A tale of two quarterbacks

Tom Pennington

The two starters in the Red River Rivalry at quarterback couldn't be more different.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

While that statement holds true in numerous ways for the Texas Longhorns entering the Saturday's Red River Rivalry, it's especially true at the quarterback position.

This was supposed to be the year that junior David Ash took the next step in his development, the year that he would finally have a good opportunity to clean out the ghosts of Cotton Bowls past. Instead, he won't even be traveling with the team to Dallas this weekend, still sidelined with the recurring symptoms from his early September concussion.

Instead, it's Case McCoy's turn, to shake off his own ghosts from a fumble-marred performance in 2011 and build on a more encouraging performance late in last season's blowout.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the field, Oklahoma junior starter Blake Bell, after losing the job in preseason camp to redshirt freshman Trevor Knight, won't be a part of what was quickly becoming a must-watch battle with Ash after SportsNation voters opined that he would have a better season than Ash that somehow appears prescient now with Ash's injury.

For McCoy, the game represents a serious challenge to the turnover-free streak of 2013 that came perilously close to ending several times against Iowa State week. Head coach Mack Brown said Thursday that Oklahoma fields the two top cornerbacks the Longhorns have faced yet this season and the whole defense was opportunistic in securing three interceptions against Notre Dame -- half of the team's total on the year.

With Bell, the question has been about his passing ability ever since he debuted late in the 2011 season in the Belldozer package for which he became famous. He has already put those doubts to rest.

In his three collegiate starts, Bell has thrown 104 passes without an interception to six touchdown passes, has been completing almost 70% of his passes and is averaging just over eight yards per attempt. Totaled, it's good enough for him to rank No. 11 nationally in ESPN's QBR.

He looks turnover-averse in taking five sacks this season, especially given his mobility, but expect him to be more quick to take off this week after passing up several opportunities to quickly vacate the pocket last week against TCU, surely a point of emphasis for the Sooner offensive coaching staff this week after seeing the Longhorns struggle so mightily during the first half against Iowa State in maintaining disciplined pass rushing lanes.

As a runner, Bell understands the timing necessary to run Power, the favored play during his Belldozer appearances over the last two seasons, quarterback draws, and the zone stretch plays that Oklahoma runs with him, a pretty unusual play that isn't entirely common around spread offenses with running quarterbacks in college football, especially for such a massive quarterback. It's also a play that Bell can run effectively.

He's not especially fast, but he does have some ability to cut and re-direct that is surprising for his size. And, of course, he can run over opponents, with defensive backs attempting to bring him down in the open field often punished for their opponents, as several TCU defenders were last week in a critical moment of the game, including physical safety Sam Carter, one of the better tacklers in the conference.

The reasonable assumption here is that Mykkele Thompson, Adrian Phillips, and Carrington Byndom could have some bad moments if they meet Bell when he's worked up some forward momentum -- this is a game where the linebackers and defensive line have to stop Bell before he reaches the final level of the defense. While he's not known for explosive runs, he is going against a defense that gave up a 97-yard touchdown pretty easily last week. The odds seem significant that he'll break off a run longer than this longest this season, which went for 17 yards against the Horned Frogs.

On the deep ball, Bell doesn't always look comfortable with his touch, with one attempt against Notre Dame one of the highest passes one will see when reviewing film and another route against TCU badly overthrown. However, Bell does have a howitzer for an arm and can hit parts of the field that most quarterbacks can't reach -- when things break down and he to hit an open receiver, it's not a difficult task for him to do so even if the receiver is well across the field.

Where the Kansas native seems most comfortable is on shorter passes, where he can drive the football into the chests of his receivers, allowing his arm strength and accuracy to tell without needing the touch that sometimes eludes him.

In that area and in making quicker decisions to scramble when his receivers can't get separation, which was a struggle for the Sooner wideouts at times against the strong TCU secondary, Bell still needs some improvement. If that happens, the Oklahoma offense will be even more dangerous -- capable of beating opponents who load the box over the top and able to stay ahead of the chains and convert third downs as Bell takes advantage of scrambling lanes.

After the struggles of Trevor Knight and his subsequent knee injury, it looks like Oklahoma has once again survived another quarterback transition with few of the struggles that have defined all but the 2012 season for Texas since the departure of Colt McCoy.

Unfortunately, as Texas fans have learned, this week's starter is hardly his older brother.

The younger McCoy has a tendency to launch himself backwards on his passes, pushing off of his front foot backwards instead of pushing off his back foot and getting out over his front foot, meaning that he gets no benefit from his lower body and in fact actively takes velocity off of his passes.

On a 3rd and 6 against Iowa State where the Longhorns run a little rub route for Mike Davis, who is open behind the sticks, a slight bit of pressure in McCoy's face that is exacerbated by his lack of height and non-ideal delivery point results in a pass lacking the necessary velocity to make it an easy pass and catch, instead ending in a drop from Davis under duress.

The ball should have been caught by the senior wide receiver, but the timing and delivery of the throw were both less than ideal because of McCoy's mechanics, which limit his upside.

Notice how McCoy doesn't keep his balance or his feet alive as he hits his depth on his drop, allowing his front foot to drift and open as he feet come together, something that should never happen for a quarterback. Then, on release, McCoy fails to step into his throw, bracing himself with his front foot while drifting backwards

After the fumble recovery, McCoy missed a wide open Mike Davis in the end zone because of his mechanics, as he again threw off his back foot, causing the ball to sail over the leaping hands of Davis. On the other side of the field, where McCoy never looked as he locked on Davis, Jaxon Shipley was breaking open on a flag route.

The inability to hit those throws on time and on the money didn't cost Texas the game against Iowa State. The two possible interceptions eventually landed on the turf of Jack Trice Stadium instead of in the hands of Cyclone defenders. This week, missing those throws will keep Texas from having a chance to stay competitive in this game and rest assured that the Oklahoma secondary will convert those plays into interceptions.

Where Bell can get away with some breakdowns in his footwork on short passes because of his remarkable arm strength, McCoy has to overcome the limitations imposed on him by his poor footwork and mechanics, both of which reduce his margin for error and cut down on his passing lanes because of his release point.

For McCoy, it's going to have to be about capturing some more of the signature magic again, the magic moxie dust that has twice saved Mack Brown.

For Bell, there likely won't be any miracles required, just a big, strong quarterback trucking overmatched defenders and taking advantage of his arm strength to hit some plays in the passing game.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

It is what it is.

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