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December 25, 2012

The 10 with the most to prove in Alamo Bowl

It seems half-crazy to talk about a Valero Alamo Bowl as a must-win or can't-lose game for a program as storied as the Texas Longhorns.

But that's where things are right now. Like any great, long-running television series such as Cheers or Seinfeld, the characters run out of funny lines. The plot twists become predictable, and the networks have to decide if it's time to pull the plug.

That's sort of where Texas is under 15-year coach Mack Brown. The audience feels like they've heard it all before. They know what's coming. And that has led to an unrest in the fan base at Texas that hasn't been seen since the end of the Fred Akers, David McWilliams and John Mackovic eras.

What Texas administrators can't afford is for the fan base to become apathetic. If Texas fans stop caring, they stop giving. They stop buying. They stop showing up.

The next hurdle for Texas in trying to hold onto the fan base comes Saturday against Oregon State. And to fully understand the task facing Texas, you have to take a closer look at the Beavers:

BEWARE OF THE BEAVERS: The Oregon State team Texas is facing will start junior Cody Vaz at quarterback, who has 11 touchdown passes and just 1 interception on the year.

Vaz replaced sophomore Sean Mannion, who threw 8 interceptions (4 in each game) in losses to Washington and Oregon.

Vaz is more mobile than Mannion, who is a big, pocket passer. Vaz also has a moxie that showed up even in a 27-23 loss at Stanford. After Stanford took a 14-0 lead, Vaz helped lead Oregon State to 23 unanswered points.

The Beavers held the lead until Stanford finally scored a go-ahead TD with 5:07 to play. Vaz suffered an ankle injury on the next possession and was replaced by Mannion, who was ineffective.

The Oregon State offense features receivers Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, both of whom have gone over 1,000 yards receiving this season.

Wheaton has 88 catches for 1,207 yards and 11 TDs and has averaged more than 100 yards receiving in Oregon State's last five games with five TDs.

STRETCHING THE FIELD: Cooks averages 17.5 yards per reception, among the best in the nation, and will remind some of West Virginia's Tavon Austin.

Cooks' yards-per-catch average trails only Baylor's Terrance Williams (18.6 ypc) and Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins (17.6 ypc) among receivers with at least 60 receptions. (Cooks has 64 catches for 1,120 yards and 5 TDs.)

When Wheaton and Cooks aren't lighting up defenses, the ball goes to running back Storm Woods of Pflugerville either on the ground or through the air. Woods has 822 yards rushing this season (4.8 ypc), but also 37 receptions for 291 yards.

To put things into perspective, Woods would be the No.3 receiver for Texas behind Mike Davis (54 catches for 909 yards, 7 TDs) and Jaxon Shipley (51 catches for 649 yards, 6 TDs).

TEAM DEFENSE: On defense, Oregon State is loaded in the secondary.

Senior cornerback Jordan Poyer is second nationally in interceptions with 7 and will be left alone in man coverage for an entire game. Junior cornerback Rashad Reynolds is overshadowed by Poyer but has 3 INTs this season and can also hold up in man coverage.

The cover ability of those corners allows Oregon State to gang up on the run with 8 and 9 men in the box. In a 10-7 victory over Wisconsin, the Beavers held Montee Ball, the nation's No. 7 rusher this season, averaging 133 yards per game on the ground, to 61 yards on 15 carries.

The following week in a victory over UCLA, the Beavers held Johnathan Franklin, the nation's No. 8 rusher averaging 130.8 ypg, to 45 yards on 12 carries.

Even the nation's No. 1 rusher - Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey - who averaged 148.3 yards per game this season, was held below his average (115 yards), in a 38-35 Oregon State victory in Tucson.

Oregon State's front seven is led by defensive end Scott Crichton, a sophomore, named All-Pac 12 first team with 9 sacks this season.

The other defensive end, Dylan Wynn, has a non-stop motor and always seems to be around the ball, having set a school record with five fumble recoveries in 2011.

SOLID SPECIAL TEAMS: Oregon State hasn't done much special in the return game on special teams. But punter Keith Kostol, who averages 42.1 yards per punt, is solid, as is kicker Trevor Romaine, who is 14 of 16 on FG attempts this season, including 5-of-6 from 40-49 yards.

