Big 12: Vondrell McGee

Lunch links: Trash-talk lessons

September, 16, 2010
9/16/10
12:30
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I get it, you're terrified of small talk and birds. You're just lucky that pigeon didn't want to chat you up about the weather.

Lunch links: Dylan Meier reactions, expansion, etc.

April, 21, 2010
4/21/10
12:30
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Really good set of stuff today, if I do say so myself. And I just did, so...yeah.

Dylan Meier

Expansion

Everything else


Not a great news day for the Longhorns.

A closer look at Texas' spring game

April, 5, 2010
4/05/10
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The obvious story, of course, is Garrett Gilbert. His stat line (10-of-13, 165 yards, 3 TD) is impressive, but he did it with a variety of throws and showed a simple, important truth: Give him time, and he will deliver an accurate, catch-able ball. Yeah, it’s spring. Yeah, the defense didn’t provide the level of harassment Alabama did, but the tangible negatives from the outside looking in for Gilbert were pretty microscopic in Sunday’s scrimmage. His growth is going to be exciting to watch, and it could be very rapid.

“The team trusts him,” coach Mack Brown said after Sunday’s game. “They think he is the guy and at his age and not starting a game before, that’s pretty impressive for him.”

More on Gilbert in a bit.
  • Texas held nine players out of Sunday’s game: LB Emmanuel Acho (hip), S Nolan Brewster (shoulder), WR John Chiles (hamstring), TE D.J. Grant (knee), RB Cody Johnson (hamstring), OT Paden Kelley (ankle), RB Vondrell McGee (shoulder), LB Jared Norton (shoulder), and OG Mason Walters (foot).

Brown told me last week he was trying to find a way to use running back Chris Whaley. In Sunday’s game, Whaley showed why. With Johnson sitting out, the 259-pounder played the role of bruiser, answering criticisms of his inability to use that frame.

“We want him to lose about 25 pounds,” Brown said. “If he can get down in the 240s and see if we think he has a chance to be a running back. He has to keep working because he shows spurts of doing some really good things.”

Whaley busted a long run out of the shotgun on his team’s first drive, and unleashed a nasty stiff-arm two carries later. Granted, he fumbled between those two carries, but still. If he can show some consistency, he’ll create his own carries.

He also had a nice run in the fourth quarter with a little under five minutes to play. When he gets in the secondary, he can make big things happen.

He finished with 70 yards on 14 carries, split between the two teams. He did a lot of that against reserves, and right now, the redshirt freshman is basically Johnson with less experience, but he’s definitely a guy to watch in coming years.

Fozzy Whittaker and Tre' Newton had ho-hum days (43 and 13 yards, respectively) on the stat sheet, but Whittaker looked pretty good hitting the hole a couple times and both guys showed a nice ability to lower their shoulder and deliver a hit.

“We can throw it every time with Garrett, but we want to go back and be more balanced,” Brown said. “I do like where we are. I like the progress we’ve made and we’re still not there. We still have to get a lot better to be consistent in the running game. Unlike last year, we’re not going to change it. We’re going to go back and we’re going to be good in the running game.”
  • At this point, it’s probably stupid to say Gilbert is “underrated” at anything, but he’s got a really nice play fake. Not a bold prediction: That’s going to come in handy next season.
  • DeSean Hales wins the day for the receivers, and it wasn’t close. His big highlight was a 41-yard touchdown on a post that Gilbert delivered beautifully in stride, and Hales turned on the jets, racing for the touchdown. He caught a game-high three passes for 77 yards and a touchdown. His first catch was the 41-yarder, and he also had a pair of 18-yard catches.

As for style, it’s tough to infer very much. Texas ran the ball for the first 11 plays of the scrimmage, but opened up the offense for plenty of the latter part of the game. Final play count: 43 runs, 31 passes for the two teams combined.

They did bust out a couple trick plays, staying true to Brown’s offseason hope of having “more fun.”

James Kirkendoll got the ball on a reverse for eight yards, and the Longhorns also ran an end around to Malcolm Williams for 21 yards, both from under center.
  • Sophomore safety Kenny Vaccaro had a nice day for the highlight reel. He flattened Newton in the flats, drawing a very audible “Oooh” from about everyone. He also came closest to intercepting Gilbert. Vaccarro dove in front of a tight end on a rollout play, nearly coming away with possession, but managed the acrobatic pass break-up. That’s as close as Gilbert came to turning the ball over, and against a defense like Texas’, that’s a nice day.
  • Lamarr Houston busted out his Nirvana T-shirt on the sidelines on Sunday. Can’t say I would have pegged him for a Kurt Cobain fan.

Lastly, Texas beat Fight, 34-3. So … yeah. Fight’s got a lot of work to do from now until September. Otherwise, they’ll be in for a long season. Texas looked like a juggernaut, scoring 34 consecutive points after falling behind 3-0 to the Fighting Fighters to start the game.

Texas moving more under center

March, 23, 2010
3/23/10
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Texas' spring practice commitment to improving the running game has almost become an annual tradition in Austin. This time, though, it's come with a move under center, a departure from the wide-open spread offense Texas had employed with Colt McCoy at quarterback.

Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis told reporters on Monday that meant the zone read that helped McCoy rush for over 1,419 yards over the past three seasons will be less prevalent in the Longhorns' offense. McCoy carried the ball over 100 times in each of his final three seasons, but with Garrett Gilbert stepping under center, those carries will be distributed back to the running backs.

[+] EnlargeTre' Newton
Kirby Lee/US PresswireTre' Newton may be one beneficiary of Texas' commitment to improving its running game.
"Anytime you do something a little bit different, it is exciting for them," Davis said. "I think that the backs and the line realized that we set everything up the past couple years for Colt to win the ballgame throwing the football."

