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Wednesday, November 25, 1998
A&M, Texas test strengths

By Mike Gottfried
Special to ESPN.com

The Texas A&M-Texas matchup is a classic case of strength against strength and weakness against weakness. It's an offensive team in Texas against a defensive team in Texas A&M.

 Dat Nguyen
Texas A&M linebacker Dat Nguyen, a finalist for the Butkus Award, should see quite a bit of Ricky Williams on Friday.

Texas only starts one senior on defense, while Texas A&M is 91st in total offense. On the other hand, Texas A&M defense is 12th in the country in total defense and 13th against the run, while Texas has the ultimate running weapon in Ricky Williams, who gains an average of 186 yards a game. So something has to give.

No individual matchup highlights the strengths of both teams more than the battle between two All-Americans -- Texas running back Ricky Williams against Texas A&M linebacker Dat Nguyen. Nguyen is quick, has great instincts and is an excellent blitzer. Texas has to find a way to contend with him.

There's drama behind Williams, needing only 63 yards to break Tony Dorsett's NCAA Division I-A career rushing record and 135 yards to get 2,000. The Longhorns will make sure Williams gets his yards, and I think he will get his yards. They will run sprint draw, zone running plays both ways and a lot of counters to Williams.

Texas A&M will run a lot of zone blitzes. They don't get themselves in man-to-man coverage much, so you can't go after their corners. The Aggies are only giving up 95 yards passing a game. What that means is they're tough against the run, and they won't allow many big plays because they don't get themselves isolated in single coverage.

The Longhorns will use a lot of different blocking schemes to try to take advantage of the Aggies' zone blitz. One thing about zone blitz is that play-action passes are effective against it. So if Williams can't get established, the Longhorns have a chance against the zone blitz with the play-action pass. A&M might play eight men in the box but the Aggies will play conservatively behind it, making safe defensive calls.

Texas quarterback Major Applewhite is 13th in the country in pass efficiency, so the Longhorns can throw the football. What Texas wants to do is to control the game with Williams and take some chances deep with Applewhite throwing the ball to his favorite target, Wane McGarity.

Field position will be important in this game, but I think it favors A&M for one reason: Shane Lechler is the 10th-best punter in the country with a 42-yard average. Texas changed punters two weeks ago, going with Ryan Long, who is a walk-on.

Sometime with a good defense like A&M's, what you do offensively is play to your defense and your punter. So the Aggies are a big running team out of the I formation. They will run and run some more. They will give the ball to Ja'Mar Toombs, their 250-pound fullback, and tailback Dante Hall. The Aggies will eventually try to beat you with play-action passing and try to complete a couple of deep throws. They're plus-12 in turnover margin, which shows that they don't beat themselves on offense.

On the other side, Texas has a suspect defense. The Longhorns blitz on every play, and the reason they blitz is because the defense is really undertalented and overachieving. They have to figure a way with their all-out blitz to stall the running game, getting eight people after Toombs and Hall, yet they have to isolate their cornerbacks in coverage. They can not afford to give up the big pass.

It's important to note that Texas has already played three Top 10 teams this year -- UCLA, Kansas State and Nebraska -- and beat Nebraska on the road. Texas A&M, the fourth Top 10 opponent, is the only one of the four the Longhorns have at home, and they are 28-8-1 against A&M in Austin.

Texas has the home-field advantage, Williams going for the record, a suspect defense against an offense that will try to run at them, a momentous chore ahead of it trying to move the ball against A&M's defense. Really, this has all the makings of a great football game.