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October 20, 2006

Game of the Week: No. 5 Texas at No. 17 Nebraska

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November 23, 2001.

That's the day then-No. 2 Nebraska was uncharacteristically blasted by Colorado 62-36 and consequently fell from grace and college football's elite.

A series of upsets and poor BCS planning enabled the Cornhuskers to play for the national championship later that season, but after that 26-point loss to Colorado nobody took them seriously. Miami easily disposed of Nebraska, 37-14, in the Rose Bowl.

In following years, the Huskers - no doubt boosted by their glorious history - made cameo appearances in the top 10. Those appearances were dealt serious blows after a 40-7 thrashing at the hands of unranked Penn State in 2002 and a 41-20 trouncing to unranked Missouri in 2003.

Since that day in 2001 when the wrinkles first appeared, Nebraska has finished no higher than 19th in the final AP poll and is 0-4 against opponents ranked in the top 10.

On Saturday, the No. 17 Cornhuskers (6-1, 3-0 in the Big 12) can show they again belong among the nation's elite if they can upset No. 5 Texas (6-1, 3-0) in what could be a preview of the Big 12 championship game.

"We want people to notice and, if you beat a team like Texas, you'll get that kind of respect," Nebraska senior quarterback Zac Taylor said. "We feel like, if we have the successful season that we're on track to have, people will notice us."

It's a big and meaningful game for Nebraska, even if coach Bill Callahan would prefer to play down its importance.

"They're all big. Every game is big in the Big 12," Callahan said. "Every game, every week, every game's a big game. And that's how we're treating it. It's just the next game.

"We've had tremendous focus in that respect and our kids have really concentrated and prepared on who they're playing next. And as a player and as a coach, that's all you can do. We don't get too high or too low. We just have to keep an even keel in our approach and the way we go about our business. That's worked well for us in the last nine of 10 games, so we're going to continue on with that type of format and that emphasis."

The problem is the one loss Nebraska has endured in its last 10 games was a 28-10 setback to then No. 4 Southern California, the Cornhuskers' latest failed test against a top-10 team.

Texas and USC have their similarities.

Like USC quarterback John David Booty - who followed Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart - Texas' Colt McCoy is in his first year as a starter and is replacing a legend in Vince Young. The Texas offensive line is experienced, powerful and productive. Texas' 6-foot-4 junior receiver Limas Sweed is a deep threat and physical mismatch for smaller cornerbacks just like the Trojans' Dwayne Jarrett, who scorched the Cornhuskers for 11 catches and two touchdowns.

McCoy, who has completed 68.7 percent of his passes and has 18 touchdowns, might have a little more difficult time than Booty had against Nebraska because this game is in Lincoln, Neb. It will also be McCoy's first game played outside of Texas and in front of a hostile crowd.

"This is (Texas') first road game outside of Texas this year. That's what makes me believe we have a fighting chance. We need to rattle Colt McCoy early and often with the crowd and d-line."
-- Phoenix_Husker on the Red Sea Scrolls message board on HuskersIllustrated.com.

"Colt has gained so much confidence from his teammates," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "They're believers now. When a quarterback shows the ability to come from behind and lead his team, they buy into it."

McCoy has gotten great protection this season - the Texas offensive line has allowed just six sacks. But injuries have thrust redshirt freshman tackle Adam Ulatoski into the starting lineup. Ulatoski will be facing defensive end Adam Carriker, the Cornhuskers' best pass rusher.

An effective pass rush figures to be crucial for Nebraska to ease the burden on the secondary. Sweed, who already has caught eight touchdown passes, has been a key target for McCoy.

Texas can also rush the passer, which its 25 sacks prove. The Longhorns also boast the nation's second-best run defense, which will be a key factor in denying Nebraska success with play-action passes.

The Longhorns have won 18 consecutive Big 12 games and have prevailed in 26 of their last 27 games, including last season's national championship game win over USC.

But Brown reminded that neither Texas' recent success nor Nebraska's recent failings against top-10 teams will be a factor on Saturday.

"In sports you learn the best team is going to win today," Brown said. "It has nothing to do with four or six or eight years ago. The best team will win Saturday. We have to be careful we haven't won so much that we just expect to win."

Elite teams do expect to win, and Nebraska can expect to soon regain elite status if can beat a top-10 team like Texas.

