It seems most Texas fans share my feeling that there are lots of reasons to feel optimistic that Texas can and will deliver a very competitive game on Saturday, but that it's easy to imagine scenarios in which this game gets out of hand... and not in a good way. With that in mind, below are five of the most important things which I'll be watching closely for on Saturday, as indications that we're either in for an exciting game... or a brutal afternoon.
What To Watch For
1. Texas' ability to pressure/hit Landry Jones without selling out. This is obvious enough, but it's hard to overstate the importance of Texas getting pressure on Oklahoma's quarterback, and laying some hits on him. The OU offense is a tempo offense, and with arguably the best receiving corps in the nation and a quarterback who will pick you apart when he's comfortable, preventing Jones from getting in a rhythm is essential to Texas' defensive game plan on Saturday. Unfortunately, that's a particularly daunting task because if you have to sell out and bring extra defenders to create pressure you're almost assured to pay with big plays. Although Manny Diaz's game plan is sure to center on preventing big plays, he also assuredly knows how important it will be to disrupt Landry Jones' and the OU offense's rhythm.
Diaz will surely bring extra pressure situationally, but what matters is whether we're able to get to Jones with five rushers. If so, Jones is susceptible to mistakes and the OU offense can sputter. But if not -- if Jones is throwing comfortably from the pocket -- we're going to have a very difficult time getting them off the field. It will help that Jones isn't at all a rushing threat, liberating our pass rushers to pursue him aggressively without fear of losing containment.
2. Texas' ability to keep Ryan Broyles in check. Ryan Broyles can make NFL-bound defensive backs look bad, and he routinely punishes small mistakes with six points. See Broyles 35-yard touchdown against Texas in 2009. In his capacity as a receiver, this in large part means conceding modest receptions but tackling well to prevent him from turning them into big plays, a game plan Florida State executed very well earlier this year. That's been a strength of this Texas secondary to date, but never this season will it be more important than on Saturday with Broyles.
Even if we pass that test, there's still the matter of containing Broyles' as a kick returner, as well.
The bottom line is Broyles is a threat to score a touchdown every single time he touches the ball, and you need only think back to Shipley's impact on the 2008 game (45-35 forever) to imagine the extent of the potential impact on the game. If Texas succeeds in keeping Broyles out of the end zone and OU still puts a lot of points on the board, you tip your cap, but that's how you want to force the Sooners to beat you. If Broyles has a big game, it almost assuredly means a long Saturday for the good guys on Saturday.
3. Oklahoma's ability to rush the ball when it needs to. We'll live with some Oklahoma rushing success in between the 20s, but the Sooners' ability to run the ball in the red zone will be key to this game. With an offense like OU's, you have to accept that they're going to pick up yards -- especially if you're committed to preventing devastating big plays -- and the real key is not whether or not you're able to shut them down entirely, but how often their trips to the red zone end in field goal tries. The Sooners are liable to become impatient and one-dimensional when they can't rush the ball when it counts, a result which plays right into Texas' and Manny Diaz's hands. Even if OU takes each of their first three drives into the red zone, if we hold them to field goal tries that could be a very good sign for the rest of the game.
4. Texas' ability to keep OU's defense honest. The Sooner defense is fast, aggressive and they love to choke you outside-in with their pressure, and if you can't punish them up the middle of the field early and often, things can go very badly, very quickly. Every defense makes a choice about what vulnerabilities it will live with, and the offense's ability to execute what the defense is making available to it is crucial to the direction of the game. Against the Sooner defense, the opportunities are in the middle of the field, and it will be critically important that early in the game Texas succeed in punishing the Sooners with inside runs, counters, cutbacks, passes to tight ends, crossing routes, etc. If they do, everything else will open up. Forcing the OU defense to play us honest up the middle will help provide Texas with opportunities to make plays with speed on the edges. And it will help put six on the board over the top when Javon Harris -- who doesn't have the speed to recover -- takes one too many steps forward.
5. Texas' special teams play. Last but not least, Texas simply cannot afford to gift Oklahoma with a big boost in the special teams department. We've already talked about the danger that Broyles poses, and as shoddy as our return coverage has been this year, that's a potential game-changer right there; even if Broyles doesn't take one all the way for six, the last thing we need is to give OU's potent offense a short field. Frankly, there's nothing that we've seen to date that provides any reason for comfort, and the best we can do is hope for good fortune or that there's some sort of big adjustment that previously alluded us for who-knows-why. That's not much to go on, but the situation has been a mess all year and without improvement, so I'm not sure what else to say, other than that I hope to spend Saturday evening writing about a successful change of some sort.
Looking at these keys in sum, it's not hard to deduce Oklahoma is the favored team in this match up. On the bright side, with the exception of the question mark on special teams, there are legitimate reasons for feeling optimistic about Texas' ability to meet each of these challenges. If early on the Longhorns can get some pressure on Jones without selling out, limit OU to field goal tries, and punish the Sooner defense up the middle, this game will take on an entirely different dynamic than if on both sides of the ball OU is playing fast and loose, where they become exceptionally tough to beat.
Hook 'em... and OU sucks.