Like the fourth of July, apple pie and, well, football, the annual showdown in Dallas between Oklahoma and Texas has become a bona fide American tradition. It doesn’t matter where each team is ranked, or what happened in the previous game. All that matters is putting on that golden hat.
During my days at OU from 2009-2013, I was fortunate enough to see the Sooners go 3-1 against the Longhorns. I know the feeling of walking out of the Cotton Bowl through the Texas state fair in silence after a crushing defeat and the feeling of parading out of the stadium in victory. No matter what the result, the game is unlike any other for both the players and the fans.
This year, Oklahoma (4-1) is coming off an embarrassing loss to Iowa State while Texas (3-2) enters the game with some momentum. After a demoralizing Week 1 loss to Maryland, Tom Herman and company righted the ship and have started to play some really good football of late. This is especially true on the defensive side of the ball. Over the last three games, the Longhorn defense has given up only 34 points.
In contrast, the Oklahoma offense has scored 14 touchdowns in their three games against P5 opponents(Ohio State, Baylor, and Iowa State). Despite these impressive numbers, the poor play of the Oklahoma defense has allowed teams like Baylor and Iowa State to stay in games. This is truly a matchup of strength vs. strength, as a potent Oklahoma offense led by Baker Mayfield faces off against a stout defense led by star linebacker Malik Jefferson. Here are some keys to the game for both teams:
Keys for Oklahoma
Keep the ground game going
As we saw last year, the Sooner offense under Lincoln Riley is truly at its best when it sets up the pass by running the football. This means that Trey Sermon will have to be the bell cow if Abdul Adams is unable to play because of the injury he suffered last week against Iowa State. Although Sermon has proven he can take on this role, having Adams back would surely help. Adams is a great speed back who complements the power running game of Sermon nicely. In addition to this, Adams gives Mayfield another receiving option out of the backfield.
A potent running game puts stress on the defense because it forces the linebackers and safeties to cheat up, which in turn gives the receivers more openings down the field. The exact opposite happened last week against Iowa State, and the Sooner offense sputtered as a result. The Cyclones dropped eight guys back into coverage and the typically accurate Mayfield had trouble finding open windows. This was especially true after freshman WR Ceedee Lamb left the game with an injury. Since Texas has some good cover guys, most notably star safety DeShon Elliot, Oklahoma could struggle on offense if Texas puts eight guys in coverage. If Oklahoma can effectively run the ball and set up the play action pass, then the offense should have no trouble putting up points on this Texas defense. On top of this, running the ball keeps the Oklahoma defense off the field for longer periods. The Sooner defense needs all the help they can get.
Dial up the blitz
Dialing up the blitz on defense means not only getting guys like Caleb Kelly and Kenneth Murray more involved, but doing so at appropriate times. These potentially exotic blitz packages will keep freshman Sam Ehlinger on his toes and hopefully force him into making some errant throws downfield. On top of this, the Texas offensive line is missing All-American left tackle Connor Williams and has struggled over the last couple of games. Exploiting the Texas offensive line will be key because as we saw against Baylor and Iowa State, if a quarterback has too much time to throw against the Sooner secondary, he will pick them apart.
If Sam Ehlinger has time to throw it up to big receivers like Colin Johnson, then Jordan Thomas and Co. are in for a very long day. Mike Stoops should bring the pressure early and often in order to give his guys in the secondary a fighting chance and fluster the young QB.
Keys for Texas
Stuff the run
For this stout Texas defense, stuffing the run shouldn’t be a problem since they have done it very well sine a bad game against Maryland. In their game against USC, the Longhorns held the Trojan rushing attack to merely 71 yards on 37 attempts. Keep in mind that this was against a talented offense and two running backs who will likely be playing on Sundays. If Texas can play to their strength and stuff the run, then Baker Mayfield could have some trouble like he did against a less talented Iowa State defense.
Stuffing the Oklahoma running attack will also help Texas get the ball back more frequently so they can wear out the Sooner defense. In most games, the team that wins the time-of-possession battle usually wins the football game.
The main problem Texas could run into when it comes to stuffing the run is the powerful Oklahoma offensive line. If guys like Cody Ford, Orlando Brown, Erik Wren and Bobby Evans can get some push against the Texas defensive line, then the Sooners could set the tone for the game.
Sam Ehlinger has to step up
In order for Texas to win the game, Texas quarteback Sam Ehlinger is going to have to make some big plays. Ehlinger has been solid so far this season, but likely needs to step up his game to slay the Oklahoma dragon. On the season, Ehlinger has completed 56% of his passes and thrown for five touchdowns, but also has been picked off three times. An interception or a fumble by Ehlinger could turn the tide in the Sooners favor.
Since Ehlinger is only a freshman, he could feel the pressure of playing in the Cotton Bowl against Baker Mayfield and make some errant throws. Look for him to be pressing to start the game but then settle in as the game goes on. If he is able to do this and take care of the football, then Texas has a shot.
As Harvey Dent famously says in The Dark Knight, “The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, a new dawn is coming”. This will hopefully be the case for the Oklahoma defense against Texas. I think the defense plays with a serious chip on its shoulder after last week’s fiasco and steadies the ship in this game. Watch out for Jordan Thomas in this one, who probably has the biggest chip on his should of anyone in the Sooner locker room after getting smoked last week. Thomas made some huge plays against Texas last year and I am predicting he comes away with a pick in this one. When all is said and done on Saturday, Lincoln Riley will be able to put on the golden hat for the first time in his career as head coach of the Sooners.
Prediction- Oklahoma 42, Texas 21