Can Texas get off to another fast start? This was a key last week and is something that is basically a key every week, but considering the wild history of Texas-Oklahoma State games, it becomes even more important. A breakdown of scoring since 2002 by quarters shows the trends of the match up:
Clearly, Oklahoma State gets off to much faster starts historically than the Longhorns, who come then roaring back, particularly in the third quarter. In fact, from 2003-2006 Texas dropped 121 unanswered points on Oklahoma State in the second half, a streak not stopped until Grant Jones returned a kick 89 yards for a touchdown in 2006 and was highlighted by the 49 straight points Texas scored in 2004 after going down 35-7.
Basically, history shows that if the Longhorns can get off to an early lead, Oklahoma State doesn't have the depth or athletes to compete with Texas in the second half. Last season, the Cowboys nearly came back against the Longhorns after Texas established a lead in the middle of the game, so the depth advantage probably isn't what it was a few years ago, but it's probably safe to say that if Texas gets off to a fast start and takes the crowd out of the game early, there is an extremely strong chance they win this football game.
Will Colt McCoy take care of the football? After throwing eight interceptions all of last season, McCoy is currently one of only two quarterbacks in all of Division I to have thrown an interception in each game. Four of those passes were tipped balls and believes that only two were poor decisions by McCoy, but no matter how or why the interceptions occurred, the result remains the same. McCoy also fumbled twice against Oklahoma, and among his three turnovers, two of them occurred in the red zone. Add in three dropped interceptions by Missouri and Oklahoma and the numbers could be much worse.
How well will the Texas linebackers play? Since Oklahoma State not only runs the football well, but also uses play-action passing effectively, as well as the screen game to the running backs, the Texas linebackers must play a good game for the Longhorns to win in Stillwater. Last week, during Missouri's only successful drive of the game, Roddrick Muckelroy and Keenan Robinson consistently found themselves either out of position or unable to get off blocks, failures that led to Muckelroy being benched for a portion of the game.
This week, they must consistently do a better job of not only getting off blocks, but also reading their keys to avoid being sucked in on play-action fakes and reading and reacting quickly to screen passes. On those play-action fakes, they must be conscious of their coverage responsibilities on the running back out of the backfield or the tight ends, who may not be playing on the level of Brandon Pettigrew, but have been a pleasant surprise nonetheless, particularly Wilson Youman.
Since Oklahoma State uses a great deal of 11 personnel with three wide receivers, it's possible that Will Muschamp may play three linebackers more often this week, while using only four defensive backs, leaving Blake Gideon as the only deep safety. It's also possible that Sergio Kindle could see more time as a linebacker this week, one of the adjustments Muschamp made last week to the Missouri running game. Or Muschamp could play with three down linemen and three linebackers, leaving five defensive backs on the field and maintaining more flexibility in coverage. Whatever the case, the play of the linebackers may be the key for the whole defense this week.
How will Bill Young choose to use his defense? Oklahoma State has not been a team that blitzes much this season, but opponents generally buck their season-long trends when playing against Texas. If Oklahoma State does choose to blitz, one thing that Young has always done well in his time as a defensive coordinator is study the hot routes opponents run against blitzes and take that away. Can the Longhorns still complete passes in the face of blitzes, then?
The other question mark is how Oklahoma State chooses to defend the Texas passing game. Generally, the Cowboys have played zone defense, with cornerback Perrish Cox often playing man-to-man against the best wide receiver for the other team. Will Cox line up against Jordan Shipley man-to-man, even in the slot, where teams generally prefer to give the receiver a cushion? If Oklahoma State plays zone, can players like Malcolm Williams and Marquise Goodwin, who don't have a lot of game reps with Colt McCoy, be on the same page with the Texas quarterback when they settle into holes in the zone? In the game against Texas Tech, McCoy and Williams weren't quite on the same page when McCoy slightly overthrew the ball and Williams had it go through his hands for crucial interception. Can Williams and Gooding, as well as Shipley at his new/old position, punish Oklahoma State if they sit back in soft coverage in a way that James Kirkendoll and John Chiles could not earlier in the season?
Last season, Oklahoma State worked hard to disguise their coverages wtih a lot of pre-snap movement -- McCoy is at his best when he knows where he's going with the football before the play even begins. Oklahoma had success with a similar strategy, but one of Young's hallmarks this season has been a return to fundamentals and an emphasis on making sure that defenders are aligned correctly, eschewing disguised coverages. If McCoy can read the coverages easily pre-snap and Oklahoma State sits back in soft coverage like Missouri, the Oklahoma State secondary could be in for a long evening, especially since the front four for the Cowboys has done a poor job this season of getting pressure on the quarterback.
Can Texas continue to run the ball effectively? Using Greg Smith more often in the offense has greatly helped the Texas running game over the last two weeks, but Oklahoma State has been one of the better teams in the country at defending the run, allowing opponents only 99 yards per game, good for 18th in the country. Granted, the only strong rushing team they have faced was Texas A&M, ranked 33rd in the country. However, taking out from their per-game average the contest against Oklahoma State, the Cowboys held the Aggies to 56 yards below their average against everyone else.
For the Longhorns, the running game has improved in rushing the ball successfully -- defined now as picking up four yards, gaining a first down, or scoring a touchdown -- 61% of the time against Oklahoma to 67% against Missouri. With the offensive line now healthy for the first time the end of fall practice, there may be fewer breakdowns by individual linemen and better misdirection and more running plays to choose from should help as well. Add to the fact that the Longhorns now have some continuity at the position with Fozzy Whittaker and Cody Johnson firmly entrenched as the one-two punch for the offense and Texas has a much better chance of running the ball well than they did earlier in the season.