Davis insisted the move wasn't a slight on Gilbert's skill or mobility.

"We want to be more flexible in the run game," he said. "To do that, we think that one of the things that we had to do was go back under center."

Tre' Newton and Fozzy Whittaker are the early front-runners to handle those duties, after an impressive start to spring practices.

"They have kind of separated themselves," Davis said of Newton and Whittaker. "We are going to take the last eight days and really take a hard look at Chris Whaley, Jeremy Hills, Vondrell McGee, and Cody Johnson and try to really have some decisions made as much as we can going into August regarding the backs."

Newton led Texas in rushing last season, carrying the ball 116 times for 552 yards. McCoy had 129 carries for 348 yards, but that number includes sacks. Whittaker had just 53 carries for 212 yards as a sophomore.

Davis added that he hadn't installed the goal-line package that helped the 5-foot-11, 250-pound Johnson bulldoze his way to 12 touchdowns, but did say Johnson "has done a good job."

And the commitment to the running game affects more than just the running backs and quarterbacks. The change extended to the five men up front who make it all work, beginning with the group's mindset to begin spring practices.

"We kind of went into spring with the attitude that we wanted to be nasty up front, and they have done a good job," Davis said.

Davis' tweaked offense will be on display in the Orange-White game in Austin on April 4.

Weak & Strong: Texas

March, 22, 2010
3/22/10
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Here, we’ll take a look at one area where each team in the Big 12 can expect to succeed, and another that needs improvement.

Weak: Playmakers

Jordan Shipley is gone, and Texas must find at least one running back or receiver who is capable of making a consistent impact on the Longhorns offense. Texas' leading returning receiver, James Kirkendoll, caught 48 passes for 461 yards and six touchdowns. The team's second-leading receiver, Dan Buckner, transferred to Arizona.

Now, they'll rely on a handful of receivers like Marquise Goodwin, John Chiles and Malcolm Williams, to emerge as quarterback Garrett Gilbert's primary targets. No current Texas receiver has ever had both 40 receptions or more and 500 receiving yards in a season. If the current receivers can't prove they're reliable, incoming freshmen Darius White, DeMarco Cobbs and Mike Davis could see plenty of early playing time.

Texas will likely practice a running back-by-committee approach in 2010, with Tre' Newton, Cody Johnson, Vondrell McGee and Fozzy Whittaker jockeying throughout the spring and fall for carries.

Strong: Secondary

Cornerback Curtis Brown and safety Blake Gideon return after having All-Big 12 honorable mention performances in 2009. Gideon intercepted six passes in 2009 and made 62 tackles. Brown broke up 15 passes and also made 53 tackles.

Starters Chykie Brown and Aaron Williams also return from a defense that ranked second in the Big 12 in pass defense and had a nation-best 25 interceptions. Though Texas' safeties collected most of the Longhorns interceptions in 2009, Brown and Williams combined to pick off five passes. They also broke up 16 passes, had 92 tackles and collected four sacks.

The Longhorns lost Earl Thomas to the NFL draft, leaving the second safety spot up for grabs this spring. Christian Scott missed last season, and Nolan Brewster isn't practicing this spring after shoulder surgery, but both could line up across from Gideon in the fall. Ben Wells and Kenny Vaccaro could also compete for the spot.

More Weak & Strong:

Texas scoring in bunches, but still struggling with rushing

November, 3, 2009
11/03/09
5:34
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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Back when he was growing up, Texas center Chris Hall remembers what football used to be all about.

In those earlier days, Hall’s team would line up and usually run right behind him. Something about being one of the biggest players on the field made his teams rely on smash-mouth football heavy on running action.

But as he’s grown and matured, football has evolved a little bit for Hall.

 
  Scott Rovak/US Presswire
  Texas running back Cody Johnson has emerged as a running threat for the Longhorns.
“As you get older, those quarterbacks and receivers get a whole lot better,” Hall said, chuckling. “In sandlot, you rely on the bullish plays. But it’s not so much in college these days.”

That idea permeates Texas’ offensive philosophy this season. The Longhorns have one of their weakest running games in recent history, but are still piling up more points than any other team in the nation.

Texas leads the nation with a scoring average of 41.8 points per game. If that trend continues, it would be one of the three highest scoring averages in the last 56 years of Texas football. And most amazingly, the running game could be headed to one of the 10 worst seasons during that period.

The Longhorns are averaging 155.9 rushing yards per game to rank 49th nationally. In five games against Big 12 foes, that figure drops to 110.6 rushing yards per game and a pedestrian 3.1 yards per carry. And in game situations where they are winning by 14 points or less, the Longhorns are averaging only 3.3 yards per carry.

The Longhorns don’t have a back ranking among the top 15 rushers in the Big 12. Leading rusher Vondrell McGee is averaging 39.29 yards per game and would produce a tad more than 550 yards rushing if the Longhorns play a 14-game season of 12 regular season games, the Big 12 championship game and a bowl game. That would be the lowest rushing total to lead the Longhorns since Butch Hadnot rushed for 501 yards in 11 games in 1991.

The Longhorns have overcome that rushing deficiency by deftly using a short-passing offense in place of a running game. Colt McCoy throws the largest percentage of his passes in the nation near the line of scrimmage, where quick receivers like Jordan Shipley, Malcolm Williams, Marquise Goodwin, John Chiles and James Kirkendoll have been able to turn these darts into the backbone of the Longhorns’ offense.

In the last several weeks, early-season sensation Dan Buckner has seen his playing time diminish as the Longhorns rely more on tight end Greg Smith. The thought was that it would result in stronger run blocking and better pass protection for McCoy.

