Texas Key: tackling in space
AUSTIN, Texas - The ability of Texas to slow down West Virginia's offense tonight isn't the only factor that will dictate the outcome, but it is certainly high on the short list.
That's a list that also includes - for both sides - eliminating turnovers, getting solid special-teams play and keeping mistakes to a minimum. In other words, doing the basic stuff right, just like any other game in the country.
But there's another basic that the Longhorns have stressed this week. Seems Texas believes that if it is to have any chance of winning, it would behoove the Longhorns to do something they haven't done very well through the first four games of the season.
"We'll give up 70 if we don't tackle well," Texas coach Mack Brown said.
Indeed, when No. 8 West Virginia and No. 11 Texas match 4-0 records tonight at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium (7 p.m. on Fox), what most will be curious to see is how West Virginia's offense fares against what figures to be the best - and certainly most talented and athletic - defense it has faced this season.
In four games this season, the Mountaineers have averaged 53 points and just shy of 600 yards of total offense. Dating back to the Orange Bowl against Clemson in January, WVU has scored 10 touchdowns in three of its last five games, scoring 70 against Clemson and Baylor and 69 (because of a missed PAT) against Marshall.
Sometimes those yards and points come on plays where tackling really isn't an issue - balls thrown deep or into the end zone by Geno Smith, more often than not to Stedman Bailey. But a lot of the damage comes on shorter routes, particularly to Tavon Austin, where a slipped tackle can mean the difference between a short- or medium-range gain and six points.
That's what Texas wants to eliminate.
"The key is to not give up the explosive play. That's what it comes back to,'' said Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. "They can do that by throwing it over your head. They have highlights after highlights of them doing that to people. They also can do it because they can throw it short and have guys that can run away from you.
"It's a run-after-the-catch game, which puts the onus on tackling these great players in space.''
Of course, every defense misses tackles, even the great ones. Diaz knows that and understands it. At some point tonight he will throw his hat down after one.
But when it happens, the damage needs to be kept to a minimum.
"You're going to miss tackles. I just watched LSU playing against them [last season]. LSU missed tackles all over the field,'' Diaz said, referring to a game in which WVU gained 533 yards against a Tigers defense that was among the best in the country, only to lose because of four turnovers and a kickoff return for a touchdown by LSU. "You have to try to limit the damage that they can cause.
"What jumped out about the game this past Saturday [a 70-63 win over Baylor], both teams scored on enormous chunk plays. It is really hard to score 133 points in a game without the scores happening so fast. When it's an 80-yard touchdown this way, 70-yard touchdown that way, the offense gets rolling up. That's a part of it, as well.''
That also figures to be a significant factor tonight - not allowing West Virginia's offense to get "rolling up,'' or in a rhythm. Diaz and the Texas defense will have a lot to do with that, but so too will the Texas offense. The Longhorns run the ball on roughly 60 percent of their plays and if they control the ball for long stretches it could throw off West Virginia's rhythm.
"The Maryland game was like that,'' West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "They huddled and ran the play clock down and then snapped the ball and we just sat there. It can throw you off, sure.''
One thing Diaz won't have to be concerned about is missing tackles on Shawne Alston. West Virginia's bruising 238-pound tailback, who has missed the last two games with a thigh bruise, will miss this one, too. He didn't even make the trip with the team.
That will once again leave the bulk of the running responsibilities to sophomore Andrew Buie, although he could get considerably more help in this game from fellow sophomore Dustin Garrison, who has played in two games now and appears to be working himself back into shape after reconstructive knee surgery.