1. The obvious issue facing Texas is the departure of Mack Brown and the search for his replacement. Is there a sentiment that the players want to "win one for Mack"?, or is this game seen as a afterthought?
The players definitely said the right things during their availability last week and I think they really do care about Brown as a coach and as a person -- engendering that feeling from his players has long been one of Brown's greatest skills. And I'm not sure how much the feeling has lingered after the Oklahoma State and Baylor games, but I also buy into the narrative that this team has been as close or closer than any in recent seasons.
The performances against Iowa State and West Virginia were both extremely flawed against pretty mediocre football teams. The games also forced this team to overcome a lot of adversity or crumble, a critical choice after the early-season struggles. Until Texas came up against a couple of teams in Oklahoma State and Baylor that were clearly much better on those days, everything since September has spoken pretty positively about this particularly group of players.
The problem, is the practice reports from our friends over at Inside Texas haven't been particularly positive and besides Brown leaving, there's not really a lot for this team to play for in the sense that whatever energy the team needs to push through the spring and summer and get better will come from the incoming coaching staff.
Last season, the Oregon State win in the Alamo Bowl really did help define a much better narrative throughout the same time and I actually agree with Mack Brown that is was beneficial, though it certainly didn't end up being as valuable as Brown wanted it to be for defining the upside of the 2013 team, for a lot of other reasons, mostly.
This year, the outcome of the game will have virtually no bearing on anything that happens after the new coach is hired and that could impact the way that it goes down from the Texas standpoint. If the lack of long-term bearing has in impact the game, it's not going to be positive for the Horns.
2. QB Case McCoy has been a lightning rod for criticism and certainly hasn't played to the level of his brother. What are his strengths and weaknesses? Is the pass game a realistic option?
There's no question that McCoy's greatest asset has always been his confidence. That same confidence has also been his worst enemy at times, specially during stretches where he tried to do too much because he overestimated his own ability.
An increased level of maturity that McCoy has gained over the last year has helped mitigate that a little bit, but the throw before the half against Oklahoma State that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown to essentially end the game before the third quarter started was evidence that he hasn't yet completely moved past having plays like that.
Still, he believes in himself absolutely and that has been an extremely valuable asset for the Horns in winning against Texas A&M in 2011, Kansas in 2012, and in the close games Texas has won this year, not to mention the Oklahoma and TCU games.
As the Baylor game pointed out (1.6 yards per pass attempt and more interception returns yards by Baylor than receiving yards by Texas), the weaknesses beyond general lack of overconfidence are still on display at times -- McCoy often has poor pocket presence, poor mechanics, and generally lacks anything approaching what an evaluator would call arm talent.
Other than fade and wheel routes down the sideline and some intermediate stuff to receivers like longtime friend Jaxon Shipley, there are many parts of the field he can't reach and many throws he can't make.
Texas has been able to produce a remarkable amount of downfield passing production this season given McCoy's limitations, so it wouldn't be shocking to see the Horns produce a few big plays there. With that being said, it's not especially difficult to devise a defensive blueprint to slow down or stop McCoy, there have just been some notable opposing defensive coaches who haven't paid much attention to it, for whatever reason and greatly to their own detriment.
3. Texas averages almost 200 yards per game on the ground, and employed a power run game against Baylor to try and keep the Bear offense off the field. Given Oregon's struggles stopping the run, I anticipate we'll see a similar strategy vs. Oregon?
That's essentially the only thing that Texas can really do right now offensively -- it's basically been the game plan ever since David Ash suffered his concussion in these second game, though the abandonment of the running game against Iowa State was rather inexplicable given the developing absolute knowledge even at that time that an identity as a power running team that could hit some play-action passes over the top was what this team would have to become to have any success.
