NCF Nation: 09 Big 12 title game coverage

Bearcats will be rooting hard for Cornhuskers

December, 5, 2009
Shortly after a dramatic 45-44 comeback victory over Pittsburgh, Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly was already looking forward to tonight's Big 12 championship game.

Considering that if Nebraska upsets Texas tonight, the Bearcats will have a better shot at making the BCS title game, Kelly is already making his plans.

"I love Mack Brown," Kelly told ABC-TV after the game. "But we'll be rooting pretty hard for Nebraska. Go Nebraska. Go Cornhuskers."

Kelly's one-night interest in the Big 12 will be matched only by TCU and Coach Gary Patterson's similar rooting interests for Nebraska.

Big 12 title game prediction favors the Longhorns

December, 3, 2009
The South Division has dominated play in the Big 12 in recent years. It will be up to Nebraska to turn things around and provide some competition in the championship game.

Here's how I see the game playing out.

Texas 28, Nebraska 13: The Longhorns are heavy favorites to claim Mack Brown’s second Big 12 title. Nebraska has been one of the hottest teams in the conference as the Cornhuskers have run off five straight victories after starting 4-3. And the Cornhuskers have a puncher’s chance of stealing an upset victory in this game. If they are to be successful, they must continually pressure Colt McCoy and contain Texas’ offense. And on offense, they can't be intimidated by the Longhorns' No. 1 ranked rush defense. Because so much of Nebraska's offense is based on running the ball, they have to keep trying Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead, even if it isn't immediately successful. They do have hope after the Longhorns were gashed for 190 rushing yards and 532 total yards by Texas A&M last week. And Helu and Burkhead are an upgrade over the Aggies’ backs.

Nebraska must stay ahead of the chains and keep Zac Lee from long down-and-distance situations that have caused him to struggle this season. If the Cornhuskers are to be successful, they also must dominate the special teams with big efforts from punter/kicker Alex Henery and kickoff specialist Adi Kunalic.

But even with those weapons, Texas still has too many weapons. The Longhorns should get some big plays from receivers like Malcolm Williams, James Kirkendoll, Dan Buckner and John Chiles -- particularly if the Cornhuskers elect to double-cover Jordan Shipley. The Cornhuskers will stay close for much of the game, but the Longhorns should pull away late as they head to the BCS title game.

Last week: 5-0 (100 percent)

Season record: 74-23 (76.3 percent)

What to watch for in Big 12 championship game

December, 3, 2009
Here are five trends that merit watching in Saturday’s Big 12 championship game:

Can the North Division make this a game, for a change? The South Division has dominated this game, much like all aspects of cross-division play in recent seasons. Since Kansas State’s stunning upset victory over Oklahoma in 2003, the South Division teams have won the games by a combined margin of 233-51. During those five games, the North team has led for a total of 3 minutes and 22 seconds in the 300 minutes of game action. Nebraska’s defense should give it a puncher’s chance to be successful in the game. But Texas looks like the prototypical bully from the South Division that looks like it will be ready to jump on an opponent at the slightest sign of weakness.

Colt McCoy’s Heisman hopes: With the Alabama-Florida game being played earlier in the afternoon. McCoy should have a good idea who will be his prime Heisman opponent emerging from the SEC championship game. It won’t be easy as McCoy will be facing one of his biggest challenges of the season in terms of the rival defense. Nebraska ranks among the top 15 teams in the major team defensive statistical categories of rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense. The Cornhuskers have allowed more than 21 points in a game only once this season and have averaged three sacks a game over their last five contests. McCoy will need a big statistical game to sway Heisman voters one last time.

The center of Nebraska’s defense: Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick are the finest pair of defensive tackles in the conference. Suh likely is the best defensive player in the country. They will be backed up behind the line by starting middle linebacker Will Compton, a redshirt freshman. These players will need to dominate the game inside in their contest with Texas starting center Chris Hall and starting guards Charlie Tanner and Michael Huey. If the Nebraska defensive tackles and Compton can impose their will in the trenches, it will make life much more difficult for McCoy and the Longhorns.

