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Texas vs. Oklahoma Q&A: The Sooners are underachieving

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Jack Shields of SB Nation’s Sooners site, Crimson and Cream Machine, provides expert insight on Oklahoma.

Oklahoma v Texas Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
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Burnt Orange Nation: Oklahoma came into the season with high expectations, but faced an incredibly difficult early schedule with games against Houston and Ohio State, both of which resulted in losses. Is this team underachieving in your mind or were those losses simply a result of the competition level?

Crimson and Cream Machine: Yes, this team is underachieving, but the poor performances are much more of a concern than the losses themselves. Sure, Oklahoma caught a ton of bad breaks against Houston, but everything about the Ohio State game was sickening to Sooner fans. It was good to get a win on the road against TCU, but morale isn’t much better than it was a week ago due to the nature of the game against the Frogs. The Sooners definitely wouldn’t have two losses after dealing with a different OOC schedule, but we’d still see their glaring weaknesses and be frustrated with this team.

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BON: In terms of injuries, quarterback Baker Mayfield got banged up last week, starting linebacker Tay Evans had to give up football, and there are some other injuries across other positions. Is Mayfield going to be limited at all this week and how much impact with those other injuries have on the game?

CCM: Mayfield will likely be at full strength this week. He wore a boot on Monday for precautionary reasons, but he looked fine mobility-wise in the second half against TCU and has been practicing since sitting out on Monday.

OU will likely be getting people back this week, including Jonathan Alvarez, Matt Dimon, D.J. Ward and Parrish Cobb. Alvarez will likely move to guard this week if he comes back (which he should), and his old center position will be occupied by Eric Wren, who just last week earned himself a scholarship.

The loss of Tay Evans is big, but JUCO transfer Emmanuel Beal has filled in admirably and will be occupying his position for the foreseeable future. In short, the Sooners will be closer to full strength than they were a week ago.

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BON: Last season, Texas sacked Mayfield six times to fuel the upset victory. With the Sooners giving up more than three sacks per contest in 2016, is that still a big area of concern for the offense heading into the game at the Cotton Bowl?

CCM: Yes, it’s definitely a bit of a concern. A lot of those sacks are Mayfield’s fault for holding onto the ball for too long or trying to do something huge. He has to be a bit more careful if he wants to avoid mistakes and stay healthy this week. The presence of Malik Jefferson will not help the situation one bit.

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BON: Wide receiver Dede Westbrook has helped fill the playmaking role occupied by Sterling Shepard last year, but how is the rest of the receiving corps shaking up? Are there any players beyond Mark Andrew who represent a big threat to opposing defenses?

CCM: If I had to name a receiver outside of Westbrook and Andrews to potentially make a big play, it would have to be A.D. Miller. He’s a big, athletic receiver who’s shown flashes of brilliance, most notably with a touchdown against Ohio State in the first half.

As far as the rest of the unit is concerned, Nick Basquine is showing signs of life in the slot after making some nice plays against TCU, and talented freshman Mykel Jones is starting to see a bit more time, which is what people want to see. This group lacked experience coming into the season, and some growing pains have definitely played a factor.

You can’t overlook the role of Joe Mixon in the passing game, however, since he has the skill set of a receiver when he needs to show it.

One frustrating aspect of the group is the lack of involvement in the passing game for Jeffrey Mead and Dahu Green. Both are big and athletic, and both see the field a lot (especially Mead), but they’re not being targeted at all this season. I’d like to see that change as the season progresses.

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BON: Against TCU, Oklahoma ran for 260 yards and five touchdowns. After a slow start to the season against those two good defenses fielded by Houston and Ohio State, is it fair say that the rushing attack is back now behind two of the best running backs in the conference, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon?

CCM: The running game was going to return once Lincoln Riley decided that it would return, and it finally happened on Saturday against TCU. OU’s YPC average was pretty solid coming into the TCU game, but the lack of rushing attempts had Sooner fans pulling out their hair. Riley has a tendency to abandon the running game when OU gets into a hole, but he resisted the urge on Saturday, which was a breath of fresh air for all of us watching at home.

