By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Considering all that has transpired with the Big 12 over the last season in regards to realignment, it’s nice to turn the attention back to the action on the field. At least for this weekend.
Due to the struggles by Texas last year, the Red River Rivalry was pushed off the national radar. However, the Longhorns are 4-0 and back among the top 25 teams in college football. Coach Mack Brown made several changes to his staff after last season’s disappointing 5-7 record and so far, all of the moves seem to have paid off for the Longhorns.
The Sooners were expected to contend for the national title and have lived up to the hype so far. Oklahoma has one of the top non-conference wins this season, defeating Florida State 23-13 in Week 3. The Sooners opened up Big 12 play one week later and posted a 38-28 win over Missouri.
Unless Oklahoma stumbles during the regular season, it should be a lock to make an appearance in the national title. However, don’t expect Texas to let the Sooners walk into the Cotton Bowl and take an easy victory. Texas is hungry to erase last season’s disappointment, and a win over Oklahoma would certainly help announce its presence back on the national stage.
Although the Longhorns had a down season in 2010, they hung tough against the Sooners, losing only 28-20. Texas’ defense held Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones to 236 passing yards, but allowed running back DeMarco Murray to total 115 yards on the ground.
When Oklahoma has the ball
The Sooners enter Saturday’s game ranked fourth nationally in passing offense. Quarterback Landry Jones has thrown for at least 400 yards in back-to-back games. Additionally, the junior has thrown eight touchdown passes in the last two contests.
There’s no shortage of weapons for Jones to choose when he throws. Senior Ryan Broyles is on pace for another season of 100 receptions, while sophomore Kenny Stills is a big play waiting to happen. Receivers Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks, along with tight end James Hanna, will also figure into the weapons in the passing game.
Texas lost three key cornerbacks off last season’s team, but has maintained one of the Big 12’s top pass defenses through four weeks. No opponent has managed more than 251 yards against the Longhorns so far this year. Also, Texas has allowed only two passing scores in four games.
Although the secondary has been rock solid this year, the Longhorns have yet to face a quarterback of Jones’ caliber. There’s no shortage of talent in the defensive backfield, but also a lot of youth. Texas could help its young secondary by getting more pressure on the quarterback. The Longhorns have only five sacks this year, which is something that has to change on Saturday.
Although the passing attack drives the offense, Oklahoma is far from one-dimensional. Walk-on Dominique Whaley has been one of this season’s biggest surprises, leading the team with 379 yards and seven rushing scores. Brennan Clay, Brandon Williams and Roy Finch will also figure into the ground attack.
Considering Texas will lean on two young quarterbacks to win this game, it could use a couple of turnovers or even a touchdown from the defense.
When Texas has the ball
The Longhorns struggled all last season to find a consistent passing attack, but there are signs of life this year. Garrett Gilbert began 2011 as the starter, but was benched after two games. Sophomore Case McCoy and freshman David Ash have split the quarterback duties over the last three contests. McCoy is the better passer, while Ash gives the offense a running threat.
Although both quarterbacks have shown promise the last few games, they are still inexperienced and face a tough task against a good Oklahoma defense. The Sooners rank 14th nationally in points allowed, while allowing 348 yards a game.
McCoy and Ash aren’t the only young players expected to play a key role in this game for Texas. True freshman running back Malcolm Brown leads the team with 327 rushing yards, while Mike Davis (sophomore) and Jaxon Shipley (freshman) are the top two weapons in the receiving corps.
Oklahoma’s defensive line is an active group, led by ends Ronnell Lewis and Frank Alexander. The Longhorns’ offensive line has done a good job of protecting the quarterbacks this year, but the Sooners will present a step up in competition. Oklahoma’s defensive line would like to get after and rattle Ash and McCoy early. The Sooners need to force the Longhorns into third and long, which will force the pressure on the young quarterbacks. With the inexperience on offense, Oklahoma wants to make Texas prove they can sustain long drives and force the young playmakers to play a mistake-free game.
Coordinator Bryan Harsin came to Texas from Boise State and considering the Broncos’ history of throwing a few trick plays into the gameplan, don’t be surprised if the Longhorns have a few in the works for Saturday’s matchup.
Field goals have been a concern for Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. After watching Jimmy Stevens kick a low line drive to help beat Florida State, Stoops decided to give Mike Hunnicutt an opportunity to win the job. Stevens has made all four attempts this year, while Hunnicutt has connected on four of five field goals.
Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles is averaging only 3.4 yards per punt return this season, but is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Trey Franks and Roy Finch are the leading candidates to return kickoffs.
Texas kicker Justin Tucker has connected on six of seven attempts this season, while averaging 38.4 yards per punt.
The Longhorns match Oklahoma’s ability on returns, with Jaxon Shipley handling punts and Marquis Goodwin on kickoffs.
The 2011 version of the Red River Shootout is almost a game of youth versus experience. A year from now, the roles in this annual rivalry could be reversed. Texas is probably a year away from contending for the Big 12 title, while 2011 is Oklahoma’s to lose.
There’s a lot of intriguing young talent for Texas, but are the Longhorns ready to win a game of this magnitude? Last season’s debacle has provided plenty of motivation, and Texas has responded with a solid 4-0 start. New coordinators Bryan Harsin (offense) and Manny Diaz (defense) have injected some life into the Longhorns.
Asking McCoy and Ash to win this game is probably too much for the Longhorns. The offense also needs a big game from running back Malcolm Brown, especially in helping to control the clock and keep the ball away from Landry Jones, Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills.
Another key for a Texas victory will be the defense. The Longhorns need to keep this a relatively low-scoring game. If Texas holds the Sooners under 30 points, it should have a shot to win.
However, Oklahoma simply has too much firepower for the Longhorns to win a shootout.
Expect Texas to slow down Oklahoma’s offense for a half, but the passing attack will eventually get on track and help the Sooners put away this game in the final quarter.
Oklahoma 31, Texas 20