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Texas vs. OU: Anatomy of a Longhorns upset

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What the Horns need to accomplish to leave the Cotton Bowl with a second upset victory in three years.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

So you're saying there's a chance?

The 6 percent win probability and the projected 27-point margin of defeat for the Texas Longhorns against the Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday in Dallas obscure two important facts.

First of all, this is a rivalry game, and a unique one at that. With the Cotton Bowl split down the 50-yard line, half burnt orange and half crimson, there's no other rivalry game in college football where momentum can swing so quickly from one team to the other.

Just flash back to 2008 when the Sooners took a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter. Then Jordan Shipley returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards into the Oklahoma end zone and Texas never looked back, surging to a 45-35 victory over the favored Sooners. One play changed the entire course of the game.

The second fact? Texas is 5-2 against Oklahoma when entering the game unranked against a ranked Sooners squad. The most recent of those victories was in 2013, when the Case McCoy-led Horns upended the No. 12-ranked Sooners.

How Texas managed to pull off that unexpected upset provides a blueprint for how the Longhorns can do the same thing under head coach Charlie Strong.

1. Create big plays on defense and special teams

In 2013, Texas scored the first touchdown of the Red River Showdown when defensive tackle Chris Whaley intercepted a pass from Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell and showed off his old running back speed in rumbling 31 yards for a momentum-swinging touchdown.

In the second half, as the Horns attempted to hold onto a 23-13 lead, punt returner Daje Johnson made one of the biggest plays of his career, returning a Jed Barnett punt 85 yards for a touchdown to give Texas a comfortable margin from which Oklahoma could not recover.

Since Texas won that game by 16 points, the defensive touchdown and the special teams score accounted for almost the entire margin of victory. Take those away, and the two teams played relatively evenly.

Oklahoma enters the game with the No. 15 defense in S&P+, so the other two phases will have to help out the offense. So far, the defense and special teams have had some flashes of doing that -- the Horns lead the country with three defensive touchdowns and Johnson made his first big play since that punt return against Oklahoma when he took another punt 85 yards for a touchdown against Rice.

Since then, teams have been careful about kicking to him, so it's questionable whether the Sooners will take that risk, if Johnson even plays. Senior Duke Thomas is the back up to Johnson on punt returns.

In  the three games against Rice, Cal, and Oklahoma State, Texas was able to force 10 turnovers, including the fumble return for a touchdown by freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson against Rice, junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgway's fumble return for a touchdown against Oklahoma State, and freshman cornerback Holton Hill's interception return for a touchdown.

Against the Fighting Irish and Horned Frogs, however, the Horns weren't able to force any turnovers.

Whether another hero emerges on Saturday could determine where the Horns have a shot at the upset.

2. Generate big plays on offense

On a day when McCoy threw for 190 yards, more than half of them came on two plays -- a wheel route touchdown to Marcus Johnson that went for 59 yards and a 38-yard touchdown pass to Mike Davis against a porous Oklahoma secondary that looked unprepared for the game.

With the running game struggling to produce big plays from the running backs or from redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard, it may be up to the passing game to create them. Look out for freshman wide receiver John Burt, who has been able to get open deep multiple times on play action this season, including the 69-yard touchdown catch against Rice. Last week, he was streaking free on one such play, but senior center Taylor Doyle allowed a delayed blitz to reach Heard just before he could release the football.

3. Dominate the lines of scrimmage

Lost in the big plays of the 2013 game, it's easy to forget that an experienced and meshing Texas offensive line was able to consistently move the line of scrimmage against their Oklahoma counterparts while the defensive line made sure that the Sooner rushing attack never got going.

McCoy had a clean pocket all day long, as he wasn't sacked once. Meanwhile, running backs Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray both reached the 120-yard mark as the Horns ran for 255 yards on 60 carries.

Defensively, Texas got to Bell four times as no Oklahoma running back was able to gain more than 34 yards on the day.

This isn't the same Sooner offensive line that was so impressive for long stretches last season and it's not the same offense, either, which is probably good news for a Longhorns defensive front that has struggled at times this season.

However, Oklahoma holds the edge here on both sides of the ball, so it's going to take a season-best performance from an underachieving and banged up Texas offensive line and an incredible individual performance from junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway to repeat the 2013 success.

4. Benefit from terrible Oklahoma QB play

Coming into the game against Texas, Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell actually looked relatively competent -- he'd thrown for six touchdown against zero interceptions and completed passes at a high rate against Tulsa and Notre Dame.

Then everything fell apart in the Cotton Bowl, as Bell threw two interceptions, hit on only 12-of-26 passes, and never made an impact in the running game. Other than a solid game against Texas Tech several weeks later, Bell never really recovered, eventally moving to tight end last season.

With the new Oklahoma offense emphasizing a quick passing game like most Air Raid-derived offenses, pressuring Baker Mayfield into making bad decisions may be difficult for Texas. Mayfield isn't throwing many interceptions this year, either, with only three in 135 attempts, along with a decrease in the fumbling issues that plagued him while at Texas Tech, so the odds of him going full Blake Bell in this game seem minimal.

5. Game plan better than the Sooners

One of the most inexplicable elements of the 2013 upset was the apparent lack of preparation by Oklahoma on both sides of the ball. The defense acted like there was no advanced scouting available on the extremely limited McCoy and the offense appeared to have little clue about how to attack a defense that gave up 463 yards to Iowa State nine days previously.

In sum, it was one of the most poorly-coached games of Bob Stoops' career as the Sooner head coach and his staff clearly did him no favors.

So having a better strategy than Oklahoma was a low bar in 2013. This year, with a revitalized coaching staff led by rising young offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, Texas will have to work significantly harder to gain a similar advantage.