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Hooked 'em, Horns
ALBERT CHEN
October 26, 2009
Showing it's not all about offense in the Big 12, Texas turned to its suffocating defense to win a slugfest over Oklahoma
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October 26, 2009

Hooked 'em, Horns

Showing it's not all about offense in the Big 12, Texas turned to its suffocating defense to win a slugfest over Oklahoma

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  2009 RANK 2008 RANK
Rush defense 37.5 1 51.2 3
Yards per rush 1.3 1 1.9 2
Pass defense 210.2 50 267.8 109
Total defense 246.0 6 319.0 40
Yards per play 3.6 2 6.6 75
Points allowed 14.7 15 15.3 18
Third-down conv. 20.7% 1 33.7% 38
Tackles for losses 8.3 8 7.0 20

By eight in the morning, a good three hours before kickoff, the crimson-and-cream-clad fans had begun squeezing into the Texas State Fairgrounds, just outside the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, many to gorge themselves on the deep-fried goodness that has become as big a part of the Red River Rivalry as Smokey the Cannon and the Sooner Schooner. For the Sooners faithful, though, the traditional Texas-Oklahoma pregame fare (corny dog with a side of deep-fried butter, anyone?) wasn't as hard to digest as this sight inside the old stadium less than four minutes into the tilt between Big 12 titans: Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford hunched over at the 25-yard line, his right arm dangling like a rag doll's. Moments earlier Texas cornerback Aaron Williams had slammed Bradford into the turf, and now, as the grimacing Heisman Trophy winner clutched his right shoulder—the same one he had nursed back from an injury in the season opener against BYU—the stadium was as quiet as a church.

The jarring hit, which knocked Bradford out of the game and most likely ended his cursed season, was the signature moment in the third-ranked Longhorns' 16--13 victory over No. 20 Oklahoma. A year ago on the same field, the two teams staged a breathless shootout, combining for 873 total yards and 80 points. But the 104th meeting in the rivalry, played before a record crowd of 96,009, was a complete reversal: a smash-mouth affair that no doubt made Darrell Royal crack a smile. "It's not going to be pretty every time," McCoy said with a shrug after going 21 for 39 for 127 yards, his lowest yardage total since his freshman year. With their passing game grounded, the Longhorns outrushed the Sooners 142 to ... negative 16. Fittingly, the biggest play by Texas quarterback Colt McCoy was a tackle. With six minutes left and the Longhorns protecting a three-point lead deep in Oklahoma territory, the star senior drilled a quick slant into the hands of Sooners cornerback Brian Jackson, who had a path to the end zone as clear as the sky overhead—that is, until McCoy came out of nowhere to cut him down.

Indeed, the Longhorns' great escape probably didn't win back any of the voters who helped demote Texas from No. 2 to No. 3 in the AP poll last week after a lackluster victory over Colorado. Nor did McCoy's uneven performance garner him any new Heisman support. But on a day in which top-ranked Florida needed a last-second field goal to beat 25-point underdog Arkansas in the Swamp, and No. 6 USC nearly blew a 20-point lead to Notre Dame in South Bend, the Longhorns—still on track for an invitation to the BCS championship game on Jan. 7—weren't interested in style points. In fact, the "SEC-style" victory, as McCoy called it, revealed a lot more about Texas than another high-scoring Red River shootout would have. As Longhorns linebacker Sergio Kindle, who had four of his team's 10 tackles for losses, said, "When people talk about the Big 12, they talk about offense and the great quarterbacks. But today we showed that in Big 12 country we know how to hit hard too."

Last season the Big 12 was home to the nation's highest-flying aerial attacks. This year, as the conference's biggest regular-season game showed, the Big 12 knows a thing or two about suffocating defense. The conference has three of the nation's top 12 defenses—Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska—and its stars are not just gunslinging quarterbacks but also game-changing defenders such as Kindle and tackles Gerald McCoy of Oklahoma and Ndamukong Suh of Nebraska.