The better protection has materialized and the Longhorns have what coach Mack Brown likes to call the extra edge that has provided misdirection runs for D.J. Monroe and Goodwin in recent weeks.

But Brown has also hinted at a change in the featured running back. The Longhorns running game has featured a mismatch of producers because of injuries and production issues. At various times in the season, McGee, Tre’ Newton and Fozzy Whittaker all were considered as the starter at tailback.

But in the last week, a new flavor du jour has stepped up. Bullish 5-foot-11, 250-pound Cody Johnson has emerged as a potential starter after bunching several strong recent games.

Johnson has lost weight and has looked to be the powerful back that coaches imagined when he appeared to have the inside track for the starting position midway through spring ball.

Nagging injuries and questions about his weight kept him from regaining anything more than a role as a short-yardage specialist earlier in the season.

But a slimmer Johnson has stepped up and is providing exactly what Texas coaches want. He matched his season high with 31 yards and scored twice to spark the Longhorns’ victory over Oklahoma State last week.

Brown has said that the goal of Texas running game has boiled down to a simplistic three-step process. He wants a play to either produce four yards, a first down or a touchdown. And if those factors are considered, Johnson has been the most consistent back for the Longhorns all season.

“He’s lost 20-something pounds now. He’s protecting the ball better and he’s a powerful runner,” Brown told reporters earlier this week. “What we’re all about right now is that four-yard run, and that’s something he really does well.”

Johnson is still listed as a co-starter with Whittaker, although it will be interesting to gauge the Texas rotation in Saturday’s game against a UCF defense that ranks ninth nationally in rushing defense.

“We’re going to let those guys battle this week and see how it shakes out,” Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “And one of those two will start.”

McCoy said the game against the Knights can provide them with an opportunity to test their running game production -- an aim he hopes to continue as the team’s goals will mushroom in November and beyond.

“Central Florida has nothing to do with the Big 12, but it’s still a big game for us,” McCoy said. “When you look at the (Oklahoma State) film, we played better, executed and did some good things, but there are still things we can get better at.

“We can play better, move the ball better. So we’ve got to get back to work and play better this week.”

Texas backs, receivers fighting for playing time

October, 29, 2009
10/29/09
12:10
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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
 
 Jim Cowsert-US PRESSWIRE
 Fozzy Whittaker's versatility gives the Longhorns a number of options on offense.

A subtle change has been clear to Texas quarterback Colt McCoy over the last few weeks.

The intense battle for playing time has resulted in a noticeable elevation in practice habits for McCoy’s running backs and receivers.

“Everybody wants to play and be a part of what we’re doing,” McCoy said. “When you have a little competition like this, it requires them to come to practice and be prepared every day. If they have a good week of practice, they know you’ll see them get a chance to play more on Saturday. It has helped us and you can see it in our offensive work.”

So much, in fact, that McCoy sees practices as being nearly as competitive as the games themselves.

“We’ve got guys who really want to get involved,” McCoy said.

The Longhorns made a major offensive switch after the Oklahoma game as they inserted Fozzy Whittaker into the starting lineup at running back. Whittaker’s abilities as a runner, receiver and a pass blocker make him the most accomplished back in the Longhorns’ stable -- if he can remain healthy.

During the course of the season, Vondrell McGee, Cody Johnson, Tre’ Newton and Whittaker all have had their shots at the starting job. But the job appears to be Whittaker’s at the present time.

“It’s been crazy,” Whittaker said. “We’ve had several different starters going into the year. We can play off of each other’s talents and give each other help when one person goes down, because another can step in."

Texas at Oklahoma State coverage
Can Texas stay undefeated in the Big 12? Will Oklahoma State be able to slow down Colt McCoy and gain an edge in the South race? Our experts take a closer look at the matchup.

• Griffin: Horns battle for playing time
• Griffin: Cowboys contend despite adversity
• Griffin: OSU's Robinson not fazed by Horns
• McShay: How to stop Texas Insider
• Scouts' edge: Longhorns at Cowboys Insider
Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis elevated Malcolm Williams and Marquise Goodwin into the starting lineup at receiver, while moving Jordan Shipley into the slot. John Chiles and James Kirkendoll were benched as the Longhorns have mothballed the four-wide receiver set that was used as the primary offensive formation late last season after Blaine Irby’s season-ending knee injury.

Williams is a tall, athletic receiver who has a knack of making big plays in traffic. Goodwin might be the fastest among the receiving corps. And moving Shipley into the slot makes him more dangerous matched against safeties and linebackers and a threat on short passes and screens that he and McCoy have been relied on during their careers together.

Williams had been benched earlier in the season, but worked his way into the mix with dedication at the Longhorns’ practices.

But the hardest task for him was to regain the confidence from McCoy and the coaching staff.

“It was more getting Colt’s trust back because I wasn’t really working with him that much when I moved down,” Williams said. “I have to make a play when he throws me the ball.”

It has been clear midway through the season that the Longhorns haven’t been nearly as productive offensively as last season. McCoy’s completion percentage is down from an NCAA record 76.7 percent last season to 71.7 percent this year. He ranks 29th nationally in pass efficiency this season, compared to third last year. His per-game passing yardage is down from 297 to 258. No Longhorn has averaged more than 40 yards rushing per game.

But the Longhorns showed flashes of rebounding in McCoy’s best game of the season against Missouri last week. The Longhorns scored on their first three possessions as McCoy hit his first 11 passes and was strong throughout the game as he matched his season high with three touchdown passes.

“We’ve got the Colt of old back now,” Texas coach Mack Brown said.

Another subtle move was that the Longhorns have begun relying heavily on their “11” personnel from a formation that includes three wide receivers, a running back and a tight end. Davis estimated that the set was used about 75 percent of the time last week against Missouri.