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BON: Defensively, the Ohio State game was a major outlier for Oklahoma in terms of rush yards allowed. In the other three games, the Sooners have given up fewer than three yards per carry. Was the success by the Buckeyes simply a result of being talented and well schemed or was Ohio State able to exploit a specific weakness in the Oklahoma defensive front?

CCM: With Oklahoma’s linebackers often dedicated to coverage, Ohio State decided to give running outside a try, and it worked out incredibly well for them. Ohio State’s speed at the running back position is going to create problems for every team they face this season, including the postseason.

Credit also has to be given to Ohio State’s offensive line, which would’ve handled most defensive fronts that night. Lastly, Oklahoma’s linebackers simply weren’t fast enough to deal with them on the outside.

I don’t think OU will be facing that type of rushing attack for the rest of this season. Texas has a formidable rushing attack, but with the absence of Chris Warren and the fact that D’Onta Foreman will be at less than full strength, I don’t see OU having issues of that magnitude this weekend.

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BON: Like Texas, Oklahoma is struggling on the back end, allowing 13 touchdown passes and only recording one interception so far. What's the current state of the Sooners defensive backfield after giving up 449 passing yards to the Horned Frogs?

Oklahoma’s weakness from a personnel standpoint lies at the No. 2 CB position, which has been occupied by three different players through four games. Dakota Austin had a very tough time against Houston, and Parrish Cobb was absolutely annihilated by Ohio State.

The struggles continued against TCU, as former WR Michiah Quick started against the Frogs and gave up some big plays. If OU is ever going to have a reliable person at the position, it likely won’t be until later in the season. For now, the best way to mitigate the issue is to have success rushing the passer.

When OU was able to get pressure on Hill, we weren’t hearing Quick’s name as much. That’s not a coincidence. Obo Okoronkwo and Co. will need to make their presence felt on Saturday if OU is going to have a chance.

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BON: What's your overall assessment of the job that Mike Stoops has done replacing Brent Venables as the defensive coordinator? Was Venables underrated? It's just weird seeing Oklahoma struggle so much defensively when head coach Bob Stoops had such a great reputation in that area for so long.

CCM: He’s done a poor job. The Stoops bubble kind of burst once the spread offenses started to show up in the Big 12 (before Mike came back to Oklahoma). Oklahoma decided to recruit specifically to stop these attacks, and it resulted in a drop in talent on that side of the ball.

Brent Venables eventually employed a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy that was sometimes successful, but it drew ire for the fans that longed for the days of physical defense (which led to Mike’s second stint in Norman). Venables now has freaks all over the field at Clemson and is able to take more risks as a result.

Meanwhile, Mike Stoops is completely lost when facing complex offenses. The game has simply passed him by.

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BON: For the last three years, Oklahoma hasn't really shown up in these games, underachieving badly in two upset losses. Is this the year that the Sooners finally show up and make a statement again?

CCM: I’d love to say yes, but I’m not too sure. I think OU will definitely come out with more fire than in previous years and intend to make a statement, but if OU’s defensive struggles continue, it could suck the life out of them. I don’t think another 52-46 win would be much of a statement.

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BON: Relatedly, how do you see this game playing out? Does Texas head coach Charlie Strong decrease some pressure with a win or does Oklahoma push him further towards the brink of termination?

CCM: Despite everything I’ve mentioned, I have OU coming out on top in this one. Watch Texas or listen to any Texas fan or pundit, and their issues are as apparent as Oklahoma’s. The secondary is in shambles, the tackling is poor, and they’re dealing with injuries — just like OU.

If Malik Jefferson has his way with Mayfield, it’ll be a long day for OU. The same can be said if OU is unable to get to Buechele. If OU is able to have at least moderate success on both fronts, I’ve got the Sooners. 38-28 is the final score in this one.