Hooked 'em, Horns

Showing it's not all about offense in the Big 12, Texas turned to its suffocating defense to win a slugfest over Oklahoma
October 25, 2009

By eight in themorning, a good three hours before kickoff, the crimson-and-cream-clad fans hadbegun squeezing into the Texas State Fairgrounds, just outside the Cotton Bowlin Dallas, many to gorge themselves on the deep-fried goodness that has becomeas big a part of the Red River Rivalry as Smokey the Cannon and the SoonerSchooner. For the Sooners faithful, though, the traditional Texas-Oklahomapregame fare (corny dog with a side of deep-fried butter, anyone?) wasn't ashard to digest as this sight inside the old stadium less than four minutes intothe tilt between Big 12 titans: Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford hunched overat the 25-yard line, his right arm dangling like a rag doll's. Moments earlierTexas cornerback Aaron Williams had slammed Bradford into the turf, and now, asthe grimacing Heisman Trophy winner clutched his right shoulder—the same one hehad nursed back from an injury in the season opener against BYU—the stadium wasas quiet as a church.

The jarring hit,which knocked Bradford out of the game and most likely ended his cursed season,was the signature moment in the third-ranked Longhorns' 16--13 victory over No.20 Oklahoma. A year ago on the same field, the two teams staged a breathlessshootout, combining for 873 total yards and 80 points. But the 104th meeting inthe rivalry, played before a record crowd of 96,009, was a complete reversal: asmash-mouth affair that no doubt made Darrell Royal crack a smile. "It'snot going to be pretty every time," McCoy said with a shrug after going 21for 39 for 127 yards, his lowest yardage total since his freshman year. Withtheir passing game grounded, the Longhorns outrushed the Sooners 142 to ...negative 16. Fittingly, the biggest play by Texas quarterback Colt McCoy was atackle. With six minutes left and the Longhorns protecting a three-point leaddeep in Oklahoma territory, the star senior drilled a quick slant into thehands of Sooners cornerback Brian Jackson, who had a path to the end zone asclear as the sky overhead—that is, until McCoy came out of nowhere to cut himdown.

Indeed, theLonghorns' great escape probably didn't win back any of the voters who helpeddemote Texas from No. 2 to No. 3 in the AP poll last week after a lacklustervictory over Colorado. Nor did McCoy's uneven performance garner him any newHeisman support. But on a day in which top-ranked Florida needed a last-secondfield goal to beat 25-point underdog Arkansas in the Swamp, and No. 6 USCnearly blew a 20-point lead to Notre Dame in South Bend, the Longhorns—still ontrack for an invitation to the BCS championship game on Jan. 7—weren'tinterested in style points. In fact, the "SEC-style" victory, as McCoycalled it, revealed a lot more about Texas than another high-scoring Red Rivershootout would have. As Longhorns linebacker Sergio Kindle, who had four of histeam's 10 tackles for losses, said, "When people talk about the Big 12,they talk about offense and the great quarterbacks. But today we showed that inBig 12 country we know how to hit hard too."

Last season theBig 12 was home to the nation's highest-flying aerial attacks. This year, asthe conference's biggest regular-season game showed, the Big 12 knows a thingor two about suffocating defense. The conference has three of the nation's top12 defenses—Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska—and its stars are not just gunslingingquarterbacks but also game-changing defenders such as Kindle and tackles GeraldMcCoy of Oklahoma and Ndamukong Suh of Nebraska.

As the Soonersfound out, there isn't a nastier Big 12 defense than the gang from Austin,which this season has allowed a Division I-A--low 37.5 yards a game on theground and 1.3 yards a carry. The man who taught these Horns how to hit hard,SEC-style, is Will Muschamp, who arrived in Austin in early 2008 aftercoordinating the defenses at LSU and Auburn. (Between the SEC stops, he was anassistant coach with the Dolphins.) The 38-year-old Muschamp, Texas's headcoach in waiting—after several schools courted him at the end of last season,university officials announced that he will take over when Mack Brown, 58,retires—is detail-obsessed and as fiery as a habanero, as fans delightedly sawin a popular YouTube clip of the coordinator, then with Auburn, dropping fbombs as he stormed onto the field after a big stop by his unit. In his firstgame on the Texas sideline, against Florida Atlantic, Muschamp, upset by abusted assignment, cut his cheek while ripping off his headset; he coached therest of the game with a streak of blood on his face. "Sometimes in practicehe's got a look like he wants to put on a helmet and hit some guys," saysKindle.