The benefits are obvious. The installation of 6-foot-5, 260-pound Greg Smith as a tight end provides another huge, willing blocker to enable the Longhorns to run the ball better.

“What we are telling our kids now is for us to have a successful run, it needs to do one of three things – it has to be a four-yard gain, it has to get a first down or it has to score a touchdown,” Brown said. “That evaluation process is more effective than going by an average per carry because you might end up with a bunch of second-and-short, third-and-short or goal-line plays that may end up killing your average per carry.”

Brown said the Longhorns were effective at these standards a 67 percent last week.

And it also helps in McCoy’s protection. In the Oklahoma game, McCoy was knocked to the ground 14 times in the first half alone. Against Missouri, he was knocked down only four times in the entire game.

The passing game should work against Oklahoma State, which has struggled against passing teams in recent weeks. The Cowboys rank 106th nationally in pass defense and have had trouble rushing the passer with only two sacks in the last two weeks.

With the increased competition for playing time around him, McCoy is clearly more relaxed. That attitude was particularly apparent last week in his strong outing against Missouri.

“It’s not worrying about anything else but going out there, competing and doing your best,” McCoy said. “When you’re scoring a lot of points and doing really well, that’s when the fun comes.”

And for his receivers and running backs, just being in the lineup might be enough satisfaction in itself.

Tempo change boosts Longhorns into a 6-6 deadlock

October, 17, 2009
10/17/09
2:33
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Texas came out in the second half intent on changing the tempo, utilizing a hurry-up offense that kept the Sooners flummoxed.

The drive paved the way for Texas' most consistent offensive possession of the game as they moved the ball 42 yards. The drive was capped by a 42-yard field goal by Hunter Lawrence that pulled the Longhorns into a 6-6 tie.

Colt McCoy had some rhythm on the drive as the Longhorns marched for two first downs.

Vondrell McGee entered the game for the first time on that drive. His presence may help Texas to run better inside against the swarming Oklahoma offense.

McGee, Newton should play for Texas

October, 17, 2009
10/17/09
10:10
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


DALLAS -- Texas officials have cleared running backs Vondrell McGee and Tre' Newton to play in today's game against Oklahoma.

McGee returned to practice late in the week after injuring his shoulder against Colorado. He should be ready to go and is listed as the co-starter at the position on the latest depth chart with Fozzy Whittaker.

Newton sustained a mild concussion in the Colorado game and had his practice limited earlier in the week.

Their return will boost Texas' biggest offensive weakness. The Longhorns have struggled running the ball this season at times.

And the loss of McGee and Newton during the game last week helped lead to Texas producing only 46 rushing yards in 25 carries. It was the fewest rushing yards produced by Texas since the Longhorns produced 46 yards in a 17-14 victory at Kansas State on Oct. 19, 2002.

Their return should provide more balance for the Longhorns and keep them from being as one-dimensional. That was be pivotal as Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis attempts to counteract Oklahoma's blitzing defense.

Big 12 mailbag: Don't expect UT's Whaley to play

October, 16, 2009
10/16/09
3:25
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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


It wouldn’t be a Friday without a few letters from my readers. Here’s a representative sample of those I received this week:

Beau from Vidor, Texas, writes: What happened to Texas' freshman running back Chris Whaley. He was supposed to be all-world and most thought he would help us out this season. Any news?

Tim Griffin: Whaley arrived at fall camp out of shape and has had trouble picking up some of Texas' offensive philosophy. And since he hasn't seen action yet, I don't think we’ll see him play this year. He’ll be more likely to sit as a redshirt, while he gets into better shape and learns Texas’ offensive scheme better. But if he would ever play, this might be the week, considering the iffy condition of Tre’ Newton and Vondrell McGee. The Longhorns would have room for him, although I would sincerely doubt if Mack Brown put him in his first game against Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry. That's too far-fetched to believe.

I look for Whaley to get better acclimated and in better shape for next season.


Robert Northrop from Superior, Colo., writes: Tim, thanks for covering the Big 12. I only wish Colorado was more relevant so you could write more frequently about the Buffs. Colorado struggles moving the ball using walk-ons at wide receiver. What is it about a Hawkins' psyche that makes him stubbornly refuse to modify his offense so that he can get the ball to his fastest players (Brian Lockridge, Darrell Scott, Andre Simmons, Anthony Wright) hands? Why are two players with starting experience (Blake Behrens, Matt Bahr) sitting while the rest of the CU offensive line struggles? And don't get me started about the QB situation. I think something smells fishy up in Boulder. Thanks again.

Tim Griffin: It’s been a challenging season for Hawkins and the Buffaloes, particularly on offense. I also have wondered why Brian Lockridge and Darrell Scott haven’t become more of a focal point in the Buffaloes’ offense. I would think that with Hawkins actually coaching the wide receivers as a position coach that he would have the best idea of who can help make his offense more productive.

It will be interesting to see what they can do against a Kansas defense that has struggled the last two weeks. I’m thinking Colorado might play this game a little bit closer than most. Maybe this is the week that the Buffaloes get their offense going. I certainly know they are due.


Steve Strom of Lubbock, Texas, writes: What do you think about Texas Tech’s chances Saturday in Nebraska? Is there any way we can steal a win from a Nebraska team that might be a little flat after beating Missouri last week?

Tim Griffin: Steve, I don’t think so. I really like Nebraska’s defensive line keyed by Ndamukong Suh to put pressure on whomever Tech has playing quarterback. Mike Leach has been successful in recent seasons against the Cornhuskers and has even won in Lincoln before. But this is a different Nebraska team coached by Bo Pelini than in previous seasons. Because of that, I'm thinking it will be tough for the Red Raiders to win tomorrow in Lincoln.


