in Dallas, TX
(Saturday, 11 am, ABC)
Most offenses these days go as their quarterback goes, and Texas is no exception. Colt McCoy has been playing at an elite level this year and he’s a big reason why the Longhorns are 5-0 and ranked in the top five in the nation. Not only is he one of the most efficient passers in the nation (79.2% completions), he’s also the team’s leading rusher (317 yards, 7.0 yards per carry).
Most importantly though, McCoy is playing with more confidence than he did a year ago, and he improved his strength and speed in the offseason. McCoy is a legit Bo Jackson Trophy candidate as of right now, and you can expect him to bring his A-Game Saturday morning.
Oklahoma will try to pressure McCoy, as they do everybody else, with their excellent pair of rush ends Auston English and Jeremy Beal. English and Beal have combined for 4 sacks this year and they’ll be coming hard off the edge early and often.
The problem for the Sooners is that this strategy plays right into the hands of the Longhorns. McCoy has actually been a better quarterback on the run this year, so with English and Beal flying around the corner, they’ll open up lanes for McCoy to break contain and make big plays with his arm or his legs. The massive Texas offensive line also has the advantage if the Sooners go to a power rush because English and Beal are too small (both are 6-foot-3, 253 pounds) to consistently beat the Texas OTs in a physical battle.
Texas has one big hole offensively and it is their running game. With McCoy leading the team in rushing yards, you know a running back hasn’t yet stepped up to fill Jamaal Charles’ shoes. Cody Johnson and Chris Ogbonnaya have had their moments, but they won’t have much room to run against OU’s defense. Fozzy Whittaker is the wild card here. Whittaker has been hampered by an knee injury all season, but in his limited action he has flashed the potential to be the go-to guy. If Whitaker is healthy, he’ll announce his presence on Saturday. That’s a big “if” though.
Oklahoma’s excellent defensive tackles are ailing too. Both NFL prospects Gerald McCoy and DeMarcus Granger are injured and there is a possibility neither will play. This is Texas/OU though, so you know they’ll give it their best shot to get in the game. How effective these two can be will be a big factor. If the Oklahoma DTs can control the line of scrimmage and completely take away the planned running game of the Longhorns it will give the Sooners a big advantage.
One injury that really hurts Texas in this matchup is at tight end where Blaine Irby is out for the season. His athleticism would play a big role against Oklahoma’s talented, but still relatively unproven linebackers. OU will definitely be blitzing a lot, and Irby would have been able to take advantage of all the room left in the middle of the field. I don’t think replacement Peter Ullman can be a difference maker in this department.
When Oklahoma has the ball
Quarterback Sam Bradford is only a sophomore, but he has pretty much defined the word “efficient” the past two seasons. This year Bradford is completing passes at a 72.6% rate and has thrown 18 touchdowns against only 3 interceptions. Best of all he’s ultra-composed in the pocket.
One reason Bradford has been able to stay so calm in the pocket is because of the performance of the massive offensive line in front of him. Oklahoma quarterbacks have been sacked only 5 times this year, and Phil Loadholt and Duke Robinson are two of the best linemen in the country.
One area Oklahoma has gouged Texas for big plays recently is on crossing routes across the middle of the field. Texas starts two freshmen at safety so that’s a spot the Sooners could capitalize on again. In fact, don’t be surprised if freshman slot receiver Ryan Broyles out-performs Manuel Johnson and catches a long touchdown pass on a crossing pattern at some point. Tight end Jermaine Gresham is arguably the best pass catching tight end in the nation, so he could come up big in this area too.
Texas will try to take away this advantage by trying to get to Bradford before he can find the open receiver. New defensive coordinator Will Muschamp has the Texas defense playing as well as any Texas defense in recent memory. He is accomplishing this feat by applying non-stop pressure and mixing up blitzes on every play so opposing offenses never know where the pressure will come from.
The pressure starts up front with defensive end Brian Orakpo and defensive tackle Roy Miller. These two have been playing at an All American level so far this year, with Orakpo compiling an eye-popping 6 sacks already, and Miller chipping in 13 quarterback pressures. Oklahoma will have to account for these two on every play or they’ll make the Sooners pay.
All the attention Orakpo and Miller draw has freed up blitzing linebackers to make plays in the backfield too. Linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy has simply made plays all over the field to the tune of 40 tackles, and he’ll clean up anything that happens to sneak by the front four.
Sophomore linebacker Sergio Kindle is finally living up to his immense hype thanks to Muschamp’s scheme. Kindle is second on the team in tackles (21) and sacks (2½) and has excellent speed for his size. All in all, Texas leads the nation with 19 sacks this year, so the question isn’t if they’ll get to Bradford – it’s how often.
If Texas is able to put the kind of pressure on Bradford they did Cody Hawkins a week ago, it will be even more important for Oklahoma to establish the running game. DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown have been solid this season, combining for 744 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
Last season Murray looked like the second coming of Reggie Bush, but ever since his knee injury he hasn’t shown the same level of speed or acceleration – he doesn’t seem to have regained that “fifth gear” yet. This is a concern because as a team, Oklahoma is averaging a pedestrian 3.9 yards per carry – and they haven’t played an elite defense yet. Against one of the best front sevens in the nation, the Sooners will need Murray to regain his old form and make plays when it doesn’t look like there is a play to be made.
The key to this game will be which quarterback handles the pressure the best, and which team gets clutch yards out of its running game. Rushing yards will be at a premium, but neither team can afford to abandon the run completely and allow the opposing defense to pin their ears back and rush the passer. Even if it’s only two yards on third and short, that would be enough to keep the chains moving and the defense honest.
Special teams always play a role in games like this. A mistake on special teams can tip the balance one way or the other. Oklahoma is in the bottom 20 nationally in net punting and kick coverage, so this could be a hidden source of field position that Texas can take advantage of. Oklahoma has been gutted on kick returns this year, so don’t be surprised if Texas picks up some momentum with a long kick return at some point.
The biggest intangible in deciding this game for me is the fact that Texas is finally playing with a chip on their collective shoulders. Getting picked third in the Big XII South is a slap in the face to the Longhorns, and they are actually playing like they want to prove people wrong.
The youth of the team has actually served them well in this department because a majority of these players weren’t on the national title team and don’t have the same sense of entitlement that seems to surround the Oklahoma program these days. That sense of entitlement is what I believe has led to OU’s dismal performance in BCS bowls over the last five years. That’s why I think Texas wins this game and jumps into the national title picture.
J.Pike’s Pick: Texas 31, Oklahoma 20