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Breaking down key match ups in Saturday nights Big 12 showdown between the Longhorns and Cowboys.
By way of background reading, Michael provided an excellent table-setting article reviewing UT's non-conference slate and prepping us for the critical stretch ahead, while Wescott delivered your first-look overview of Oklahoma State, against whom the Longhorns will open the three-game gauntlet on Saturday.
If you're going to Stillwater, you'll get a full day of Eskimo Joe's before Saturday night's 6:50 p.m. CT kickoff, while the rest of us will tune our televisions into Fox and try to decide whether or not it's a good thing the excitable Gus Johnson is calling the game. (For the record, I vote no -- because the only thing worse than watching the Pokes light up the scoreboard against Texas would be listening to a Gusgasm each time that they do.)
Burnt Orange Nation vs Cowboys Ride For Free
The always entertaining Oklahoma State bloggers at Cowboys Ride For Free invited me on their podcast last week, at the conclusion of which a wager was made on Saturday night's game. Should the Longhorns win, the Man Who Really Wants David Ash To Suck, also known as Robert Whetsell, will be obligated to get on his knees and worship at the altar of Ash, publishing a post proclaiming unreserved love and admiration for Texas' quarterback, and acknowledging him as the One True Quarterback.
And should Oklahoma State make it
four in a row(!) three in a row against the Longhorns? I shall be obligated to adorn my hair with gel, meticulously shape it into spikes, don a visor, surround myself with boisterous admirers... and do the Gundy.
Joe Wickline vs Manny Diaz
Texas fans are thrilled with Mack Brown for the haul of assistants he netted after the Great Purge of 2010, and while there may be some anxious Sooner fans eyeing the UT staff with a bit of envy, you won't hear anything similar from supporters of the other team in Oklahoma.
Among the things OSU head coach Mike Gundy has done exceptionally well is hire assistant coaches. He did well to nab Bill Young, the former Miami defensive coordinator, and the Dana Holgorsen hire was an inspired choice that reflected particularly well on Gundy, a former quarterback and offensive coach who until then had been injecting himself heavily into the offense, including playcalling. His best hire of all, though, may have been Joe Wickline, who since his arrival in 2005 has churned out productive offensive lines year after year, no less effective implementing zone blocking schemes in Stillwater as Mike Shannahan with all those Denver Broncos teams.
Manny Diaz's defense provided OSU with the stiffest resistance they faced all season and almost got the better of Wickline and OSU in last year's game in Austin, but while the Texas defense won plenty of battles -- holding the Cowboys to 98 yards on 25 of their carries -- OSU won the war because their other 2 carries went for 104 yards and 2 backbreaking touchdowns.
The Cowboys turned over some key personnel on the offensive line this offseason, but it's hardly worth pointing out these days; Wickline has found success with every line he's coached, turning the Cowboys into one of the nation's elite rushing teams. In his first season at OSU in 2005, the Cowboys averaged 3.9 yards per carry on the ground, an average that shot up to 5.2 the following year and has remained over 5.0 ever since, with the lone exception of 2009 when a banged up OSU offense "only" averaged 4.5 yards on each rush.
The Cowboys haven't faced any great defenses yet this season, but heading into this weekend they're averaging a ridiculous 7.0 yards per carry and Texas fans have to be nervous about a repeat of big play breakdowns from a Texas defense that's had its fair share of issues this year with Jordan Hicks. Manny Diaz will certainly earn his paycheck prepping for Saturday night's big game.
Texas Linebackers vs Time
It's easy to forget now, because he looked so good by the end of the season (and played all year alongside two exceptional seniors), but last year Jordan Hicks experienced growing pains in his first full season as a starter -- including a really tough afternoon against Oklahoma State, when he was partly responsible for the two long Jeremy Smith touchdown runs.
Fast forward a year and Hicks has looked great, but first-year starters Demarco Cobbs and Steve Edmond are now suffering through growing pains of their own. We probably should have expected this to some degree, but the conclusion I've drawn is that we've thus far underestimated the slope of the learning curve for linebackers in Manny Diaz's system -- in part, I suspect, because we know that a player needn't be exceptional from a physical/athletic standpoint to play the position effectively, which in turn causes us to worry less about program depth at the position in the same ways we do defensive tackle or along the offensive line. The upshot -- at least according to my theory -- is that our confidence in finding players who can play the linebacker position effectively, in general, has made it easy to gloss over the particular demands of the position in Manny Diaz's system.
It's not that it's so complex that players must be super-cerebral to play the position, but what's become increasingly clear from watching both last year (think about how strong Acho came on the last 6-8 games, and he didn't struggle early) and the early part of this season is that much more so than the 'see the ball, attack the ball' directive linebackers are charged with in most defensive schemes, in Diaz's system it takes some time for linebackers to develop a feel for where to go and when to be there -- to stop thinking and start reacting, instinctively taking the right angle, at the right speed, through the path of least resistance.