Chris from Lawrence, Kan., writes: Tim, I see that you are very high on Jordan Shipley and have him on your Heisman board. He's definitely a good player, but I'm curious why you don't have Dezmon Briscoe ranked above him? Briscoe averages more yards per catch than Shipley and has an equal number of TD's, despite missing the first game of the season. He's done this while having 17 fewer receptions than Shipley. If you were to average Briscoe's current stats to account for the missed game, he would have more yards, yards per catch and touchdowns than Shipley, and would still have less receptions. I'm not saying that Shipley isn't a good player, but I don't understand why Briscoe isn't considered better (and more deserving of Heisman talk)?

Tim Griffin: Shipley has had a knack for making big plays in big games and his bigger receiver numbers grab you. He's had double-figure reception games in his last three contests, which is something that no player in Texas' history has been able to accomplish. Look at his punt return for a touchdown reception and his big catch last week against Colorado that helped turned the game around. Briscoe has had some nice games, but he needs to stand out even on his own team. I think many would think that he’s been overshadowed by Kerry Meier on the Jayhawks so far this season.

Briscoe will have the chance to show what he can do over the next several weeks as the Jayhawks’ schedule will get tougher. If he can produce those numbers against Texas, Kansas and Nebraska, I would think that Heisman voters will start taking notice of him.


Donald Ashburn from Houston writes: My condolences to you, Tim. The Aggie bloggers complained earlier this year when you didn't think they would win. Now, they say you have put the kiss of death on them by picking A&M over K-State. I hope you can do a better job in the future! Good luck!

Tim Griffin: Donald, I’ve had a difficult time reading the Aggies so far this season. I thought they would beat Arkansas and I also thought they would beat Oklahoma State last week. They looked strong for the first 10 minutes against Arkansas in a game that turned on Jerrod Johnson’s fumble that was returned for a touchdown by Jerry Franklin midway through the second quarter. And the Oklahoma State game changed when A&M was held without scoring at the OSU 1 late in the first half.

But because of Johnson and all of his offensive talent around him, I’m picking the young Aggies to win again this week at Kansas State.

Is the third time finally the charm for me? I don’t know, I guess we’ll see.


Kyle Kvasnicka from Irvine, Calif., writes: Do you think Nebraska's defense this year will give it a chance to make it to the Big 12 Title game and if so, be competitive with the Big 12 South Champion? How close does Bo Pelini have this team to being a player again nationally?

Tim Griffin: Kyle, I think that because of the play of the Nebraska defense, especially compared with Kansas’ recent defensive struggles, is the major reason I’ve elevated the Cornhuskers into the favorite role in the Big 12 North. There are still some things I don’t like about the Cornhuskers. Zac Lee is too streaky for my taste and the Cornhuskers’ depth at running back isn’t very good with proven players with Quentin Castille gone and Rex Burkhead injured.

But I think Nebraska’s defensive play is the reason they are above the other teams in the North at this point of the season. It will be interesting to see if that makes them more competitive against the South’s powers when we see them play in the next several weeks.

I would also hope we would see Cody Green being used in the next week or two. The Cornhuskers have had some time to work on a package with their talented freshman quarterback. I’m just saying that bringing him into the game for a couple of series could change the momentum and make Nebraska that much more difficult to beat with a shot of offensive diversity that's missing right now. And with the questions about their running backs, developing another running threat could be huge for them.

I still think Pelini is a couple of recruiting classes from having the Cornhuskers back among the contenders who will challenge for national titles. It will be interesting to see if he gets them there.

Thanks again for all of the good questions. We’ll check back again next week.

Running game should help decide Red River Rivalry

October, 15, 2009
10/15/09
12:12
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


It's a simple truth that seemingly is as old as the Red River Rivalry itself.

Even with the proliferation of passing games across the conference -- including at Texas and Oklahoma -- the importance of the running game in their annual matchup at the Cotton Bowl can't be overstated.

 
 Doug Benc/Getty Images
 DeMarco Murray and Oklahoma's other backs will be tested against the Longhorns' stout run defense.
In the Bob Stoops-Mack Brown era of the Texas-Oklahoma game, all six of Stoops' teams have won when they've outrushed Texas. And Brown's teams are 3-0 when they have outrushed Oklahoma. Texas' only other win under Brown came in 2006 when both teams ran for 124 yards.

That history will place huge pressure on both teams trying to run the ball against defenses that rank among the nation's top three in stopping the run.

Texas will be coming into the game with big questions at running back. Co-starters Vondrell McGee and Tre' Newton have been taken off the depth chart because of injuries.

That's on top of the Longhorns' struggles last week against Colorado, where they produced only 46 yards on 25 carries. It was the least productive rushing performance since they produced the same yardage total against Kansas State on Oct. 19, 2002.

“We have not consistently run the ball this year,” Brown said. “OU is one of the best at stopping the run in the country. So that's a big concern for us. We ran it so poorly Saturday night, that if that's the case, we've got a lot of work to do before Saturday."

If McGee and Newton can't go, look for the oft-injured Fozzy Whittaker to get the first crack at a Sooner defense that is third nationally against the run.

“You just kind of have to go with who's healthy,” Texas running backs coach Major Applewhite said. “You have to really rely on your doctors and your players for information and their input and how they feel and get a good read on those players.”

Despite the recent struggles, Applewhite remains confident in his running game.

“I was very optimistic about what I saw today. I feel good about that," Applewhite said. "When you've got guys like Vondrell and Tre' who have taken a lot of reps, it's good to get somebody else some reps to get them worked in the routine and those guys can get mental reps.”

The Longhorns were able to control the line of scrimmage last year against Oklahoma, gaining 161 rushing yards compared to 48 for the Sooners. Texas held the ball for more than 37 minutes, icing the victory when Chris Ogbonnaya exploded for a 62-yard run that set up the clinching touchdown in a 45-35 triumph.

