Banged-up Texas secondary braces for stern test

October, 29, 2008
10/29/08
11:54
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

 
 Brendan Maloney-US PRESSWIRE
 Earl Thomas and the Texas secondary will have a big challenge on Saturday.

Curtis Brown had a huge challenge for his first college start. And it will only get that much bigger if the Texas sophomore cornerback has a second one this week.

After being thrust into the starting lineup when usual starter Chykie Brown missed last week's game against Oklahoma State with an ankle injury, Curtis Brown got his first college starting opportunity. His test was against Dez Bryant, who was merely the hottest receiver in the Big 12 coming into the game.

"I was afraid he would transfer," Texas coach Mack Brown told reporters with a chuckle. "I bet I would have."

There were no first-game jitters. Brown played every snap and led the Longhorns to a gritty 28-24 victory that was punctuated by his game-saving deflection on the final play of the game. The stakes will only get bigger for him and his injury-depleted teammates from the secondary this week.

Like trying to contain Biletnikoff Award winner Michael Crabtree and Texas Tech's high-powered offensive attack Saturday night in Lubbock.

"If my number is called, I just show up," Brown told reporters earlier this week. "That's just what I had to do."

The test for Brown mirrors that for the Texas defense, which will be challenged to stop a Tech offense that ranks first nationally in passing offense, second in total offense and third in scoring. The Red Raiders have scored at least 35 points in every game this season and feature a deep collection of playmakers besides Crabtree.

Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp will attempt to counter that offensive firepower with an injury-riddled secondary. Cornerback Ryan Palmer has been hampered recently with a sore elbow but still played against Oklahoma State in the Longhorns' nickel package. Chykie Brown's status is unknown for this week, meaning that Curtis Brown might be counted to step up as a starter again. Curtis Brown had struggled with a hamstring pull suffered in the preseason before finally returning to health in the last several weeks.

And that's in addition to Texas' precocious pair of freshmen safeties, Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon. Both have had some precarious moments earlier this season, but have come through in critical situations when the Longhorns most needed them during the last several weeks.

The patchwork secondary ranks 110th nationally in pass defense, largely because opponents have continually passed against them when they have been far behind. The unit is ranked 70th in pass efficiency defense and has allowed only three opponents to top 300 passing yards against them -- a serviceable number in the air-heavy Big 12 Conference this season.

Don't be surprised if Muschamp tries to combat the vast array of Tech receivers with a dime package of six defensive backs on most plays. He just hopes to have enough defensive backs to fill out his lineup.

A bigger immediate challenge for the entire Texas defense will be to do a better job of tackling. Mack Brown said the Longhorns missed 12 tackles against Oklahoma State that enabled the Cowboys to pick up 125 extra yards.

Similar struggles could doom them against a Tech team that has notched 28 passes of 25 yards or more so far this season. That explosiveness sparked a run that enabled them to blow the game open last week against Kansas, scoring 49 unanswered points in a period of less than 32 minutes.

"If you miss a tackle, those guys are going to score," cornerback Deon Beasley said. "And they're going to complete some balls. The best thing you can do is tackle and make sure they don't get those yards after the catch."

And even with those challenges, the Texas secondary is charged about trying to contain the Red Raiders.

"If it's me, personally as a defensive back, I like them to chunk it around and make us cover them," Palmer said. "Our job is just to man up and hold their guys in check. It's good that they throw because we can showcase our abilities. I'm looking forward to it."

The Texas secondary isn't intimidated by the challenge that will be facing them Saturday night at Jones AT&T Stadium. Their past history gives them a sense of confidence, considering they have won five straight games against the Red Raiders since Kliff Kingsbury carved up a similarly injury-riddled Texas secondary for a 42-38 triumph in 2002.

That past history also provides a swagger, even though many of the Longhorns playing in this week's game were in middle school when some of Texas' victories were notched over the Red Raiders.

"Tech is a good football team, but we just want to go in and dominate our opponent," Palmer said. "We take the challenge of going in and getting a win. We just want to limit our mistakes and do what we've done and hope that carries over on Saturday night."

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