In other words, Texas has its hands full against an extremely tight-knit Oregon State team that might have had a truly special season if not for Sean Mannion's 8 interceptions in losses to Washington and Oregon and Vaz's ankle injury in the fourth quarter against Stanford.

It will be Vaz's show against Texas, and the Longhorns better be ready for a four-quarter fist fight.


So let's look at the 10 Longhorns who have the most to prove in Saturday's Valero Alamo Bowl:

1. Mack Brown


His grip on the fan base is week to week at this point. More may be off the bandwagon than on it. The schedule in 2013 appears to shape up well, and there is a lot of talent returning at Texas next season. But it has to be developed.

For Texas faithful to consider buying the hope Mack Brown is selling, he needs to put a well-coached team on the field and take out a quality opponent. Oregon State is better than TCU and West Virginia, two teams Texas lost to this season, and has played up to a level on par with Kansas State and Oklahoma, at times, this season.

If Brown wants to claim progress and momentum going into the offseason, this is a can't-lose game for Mack Brown.


2. David Ash

Is he the quarterback of the next two years? How will he bounce back from his last start, which included three, deadly turnovers in the red zone in a 20-13 loss to TCU? A devastating loss in terms of program momentum and what was on the line and led to Ash being benched for the K-State game.

How will his confidence be affected by the relationship with his new quarterbacks coach and play-caller Major Applewhite?

Texas needs an answer at this position going forward, and Ash has proven to be really good when he's on and really bad when he's off. There has to be a level of consistency and predictability to his performances from the coaches' perspective.

Saturday's game is a huge step for Ash, just like his victory over Cal was in the Holiday Bowl last year. But Oregon State is much, much better than Cal was last season.


3. Manny Diaz

The numbers don't lie. And the numbers are awful. This will go down as the worst statistical defense in school history (or at least since records were kept in 1950). Under Manny Diaz, Texas has given up more yards (4,957) and more yards per game (413.1) than any Longhorn defense in history.

The 29.4 points per game surrendered in 2012 are second-most to the 33.3 ppg given up by Texas in 1997, John Mackovic's final year as coach in Austin.

Diaz's defense is dependent on swift, sure linebacker play. And the linebacker position - which is coached by Diaz - was the worst position on the field in 2012, raising questions about his ability to develop young talent. In his one season at Mississippi State, he inherited All-SEC LB Chris White. In his first year at Texas, he had two NFL players in Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson.

When Diaz had to put young guys on the field this season because of an injury to junior Jordan Hicks, the position looked like it had never practiced before. There were signs of hope toward the end of the season thanks to guys like Peter Jinkens and Tevin Jackson.

But there needs to be a whole lot more than hope on display Saturday against Oregon State.


4. Steve Edmond

Edmond was a monster at Daingerfield, helping to win three straight state titles. But that was small-class, high school football. When he had to step up this season and take charge of a defense when Jordan Hicks (groin) went down, Edmond was lost.

The coaches stuck with him, when maybe they should have put Kendall Thompson in and let him grow into the position.

Edmond has great size and freakish athletic ability, but if he doesn't show he can consistently take on blocks, shed them and make tackles, it will be time to give others a chance at middle linebacker in 2013.

We might as well include the rest of the linebacking corps in this category, too, because of the opportunity that is available at this position going forward. For guys like Peter Jinkens and Tevin Jackson, who have really come on lately, this game is a chance to prove they are part of the solution going forward.


5. Adrian Phillips

Phillips is mentioned by everyone on the defense as a leader. Everyone. But obviously his play at the start of the season was egregious. Missed tackles. Poor angles. It had me thinking Phillips was a corner and not a safety.

Many of the problems in the secondary were because of breakdowns at the linebacker level and an overall lack of trust on the defense. But over the final four and a half games, Phillips finally started to regain his confidence and now has back-to-back games with interceptions (vs TCU and K-State).

But Phillips has to take several more steps and show he cannot just hold his own but be a difference-maker with Kenny Vaccaro playing his final game at Texas on Saturday. Against Oregon State's high-flying passing game, he'll get plenty of opportunity to show he's ready for the challenge.


6. Carrington Byndom

Byndom looked like he was going to be a monster in 2012 after making maybe the biggest play of the 2011 season with his pick-six at Texas A&M. But he got off to a terrible start with some early missed tackles and getting beat for touchdowns.