"The Texas-OU game makes everyone healthy, because everybody wants to play," Brown said. "This is a game that gets you well fast."

Oklahoma is in a similar predicament, although the Sooners' running game picked up last week at Baylor late in the game.

The Sooners struggled for much of the game last week, producing only 52 rushing yards midway through the third quarter as Baylor committed to stopping the run.

Eventually, the running of DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown wore down the Bears and Oklahoma finished with 197 yards -- their best performance this season against an FBS opponent.

Murray first made his name in the Texas-Oklahoma rivalry with a breakthrough game two years ago. Murray rushed for 128 yards, including a 65-yard jaunt that catapulted the Sooners to their last victory in the series.

That was a marked contrast from last season, when he produced only 6 yards on seven carries as he was still slow to heal from a fractured kneecap suffered late the previous season.

But his rebound last week has given him confidence, even playing with an inexperienced Sooner offensive line that lost starting guard Brian Simmons last week with a knee injury. Oklahoma will be tested against a Longhorns defense that leads the nation in run defense and has permitted opponents to produce an average of 15 yards per game and 0.6 yards per carry over the last three games.

"We've been running the ball pretty good and we need to keep being physical, just like we've been doing,” Murray said. “I have a lot of confidence in this group and I think we'll be fine."

The history of this game demands patience. It's why you'll likely see both teams set an example early that they will try to run the ball.

“Running yards in this game have been hard,” Brown said. “You have to pick and choose. People can say Saturday night it was hard to run. It will be harder this Saturday than last Saturday.”

Longhorns need convincing victory over OU to sway pollsters

October, 12, 2009
10/12/09
4:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Although it may have raised an eyebrow or two around the Texas football facilities, the Longhorns weren’t saying much about being dropped in the polls this week.

Despite a 24-point victory over Colorado, the Longhorns dropped behind Alabama in both major polls on Sunday, behind No. 1 Florida.

“It’s something that was mentioned, but it’s not really a big deal,” Texas guard Charlie Tanner said. “Everything takes care of itself by the end of the season. If we win every game and try to get that Big 12 championship, we’ll be where we want to be.”
John Albright/Icon SMI
Mack Brown and the Longhorns aren't worried about falling a spot in the latest poll.

Truthfully, the Longhorns’ drop isn’t surprising. They haven’t faced the kind of challenge that would make national pollsters really stop and take notice.

And with all due respect to Louisiana-Monroe, Wyoming, Texas Tech and UTEP, the Longhorns haven’t been tested by nearly the schedule that both Florida and Alabama have navigated this season.

The Gators beat LSU on the road with their starting quarterback iffy coming into the game. Alabama convincingly whipped Virginia Tech in Atlanta in the season opener and won at Mississippi last week with a fearsome defensive effort.

Texas struggled with Colorado, which had earlier been humiliated in nationally televised losses to Colorado State and Toledo. It wasn’t a great selling point for the Longhorns when it was noted they were behind at halftime and need a late charge to subdue the Buffaloes, who came into the game 1-3.

“Anytime you win, it’s a great thing,” Tanner said. “One of the things we have at Texas is that we want to win very convincingly. We have to realize that winning in this conference is tough sometimes and we just have to embrace it.”

And that’s why this week’s game against Oklahoma is so important.

The Sooners and Longhorns resonate across college football as one of the major rivalries. The game has only become bigger because it has been the seminal battle for South Division supremacy.

“The good thing is that everybody who follows football in the nation will be watching this game at noon Eastern, 11 a.m. Central,” Texas coach Mack Brown said, sounding almost like a huckster for the broadcast. “You don’t have to care about either of these teams to be interested in watching this game.”

Brown remembered it being that way when he served as Barry Switzer’s offensive coordinator in 1984. But it wasn’t nearly as big when Brown arrived at Texas in 1998 and Bob Stoops arrived a year later.

In those days, Kansas State, Nebraska and Texas A&M were the dominant Big 12 programs.

“The OU game is back here where it should be,” Brown said. “When we got here, it really had lost its luster some as a national game. People were talking about it being on regional TV and I was in shock. For this not to be the game of the week in the nation was very disappointing to me after being at both schools.”

Stoops arrived the following season and won a national championship. That success has rekindled the rivalry where it is THE GAME in the country this week.

Texas has the chance to take advantage of that exposure with a big performance that will elevate them back into the mix with the Gators and Crimson Tide.

Still, there are enough concerns about the Longhorns to worry Brown.

Texas rushed for only 46 yards in 25 carries against Colorado. Both top running backs Vondrell McGee and Tre' Newton were dinged in that game and will be questionable during practice this week. Brown appears ready to rely on oft-injured Fozzy Whittaker as his primary back if necessary.

Take away a big game from scintillating wide receiver Jordan Shipley and an opportunistic game from Texas special games and the 38-14 margin of victory is much closer. The Longhorns capitalized on Colorado mistakes to return a blocked punt, a punt return and a 92-yard interception return by Earl Thomas for a touchdown. That kind of game would be great for your fantasy football team, but won’t sway too many pollsters.

“It was a weird game,” Texas quarterback Colt McCoy said. “When you have three non-offensive touchdowns, it really kinds of throws a loop to you. You can get in a groove and find that rhythm that you can normally find in a game. You can’t judge off that game because it’s weird.”

Fortunately for the Longhorns, the Oklahoma game couldn’t be coming along at a better time. Now, they need to take advantage of the opportunity to reclaim some of that missing national respect.