The Muschamp way?Terrorizing offenses with an array of blitzes and coverage packages. The fourtimes Oklahoma moved inside the Texas 30 in the first half, it was held to twofield goals. On the first-and-10 play that knocked Bradford out of the game,Muschamp anticipated that Oklahoma would slide its protection toward Kindle, sohe called for a blitz from Bradford's right side. Williams, the Longhorns'dynamic sophomore defensive back, raced in untouched for the big hit. "Theydo a nice job mixing things up," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said of theTexas defense. "They mixed up pressure, they mixed up coverages. They keptus off balance." Added Sooners offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson,"They're fast, and they're fearless. There's no question they're betterthan they were a year ago."

In Texas's onlyloss last season—to Texas Tech, which piled up 579 yards in a 39--33victory—Muschamp's unit let the Longhorns down and cost them a spot in thenational title game. From that team the Longhorns lost end Brian Orakpo, theNagurski winner as best defensive player in the country, but they have comeback stronger thanks to a maturing secondary anchored by Williams. (In additionto sacking Bradford, the corner had an acrobatic fourth-quarter interception.)"Last year we had three true freshmen playing out of the secondary; therewas a lot of inexperience," says Muschamp, whose LSU defense ranked eighthnationally in 2002, his first season as the coordinator in Baton Rouge, andthen first in '03, the year the Tigers won the national championship."Now," he adds in his Southern twang, "I'll put my guys up againstanyone in the country."

What now forOklahoma? For only the second time in 11 years under Stoops, the Sooners are3--3. The three losses, all to ranked teams, have been by a total of fivepoints, but for a program that played in the BCS title game last season,started this year ranked third in the country and lost to its bitter rival forthe fourth time in the past five meetings, things couldn't be much worse. AfterBradford's 389-yard passing performance during a 33--7 victory over Baylor inhis first game since injuring his shoulder, the Sooners had reason to bepsyched. As he was slinging the ball around the field before the Texas game,Bradford spotted Wilson, flashed a smile and said, "It's going to be a verygood day." After halftime he was on the sideline in a T-shirt watchinghelplessly as his offense was manhandled. Any hope of sneaking into the BCSchampionship game with two losses, as LSU did two years ago, was gone."It's still a long season," Stoops said, "and anything canhappen."

Don't remind theLonghorns. A year ago they outplayed Oklahoma, finished with the same record asthe Sooners and, to their dismay, were left out of the Big 12 championship gamebecause of the quirky tiebreaker formula the conference used to break athree-way tie at the top of the South division. And make no mistake, thisyear's Longhorns are not perfect. Their offense has sputtered not just againsta formidable defense such as Oklahoma's but also against sub-.500 teams such asColorado, whom Texas trailed at halftime. Longhorns coaches believe that McCoy,coming off a season in which he completed an NCAA-record 76.7% of his passesand was runner-up to Bradford in the Heisman voting, has been trying to do toomuch and, as Longhorns offensive coordinator Greg Davis puts it, is "beingtoo fine." Perhaps McCoy, who already has seven interceptions, only onefewer than he threw in 13 games last season, got the message last weekend."I need to realize that with a defense like ours," he said, "Idon't have to be perfect."

As Kindle,Williams and many of their defensive mates trotted down the sideline toward thelocker room after the game last Saturday, the roar of the Texas faithful echoedaround the stadium. For the first time in a long time, the Longhorns defensewas front and center.

Puttin' on TheBlitz

Texas vaulted toNo. 1 last season after its upset of Oklahoma, but the Longhorns defense wasplaying nothing like it has in its second year under coordinator Will Muschamp.The statistics through Saturday are all the more impressive considering thatTexas has already faced high-powered Texas Tech, a team it didn't play lastyear until its ninth game.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

  2009 RANK 2008 RANK
Rush defense 37.5 1 51.2 3
Yards per rush 1.3 1 1.9 2
Pass defense 210.2 50 267.8 109
Total defense 246.0 6 319.0 40
Yards per play 3.6 2 6.6 75
Points allowed 14.7 15 15.3 18
Third-down conv. 20.7% 1 33.7% 38
Tackles for losses 8.3 8 7.0 20

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"We showed that in Big 12 country we know how tohit hard too," said Kindle, who had four tackles for losses.

TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by DAMIAN STROHMEYERLATER, SOONERS With defensive playmakers like Earl Thomas (12, right) flying all over the field, McCoy (left) didn't have to be perfect. PHOTOPhotograph by DAMIAN STROHMEYERNOT AGAIN Bradford's day, and perhaps his season, was done after he took a hard hit to his already tender shoulder. PHOTOBRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES (MUSCHAMP)SECRETARY OF DEFENSE Schemes devised by Muschamp (above) helped stifle wideout Brandon Caleb (top) and the Sooners. THREE PHOTOSPhotographs by DAMIAN STROHMEYER[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)