Byndom, like many on defense, started to come around late in the season. Does anyone remember Byndom intercepting Landry Jones and returning it 28 yards for a TD in the third quarter against Oklahoma? There were bright spots against Texas Tech (blocked field goal and 2-point conversion broken up) and Iowa State (INT).

But Byndom will get to show exactly where his confidence is against 1,000-yard receivers Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks on Saturday.


7. Quandre Diggs

Diggs and Byndom could easily be flip-flopped on this list simply because Diggs may have more on his plate against Oregon State than Byndom, if Diggs also plays some safety in this game.

Diggs and Byndom are tied for the team lead in interceptions with three and absolutely have to be part of the solution on Saturday as well as in 2013. These two have to be leaders going forward, and to be a leader, you have to make plays.

Diggs can also make a difference on special teams as a punt returner. And when last we saw Diggs fielding a punt at Kansas State, he muffed it, and the turnover led to K-State points. Diggs has to take ownership of this defense starting Saturday against Oregon State's lethal WR combo of Wheaton and Cooks.


8. Sedrick Flowers

Flowers was one of the top recruits in the 2011 class that Mack Brown is counting on to save his tenure at Texas.

But after redshirting in 2011 (which included a shoulder injury), Flowers is nowhere to be seen. He played in four games this season in garbage time (Wyoming, New Mexico, Ole Miss and Iowa State) and never was able to get into a rotation at guard.

That should be alarming to everyone. Texas has been lacking NFL-type talent on the offensive line since Tony Hills left in 2008. And in 2011 it appeared Texas was finally bringing in the kind of talent needed to take over the line of scrimmage on offense.

Flowers figured to be a big part of that, along with Josh Cochran.

With his former teammate at Galena Park North Shore, Trey Hopkins, out (leg stress fracture), Flowers needs to seize this opportunity and remind his coaches and teammates why he was special coming out of high school.

If Luke Poehlmann is your left guard for most of the Oregon State game, it will be a huge setback to Flowers' progress.

Poehlmann has been a solid utility player on the offensive line the last two years and should be rewarded with some snaps in the bowl game. But he can take some snaps at tackle as well.

Texas isn't exactly in a position to be handing out playing time as graduation gifts right now. Texas needs to see if Flowers can work into a rotation next year at guard, and that starts now.


9. Nick Jordan

An incredible six-year run with field-goal kickers came to an end for Texas this season. There was not another Justin Tucker, Hunter Lawrence, Ryan Bailey or Dusty Mangum waiting in on the sidelines.

The only pressure kick of the season came against West Virginia with Texas trailing 41-38 with 5:25 left in the fourth quarter, and junior Penn State transfer Anthony Fera missed wide right from 41 yards.

After Fera had a 32-yard attempt against Iowa State blocked, followed by a missed extra point, it's been freshman Nick Jordan.

Jordan, who is 8-of-13 for the season, still hasn't hit a field goal from longer than 38 yards (his misses have come from 46, 44, 45, 37 and 41 yards).

Jordan is 5-of-6 since taking over as the starter the last three games. The miss was from 41 yards at Kansas State with 9:30 left and Texas trailing 28-17.

If Saturday's bowl game with Oregon State is close, Jordan could face his first pressure kick with the outcome on the line. He needs to show he can handle the job.


10. Major Applewhite

Some may argue Applewhite should be higher on this list, but let's be honest, the offense Texas will run in the bowl game is Bryan Harsin's. Applewhite won't get to put his stamp on things until the spring.

But that's not to say Applewhite can't have a big impact on this game. All the reports we've heard from practice are that Applewhite has immediately tried to change the mindset of players by holding them more accountable, whether it be repeating plays in practice or making guys run sprints.

If there's been a reason for any excitement surrounding Texas after ending the regular season with two straight losses, it's been the anticipation of what Applewhite might be able to bring to the offense.

For Mack Brown, the ideal situation would be for David Ash and the offense to look really good in a victory against Oregon State and for Applewhite to come out looking like a hero.

That would help buy some time with the fan base until the 2013 season.

If Texas loses the bowl game, and the offense doesn't look good, Applewhite won't be blamed, because it wasn't his offense. But Applewhite will have to develop a quarterback for 2013, and Mack Brown told us Ash was Applewhite's choice.

So let's see how far Ash and Applewhite have progressed in a short time.




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