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How the Texas Longhorns will attack QB Trevor Knight and the Oklahoma Sooners offense

The Horns confused the Bears quarterback last week with simple calls that looked complex and will attempt to do the same against the Sooners quarterback this week.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the annual grudge match against the Oklahoma Sooners in the Cotton Bowl, the Texas Longhorns defense turned in a performance last weekend that it can build upon.

Against Baylor, the Texas defense harried and harassed Baylor Bears quarterback Bryce Petty into the senior's worst game in green and gold, according to quarterback rating, at least.

After it was over, Petty still wasn't sure exactly what he had seen.

"I'll have to be honest with you, my head is still spinning trying to think about it," he said. "They threw so many looks at us, coverage-wise...I couldn't tell you what they did on consecutive plays."

On the first three plays Texas blitzed, part of a strategy designed to put pressure on Petty and not allow him the clean pockets from which he normally throws. According to defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, part of the reason for that was because the Bears simply don't see that employed often as a strategy. Then the Horns dropped players into coverage as a change up.

For the Texas defense, that's their identity -- aggressive early, then ready to adjust to opposing adjustments.

But it was also a much more simple attack than Petty thought in the moment.

"I know they said we ran a variety of defenses; to be honest, we probably only ran five calls," Bedford said. "Same five calls we ran against UCLA. The formations you align in make those same calls look a little different because for the most part, we've been pretty simple. We're a new staff and our guys are learning a little bit at a time, so we just put a few things in each week and make minor adjustments based on the people we have to play against."

The other part of the strategy was disguising looks so that Petty couldn't get a good pre-snap read. Bedford believes that there is room for improvement in that regard.

"If you can disguise what you are doing with alignments, it goes a long way," said Bedford. "We did have success on third down. Part of it was we showed our hand early, we didn't do a lot of disguise. So [Baylor QB Bryce Petty] was able to make a check and get them in a good play and they ran the football."

In facing the spread offenses of the Big 12, it's hard to disguise because offenses glance back to the sideline after the defense gets aligned to make a potential check into a different play. So the challenge that defenses face is to keep offenses from recognizing the coverage look after pausing at the line.

"We have to hold our disguise and be patient," said Bedford. "If they snap the football and we are down in position, just go play hard and fast and see what happens. We have to have more patience. Part of playing defense is having patience. Right now, we are not there just yet. We need to be more patient. If we are able to do that and hold our disguise longer, we'll be able to make more plays and get off the field on third down."

Compared to facing Petty, the challenge for the Texas defense in facing Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight is perhaps not as significant overall, though Knight is certainly a talented quarterback in his own right.

The weekly ritual for beat writers now is asking Bedford about a comparison for the upcoming opposing quarterback, but the defensive coordinator declined this week with a smile.

"Trevor Knight," he said when asked for that comparison. "He's athletic. He can run. He's a guy that you have to contain because if you don't and he gets outside the pocket, he's a handful. A lot of people have missed sacks on him because he has great escapability."

The sophomore hasn't been especially prolific as a runner, with his 13-carry, 61-yard performance last week his best of the season. But he has been relatively difficult to sack, as Bedford said, going down only four times on the year, a number that puts the Sooners tied for 10th nationally in that category.

Since Knight has that escapability and has generally been receiving good protection, he's been able to take advantage of his best skill as a passer.

"His best throws are the deep throws, the deep balls," said Bedford. "It's a scary situation. He puts it right where it needs to be placed in order for his receivers to make a play. It'll be a great challenge to just try to contain him and keep the ball inside and in front of us."

The favored target for Knight is junior Sterling Shepard, who has emerged as a premier weapon on those deep shots from Knight. Since the first game, he's had a catch of 37 yards or more in each game. Against TCU, the 5'10, 195-pounder had seven catches for 215 yards and a 75-yard touchdown. His per-game average of just over 130 yards ranks No. 3 nationally and No. 1 in rushing/receiving plays of 30 yards or more.

