Thursday, September 10, 2009
What to watch for in the Big 12 this weekend
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are some items I'm interested in following in the Big 12 games this weekend.
1. Colorado handling adversity after its opening-game debacle: The Buffaloes suffered an embarrassing loss to cross-state rival Colorado State in their opener Sunday night. Coach Dan Hawkins and his team have only five days as they travel halfway across the country to try to blot those painful memories against Toledo. It will be interesting to see how much heralded Colorado tailback Darrell Scott will play against the Rockets -- particularly after his pointed criticism of his lack of playing time earlier this week.
2. Landry Jones’ first career start: Oklahoma’s replacement for Sam Bradford shouldn’t be tested by Idaho State, which was drubbed by Arizona State last week. But it will still be telling to see how much leeway Bob Stoops will give Jones, a redshirt freshman. Coaches say they like his poise and demeanor, but I expect a conservative game plan that will feature heavy use of Oklahoma’s running game that unexpectedly struggled to produce 118 yards last week against BYU.
3. What the Oklahoma State defense does for an encore: The Cowboys punched out an impressive 24-10 victory over Georgia last week. The revelation for the Cowboys was a strong defensive effort that allowed a touchdown on its opening possession and three points during the rest of the game. They showed a physical nature that had been missing in recent seasons -- particularly noticeable because starters Orie Lemon and Markelle Martin were out of the lineup. It will be even tougher this week against Houston quarterback Case Keenum, who led the nation in total yards last season and got off to a fast start with four touchdown passes against Northwestern State last week. As good as Georgia was supposed to be offensively, the Cowboys will face a bigger test this week against the Cougars.
4. Can Blaine Gabbert match his opening-game success? One game into his career, some Missouri media members are already anointing Gabbert after his scintillating 319-yard passing effort against Illinois. His big outing earned him the Big 12’s offensive player of the week. He’ll be challenged to duplicate that success against an underrated Bowling Green team that allowed 263 passing yards in a victory over Troy last week, but still notched two interceptions. Gabbert’s continued development is the critical element that can help the Tigers continue as the Big 12’s surprise early power.
5. Nebraska’s front four: The Cornhuskers’ defensive front of Ndamukong Suh, Jared Crick, Pierre Allen and Barry Turner was expected to be the team’s strength. The group struggled last week against FAU quarterback Rusty Smith, failing to notch a sack. Those struggles were part of the reason Bo Pelini rebuked his defense earlier this week, calling the Blackshirts “soft.” And it won’t be easy for them as they try to harass Arkansas State quarterback Corey Leonard, who wasn’t sacked last week.
6. Wyoming freshman cornerback Shamiel Gray continue his success against Colt McCoy: Gray had an auspicious start to his college career with three interceptions in the Cowboys’ season-opening victory over Weber State. But he’ll face a huge challenge against McCoy, who has been intercepted only six times in his last 335 attempts dating back to last season. Gray hasn’t faced the athletic collection of receivers he’ll meet from Texas, which will make continuing his turnover spree that much more difficult.
7. How Iowa’s defense will handle Iowa State’s new no-huddle offense: The Hawkeyes and veteran defensive coordinator Norm Parker have seen a variety of offenses come and go over the years at Iowa State. But they haven’t faced anything quite like Tom Herman’s no-huddle attack that seemed to work well in the Cyclones’ first game against North Dakota State. The Cyclones likely didn’t show everything and will be ready to try to continue their recent success that has enabled them to win four of their last five games against the Hawkeyes at Jack Trice Stadium.
8. Ground-bound Jayhawks: After gashing Northern Colorado for 328 yards, Kansas may have similar opportunities against the Miners, who allowed 150 yards in a loss last week to Buffalo and 199 yards per game last season. Mark Mangino has growing confidence in his ball carriers with Jake Sharp, Toben Opurum and quarterback Todd Reesing all rushing for at least 79 yards rushing last week. Dezmon Briscoe will be back with a chance to stretch the UTEP defense, but the Jayhawks have been so successful in the trenches that I look for them to at least start the game with a similar strategy against the Miners.
9. Improvement on Kansas State’s special teams: Blunders in the kicking game led to two easy touchdowns for Massachusetts, making the Wildcats’ 21-17 season-opening victory way too close for comfort. Back in the day, Bill Snyder’s teams were always renowned for their special-teams success and Ron Prince continued that strategy during his tenure. They can’t afford similar mistakes Saturday night, or it could mean a long, nightmarish visit to hot, sticky Cajun Field.
10. Texas Tech’s running game looks for a comeback: After struggling to produce only 40 yards rushing and only two rushes of at least 10 yards against FCS opponent North Dakota, the Red Raiders’ running backs, and particularly Baron Batch, were called out by coach Mike Leach. It will be noteworthy if that lights a fire under them -- especially considering that Rice was gashed for 295 rushing yards last week by UAB.