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September 12, 2007

Olin's Notebook: Texas takes steps in Week 2

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. Click his name to send him a question for his weekly mailbag.
Previous notebooks
Sept. 5: Breakthrough day for Choice
Aug. 29: Media guide awards
Aug. 23: Keeping streaks alive

Execution and evolution are key elements in a successful football season.

Winning championships usually is an evolving process that requires improvement from week to week. Conventional wisdom maintains the most improvement is made between games one and two, after teams get their first look at what wrinkles need to be ironed out.

Several teams came out last week looking neatly pressed and starched.

South Carolina showed improvement by following up a 28-14 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette with a vital 16-12 win over SEC East rival Georgia.

Meanwhile, a week after an embarrassing opening loss to Michigan State, UAB made a gallant upset bid before falling to Florida State 34-24.

Likewise, Middle Tennessee State scored 42 points in a loss to Louisville a week after losing 27-14 to Florida Atlantic.

But of all the teams that needed to improve from week one, Texas showed more progress than anyone other than USF - which followed up an easy win over Division I-AA Elon with an overtime upset of Auburn.

Texas' 34-13 victory over TCU wasn't as stunning because the Longhorns were expected to win, but there were several national analysts who figured it would be TCU not USF pulling off the upset of the week.

That's because Texas was woefully lackluster and perhaps wonderfully lucky in a 21-13 season-opening victory over Arkansas State. That game wasn't settled until the Longhorns recovered an onside kick late in the fourth quarter.

Texas allowed 397 yards to Arkansas State, but bounced back against TCU and surrendered 251 including 43 rushing. That improved defensive showing was at least in part a result of sophomore linebackers Roddrick Muckelroy and Jared Norton getting increased playing time ahead of Scott Derry and Rashad Bobino.

Quarterback Colt McCoy also was significantly better, especially in the second half. He threw two interceptions against Arkansas State and two more in the first half against TCU, one of which was returned for a touchdown. But in the second half against the Horned Frogs, McCoy was much sharper and directed Texas to five scores.

"We feel like we had a chance to improve in so many areas and we feel like we improved in just about all the areas we addressed," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "We told (the Texas players), 'We appreciate you. You heard us and got (the problems) fixed.'

"We do feel like we made great strides with a lot of guys from week one to week two."

Brown was concerned about the Longhorns' tendency to surrender big plays, a problem that torpedoed their Big 12 title hopes last season. Brown often stresses the importance of "explosive plays," which he defines as running plays that net at least 12 yards and passing plays that cover at least 17.

Texas allowed Arkansas State 11 explosive plays. TCU was held to five. Texas was plus-two in turnovers against TCU after being minus-one against Arkansas State.

"We held Arkansas State to 13 points, but we gave up too many big plays," Brown said. "TCU had only five explosive plays and we held them to a minimum rushing. We're not there defensively, but we feel like we're making progress."

They had better.

In two weeks, the Longhorns face Kansas State, which upset Texas 45-42 last season. The annual showdown with Oklahoma, which ranks second nationally in scoring offense, is the week after that.

Trivia question

What three Division I-A universities have stadiums that are named solely after one former player? (Answer at the end of the column.)

Get on board

Some find motivation on the bulletin board. The Louisville Cardinals have gotten theirs from billboards.

Kentucky posted ads for its football program on 13 billboards in Louisville, including one near the Louisville campus. The signs have messages like "Believe in Circus Catches" and "Believe in Loyalty" and each feature a Kentucky player and a slogan.

"I definitely saw those this summer," said Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm, a Louisville native. "They're everywhere. I think lot of our guys use it as motivation. You come by for a summer workout and have to drive by the Kentucky billboards every day."

Someone suggested Louisville should put up a billboard featuring Brohm in Lexington.

"Maybe we should start that up," Brohm agreed.

But Brohm indicated he'd settle for a fourth consecutive victory over the Wildcats. Kentucky hasn't beaten its in-state rival since 2002.

"That would be huge," he said. "I never want to see Louisville losing to Kentucky in anything. I grew up with this rivalry and I want to beat Kentucky in everything we do around here.

"I definitely want to finish 4-0 against them."

Silent observation

Texas A&M senior Mark Dodge, a regular at the Aggies' weekly news conferences each Tuesday, chose not to attend this week because it fell on Sept. 11.

Six years ago, Dodge was part of a recovery team whose mission was to remove bodies from the wreckage at the Pentagon after a plane hijacked by terrorists was crashed into the building. Dodge talked openly about that ordeal before he declined to this year.

"Last week he told me he knew what Tuesday was and he'd like to sit it out," Texas A&M sports information director Alan Cannon said. "I told him that was fine."

Rivals on a roll

The top three quarterback prospects for 2007 as rated by Rivals.com will start for their teams on Saturday for various reasons.

Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen, Rivals.com's top-rated prospect, has won the Irish starting job. Saturday, he'll be facing Michigan, which will start Ryan Mallett in place of injured Chad Henne. Mallett was the second-ranked quarterback and fourth-ranked prospect by Rivals.com in the class of 2007.

Meanwhile, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer announced that Tyrod Taylor, the 27th-ranked prospect and top-ranked dual-threat quarterback, would replace Sean Glennon.

"Tyrod is our quarterback" Beamer said. "We just feel like with this football team and our offense, Tyrod gives us the best chance to be a really, really good offense."

Quick hitters

  • Ray Rice rushed for 175 yards against Navy last week. In the process, he set Rutgers' career rushing record. Just two games into his junior year, Rice has 3,273 career yards and counting. Rutgers' previous record holder was Terrell Willis with 3,114.

  • LSU coach Les Miles, a Michigan graduate, is avoiding all questions about his interest in returning to his alma mater should Lloyd Carr be fired. "It would be unfair for me to talk about another school," Miles said. "I'm at a place I love and have a great team. It's a waste of what can be very productive time for my team."

  • Zac Robinson may replace Bobby Reid as Oklahoma State's starting quarterback Friday against Troy. Reid was injured in the first quarter of last week's 42-6 victory over Florida Atlantic, and Robinson passed for 250 yards and three touchdowns. Cowboys coach Mike Gundy has stressed players do not lose starting jobs because of injury, but also hinted Reid isn't 100 percent healthy. If nothing else, that's a good excuse to get the more productive player in the lineup.

  • Senior Kyle Wright has reclaimed Miami's starting quarterback job. He was beaten out in August by Kirby Freeman, who was horrendous in last week's loss to Oklahoma. Wright wasn't great either, but at least he completed half of his passes and threw for the Hurricanes' only touchdown. Freeman was 3-for-9 for 17 yards against the Sooners.

  • Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is seeking his 50th home victory at Oklahoma on Saturday against Utah State. Or is he? Though it's true Oklahoma has won 49 of 51 games in Norman during Stoops' tenure, there is that matter of the Rhett Bomar fiasco in which the NCAA mandated OU "vacate" all victories from 2005. That would include five wins in Norman, which technically means Stoops is seeking his 45th home-field victory.

  • In conjunction with a bank, Iowa State is selling commemorative coins for $15 that feature the face of new coach Gene Chizik. There's no word whether the price will drop because of lack of demand after the Cyclones' 0-2 start.

  • Arkansas players are wearing three decals on their helmets this year. One features Virginia Tech's "VT" logo as a show of support for that school's tragedy last spring. There also is a "JFB" sticker in tribute to retiring athletic director/former coach Frank Broyles and a "DN" sticker to honor former assistant Danny Nutt, who resigned last summer because of health issues.

  • Another week, another significant injury at Pittsburgh. Defensive tackle Gus Mustakas has torn his left ACL and will miss the rest of the season. The Panthers already have lost receiver Derek Kinder and quarterback Bill Stull.

  • As if facing Oklahoma's high-scoring offense wasn't bad enough, Utah State will have to do so without starting safety Antonio Taylor who has been suspended for the remainder of the season for violating undisclosed team rules. Taylor, who may have been the Aggies' best player, led the team with 25 tackles in the first two games.

  • Northwestern, which closed last season with a win over Illinois, is seeking its fourth consecutive victory this week. The Wildcats have not posted four consecutive victories since 1996, when coach Pat Fitzgerald was playing linebacker.

  • Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said a cheap shot by receiver Greg Mathews last week was inexcusable. Mathews appeared to kick Oregon safety Matthew Harper in the groin after a catch in last week's loss to the Ducks. Carr would not say what discipline, if any, he planned for Mathews.

  • Arkansas will be without receiver Marcus Monk and tight end Ben Cleveland for this week's game against Alabama. Monk's absence is a big blow to Arkansas' passing game. However, defensive end Marcus Harrison is expected to return after sitting out the season-opening victory over Troy because of a suspension for breaking team rules.

  • Louisville free safety Latarrius Thomas will have surgery for a torn left ACL suffered during last week's win over Middle Tennessee State. He'll seek a medical redshirt. If granted, he would have three years of eligibility remaining.

  • USC cornerback Josh Pinkard reportedly has torn ligaments in his left knee and won't play this weekend against Nebraska. His status for the rest of the season is uncertain.

    Trivia answer

    Iowa's Kinnick Stadium, Iowa State's Jack Trice Stadium and Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium. Kinnick was the 1939 Heisman Trophy recipient who died in a plane crash during World War II. Jack Trice was the first black player at Iowa State and died from injuries sustained in his first game. Cincinnati's James Nippert died in 1923 after developing blood poisoning after getting spiked during a game.

    Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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