It wasn’t too long ago that the Texas Longhorns, fresh off an expected victory over UTEP and a totally unexpected win against Notre Dame, were being called Big 12 title contenders and possibly even the new favorite to win the league.
Oklahoma was stumbling, Oklahoma State was losing to teams called Central Michigan and TCU couldn’t compete with a mid-tier SEC squad. Baylor didn’t have a freshman class. The Big 12 looked ripe for the taking.
Of course, hours after Oklahoma lost to Ohio State, Texas got passed to death by Davis Webb. Two weeks later, the ‘Horns got burned—for almost exactly the same number of passing yards, Mason Rudolph’s 392 compared to Webb’s 396—by the Cowboys in Stillwater. Charlie Strong took over the defense
and Tom Herman took over the team.
While the Longhorns are scuffling, however, they’re still a dangerous team—and a desperate one. And after what they did to Oklahoma in 2013 and again last season, the Sooners better be ready for this one.
Here’s how the Longhorns look so far:
Oklahoma fans should remember Texas OC Sterlin Gilbert, who presided over the Tulsa offense that gave OU a decent Week 3 scare in Norman last season. Gilbert was working with some excellent receivers at Tulsa, and many wondered how his offense would translate to Charlie Strong’s team. Through the first few games, at least, things were looking pretty good.
Gilbert’s new project, Shane Buechele, will be the fourth Longhorns QB the Sooners have played in as many years. The position has been famously problematic for Texas in recent seasons, but Buechele may be the answer the team was looking for and has provided Texas some much-needed stability. Through four games, he’s thrown for 959 yards, eight touchdowns and three picks.
He’s still a true freshman, though, trying to figure out pocket presence and not always putting the ball in the most catchable position for his receivers. Buechele’s probably going to be very good someday, but he still has a lot to figure out.
Also, he gets pulled in short-yardage and goal line situations in favor of Tyrone Swoopes. The Longhorns are running something very similar to the Belldozer package with Swoopes, and from what I’ve seen, it’s going to be a problem for OU. The Sooners don’t have the personnel to match UT’s heavy package, and they’ll be dominated at the line of scrimmage unless guys can get off their blocks and tackle effectively.
UT’s running back duo of D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren III is a slightly less talented version of the Mixon-Perine duo, minus the prolific pass catching. Both backs netted two touchdowns against Cal, and Foreman picked up two more in Stillwater. They are dangerous at any down and distance, but now that Warren is out indefinitely with injury, Texas has lost some of the unpredictability and freshness that helped them on the ground. It will be interesting to see how Foreman performs without him.
Honestly, the UT offense resembles Oklahoma’s in a lot of ways. Buechele throws a lot of screens and quick slants while taking the occasional downfield shot, and Gilbert’s best weapons are his running backs. Oklahoma State held the Longhorns to 31 points—If OU can do that too, they’ll probably win.
Although, as Burnt Orange Nation correctly pointed out, Charlie Strong has always done a good job containing the OU offense. Improbable though it may seem after consecutive scorchings, he’s in a good position to limit OU again this year as he takes full control of the defense away from Vance Bedford.
UT’s biggest defensive woes have come through the air, and its secondary has underperformed tremendously. There are lots of good athletes back there, but the ‘Horns are often caught out of position for big gains. We probably won’t see as much of that on Saturday, but there’s only so much Strong can do in one week.
Last year’s freshman All-American linebacker Malik Jefferson is having a solid but unspectacular year, recording 14 tackles and a sack this season. UT as a whole, though, is doing a pretty good job getting after the QB with 14 sacks this season, despite the fact that they rarely bring more than five guys. I would expect UT to load to box against OU’s runners in this contest, daring the Sooners to beat them through the air in a bold attempt to recreate the hostile running environment that won them last year’s game.
UT has struggled with its tackling and positioning, and will give opportunities to some young guys like Brandon Jones at nickel and Breckyn Hager at the hybrid (fox) end. With any luck, OU’s surfeit of offensive experience will prevent a repeat of last year’s trench domination and offensive stagnation.
It’s been a long time since the Longhorns were supposed to win this game—I suppose it was considered a dead heat in 2012 before OU blew them out—but UT is fighting for more than just the Big 12 now. It’s fighting for Strong’s job.
Charlie has demonstrated his ability to stymie Oklahoma before, I’m just not sure he has the defensive playmakers to do it again this year. But I’m never taking this game for granted ever again.