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Texas vs Oklahoma State: Previewing the Cowboys Offense

In thirteen years at Texas Mack Brown has never lost the game after the Red River Shootout. Even last year, prior to dropping their final five Big 12 games of the year -- to Iowa State, Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M -- Texas snuck in a win against No. 5 Nebraska following its loss to OU. Which is just amusing as hell.

Six times Mack Brown's Longhorns have had to defeat a ranked team in the week after OU -- including three teams ranked in the Top 10 -- but that streak has perhaps never seemed more in jeopardy than this year, when Texas must try to rebound from a crushing defeat to OU against the No. 6/7 Oklahoma State Cowboys, who just finished dropping 70 points on Kansas this past Saturday, and a year ago effortlessly whipped the Longhorns in Austin, building a 33-3 lead through three quarters before letting off the gas.

When Dana Holgorsen -- the mastermind behind last year's explosive offense -- left to take the head job at West Virginia, OSU head coach Mike Gundy decided to do the only sensible thing and hired the first replacement coordinator in history who was willing to be taught the old guy's system, rather than bring in his own. That's literally what happened, as after leaving the Jacksonville Jaguars Todd Monken spent his first weeks in Stillwater being taught Holgorsen's offense by Brandon Weeden, the team's returning quarterback. Hey, if it ain't broke...

And what exactly is that offense? Besides scary as hell? It's a version of the Air Raid -- "basketball on grass," as it's been described. Like a 3-on-2 fast break, the quarterback leads something of a fast break, reading the defense and delivering a quick strike to whichever receiver has an advantage in space. It's devastatingly effective when everyone's on the same page and executing at a high level.

The Diamond Formation

The OSU offense attacks defenses out of a number of different looks, but along with the stuff you're probably more used to seeing from an Air Raid offense, the Cowboys love to attack from the Diamond Formation, where the quarterback stands five yards behind the center flanked on each side by a tailback, with another tailback 3 yards behind him, like in the Pistol.


The OSU offense favorites a number of plays out of the Diamond. One of their staples is the inside zone, in which the back on the right is tasked with cutting off backside pursuit from the weakside end, while the back on the left plays the role of lead blocker. They'll also mix it up by motioning the back on the left to his right, with the original back on the right cutting across to block off backside pursuit while the motioning back serves as the lead blocker. The Cowboys will also run the outside zone from the Diamond, sending both flanking backs around the edge as lead blockers while the ball carrier stretches outside from behind.

But most frightening is OSU's penchant for play action passing after showing that inside zone run. When play action successfully freezes the safeties OSU's wideouts are left working one-on-one without help over the top. And that's a recipe for disaster for the defense, because Justin Blackmon beats one-on-one coverage for touchdowns. Which brings us to...

OSU Offensive Personnel

The Cowboys offense in many ways presents an even more potent threat to Texas than did OU's.  Senior Brandon Weeden is 34 years old and has a big-time arm that can deliver the ball to any point on the field. He can be a little bit careless and sloppy, and his accuracy comes and goes, but when he's dialed in and grooving -- as he most certainly was last year in Austin -- he's as good as Landry Jones was last week. Weeden is not great under pressure and is turnover-prone, and it's absolutely essential to make him uncomfortable and bring out his worst habits. If he's comfortable and locked in, the OSU passing attack is virtually unstoppable.

The Pokes use a pair of sophomore tailbacks in Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith. Randle is the better athlete and more versatile player, while Smith is more of a bulldozer and solid downhill runner. Thankfully, Randle has proven not to be as dynamic as Kendall Hunter, but he's tough, consistent, fast enough, and is great as a receiving option slipping out of the backfield, where he's often Weeden's checkdown option. Randle is a key element of OSU's outstanding screen game, which they also run with their receivers any time they get favorable pre-snap alignments. Our ability to prevent them from picking up 5-8 yards at will on screens will say a lot about our ability to put them in some positions where we can get at Weeden and, hopefully, make some impact plays.

The receiving corps is headlined by Justin Blackmon, who's already caught 46 passes for 534 yards and 6 TDs, a year after catching 111 for 1,782 and 20 scores. He's fast, strong, physical, and competitive, and he presents the same problems to defenses that Michael Crabtree did at Tech. The rest of the balls get split among Josh Cooper (29 catches, 315 yards, 2 TDs), Hubert Anyiam (22-292-3), and Tracy Moore (16-220-2). Cooper isn't a scary deep threat, but he's a steady possession receiver who consistently moves the chains. Anyiam has a bit more speed but still isn't much of a deep threat; his biggest improvement this year has been in finding the toughness required to be consistent. And Moore is the most dynamic of the three and has started to blossom into more of a playmaker of late. Which really sucks for trying to contain this group.

The OSU offensive line got steadily better throughout 2010 and this year is now a well above average unit with depth and experience. After a bit of a sloppy start, the Cowboys have really tightened up their blocking and protection issues, which is part of the reason they've won the turnover battle 14-3 over their past three games.

Bottom line: we're looking at OU's offense with a slight drop off in receivers two through four, but more running game and a devastating screen game. Fun!

Keys for Texas

So what's all this mean for Texas?  I'm keyed in on a few critical points:

* Our secondary must do a better job of pattern matching -- identifying routes quickly, making proper reads on where/who/how to play, and closing out space before Weeden can start his delivery. If we hesitate or wait to react to the ball, it's too late.

* Our linebackers must find a way to be disruptive forces in this game. It's not enough to read, react, and tackle -- they need to anticipate and blow some plays up. Acho and Robinson need to be active in smothering the screen game, and especially in making Weeden uncomfortable.

* Of course, that's just a key point, generally: Texas' defense must find a way to make Weeden uncomfortable. It'd be great to get it done with our front four, but however it has to get done, we can't let Weeden sit back and run his show comfortably. With every extra half second Weeden has to survey the field and identify the receiver gaining an advantage, the likelier it will be that he'll be making the hardest pass for our secondary to disrupt. We want Weeden throwing quicker than he'd like to, which increases the chances he'll throw somewhere suboptimal, where our secondary is in position to make a play. 

* We really, really need better coverage play from our safeties. Gideon's limitations are all too obvious, but while he can't handle Blackmon one-on-one, he'd better at least be capable of being solid overall -- we can't survive a poor performance that gifts OSU easy scores. As for Vacarro, I think we're better off seeing what we can get pressure-wise from our front seven and letting Kenny focus his efforts on making his presence known to OSU pass catchers. The Pokes offense is all about rhythm and comfort, and Vaccaro's ability to disrupt that on the pass catchers' end (whether it's receivers cutting routes off short, or blowing up screens) would be hugely valuable.

* Finally, this Texas defense needs playmakers to emerge on Saturday. The caliber of the OSU offense is just too high to contain, and we'll be in for as long a Saturday as last week if we're unable to make an impact on the game with some big plays. It doesn't so much matter where it comes from, but Texas has to speed up the game for Weeden and Co. That, of course, is at the core of Manny Diaz's philosophy... but it just never materialized last week. It has to this week, or our offense will have to score an awful lot just to keep up.

Read more on the Cowboys at the outstanding OSU blog Cowboys Ride For Free.  And check out a terrific preview of the Pokes' defense by Scipio Tex at Barking Carnival.