Week 8 Game of the Week: No. 5 Texas at No. 17 Nebraska
Texas run offense vs. Nebraska run defense: The Longhorns rank 20th nationally in rushing offense, but those totals were boosted in statistic-enhancing games against Rice and Iowa State. So, let's see what the Longhorns did against solid run defenses. They rushed for 172 yards against Ohio State and 124 against Oklahoma, which is respectable but not overpowering. Jamaal Charles (463 yards) and Selvin Young (353 yards) both average 5.7 yards per carry and form one of the nation's best one-two punches. Nebraska is allowing just 98.3 rushing yards per game to rank 21st nationally. The Cornhuskers have surrendered just 53 yards and 22 yards rushing in its last two games. Of course, those games were against Iowa State and Kansas State, the bottom teams in the Big 12 North. Three weeks ago Kansas ran for 169 yards.
Edge: Texas.
Texas pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense: Since a shaky outing against Ohio State on Sept. 9, UT's Colt McCoy has completed 70 of 96 passes (72.9 percent) for 897 yards with 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Sweed is having an all-conference caliber year with 27 catches for 476 yards and eight touchdowns, and the Longhorns offensive line has allowed six sacks in seven games. Nebraska led the nation with 50 sacks a year ago. While the Cornhuskers have just 13 this season, they're still getting consistent pressure. Defensive end Adam Carriker has seven tackles for losses and 10 quarterback pressures, while defensive end Jay Moore has three sacks. The Huskers must apply pressure because the secondary has struggled at times, allowing 257 passing yards to USC, 262 to Iowa State and 405 to Kansas. Cornerbacks Andre Jones and Cortney Grixby both have one interception.
Edge: Texas.
Nebraska run offense vs. Texas run defense: Nebraska spreads the wealth better than any team in America with running backs Marlon Lucky, Brandon Jackson, Cody Glenn and Kenny Wilson all getting at least 60 carries. They've combined for 1,487 yards and 18 touchdowns, which is exceptional production at that position. Overall, the Cornhuskers average 207.7 rushing yards per game to rank 11th nationally. Nebraska has managed at least 190 rushing yards in five of seven games. Only Michigan's run defense ranks higher than Texas, which has allowed only one runner – Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson with 109 yards – to reach the 100-yard mark.
Edge: Texas
Nebraska pass offense vs. Texas pass defense: Zac Taylor has established himself as one of the country's most effective quarterbacks. He has completed 65.2 percent of his passes for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns with only two interceptions. And although he's been sacked 11 times, he's not taken near the beating he did a year ago. Maurice Purify has only 15 catches, but 14 have accounted for either first down or a touchdown. Terrence Nunn, Nate Swift and tight end Matt Herian all have at least 10 catches. Texas has a fierce pass rush that has recorded 25 sacks - defensive end Tim Crowder has 6½. However, the Longhorns have been inconsistent in the secondary. They have allowed nine touchdown passes, including three last week against Baylor. Cornerback Tarell Brown has an injured toe and safety Marcus Griffin has a sore ankle, which render them questionable for the game.
Edge: Nebraska.
Texas kicking game vs. Nebraska kicking game: If a field-goal attempt can settle the outcome, the kicking team might be most concerned. Texas' Greg Johnson has converted just one of two attempts this season. Nebraska's Jordan Congdon has hit two of three. Texas has fared a little better in kickoff returns, punting and kickoff coverage, but not enough to call it a distinct advantage. However, punt returns pushes the pendulum in Texas' favor. Aaron Ross averages 13.2 yards per return, while Nebraska's Terrence Nunn averages 8.5. The bigger issue, however, is Texas' ability to block kicks. The Longhorns' Michael Griffin has seven career blocked punts and Texas has blocked three kicks this season.
Edge: Texas.
Texas coaches vs. Nebraska coaches: Mack Brown is 89-20 in eight-plus years as the Longhorns coach, and last year guided the Longhorns to the national championship. Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik has lost once in 2½ seasons, and offensive coordinator Greg Davis last season received the Frank Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach. Nebraska's Bill Callahan has coached the Cornhuskers to nine victories in their last 10 games and is now 19-11 in 2½ seasons in Lincoln. Nebraska's defense has steadily improved under coordinator Kevin Cosgrove, who helped Wisconsin to three Big Ten championships in nine seasons under Barry Alvarez.
Edge: Texas.
X-Factor: Texas cornerback Tarell Brown.
When Brown was suspended for the game against Ohio State, Buckeyes QB Troy Smith passed for 269 yards. OSU receiver Anthony Gonzalez caught eight passes for 142 yards and a touchdown. If Brown cannot play or is slowed by his toe injury, it could mean big opportunities for Nebraska. Those opportunities should only increase if Griffin is also out or slowed by his ankle injury.
Texas will win if: McCoy, who ranks fifth in pass efficiency, remains steady. The redshirt freshman has yet to have a multi-interception game, but he may find it difficult playing in front of a hostile crowd. The Longhorns, who boast one of the nation's best pass rushes, must also pressure Taylor.
Nebraska will win if: The Cornhuskers running backs are effective. Nebraska's committee needs to be productive early in series to avoid third-and-long situations. Nebraska needs keep the Texas defense uncertain on third down. The Cornhuskers also need to put pressure on McCoy and try to avoid one-on-one matchups that could match the 6-foot-4 Sweed against the 5-foot-9 Grixby.
Notes: No. 17 Nebraska and No. 5 Texas are among just four NCAA Division I programs to post 800 victories. … The last time Nebraska defeated a top-10 team was on Oct. 27, 2001, when it knocked off No. 2 Oklahoma 20-10. That's the last time a top-five opponent played in Lincoln. … Nebraska has started 3-0 in conference play for the first time since 2001. … Nebraska joins Louisville, California and Oregon as the only teams in the nation to rank in the top 30 in rushing offense, passing offense, total offense and scoring offense. … The Cornhuskers have outscored their opponents 69-7 in the first quarter. Meanwhile, Texas has outscored opponents 105-24 in the second quarter. … Cornhuskers left tackle Chris Patrick has not allowed a sack this season, and center Kurt Mann is back after missing five games with mononucleosis. … Texas has won 27 of its last 28 true road games and has an 18-game winning streak against Big 12 opponents. …With Texas leading the South Division and Nebraska leading the North, this could be a preview of the Big 12 championship game which will be played on Dec. 2 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
Buchanan's pick: Texas, 31-24
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Steve Megargee, national college football writer: Texas, 20-17
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: Nebraska, 28-27
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: Texas, 24-22
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