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Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Against UT, you can’t run, but you sure can pass

Longhorns' air defense can't keep up with stellar ground stoppers

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— The Texas defense is among the best and worst in college football.

Ranked second against the run, the Longhorns are a dismal 112th against the pass.

Yet somehow, with four straight come-from-behind wins, they have cobbled together a bizarre patchwork that has kept them within striking distance of the national championship.

"We've struggled some in the passing game," is coach Mack Brown's mild way of putting it.

Just check out the latest Jekyll and Hyde box score from last week's 35-31 victory over Texas Tech: Texas surrendered 519 passing yards, the second-most in school history, and trailed 31-21 at halftime.

Yet for all of Tech quarterback Graham Harrell's wizardry in the first half, the No. 4 Longhorns (8-1, 5-0 Big 12) shut him down and shut out Tech in the second half.

Texas also held the Red Raiders to minus-13 yards rushing. Granted, Tech only ran the ball 14 times, but the Longhorns were already among the top-rated run defenses before the game. They give up an average of just 41 yards per game.

"It's very weird," senior safety Michael Griffin said. "You can't play a perfect game, but as long as we keep stacking the wins and keep outscoring the other team, there's not much to say."

But 112th against the pass?

It's a shocking number for a team that came into the season boasting one of the nation's best defenses. And it's a major concern with Oklahoma State (5-3, 2-2) and emerging quarterback Bobby Reid coming to Austin this week.

The Longhorns have given up 260 yards or more passing five times this season. Their last three opponents all threw for more than 300 yards and combined for nine touchdowns through the air.

Texas boasts of the tough run defense, but teams are finding they don't have to run much at all to score.

Defensive co-coordinator Gene Chizik finds solace in another stat.

"Scoring defense counts the most," he said.

The Longhorns give up an average of 16.3 points, which ranks 23rd nationally. And when matched with an offense that averages 40 points, it works out in Texas' favor.

Injuries have played a role in Texas' wild season on defense.

The Longhorns are deep on the front line and have absorbed injuries to starters Brian Robison and Derek Lokey, who is out for the season after breaking his leg against Nebraska.

But the secondary has been hobbled almost from the start and has been forced to rely on young players who have given up big plays.

Griffin and his twin brother and starting free safety Marcus have both missed time with nagging injuries. Starting cornerback Tarell Brown is trying to play with a broken toe.

Only cornerback Aaron Ross has managed to stay healthy and he's had a tremendous season. So good that Brown is openly lobbying for him to win the Thorpe Award given to the best defensive back in the country.

But as good as Ross has been, voters might have a hard time choosing a player on a team that ranks 112th in pass defense.

"They get frustrated sometimes because during a game you're giving it your all and you see all these yards piling up," defensive tackle Frank Okam said. "When you're a defensive back, you feel like that's your fault, but it's the defense as a whole. The line has to get more pressure on the quarterback."

Brown said he's trying to keep his players focused on the positives like that good run defense.

"Don't panic, don't bite into all the negatives about the passing game," Brown said. "Just keep playing."

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