As the Sooners found out, there isn't a nastier Big 12 defense than the gang from Austin, which this season has allowed a Division I-A--low 37.5 yards a game on the ground and 1.3 yards a carry. The man who taught these Horns how to hit hard, SEC-style, is Will Muschamp, who arrived in Austin in early 2008 after coordinating the defenses at LSU and Auburn. (Between the SEC stops, he was an assistant coach with the Dolphins.) The 38-year-old Muschamp, Texas's head coach in waiting—after several schools courted him at the end of last season, university officials announced that he will take over when Mack Brown, 58, retires—is detail-obsessed and as fiery as a habanero, as fans delightedly saw in a popular YouTube clip of the coordinator, then with Auburn, dropping f bombs as he stormed onto the field after a big stop by his unit. In his first game on the Texas sideline, against Florida Atlantic, Muschamp, upset by a busted assignment, cut his cheek while ripping off his headset; he coached the rest of the game with a streak of blood on his face. "Sometimes in practice he's got a look like he wants to put on a helmet and hit some guys," says Kindle.

The Muschamp way? Terrorizing offenses with an array of blitzes and coverage packages. The four times Oklahoma moved inside the Texas 30 in the first half, it was held to two field goals. On the first-and-10 play that knocked Bradford out of the game, Muschamp anticipated that Oklahoma would slide its protection toward Kindle, so he called for a blitz from Bradford's right side. Williams, the Longhorns' dynamic sophomore defensive back, raced in untouched for the big hit. "They do a nice job mixing things up," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said of the Texas defense. "They mixed up pressure, they mixed up coverages. They kept us off balance." Added Sooners offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, "They're fast, and they're fearless. There's no question they're better than they were a year ago."

In Texas's only loss last season—to Texas Tech, which piled up 579 yards in a 39--33 victory—Muschamp's unit let the Longhorns down and cost them a spot in the national title game. From that team the Longhorns lost end Brian Orakpo, the Nagurski winner as best defensive player in the country, but they have come back stronger thanks to a maturing secondary anchored by Williams. (In addition to sacking Bradford, the corner had an acrobatic fourth-quarter interception.) "Last year we had three true freshmen playing out of the secondary; there was a lot of inexperience," says Muschamp, whose LSU defense ranked eighth nationally in 2002, his first season as the coordinator in Baton Rouge, and then first in '03, the year the Tigers won the national championship. "Now," he adds in his Southern twang, "I'll put my guys up against anyone in the country."

What now for Oklahoma? For only the second time in 11 years under Stoops, the Sooners are 3--3. The three losses, all to ranked teams, have been by a total of five points, but for a program that played in the BCS title game last season, started this year ranked third in the country and lost to its bitter rival for the fourth time in the past five meetings, things couldn't be much worse. After Bradford's 389-yard passing performance during a 33--7 victory over Baylor in his first game since injuring his shoulder, the Sooners had reason to be psyched. As he was slinging the ball around the field before the Texas game, Bradford spotted Wilson, flashed a smile and said, "It's going to be a very good day." After halftime he was on the sideline in a T-shirt watching helplessly as his offense was manhandled. Any hope of sneaking into the BCS championship game with two losses, as LSU did two years ago, was gone. "It's still a long season," Stoops said, "and anything can happen."

Don't remind the Longhorns. A year ago they outplayed Oklahoma, finished with the same record as the Sooners and, to their dismay, were left out of the Big 12 championship game because of the quirky tiebreaker formula the conference used to break a three-way tie at the top of the South division. And make no mistake, this year's Longhorns are not perfect. Their offense has sputtered not just against a formidable defense such as Oklahoma's but also against sub-.500 teams such as Colorado, whom Texas trailed at halftime. Longhorns coaches believe that McCoy, coming off a season in which he completed an NCAA-record 76.7% of his passes and was runner-up to Bradford in the Heisman voting, has been trying to do too much and, as Longhorns offensive coordinator Greg Davis puts it, is "being too fine." Perhaps McCoy, who already has seven interceptions, only one fewer than he threw in 13 games last season, got the message last weekend. "I need to realize that with a defense like ours," he said, "I don't have to be perfect."

As Kindle, Williams and many of their defensive mates trotted down the sideline toward the locker room after the game last Saturday, the roar of the Texas faithful echoed around the stadium. For the first time in a long time, the Longhorns defense was front and center.

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