Nebraska’s special teams need to be special: The Cornhuskers have dictated field position all season long thanks to punter Alex Henery and kickoff specialist Adi Kunalic. Henery is the most accomplished situational punter in the conference with 26 of his 65 punts pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line. Eight of those kicks have landed inside the opponent’s 3-yard line. Kunalic leads the Big 12 with 40 percent of his kickoffs going through the end zone for touchbacks. If the Cornhuskers can dictate the special teams, they will be able to neutralize Texas kickoff return specialist Marquise Goodwin (24.1 average, one TD) and punt return specialist Jordan Shipley (13.3 yard per return average, two TDs). As difficult as it will be for the Cornhuskers to stick with Texas on offense and defense, they can’t allow any cheap touchdowns or wild changes in field position and expect to win.

Can Texas’ defense rebound? The Longhorns struggled through their worst performance of the season in their narrow victory over Texas A&M, allowing their most rushing yards, total yards and points of the season. Texas players said those memories have been blotted away as they prepare for the Cornhuskers. Nebraska’s offensive strategy should play more into Texas’ strengths that Texas A&M’s varied run-pass option attack. But it will be imperative for the Longhorns to forget about their recent defensive difficulties and bounce back with a big effort in the championship game.

Texas defense eager for redemption

December, 2, 2009
The lights were on early last Friday morning at the Texas defensive coaches’ offices

There was no chance for any of Will Muschamp's group to sneak away to any "Black Friday” sales. The Texas defensive coaches were working long and hard trying to rebuild some schemes heading into the Big 12 championship game after a struggling performance against Texas A&M.

Brett Davis/US PresswireWill Muschamp's defense will need to execute better if the Longhorns hope to defeat Nebraska Saturday.
Maybe it was the short work week. Or it might have been too many demands placed on his team. But whatever the reason, the Longhorns’ defense had its first clunker of the season in a closer-than-expected 49-39 victory over the Aggies.

Among the painful reminders were the most rushing yards, total yards and points allowed this season by the Longhorns. It was a game where defensive players felt like the offense bailed them out to continue their 12-0 season.

“We’re going to self-evaluate what we did,” Muschamp said. “But obviously, whatever we did wasn’t right.”

Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson befuddled the Longhorns with 439 total yards, including 97 yards rushing. That total was more than what nine teams had produced against the Longhorns this season.

“We had some missed communication, assignments, alignments, 13 missed tackles ... critical errors on third down," Muschamp said. "It makes for a long night. And it all falls on my shoulders.”

Those struggles are coming as the Longhorns prepare for their biggest game of the season. Nebraska looms, and with it , the Longhorns' first chance to play in the BCS title game since the 2006 Rose Bowl.

But in order to get there, the defense will have to show marked improvement this week against the Cornhuskers.

Texas coach Mack Brown doesn’t expect any hangover after last week’s struggles. In fact, he said the defense's struggling performance in College Station might be a benefit against the Cornhuskers.

“They will play their tails off," Brown said. "They were mad and embarrassed. They are very prideful kids. They were not happy, which I like. They were happy we won, but they know it was not good.”

That realization has the Texas defense excited about its chance at redemption.

“We’re excited to get back out there and have another chance to play football,” Texas defensive tackle Lamarr Houston said. “All of us can’t wait.”

Defensive end Sam Acho was even more direct.

“We know we made some mistakes, but we know we can improve on our performance,” Acho said. “We’ve moved on.”

The Longhorns might be receiving some benefits because they are playing Nebraska. The Cornhuskers don’t feature a dual-threat quarterback like Johnson or the Aggies’ squadron of speedy playmakers.

Instead, the Cornhuskers rank a pedestrian 11th in the Big 12 in total offense and have pulled back on some of their play-calling strategy during a recent five-game winning streak after Zac Lee reclaimed the starting quarterback position.

The Cornhuskers’ ground-based attack should play well into Texas' defensive strength, which remains the nation’s stingiest against the run, allowing only 61.8 yards per game.

