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Texas vs Oklahoma State: Five Keys to the Game

There's no such thing as too much good content with games like these, so after you're done reading up on keys to the game, be sure to check in at the excellent Oklahoma State blog Cowboys Ride For Free, as well as the inimitable Scipio Tex's takes on both the OSU offense and defense at Barking Carnival. My own thoughts on OSU's terrifyingly dangerous offense can be found here.

Earlier this evening on EDSBS LIVE Spencer asked me how I was mentally preparing myself for another potentially brutal loss. I paused, momentarily considering whether I should answer the question or talk about how Texas could win the game. I replied by noting that I'd grown rather fond of Oklahoma State and their fans, and that if we lost as we're predicted to, I'd be okay, and more interested in how the team finished the season against the relatively less dangerous remaining competition.

I predicted a loss to OU last week, I conceded our likely loss to OSU on the podcast earlier this evening, Scipio expects a loss to the Pokes on Saturday, OSU waxed us handily in Austin last year... like it or not, we're rightful underdogs in this game, even on our home field. Even so, we're not talking about Rice vs Texas here, where fifty things have to go right for there to be an upset; it's not terribly difficult to imagine how Texas comes out ahead on Saturday afternoon. While we could spend thousands of words talking about all of the things that would help the Horns pick up the win, let's focus on the five most important keys to determining whether this week the good guys come out ahead.

1.  Create hesitation in the Oklahoma State offense.  Like Landry Jones and the OU offense he directs, Cowboys QB Brandon Weeden and his offense are nearly unstoppable when they're comfortable and have time to execute all the things they do so well. Disrupting that rhythm is about more than getting pressure on Weeden; the key is making plays that cause the OSU offense to hesitate. Creating that hesitation -- that extra bit of thinking, that seed of doubt -- might come from getting to Weeden and delivering some memorable hits.  It might come from jumping some routes and breaking up passes or, especially, picking off a pass or two. It might come from hammering OSU's pass catchers when they receive the ball in the screen game.

If Texas did all of those things, the defense would be in fantastic shape to disrupt OSU's offensive rhythm and cause them to start forcing things. Even if our defense manages just to do one of those things well, each presents a critical opportunity to slow down OSU's offense, build confidence among our defensive players, and increase the likelihood that we come up with the kinds of big plays essential to any Longhorn victory.

2.  Consistently create favorable, manageable situations for our offense.  This isn't a great Oklahoma State defense, but it's an aggressive and opportunistic one, and they're capable of making plays on our young quarterbacks and inconsistent blocking from the offensive line/tight ends if we find ourselves in as many must-pass situations as last week. Running the ball well early and often is certainly essential, but our quarterbacks must also establish some base line potency in the early going to keep Oklahoma State honest. The key in both regards is to minimize obvious passing situations; after last week, our quarterbacks will hyper-aware of the importance to avoid costly mistakes, which in turn is likely to inhibit their ability to make plays.

In other words, where our quarterbacks are operating in favorable down-and-distance situations, I feel good about their ability to be comfortable and make plays -- big plays, even. Must-pass situations, however, not only will allow for Oklahoma State's defense to play us aggressively, but our caution to avoid mistakes will diminish our chances of converting the plays needed to advance the drive. Maybe our defense has a brilliant day and keeps OSU's offense in check all game, but more likely we're going to need to continue scoring points to keep pace. It isn't uncommon for OSU's offense to go an entire half without punting...

Bottom line: we need to be successful running the ball in virtually every situation and have to execute some underneath stuff in the passing game that helps us keep OSU's defense honest and puts our offense in manageable down-and-distance situations.

3.  Go even or better in the turnover tally.  This pretty much goes without saying, but let's briefly spell out why it's so critical for our chances Saturday. Again, the Cowboys defense isn't a great defense, but is an aggressive and opportunistic one. And as discussed, our best chance to slow down the Cowboys offense is to make some big plays -- including, especially, causing turnovers -- that disrupt their rhythm. In tandem, the bottom line calculus is this: (1) If our defense fails to cause any turnovers, it likely means their offense is going to be putting a big number on the scoreboard, which in turn means that our own offense can't afford any turnovers of its own.  (2) If our offense turns the ball over a time or three, it likely means that we're not going to be in any kind of position to win a shootout, which in turn means our defense will have to contain the OSU offense... which means causing turnovers.

So while yes, "winning the turnover battle" is a key to any well-played game, against Oklahoma State there literally is no margin for error. At a bare minimum, we'll have to draw even on turnovers, in which case our defense will still have to be disruptive in some other way. More realistically, the clearest path to closing the gap between their offense and ours is through a positive turnover differential. A defensive score would be gravy, but even slowing them down and/or gifting our offense some short fields would be tremendously valuable to our chances of victory.

4.  Get two or more big play scores.  At the risk of sounding repetitive, it's too tall an order to ask our young quarterbacks to go toe-to-toe with Weeden and OSU's offense. Even if neither defense is effective and the game becomes a shootout, that's advantage Cowboys. Maybe Texas bucks the odds, contains OSU's offense all game, and big play scores won't be so critical, but more likely than not Texas isn't winning this game without scoring 35+ points. In that case, maybe the single most helpful thing to Texas will be big play scores.

We've already talked about what a critical boost such plays would provide to our defensive effort, but they'll be no less valuable to our offense -- not only in helping us to keep pace in putting points on the board, but in providing it with much-needed breathing room to execute our base stuff and stay in manageable down-and-distance situations. And needless to say, the ability to shorten the field or put points on the board with special teams would be a huge help in all of these regards.

5.  Start strong, build momentum, and put the pressure on OSU.  Especially after the way this Texas team got so badly thumped last week, a strong start is pretty much essential to any victory; we're not at all well-equipped to pull off any kind of come-from-behind win. A fast start, by contrast, would do wonders to mitigate some of the damage potentially lingering from the Cotton Bowl. Every plausible path to victory involves a solid 60-minute performance from our young quarterbacks and defensive backs, and the specific things we need from both groups will require them not only to avoid big mistakes but to play with confidence and make impact plays.

A fast start also helps fire up and engage a Texas crowd that might be quick to conclude the team is overmatched. Moreover, whereas heading into the game the pressure is, somewhat oddly, on the underdogs (because of last week's blowout loss), in most instances the opposite would be true -- with the pressure on the undefeated favorite. A fast start by Texas would help to quickly bury last week's demons, take the pressure off Texas, and shift it squarely on Oklahoma State. Like everything else we've discussed, that's precisely the kind of advantage that can help disrupt the Cowboys' rhythm and comfort level, and boost Texas' chances of slowing down what has to this point in the season been a more or less unstoppable force.

So what do you think? Are these the most important keys to the game in your mind, as well? What else is critical in your estimation? And most importantly, after identifying the keys to Texas pulling off a win, do you like our chances to make it happen?