Nebraska linebackers and avoid having to move players off the defensive line. The danger here is having Suh bust through the line if the center has to reach to make the play, but the need to have help on every play should decease the chances of that occurring. The latest addition to the Monroe Series, the pass to Tre' Newton out in the flat, provides good misdirection and isolates Newton against a linebacker in the open field -- a desired match up for Texas.
Last week, the return of the zone read and extensive use of the quarterback draw helped McCoy run roughshod over the Aggie defense. The zone read options off a defender and makes McCoy a threat in the running game, which may be the best way to pick up yards on the ground against the Nebraska front four, by far the best Husker defensive unit, while also providing another combination block or a free release to the second level, allowing Texas to account for six players in the box even with a double team on Suh. Running the quarterback draw can punish the interior defenders if they get too far upfield and was a play that Kansas used to good effect. Expect to see it three to four times in the game.
Can Texas get off to a strong start? Conventional wisdom says that Nebraska wants to come into this game and "run, run, run, then play action," as Earl Thomas put it this week. In fact, that's been their plan in every game since the eight-turnover debacle against Iowa State and it's been successful enough to make it to the Big 12 Championship and earn the coveted honor of tallest midget (sorry, tallest vertically challenged person) in the Big 12 North. So congratulations on that, Huskers.
A fast start by the Longhorns on offense could radically change the complexion of the game -- this Nebraska offense isn't built at the moment to come back from deficits. Now, starting fast has been a key for the Longhorns all season and the offense seems to have overcome the slow starts that characterized the beginning of the season and led to weekly Screaming Lady appearances, but it's extremely important in this game because it's not clear how the Huskers would respond when forced to adjust their gameplan so much.
Would Pellini simply continue running the football in hopes of eventually breaking a play or setting up a deep pass off of play action, or maybe even just try to minimize the damage and avoid a blowout while hoping that the defense comes up with a big turnover or two? Would the offense revert to pre-Iowa State form with some attempts to spread the field and pass the ball, with the possibility of disastrous results and numerous Zac Lee interceptions? Or would Pellini insert true freshman and native Texan Cody Green to run the zone read and provide another rushing threat?
Will the special teams recover from a mostly disastrous performance against A&M? This one goes mostly to the kickoff coverage unit. Nebraska isn't a great kick returning team, ranking right at the bottom of the top third in the country at 23 yards flat and Texas spent much of the week working on covering kicks, so the visit to JerryWorld will give the beleagured unit an opportunity to demonstrate improvement. Kenny Vaccaro in particular must return to making positive plays instead penalties and miscues as he did in that strange vortex called Aggieland.
For the kickoff return team, it's not nearly as much about Marquise Goodwin as it is the blocking in the wedge and, to a lesser extent, on the edge by players like Vaccaro, Jeremy HIlls, Fozzy Whittaker, and Nolan Brewster. Cody Johnson, Aaron Smith, and Eddie Jones, the wedge blockers, struggled for most of the game in College Station before getting their blocks. Nebraska covers kicks well and probably won't kick off many times during the game, so the Longhorns need to take advantage when they can. When the Huskers do kick, however, nearly 40% of them go for touchbacks -- it's unlikely that Goodwin will even have half of the six attempts from last week.
Along with solid units on kickoffs, the Huskers have the biggest opportunity to impact the game in blocking field goals and essentially taking points off the board, as Suh has blocked three kicks and the rest of the team two others, with opponents having trouble kicking field goals even down close to the goalline. In addition, the punter Alex Henery, who also handles field goals and kickoffs, has done an excellent job of pinning teams deep near the goalline, with 26 punts downed inside the 20 and another 15 inside the 10.
Field position may play an important role in this game as it did last week against A&M, as the Aggies repeatedly had short fields due to long kick returns, failed fourth-down attempts, and the single turnover when the punt hit Vaccaro. If Texas can at least force Nebraska to move the ball the length of the field, the chances of a comfortable victory increase dramatically. If there continue to be breakdowns on special teams and the Huskers can keep points off the board and give their offense a short field, the game could come down to the fourth quarter. Likewise, whenever going against a defense as strong as that of Nebraska, shortening the field is a major priority because long drives become so difficult. Long fields for the Longhorns could keep the Huskers in the game late.
Are Malcolm Williams and Jordan Shipley healthy? Last week, Jordan Shipley incurred a foot injury that forced him to the sideline to have his ankle wrapped. After that point, he didn't catch a single pass in the game. Malcolm Williams missed several series in the second half with an apparent tightening of the hamstring, throwing off the rhythm of he and McCoy. Then, Chip Brown mentioned this morning on the radio that a source close to the Texas program indicated an injury to an offensive playmaker that may impact the game on Saturday. Brown wouldn't disclose the name, but the most likely candidate is Shipley unless another injury occurred during practice this week.
If Shipley isn't at full speed, the comfort level McCoy has developed over the last several weeks with Kirkendoll and Williams, assuming the latter is healthy after what only seemed like a minor injury, will become even more important, as will the play of Marquise Goodwin, who might have to play in the slot some to allow Kirkendoll to remain outside where he has been most successful.