“We’re anxious about the challenge about how they will play us,” Texas safety Earl Thomas said. “It will test how physical we are. Our defense is all about effort. I think we’ll be OK.”

Houston is particularly looking forward to that direct, physical challenge after last week.

“There is no linger,” Houston said. “A&M is a top-10 offense and no one gives them credit. We had some mental breakdowns we’re going to fix. And we’ll get ready for Saturday.”

Brown also thinks the struggles against the Aggies were a one-game aberration, and nothing like how his team will play in the Big 12 championship game.

"The lack of performance will get our attention for this week,” Brown said. “We probably tried to do too much last week. But we’ll go back and be who we are this week.”

The media interviews Lamarr Houston about the Big 12 title game.

Lee transformed by early-season benching

December, 2, 2009
Some sage advice prepared Zac Lee for the highs and lows he’s faced this season.

Lee has been both booed and cheered by Nebraska fans throughout his first season as the Cornhuskers’ starting quarterback. During his early-season travails, Lee leaned on some guidance from his father, Bob, a 12-year veteran NFL quarterback who has seen the best and worst of times during his own professional career.

Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIREAfter being benched for one game, Nebraska quarterback Zac Lee has rebounded and helped lead the Cornhuskers to the Big 12 Championship Game.
“My dad told me when I first started playing that you’re not really a true quarterback until you’ve been run out of at least one place,” Lee said. “So I always kind of took it to heart and just prepared for it.”

While he technically wasn’t “run out of a place,” his one-game demotion gave him an opportunity to clear his head and prepare for his second chance as a starter.

Since his return, he has provided solid leadership and production that has helped spark the Cornhuskers’ late five-game winning streak after starting the season 4-3. It’s helped them claim their first Big 12 North title since 2006, earning a berth in the Big 12 championship game against No. 3 Texas Saturday night.

Along with the rest of the team, Lee struggled in a 31-10 loss against Texas Tech that was their worst defeat of the season. And although he played better the following week, the offense struggled with eight turnovers in a stunning home loss to Iowa State.

That led to his benching against Baylor in the next game in favor of freshman quarterback Cody Green, who directed the win.

“There really wasn't much we could say to him," junior receiver Niles Paul told the Lincoln Journal-Star. "It's something he had to deal with, and he either was going to make it through or he wasn't.

"But that's just the type of person he is. He's a confident person. He patiently waited for another chance to get out there, and when he got out there he executed."

Green also got the start against Oklahoma, but struggled and was removed after producing no first downs over the first five possessions against the Sooners. Lee entered the game, directed the victory and has been the starter ever since.

“I never had any doubts I could produce when I got another chance,” Lee said. “The biggest thing has been that my teammates stayed with me the whole way.”

Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has tailored the offense to Lee’s specific strengths. It’s featured heavy doses of running by Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead, play-action passes and occasional running from the quarterback that has picked up over the last several games.

Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said the changes have helped emphasize Lee’s strengths.

“He’s been effective in what they ask him to do,” Muschamp said. “They have changed philosophically to a certain degree in what they are doing. They have put him in a lot better situations are far as play action and pocket movement. He’s a good athlete and those things have helped him as much as anything philosophical in what they’ve done.”

Nebraska fans had a brief moment of anxiety last week against Colorado when Lee went with an ankle injury. Green took two snaps, but Lee had his ankle re-taped and returned on the next series and finished out the game. He said Tuesday his ankle felt “phenomenal.”

Lee’s passing statistics are down since his return, but his passing efficiency rating is up. Earlier this season, he posted three games of at least 200 yards passing and threw four touchdown passes against Arkansas State and three touchdown passes to lead the comeback against Missouri.

But in his last three games, Lee has not passed for more than 196 yards or thrown for more than a touchdown in any single game. It hasn’t really mattered because of the game results.

“We’ve had some relative success, but a lot of people have been caught up in the numbers,” Lee said. “But the reality is that we’ve been winning games.”