Big 12 power rankings: Surging Cornhuskers move to No. 2 in poll

October, 12, 2009
10/12/09
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


1. Texas: It wasn’t pretty, but the Longhorns’ 38-14 victory over Colorado was a good lesson as they prepare for the Red River Shootout. The running game struggled mightily, producing a season-low 46 yards as top backs Vondrell McGee and Tre’ Newton both were dinged up. Those absences only paved the way for a career night for Jordan Shipley, who is becoming one of the nation’s top receiving/return threats. And the Longhorns are playing some stringent defense after limiting their last three opponents to an average of 15 yards rushing per game. Colorado produced only 127 yards, giving the Longhorns two efforts of holding opponents to less than 130 yards this season for the first time since 1952.

2. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers’ defense played at a dominating level against Missouri as it gradually wore down the Tigers before their 27-12 triumph. Ndamukong Suh had a huge game to key a brutal pass rush that won the game for the Cornhuskers. Zac Lee was streaky, but still came up big during a stretch of 3 minutes, 32 seconds early in the fourth quarter when the Cornhuskers took the lead against the fading Tigers. It won’t get any easier for Nebraska this week as Texas Tech’s explosive offense comes to Lincoln. The Cornhuskers rank second nationally in scoring defense, third in pass efficiency defense, 14th in pass defense and 15th in turnover margin. But Tech has won the last three games of the series, scoring 70, 37 and 34 points against Nebraska.

3. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys had a gritty effort against Texas A&M, claiming a 36-31 victory despite not having Dez Bryant (suspension) and Kendall Hunter (ankle). Keith Toston filled in for Hunter with 204 total yards, and a group of receivers stepped up to replace Bryant in the comeback victory. Improved quarterback pressure helped Oklahoma State notch four sacks in a big step forward after its first conference game. A tough game with Missouri is up next as the Cowboys need to continue their recent balanced offensive success.

4. Kansas: A huge aerial effort by Todd Reesing, Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe powered the Jayhawks to a 41-36 victory over Iowa State. It wasn’t pretty, but it was still a win. In coach Mark Mangino’s own words, the Jayhawks were exposed by Iowa State’s underrated offense. Kansas had enough offense to win the game and escape with a share of first place in the Big 12 North. Can the Jayhawks do the same against the better offenses they will be facing in the future?

5. Oklahoma: Sam Bradford is back and the Sooners appear to have things on an uptick heading into the Texas game. Bradford was outstanding in his first game back, passing for 389 yards despite having 11 passes dropped by his receivers, including three in the end zone. The Sooners allowed Baylor third-string quarterback Nick Florence to carve them up for 262 yards, so their defense is a concern heading into the Texas game. They must show more consistency in the red zone and play better defensively if they have any hopes of claiming the upset Saturday at the Cotton Bowl.

6. Missouri: What happened to the Tigers in that driving rain in Columbia last Thursday night? After dominating play for three quarters, the Tigers fell apart late as they allowed the Cornhuskers to roll up 27 points in the final quarter to steal the victory. Blaine Gabbert threw two crucial interceptions in the fourth quarter and the Tigers couldn’t run the ball consistently enough to take pressure off Gabbert. The defense played well until collapsing after all of the turnovers in the fourth quarter. And it won’t get any easier as the Tigers visit Oklahoma State.

7. Texas Tech: A big effort by Texas Tech’s first backup quarterback to start for Mike Leach should help contribute to Leach’s first QB controversy. The offense sizzled with Steven Sheffield in charge, scoring nine touchdowns on their first 10 possessions to blow open a 66-14 victory over Kansas State. The Red Raiders did a nice job of neutralizing leading KSU rusher Daniel Thomas, who was limited to a season-low 49 yards on 11 carries -- with only 15 of those yards coming after the Wildcats’ first offensive series. Leach was playing coy on who his starting quarterback will be, but the Red Raiders will face a huge challenge in Nebraska with whoever is chosen as the starter.

8. Baylor: The Bears moved the ball well in Florence’s second start, but were done in by their inability to score against Oklahoma’s stingy defense in the second half. Baylor produced only two first downs with five three-and-outs and two turnovers. The defense wasn’t bad as it limited Oklahoma to four field goals on red zone possessions to start the second half until Bradford’s late touchdown. The Sooners wore down the Bears before producing 592 yards to extend their winning streak over Baylor to 19 straight games. It was a definite step back after all of the excitement for the Bears during their 3-1 nonconference performance, showing them how much more competitive Big 12 play will be.

9. Texas A&M: After a promising 3-0 start, the Aggies have fallen apart with disappointing losses to Arkansas and Oklahoma State. The struggling trends in those losses make bowl aspirations seem like a fleeting hope. The Aggies struggled protecting Jerrod Johnson against Oklahoma State, allowing four sacks. And the Aggies' defense couldn’t make a play down the stretch to get the Cowboys off the field as they ran the clock on their final possession to wrap up a 36-31 victory. Mike Sherman can only hope these games will help build experience for his young team that featured seven freshman starters on Saturday.

10. Iowa State: Just when it seemed it couldn’t get any more excruciating for Paul Rhoads and the Cyclones, a game like Saturday’s loss to Kansas happened. After losing the previous week against Kansas State by a missed extra point, few expected the Cyclones would match up with No. 16 Kansas. The Cyclones gave the Jayhawks everything they wanted and came within an overthrown pass from Austen Arnaud to Darius Darks at the end of escaping with an upset victory. Alexander Robinson’s return helped rejuvenate the offense after he rushed for a career-best 152 yards, despite recovering from a strained groin muscle. The kicking game must improve after Grant Mahoney missed two extra points, and a 26-yard field goal never was kicked because of a low snap. The Cyclones can’t afford those kicking-game errors in close games.