To the extent that's right, the good news is that we were right not to be worried about Edmond and Cobbs -- not yet, anyway -- and that we can and should reasonably expect to see them steadily improve, as last year's unit did. The bad news, of course, is that Texas' next three opponents are Oklahoma State, West Virginia, and Oklahoma; it may be fair to expect them to perform well with some time, but that's time we don't have.
With Hicks' injury making what was already Texas' weakest link on defense even weaker, combined with the fact that Gundy and offensive coordinator Todd Monken know that they have to give JW Walsh some help to give him some breathing room to do what he does well, and you can bet your bottom dollar that Oklahoma State will devote a huge amount of effort in the first half testing Edmond, Cobbs, and Kendall Thompson with heavy running (particularly on the edges) and the screen passes they love to run and execute so well. (Note: While there's wisdom in listing Wes Lunt as the -OR- starter to force Texas to prepare for both QBs, I expect Walsh to start the game and not to come out unless poor play demands it.)
DT Calvin Barnett vs C Dominic Espinosa
The Pokes aren't the only team that can rush the football. After watching the post-VY Longhorns become less and less effective on the ground, Mack Brown finally has the power running game he wanted so badly, thanks to Bryan Harsin's ground-out attack and the outstanding job Stacy Searels has done revitalizing a badly broken offensive line situation.
Oklahoma State's defensive line took a hit on the outside with the graduations of Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones, but they've improved substantially on the interior thanks to terrific returning depth and the arrival of standout JuCo transfer Calvin Barnett, who easily won the starting job with a fantastic spring and has been a disruptive force in the early going this fall.
Texas center Dominic Espinosa has been the object of quite a bit of fan criticism, but outside the two or three highly visible plays that are driving the negative perception, Espinosa has been quite solid so far this season. Oklahoma State will present a much tougher test, however, and if the sophomore center struggles to hold the point of attack on Saturday night and Texas finds itself struggling to move the chains consistently on the ground, we'll really find out just how far David Ash has come... because we'll be asking him to go out and win the game for us.
CBs Brown & Gilbert vs WRs Shipley & Davis
Brodrick Brown's size (5-8, 185 lbs) belies what a bulldog he is playing cornerback -- strong, physical, instinctive, and aggressive as hell. His agility and swivel-hips allow him to play aggressively, and last season he led the Cowboys in both passes broken up (15) and interceptions (5), the latter tied for the most with Justin Gilbert, who's also back, and also a baller, just more obviously so from a physical standpoint.
David Ash couldn't have picked a better time to start diversifying the passing attack, but facing his first big test of 2012, if Ash feels nerves and instinctively starts looking to Jaxon Shipley, it'll just be a matter of time before disaster strikes -- that's exactly what OSU wants to see, and what they're primed to capitalize on. Shipley is second-to-none as a route runner for his age, but he's still learning how to effectively deal with aggressive corners who are physical enough to tie him up underneath and agile/athletic enough to recover on a double move and cover him deep.
For his part, Mike Davis has played exceptionally well in the early going, improving on each performance and peaking with his best performance as a Longhorn two weeks ago at Ole Miss, when he fought for a pair of deep balls -- one of which he caught and drawing a pass interference flag on the other -- and snagged a third deep ball in stride to set up Texas inside the 10. Of course, it's easy to play hard, block downfield, and stay engaged when you're pantsing the opponent and scoring touchdowns like it's Nintendo. How will he respond when he gets blanked for a quarter? If Texas struggles offensively through the first half? If David Ash wants nothing to do with Justin Gilbert?
Oklahoma State Defense vs Constraint Plays
Bryan Harsin knows this, of course, which is why I'm expecting Texas to run an end-around to Shipley early in the game... and have him throw it downfield to Marquise Goodwin, while Oklahoma State is fired up and prone to over-aggression. Whether or not that prediction comes to pass, one way or another Texas is going to have to execute some constraint plays successfully.
At its best, Oklahoma State's defense creates an un-virtuous cycle for offenses thatt can't punish the Cowboys aggressiveness and force them to play more honest (or burn in the same fiery crash over and over again, should they decline to do so). The nightmare scenario for Texas involves a running game that can't move the sticks and a David Ash disaster or two in 3rd-and-pass situations early in the game, because Bill Young has turned his defense into a gang of Cowboy vampires: they go into a frenzy when they taste blood, and the more they drink the stronger they become.
A few more to close us out, short and sweet...
Texas vs Momentum
Oklahoma State thrives on being the frontrunner, and we don't know if David Ash is ready to lead a comeback rally on the road.
UT Secondary vs Itself
The Longhorns' defensive backs have beat themselves more often than they've been beat.
Brandon Moore vs Gravity
Stay low, big fella. Stay low.
JW Walsh vs Instincts
It'll be a battle for the young playmaker to stay within himself and the game plan, but it's key for how the Cowboys want to attack Texas on Saturday.
JW Walsh vs Okafor & Jeffcoat
Oh yeah, them too.
Nicks vs The Uprights
How spoiled by place-kickers we've been.
DJ Monroe vs The World
What, are you gonna bet against him?
Me neither. Hook 'em