Lee will have to click as a “game manager,” as Watson has called him. It means the Cornhuskers need to stay ahead of the chains and can’t afford long down-and-distance situations where the Texas defense has been proficient at forcing turnovers, notching sacks and holding opponents to a conference-leading 28 percent third-down conversion rate.

“What those circumstances are going to be on Saturday night, you don’t know. It’s always ever-changing,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “We have to be ready to respond no matter what happens. If that means managing the game, great. But if that means we need Zac to throw four touchdown passes, let’s go.”
Colt McCoy has to go way back to the dusty playing fields of West Texas to remember the last time he accomplished the ultimate in team goals for a season.

Sure, there have been a slew of individual accomplishments over the years and enough personal records to keep the Texas quarterback satisfied long after his playing career is over.

But McCoy has to revert to his days at tiny Jim Ned High School when his Class 2A team was beating up on the likes of the Bangs Dragons, Ballinger Bearcats, San Saba Armadillos and Coleman Bluecats for District 3 supremacy to remember his last true on-the-field team championship.

[+] EnlargeColt McCoy
Tim Heitman/US PresswireColt McCoy has his sights set on winning a Big 12 title Saturday.
His next chance will come Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, when the Longhorns meet Nebraska.

“It’s right there in front of us,” McCoy said. “It’s a goal we’ve worked for all year long and it’s finally here. This is the most important game. We know there are big things after the game if we go out and handle our business. But right now, Nebraska is our focus.”

Only a year ago, McCoy and the Longhorns dealt with the bitter disappointment of failing to make the Big 12 championship game. Earlier, they had defeated eventual champion Oklahoma in a dramatic comeback. But their South Division championship hopes were dashed by a last-second loss at Texas Tech that caused a three-way tie for division title. The split championship affected the computer polls and kept Texas out when the final numbers were tallied at the end of the regular season.

That snub resonated through all of the Longhorns’ offseason practices and workouts before leading to their success this season.

Texas coach Mack Brown reminded them of that past disappointment as they began work for Nebraska earlier this week.

“They were disappointed as any group of kids I’ve ever seen,” Brown said. “But [they] committed themselves to be in this game and win it. And now they have it all in front of them.”

McCoy battled through a mid-season crisis of confidence to direct the Longhorns to a 12-0 record. Only a 16-13 victory over Oklahoma has been by a margin of less than 10 points.

Throughout the season, McCoy has talked about his personal need to play in the Big 12 championship game -- the biggest of all stages in his conference. Such a goal, he said, is bigger than an individual award like winning the Heisman Trophy.

He’s never been there before, watching Paul Thompson and Sam Bradford claim titles for Oklahoma during his career at Texas.

He’ll go down in history as the winningest quarterback in NCAA history. His 44-7 record likely will never be broken -- at least until the NCAA starts mandating 13-game or 14-game regular seasons.

In order to claim his place among the pantheon of great Texas quarterbacks like Vince Young, James Street, Bobby Layne and James Brown, McCoy needs to earn a title.

Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis remembers hearing from McCoy only minutes after he learned that Vince Young was leaving school early for the NFL.

“Colt told me not to worry, that he was ready,” Davis said.

Such a pronouncement might have been construed as a tad bold coming from a redshirt freshman who had never played before. But McCoy has been proving it ever since.

There was his first wild road victory when he beat Nebraska in a raging snowstorm in 2006.

And the way he’s beaten old rivals Texas A&M and Oklahoma in back-to-back seasons. Nobody has done that since the Longhorns’ salad days of late 1960s and early 1970s when Darrell Royal was roaming the sideline.

But the Big 12 title has been elusive for McCoy.

McCoy’s quest has even infused Brown, who said Saturday’s title game will be more meaningful for him for players like his senior quarterback than any sense of personal accomplishment in claiming his second Big 12 title and qualifying for his second BCS title game.

“I would like is for Colt and these seniors to have a championship,” Brown said. “They deserve it. They have given us so much. It’s a thing that’s not on their résumé.

“And that’s what Saturday night is about for me. I want Colt to finish getting the acclaim he should for this program and for college football. He’ll have a lot more by winning Saturday.”

