It probably won't draw the headlines that the match-up we discussed yesterday will, but don't take that to mean there isn't plenty to watch here on Saturday as well. Rather than the showdown of two first year coordinators, this one presents the long time OU DC Brent Venables vs. Texas' prodigy child (kidding, kind of) Brian Harsin. As an OU fan, this is a match-up that has me worried when you take into consideration some of the issues Venables has had in this game in years past. And that was with the offensive wizard that was Greg Davis in charge of things, now with all the tricks Harsin is likely to pull Saturday it's more than a little concerning for this OU fan.
Venables does not have the greatest track record of being able to adjust his plan mid-game, which I would have to think will be absolutely necessary Saturday afternoon. One thing we've yet to really see this year that I would not be at all surprised to see extensively Saturday is the 50-front defense OU used so effectively late in the season last year. It would allow Venables enough guys up front to help defend the power run game Texas will use as well as allow the secondary to match up with a two wide/two tight end set. Texas, at least up to this point, hasn't gone with the four/five wide sets under Harsin nearly as much as they used in the past. So hopefully for our sake that means we won't be subjected to the very unsuccessful 3-2-6 formation they employed against Missouri.
There might not be a lot of things we as OU fans know for certain about this Texas offense, but the one we do know for sure is that they are unlikely to do the same thing twice. Harsin is going to give a different look and/or tons of pre-snap motion on pretty much every play, so Venables will have to come up with one of his better game plans.
I also wanted to take a bit of a different approach to this one compared to yesterday. We'll talk about some generalities with the respective match-ups and some individual players, but I really wanted to focus on specific points with regard to the Texas offense and what we can expect the Sooners to do in defending it. Mainly because I think, defensively for OU, it comes down to just a couple key points and those really deserve a majority of the focus.
So let's start with some of those specific points. The four aspects of this Texas offense I think OU should focus on are (1) trick plays, (2) Malcolm Brown, (3) Jaxon Shipley, and (4) defending the middle of the field. Now that doesn't mean that outside of those four points there aren't still things the defense should worry about. The running ability David Ash and the ability of Case McCoy to extend a play are both things this defense will need to account for. It doesn't mean they won't use creative means to get the ball into D.J. Monroe's hands. It also doesn't mean there aren't other guys like Mike Davis or Fozzy Whitaker that can make plays, but again I think the points made above are the keys to the game for this OU defense. So we'll take them in order.
- Trick Plays. It's no secret that Brian Harsin is going to run them and that coming from Boise he's probably got everyone you know about in his arsenal and ever more likely some you don't. It's also no secret that despite their pedestrian at best early season schedule, the Texas offense has struggled to move the ball consistently without said trick plays. So the obvious question this leads to is if Texas is struggling to move the ball minus the trick plays against defenses like that of Rice, BYU, UCLA, and Iowa State how successful can they be against the caliber of a defense such as the one OU will line up Saturday?
It would be foolish for OU fans to think that none of the trick plays will work, but the key will be when (not if) they are successful limiting them. Meaning, it's acceptable if they lead to a first down but what we don't want happening is them turning into long touchdowns. Not only do you have the momentum of them putting points on the board, but doing so in a manner that gets their fans even more pumped up. Plus if they're successful now you have to account for them occurring even more frequently. Perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent considering they're going to run them regardless so you'll have to account for them no matter what, but the more successful they are with them the more likely they are to keep digging into that bag of tricks.
- Malcolm Brown. There was no shortage of hype for his kid coming into Austin and in spite of that, to Texas' credit they have been very smart in their approach to easing him into their offense. In part because they knew placing that kind of burden on a true freshman would be asking too much, but also because they have a very capable back in Whitaker to help shoulder some of the load. Speaking of Whitaker, I think he presents a real threat in this game but for me Brown is the kid we need to focus on. For the fact that he is the kind of RB who can grind out those tough yards and keep the chains moving, while also being able to break a big run if given the chance. But it's those tough yards and if Texas is able to grind out those yards and get first downs this defense could be in trouble.
- Jaxon Shipley. We heard all about him before he arrived on campus and how he was a carbon copy of his older brother. The stories look to be proven true if the first four games of his college career are any indication. They can, have, and will use him all over the field so knowing where he is before the ball is snapped will be a key for this defense. Personally, I would love for Stoops and Venables to go very much out of character and just let Demontre Hurst shadow Shipley all over the field. I can almost guarantee you this will not happen, but I feel strongly this would be the Sooners best defense against your our of the norm true frosh. I think Hurst is a much better match-up against Shipley than Jamell Fleming and an infinitely better one than Gabe Lynn (remember him trying to cover T.J. Moe in the slot). If Texas is smart, they try and get Shipley matched up on anybody other than Hurst for most of the game.
- Defending the middle of the field. And now we get to what I feel, defensively, is the determining factor in OU winning or losing this game. This staff has struggled for years to defend the short, crossing stuff over the middle and we all saw Colt McCoy earn a NFL draft pick out of exploiting that (not just against OU of course mind you). The struggles stem 100% from Stoops/Venables insistence to keep three LBs (if you count Jefferson) on the field at virtually all times. What we've seen at times this year however is a willingness to change that, but in doing so they appear to favor a 3-2-6 type formation which drastically limits their ability to rush the passer. We saw just that against Missouri and all the time James Franklin had to find open receivers as well as how dropping eight guys into coverage can create space and lanes to allow a mobile QB (see David Ash) to pick up chunks of yards.
Couple all that with the fact that after years of non-existence, the Horns have actually discovered that using a TE can be useful in an offense. The emergence of D.J. Grant gives them a weapon at a position they didn't know existed since the departure of Jermichael Finley. And Finely repeatedly running free behind the OU defense with LBs helplessly chasing after him is not a mental image we as OU fans care to remember.
So that's my synopsis of how I see things heading into Saturday. I think the OU defense is successful if they're able to do the following (1) contain Ash and make him beat you with his arm, (2) limit the success of the trick plays, (3) win the run game battle, and (4) most importantly defend the middle of the field. And yes, it's that important IMO.