He'll likely see a lot of man coverage against Texas this weekend and will probably draw junior cornerback Duke Thomas in coverage. Despite giving up the game-winning play against UCLA, Thomas has been excellent, but if he draws the assignment of Shepard, bringing him down is as difficult as keeping him from making big plays, with head coach Charlie Strong noting the Oklahoma wide receiver's ability to get behind his pads and physical with the ball in his hands.

Bedford has talked in past weeks about the need to play zone coverage, but has instead leaned towards man-to-man looks over the last several games, a decision made for a specific reason.

"We've been a lot of man free dating back to BYU and UCLA in order to just load the box and try to find a way to stop the run, which we have to do a lot better job of. So we are going to play some cat coverage in this game, we have to because we have to stop the run. That means you have to put a safety down in the box and keep the linebackers in the box to do whatever you can to force them to throw the football."

The problem is that even though the defense has played relatively well overall, especially in the last two games, stopping opposing running games has been a problem. Kansas had success in the second half and Baylor ran the ball 60 times for 278 yards, with running back Shock Linwood picking up around 50 yards after contact, much of it in the second half when the Texas defense appeared to wear down.

Linwood was able to turn three- or four-yard gains into six- or seven-yard gains at 200 pounds. The starter for Oklahoma is much bigger -- Austin-area product Samaje Perine has taken over the job for the injured Keith Ford and packs 243 pounds on his 5'11 frame.

To say that the kid is put together is an understatement and he's already earned a reputation as a weight-room warrior capable of squatting over 500 pounds.

"Oh my goodness, my man is a load," Bedford said of Perine. "He runs through, over. I think he's an outstanding back. For a guy so close to not be a part of this program is disappointing. Their running backs, I'm excited to see those guys. We're going to have our hands full. I told our linebackers to buckle up your stuff. If you want to know what a real running back is like, we are going to face some this week. It's not for the weak of heart to go tackle these guys. I told the guys to bring some extra headgear just in case."

So the challenge will become much more significant this week for Texas as the defense attempts to keep Perine from replicating his performance against West Virginia several weeks ago, when he burst onto the national scene in rushing for 242 yards and four touchdowns on 34 carries.

To stop Perine, the Horns may have to avoid the odd fronts that the Jayhawks and Bears were able to run against -- letting the Pflugerville Hendrickson product to get to the second level is a recipe for missed tackles, but it's questionable whether there is enough depth to do that and Bedord said the Horns will continue to use that look.

And attempting to stop big plays in the passing game may divert a player from the box. Despite Bedford saying that the Horns out-numbered the box against Baylor, that wasn't always the case as the defense schemed to take away the downfield passing game of Petty and company.

Look for Oklahoma to ditch some of the heavier sets that feature former quarterback Blake Bell at tight end and some combination of fullbacks Aaron Ripkowski and Dimitri Flowers in favor of spreading Texas out to run up the middle as Baylor and Kansas did.

Texas will also have to stop the POP passes that Oklahoma has incorporated into the offense that will put Horns run defenders into conflict and could place a premium on safeties coming downhill quickly to make stops or disrupt passing lanes.

There's also the need for pressure on Knight, who admitted this week that he wasn't always calm enough in the pocket against TCU. He threw two interceptions in Fort Worth and has thrown five on the season against only five touchdown passes, so the struggles of 2013 have returned for him this season after the strong showing in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.

His interception rate now sits at over 3% and his completion percentage has actually gone down from last season, now sitting at 54.5%. Last week, Texas wasn't likely to build on the nine interceptions the team had going into the Baylor, but Knight is a little more than four times as likely to throw an interception as Bryce Petty.

Bedford knows that the defense needs to create turnovers to give the offense short fields to work with and saw Knight get unsettled on film against TCU. On the flip side, when the pass protection was there, he was able to hit those big plays to Shepard.

Texas may well open the game aggressively again to see how Knight and the Sooners react. Knight is infinitely more likely to get rattled than Petty and Petty was rattled last week.

Accomplish the same this weekend while throwing in a game-changing interception or two and the Horns could have a chance in the Cotton Bowl.

Of course, if Texas can't stop Perine and the physical Oklahoma rushing attack, Knight won't even have to throw the football.