Cornhuskers looking to match UT's stunning 1996 title game upset

November, 30, 2009
Texas and Nebraska are two programs inexorably linked in the Big 12’s young history.

Saturday’s championship game in Arlington, Texas, will represent the third time the two traditional superpowers have played for the Big 12 title. Those rivals have played against each other for the title more than any other two teams in Big 12 history with each team winning one of the championship games.

Texas is a heavy favorite this year after a 12-0 regular season that has placed it on the cusp of a second national championship game berth in five seasons. Nebraska claimed the North title this season, but is a huge early underdog against the Longhorns.

[+] EnlargeBrown
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesQuarterback James Brown predicted a Texas win in the first Big 12 championship game in 1996.
It’s a complete role reversal from the first championship game in the conference’s history. The Cornhuskers were ranked No. 3 and seemingly on their way to a national championship during that first Big 12 title game in St. Louis in 1996. Texas had come along late to earn the Big 12 South title, but was presumed by most prognosticators to have little chance with the mighty Cornhuskers.

“It kind of struck me a little unusual because of the matchup and how it’s playing out,” former Texas wide receiver Wane McGarity said. “It’s almost the exact opposite of what happened that first time around.”

That game became even more storied after Texas quarterback James Brown predicted a huge victory for the Longhorns and then backed it up with a stunning 37-27 upset that knocked the Cornhuskers out of the national title hunt.

The first Big 12 championship represented much more than merely a football game that would decide the conference’s first representative into the old Bowl Coalition.

Nebraska was the dominant power in the old Big Eight Conference. Texas was considered to be one of the strongest among the four teams that joined the reconstituted Big 12 from the Southwest Conference.

The two schools battled on practically every item in the formative stages of the Big 12. Nebraska wanted the conference offices to remain in Kansas City. Texas wanted them moved to Dallas. Texas won that argument.

Nebraska wanted each team in the conference to be able to keep a certain number of partial qualifiers on the roster. Texas was against that. Texas won that argument.

Nebraska wanted former Kansas athletic director Bob Frederick as the conference’s first commissioner. Texas wanted Southwest Conference commissioner Steve Hatchell. Texas won that argument.

Those off-the-field skirmishes made the first actual game between the two schools in the conference seem that much bigger.

Nebraska came into the game the two-time defending national champion. After losing early in the season at Arizona State, the Cornhuskers reeled off nine straight victories. Coming into the championship game, Nebraska had won 46 of its last 48 games.

Texas struggled with nonconference losses to Notre Dame and Virginia early in the season. John Mackovic’s team fell into an early hole in the conference race after back-to-back losses to Oklahoma and Colorado left it at 3-4.

But Texas rebounded to win its final four regular-season games to finish strongly, including a 51-15 beatdown of Texas A&M. Still, most observers didn’t give it much hope.

Nebraska was a three-touchdown favorite coming into the game. That status galled Brown, who predicted several days before the game that the Longhorns would win the game by three touchdowns.

“We weren’t intimidated by them,” McGarity said. “James made the comment we might win by 21 points. It just started it off and we all rallied behind him.”

Like Nebraska heading into Saturday’s game, that Texas team was hot after playing well down the stretch.

“We were the underdogs and people didn’t think we had a chance,” McGarity said. “But we weren’t intimidated in the least by them. We thought we had a good chance to win once the game started. And we played like it.”

That game is remembered by the stunning fourth-and-inches gamble made by Mackovic late in the game with his team nursing a slim 30-27 lead. Brown faked a handoff and then hit reserve tight end Derek Lewis on a 61-yard pass to the Nebraska 11. Priest Holmes scored his third touchdown on the next play to wrap up the victory and account for the only rushing touchdowns scored on Nebraska’s first-team defense all season.

It’s gone down in history as one of the biggest upsets in recent college football history.

Most observers aren’t giving Nebraska much hope against Texas in this year's conference championship.

But if the Cornhuskers can duplicate the Longhorns’ stunning triumph on Saturday, it will be every bit as large as the earlier Texas victory in the first conference championship game.