To the credit of the coaches and players, the Horns were able to alter course after spending the offseason working on a spread, no-huddle offense, they reversed quickly and effectively enough to win more games than most expected after the 1-2 start to the season. I was certainly one of those more than pleasantly surprised by the six-game conference winning streak that helped give Texas a chance to win the Big 12 title and go to a bowl game on the last week of the regular season.
4. Defensively, UT was notoriously bad against the run early in the season, which led to the firing of DC Manny Diaz and the promotion of Greg Robinson to that spot. What kind of difference has that made?
It's made a huge difference. Over the last nine games, Texas is only giving up 3.5 yards per rush and 137.6 rushing yards per game after giving up 550 rushing yards against BYU and 272 against Ole Miss that put them on a pace through three games to field one of the worst rush defenses in recent years.
Robinson has basically committed a safety to the run game all year and that has left the secondary a little bit vulnerable at times. Perhaps a bigger difference he's made is dropping all the twisting, slanting, stunting that Diaz was doing with the defensive line and linebackers that was resulting in a lots of breakdowns in gap integrity.
Allowed to play straight ahead, the Texas defensive line's production has exploded (35 sacks by the team in the last nine games, tops in the country) and young linebackers like Dalton Santos and Steve Edmond have improved their play within a comprehensive scheme instead of a bunch of fire zone blitzes thrown together, though unfortunately Edmond won't be playing for Texas after a season-ending injury sustained against Texas Tech.
5. Tell us about the Longhorn secondary, and the pass defense in general.
Well, the emphasis on stopping the run has put the secondary into tough positions and Texas has paid a couple times on long completions against West Virginia and against Iowa State (97 yards by Quentin Bundrage, the longest play from scrimmage in school history).
Some of that was not tying the coverage (off) to the blitzes (necessitating press man coverage) and then in the case of the Iowa State play, a terrible angle by deep safety Mykkele Thompson played into the long score. The former high school quarterback improved his much-maligned physicality as a tackler, but struggles consistently taking accurate angles, a trait that Oregon may well be able to exploit.
In the field spot, senior Carrington Byndom has quietly recovered from a rough start to put together a strong senior season and opponents aren't picking on him much at this point, instead targeting sophomore Duke Thomas in the boundary -- Baylor moved Antwan Goodley around to get him matched up against Thomas and really took advantage of him, especially in the critical period early in the second half when the Bears created separation.
Thomas was also the cornerback in coverage on both of those long touchdowns against the Cyclones and the Mountaineers. By the time Thomas leaves Austin, he's going to be an excellent cornerback. Right now, he's the target and while he goes long stretches where he can hold his own, he's been the primary culprit in a lot of big mistakes.
In the nickel, Quandre Diggs has had trouble with the run responsibilities of that assignment, but has still been good in coverage, while strong safety Adrian Phillips has recovered from a poor junior season to turn into the team's most versatile and perhaps most valuable defensive back.
6. Anything particularly interesting on special teams that Oregon fans should know about?
If kicker Anthony Fera has a chance to make important kicks, Oregon fans should expect him to bang it through -- he was a Groza Award finalist who had a case for winning it (he's missed one kick this year and had another blocked) and has perhaps been the team's MVP overall.
The coverage units for Texas has been prone to penalty (punt coverage by interfering with returners and punters alike) and breakdowns (kickoff coverage). Meanwhile, besides a couple of long punt returns against Baylor and Oklahoma, the latter of which went for a touchdown, neither return game has produced much, with kickoff return ranking as one of the major disappointments of the season, as the blocking has been ridiculously poor.
7. Where is UT's coaching search going, and when do you expect it to be wrapped up?
It's really too early to say much definitely, as new athletic director Steve Patterson seems to be waiting for the bowl season to wrap up before really narrowing in on his targets. Texas can't really afford for the search to stretch much longer past the end of the recruiting dead period on January 16, if even that far since assistance coaches need to be in place at that point, so things should finally start heating up here in the next week or so. At that point, the real targets should start becoming apparent.
Thanks to Wescott for breaking it down for us.