Aggies stand in way of Longhorns' feast
Prime-time Thanksgiving duel between rivals, stakes involved should leave fans stuffed
The Dallas Cowboys aren't the only Texas team that will entertain plenty of folks before, during or after they've had their fill of turkey and dressing.
Texas and Texas A&M have a prime-time date on Thanksgiving night. And there's plenty at stake.
Texas needs a win to continue its march toward an invitation to the national championship game. For the Aggies, they'd like nothing better than to earn a winning season at the expense of their in-state rivals.
"The challenge is they don't have any weaknesses," Aggies coach Mike Sherman said this week. "Every area, they're very strong in. If one side isn't up to par, the other side is beating you, whether it's special teams, offense or defense. It's a challenge. No question. But it's one we're excited about. The team is really looking forward to playing this game.
"To answer the question, though, having played last week, and had a good home game with a great crowd, we can really cut loose in this ballgame, and go out there and really put the pressure on them, and play hard and hopefully play well."
Here are five things to watch as you tune in on Thanksgiving night.
1. Texas A&M running game vs. Texas rush defense.
The best chance for an Aggies win is to run the ball and shorten the game, limiting the number of chances quarterback Colt McCoy and the Texas offense get with the ball. A good ground game has been the recipe for Texas A&M victories.
In the Aggies' six wins this season, they've rushed for an average of 282.5 net yards. That includes 375 yards on the ground against Baylor in a 38-3 win Saturday. But in the five losses, Texas A&M has rushed for an average of 80 net yards. That's a stark difference.
The problem for A&M: Texas' No. 1 rush defense. The Longhorns are allowing an average of 50.09 yards per game on the ground. Only two teams have rushed for more than 100 yards on Texas (Louisiana-Monroe and Oklahoma State), and both were blown out. Texas has held four opponents to 9 or fewer rushing yards. Texas Tech and Oklahoma had negative rushing yardage against the Longhorns.
2. Special teams.
On paper, this is another edge for the Longhorns, who have played solidly on special teams all season. They block kicks, get good returns and control field position.
Jordan Shipley is No. 15 in the country in average per punt return and has two touchdowns. He could get chances on kickoffs with D.J. Monroe (No. 2 in the nation in kickoff return average) suspended indefinitely. Kicker Hunter Lawrence has made 20 of 23 field goals.
Both teams are about even in net punting yards. And A&M does have a return threat in Dustin Harris. But A&M has had issues this season with muffed punts and giving teams short fields. The Aggies can't afford those kinds of mistakes against a Longhorns offense that is clicking.
3. Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson.
If the Longhorns shut down the run like they have all season, the pressure shifts to Johnson. He must make plays and avoid turnovers to give the Aggies a shot at an upset. Johnson threw three picks against Kansas State, leading to a rout for the Wildcats.
The Aggies need the Johnson who ran and passed for success against Texas Tech and Baylor. In both of those wins, Johnson was dangerous on the ground and in the air. He was 19-for-28 passing against Tech for 238 yards and a touchdown. He rushed for another 71 net yards and a touchdown. Against Baylor, Johnson had 19-of-25 passing for 153 yards and two touchdowns with 83 net yards and a touchdown rushing.
"He's tall, he's smart, he's fast, he's accurate as a passer," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "He can beat you with his feet, and if you have a quarterback that can beat you with his feet, then it changes your pass-rush technique and it changes your ability to blitz because he can get free. You saw Saturday night, [Kansas QB] Todd Reesing has great feet. It just amazes me how he ducks and dodges. He's like a little gunslinger. He can throw it from the hip and can be so accurate with it. This young man has a lot of the same. He is very impressive."
Johnson must be able to move the offense with his arm and feet Thursday. And he has to avoid mistakes. In other words, he'll need to have his best game of the season and a nearly perfect effort.
4. Texas A&M offensive line vs. Texas defensive front.
Johnson's importance leads us into the next factor: protection. It's up to Texas A&M's offensive line to keep the tenacious Texas defenders away from the quarterback.
Expect defensive coordinator Will Muschamp to dial about various looks to confuse Johnson. Texas has to be careful how and when it blitzes, but look for Muschamp to get pressure on Johnson.
That leaves the offensive line -- and the running backs and tight ends in other formations -- to hold the line and pick up the blitz. If Johnson has time to see the field and make some plays, he can gain confidence and give the Aggies some life. But if he's running around to avoid sacks, it will be a long night.
5. Power of Kyle Field vs. Texas' national title hopes.
Don't underestimate the home-field advantage the Aggies enjoy. They are 5-1 at home this season, and the one loss was a 36-31 defeat to Oklahoma State. It's also the 10th anniversary of the Bonfire collapse, so the Aggies will get an even bigger emotional lift. And Texas A&M did beat Texas in 2006 and 2007, so the Aggies won't be intimidated.
But Texas has a ton at stake in this game. A win would move the Longhorns one step closer to a date in the national championship game. Brown's team has been careful to avoid letdowns. Losing two of the past three should serve as added motivation.
Watch the first quarter. The Aggies want to do something good early and get the crowd completely into the game. The Longhorns would like to try to calm down the A&M fans -- and themselves -- with an early lead and let that suffocating defense go to work.
Richard Durrett covers college sports for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.