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A handful of important keys will help determine the winner in Stillwater on Saturday night.
Dealing with the quarterback running game. While the preference for Mike Gundy may be for the big, tall quarterback who can hit all areas of the field in the passing game, likely starter JW Walsh and his electric feet could present a bigger challenge for the Longhorns defense than the injured freshman Wes Lunt. Defending the quarterback run game has been one of the problems for Texas this season, as the linebackers in particular have struggled with their assignments.
Even taking out the off-schedule plays that Walsh can make getting outside of the pocket, his ability to run the zone-read series will further stress the Texas defense by eliminating a defender against an Oklahoma State run game that excels in pressuring defenses by stretching them out, finding creases, and possessing offensive linemen who understand the zone-blocking game at a level consistently achieved by few lines in the entire country.
While Lunt is the better passer and won the starting job for a reason, Walsh presents different problems for the Longhorns, compounded by the fact that Texas has struggled in that area already.
Avoiding turnovers. By protecting the football on offense, with only a single lost fumble all season, the Longhorns have started with a turnover margin of +6 a year after finishing dead even with 26 turnovers and 26 takeaways. The contrast between wins and losses was stark, as it is for most teams -- +13 in wins and -13 in losses.
It's a key for anhy team in any game, but the success of the offense avoiding those big mistakes has kept the pressure off a defense that has given up the much-discussed big plays. In the high-pressure environment of a Big 12 road game, the momentum swings involved in turning the ball over exacerbate such mistakes for the road team.
The team that wins the turnover battle will almost certainly walk out with a victory.
Has the Texas defense fixed the problems from non-conference play? During the week, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz sounded confident about his ability to help the defense get the ship righted. The Longhorns went back to the basics, working on tackling, taking better angles, and making the proper run fits.
Overall, Diaz may opt to kept his defense pretty basic against the high-tempo Oklahoma State offense by making sure that his linebackers in particular understand their assignments. Just like Ole Miss, the Cowboys have the skill-position talent to make the Longhorns pay for mistakes, just as they did last season.
How does the offensive line respond to more even competition? After over 100 knockdowns against Ole Miss two weeks ago, the Texas offensive line, which is much improved in terms of executing assignments more consistently and giving up fewer negative plays, will finally face an opponent with a strong defensive line.
The growth of sophomore quarterback David Ash has been aided in large part by staying ahead of the chains and avoiding the obvious passing situations that result in extra defenders heading towards the backfield.
Fortunately for Texas, while there is some talent along the Cowboy defensive line, there isn't a squatty, powerful nose tackle to give sophomore center Dominic Espinosa fits.
Just as the game will provide a true measuring stick for the development of the team as a whole, the offensive line will be in the spotlight with an opportunity to prove that they are now one of the better units in the conference.
Can David Ash maintain his sharp developmental curve. After the best performance of his career against Ole Miss, the question with Ash over the last two weeks is whether he can continue to produce at a high level against better defenses.
Also, whether or not underthrown passes that are caught count. They do.
The pair of Oklahoma State cornerbacks will be the best he has faced this season by a significant margin and the road environment in Stillwater will be even more intimidating than Vaught-Hemingway stadium.
In that game, co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin allowed Ash to ease his way into the game by calling for runs on first down and staying conservative with the first third-down call, a crossing route to Jaxon Shipley that fwas completed well short of the first down. Will Harsin show more trust in his quarterback this week at the risk of an early turnover or will he once again seek to minimize the risk of a game-changing turnover?
Time to get a look at just how far Ash has come, too. Anything approaching the 2010 version of David Ash will put some serious pressure on the rest of the team and isn't a recipe for a victory.