Horns have advantage on special teams
Finding an edge for USC or Texas in this Rose Bowl matchup isn't easy, until you turn to the Horns' special teams, writes Ivan Maisel.
LOS ANGELES -- They have the two best offenses in the nation, the two longest winning streaks in the nation, the only Heisman Trophy finalists this season. Taking the measure of Texas and USC with the idea of finding an advantage in the Rose Bowl for one team over the other can be futile.
That is, until you get to the kicking game.
The Longhorns are very good in the kicking game. The Trojans are not. If Texas is to upset the two-time national champions and end their 34-game winning streak, it's likely the Longhorns will create a big play off of a kick return, or by blocking a kick that would produce a short field for quarterback Vince Young.
For that, Texas assistant head coach Duane Akina said, you can thank the "Block Party," the club which Longhorns may join once they block a kick. The more kicks they block, the higher their level of membership, just like a frequent-flier program. One kick is silver, two is gold, three is platinum.
After platinum, of course, is burnt orange.
It is silly, and fun, and exactly what the Texas coaches decided they needed to do to get their best players involved in and excited about playing special teams. The results are obvious.
Texas blocked six punts this season, returning two of them for touchdowns. The Longhorns also blocked three field goals. Aaron Ross finished the regular season 10th in the nation in punt returns (15.0 average, two touchdowns), while the team finished the regular season third in the nation in kickoff returns (26.8 average). Only one team (Fresno State) allowed fewer punts to be returned than the 10 allowed by Texas in 12 games.
"They have great speed. They're not really trying to do something to outsmart you," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "They're putting their guys in positions where they physically can show their talent and their ability level, and they've overwhelmed their opponents. We're real concerned. We have not had a great season on special teams. We've had our ups and downs."
USC did not have a great season on special teams the way Jack Abramoff did not have a great year as a lobbyist. The Trojans finished the regular season dead last in Division I-A in punt return defense. Opponents averaged 17.7 yards per return and returned two punts for touchdowns. One of the great disappointments of the college season is that Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush never got the opportunity to return a punt against his teammates.
"We had a lot of things happen to us," Carroll said. "We didn't adjust as well as I would have liked."
Linebackers and defensive backs are the core of special teams defense -- fast, physical players who can tackle. Inexperience and injuries hit the Trojans hardest at those two positions, and the kick coverage paid the price. Punter Tom Malone began the season injured and only recently has begun to approximate the form that made him an All-American in 2003.
By the end of the season, USC appeared to have arrested the problem. UCLA's Maurice Drew, the regular-season champion in punt returns, was not a factor in the game, largely because of kickoffs aimed away from him and because USC, by scoring nine touchdowns and a field goal, never punted.
During bowl practice, Carroll said, "We've spent a tremendous amount of time on it. Tommy is kicking the best he has by far. [Linebacker] Thomas Williams is coming back. He's been an integral part of special teams. [Wide receiver] Patrick Turner, [linebacker] Keith Rivers. Those are three first-team guys."
First-team guys have made the difference in special teams for the Longhorns, too. Texas has blocked 43 kicks since 2000, the most of any team in the nation. North Carolina State is second with 39, which is significant because the Wolfpack blocked three Longhorn punts in a 23-20 upset in the 1999 season opener.
After that season, when coach Mack Brown decided to do something about that, he consulted with Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, the guru of kick blocking. Beamer told Brown to emphasize special teams more, to make them more important to the players. That's how the staff came up with the Block Party, and standing ovations at Thursday meetings for the players who excel in punt-block schemes.
"It's amazing what a little recognition and a clap can do," Akina said.
First, however, the coaches had to get the starters interested.
"One of the first things we started doing was take Roy Williams, who was a wide receiver, and put him on punt block," Brown said of the All-American who graduated two seasons ago. "It was very controversial when we did it, but it was something that sent a message to all of our other kids. It became a popular thing to do. Now our kids fight to be on special teams. We have to do a good job of making sure young men are not exhausted. I actually will take [a player] out of a play on the field and swap it for an energy play on special teams."
When Brown caught heat for playing Williams, he asked his mentor, former Texas coach Darrell Royal, what he thought of the idea.
"He said he used [Heisman Trophy-winning tailback] Earl Campbell once, and he should have put him on punt block sooner because he blocked a punt his first play," Brown said.
Once Williams came on board, Akina schemed to create a block for him. At the very least, the pressure that the punt return team exerts on the punter can result in a long return. That's why former Longhorn Nathan Vasher holds the Big 12 record for punt return yards in a game (173, vs. Baylor, 2001). That's why Ross is 10th in the nation this season, and 64 yards shy of breaking Vasher's single-season record of 554 yards, also set in 2001.
It used to be that coaches chased players to play on special teams. At Texas, the players chase the coaches. Akina makes a video pitch for volunteers in the first team meeting in August. He has expanded the Block Party membership to include guard Kasey Studdard, who blew up a wedge against Oklahoma State, allowing a block to be made.
"They really bought into it's cool to be on the team," Akina said.
So cool that Ross, one of the top return men in the nation, is tied for second in special teams tackles with nine. It may be so cool that it's the difference in who wins the national championship. That is cool.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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