11. Kansas State: The Cyclones took a huge step backward after getting blown out in a 66-14 loss at Texas Tech -- the most points ever allowed by a team coached by Bill Snyder. The KSU defense came into the game ranked seventh against the pass, but allowed eight TD passes -- most ever against a team in the school’s history. Grant Gregory started, but the broken plays that he turned into touchdowns last week against Iowa State resulted in sacks against Texas Tech. Carson Coffman may have won his starting quarterback job back, but that determination will be made in practice this week. The huge loss has made a bowl trip a virtual impossibility unless the Wildcats claim home victories in the next two weeks against Texas A&M and Colorado.

12. Colorado: It was one of the Buffaloes’ best performances this season, but still not good enough against Texas, who ran them out of the stadium late in a 38-14 victory. The Buffaloes were undone by critical mistakes on special teams and turnovers. Perhaps the most interesting development was when coach Dan Hawkins decided to play backup quarterback Tyler Hansen, effectively ending his chance to redshirt this season. Hawkins said he’s settled on Hansen as his starter. It will be interesting to see if that move settles Colorado’s offense.

What we learned in the Big 12: Week 6

October, 11, 2009
10/11/09
2:15
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Here are some things we learned around the Big 12 over the past few days:

1. Texas and Oklahoma need to improve their running games -- fast. The Sooners and Longhorns both overcame sputtering starts to win their conference openers. But their key showdown next week at the Cotton Bowl could hinge on a factor that both teams struggled with in their victories on Saturday. The team that runs the ball best likely will win the Red River Rivalry -- as usual. And both teams struggled in that facet of the game Saturday. Oklahoma finished with 203 rushing yards against Baylor, but the Sooners had produced only 52 rushing yards midway through the third quarter. And the Sooners struggled in the red zone, settling for field goals on four second-half drives where they couldn't score touchdowns against the Bears. Texas was even worse, rushing 25 times for 46 yards against a Colorado defense that was allowing 4.9 yards per carry coming into the game as Vondrell McGee and Tre' Newton both were idled with injuries. Both teams will have extensive preparation for their ground games as they prepare to play against much better defenses than they struggled against on Saturday.

2. Is Kansas the nation's worst undefeated team? After Saturday, I think so. The Jayhawks  needed all kinds of luck to escape with a gritty 41-36 home victory over Iowa State. A memorable offensive performance keyed by record outings by Todd Reesing, Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe almost was undone by the Jayhawks' defense. Mark Mangino admitted after the game that his team had been exposed defensively. Its margin of victory over the Cyclones was the narrowly overthrown pass from Austen Arnaud to Darius Darks that if completed would have likely beaten them. And Mangino's biggest concern has to be that if Iowa State can produce 6.1 yards per snap against the Jayhawks, what will teams like Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech be able to do?

3. It's a season of firsts for Mike Leach. Before Saturday night, the Texas Tech coach had never had a backup quarterback start a game. And after Steven Sheffield singed Kansas State for 490 yards and seven touchdowns, Leach has got something else new on his hands -- a quarterback controversy. Leach had reasons for installing Taylor Potts as his new starter earlier this summer. Potts' performance had been that much better. But Leach might have to at least consider revisiting that choice after Sheffield blistered rival defenses for 10 touchdown passes since Potts sustained a concussion last week. Sheffield said after directing a 66-24 beatdown of Kansas State that he feels he has won the starting job. But he won't be the one making the decision.

4. Shipley and Suh deserve Heisman consideration. After their performances this weekend, the Big 12 has two unconventional players who I think merit consideration for college football's most prestigious award. Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is the most dominant defensive player in college football. Suh has to be accounted for on every play, making game-changing statements like his interception return that sparked the Cornhuskers' wild comeback over Missouri. And Jordan Shipley is just as important for Texas, becoming one of the Longhorns' primary forces as a receiver and a returner. Shipley accounted for a career-high 273 all-purpose yards against Colorado, producing 11 catches for 147 yards and a 74-yard punt return that was his second TD return of the season. Most of the media will consider Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy and Jimmy Clausen and stop at that. But to this point of the season, it can be argued that Suh and Shipley deserve strong consideration -- and not just from voters who might be thinking of out-of-the-box ways to present the award.

5. Oklahoma State's offensive reinforcements are pretty good. The loss of Dez Bryant and Kendall Hunter was expected to cripple Oklahoma State's potent offense. But a funny thing happened on the way to a 36-31 victory over Texas A&M: The Cowboys found some productive replacement players on their bench. Keith Toston rushed for a game-high 130 yards and caught two big screen passes that sparked the Cowboys' offense early. Zac Robinson stepped up with a boatload of big offensive plays, including 11 passes of at least 13 yards against a beleaguered Texas A&M secondary. The Cowboys' offensive concerns remain present with a tough conference schedule approaching. But after one game, the Cowboys' replacements at least provided a least a temporary answer to their offensive questions.

Texas taking UTEP to the woodshed

September, 26, 2009
9/26/09
5:18
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Take away one bad pass by Colt McCoy and Texas might have played a near-perfect first half.

McCoy's interception returned for a touchdown provided UTEP's only points as the Longhorns are cruising with a 47-7 lead late in the first half.

The biggest reason has been Texas' defense which has shackled UTEP from the opening kickoff. At this point, the Miners have been limited to 30 yards and failed on their first seven third-down plays.

A huge pass rush from the Longhorns has neutralized UTEP quarterback Trevor Vittatoe. The Texas defense has taken advantage of an interception, a fumble, a fumbled punt and a bad center snap to fuel the feeding frenzy.

McCoy has rebounded to throw for three touchdowns. And it appears that Vondrell McGee has broken out of his slump as he's added a touchdown rushing along with a team-best 30 rushing yards.

The Longhorns appear deserving of their No. 2 ranking with their dominant performance today.

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