In a somewhat funny way, I actually find myself liking the way the Texas Longhorns match up against the Oklahoma Sooners in the Cotton Bowl better than how they matched up with the Oklahoma State Cowboys in Stillwater.
Here are five things to watch during the game.
1) Can the Texas pass rush get to Baker Mayfield again?
One of the reasons Texas beat the Sooners last season was because the Longhorns’ defensive front was able to get to quarterback Baker Mayfield and keep him off balance most of the game.
The ‘Horns sacked Mayfield six times, which was tied for the most of any game in 2015 for Texas. And they added two additional quarterback hits to pad the stats. Throughout the entire game, it felt like Mayfield was never able to get into a good rhythm thanks to that pressure from Texas.
This year, through four games, the Sooners are again struggling to protect Mayfield as they continue to experience issues across the offensive line. At the moment, Oklahoma ranks second to last in the conference in sacks allowed, averaging 3.25 a game.
The only team that ranks worse? Oklahoma State at 3.40 per game.
Texas did get to Rudolph three times last week and hit him twice more (according to the stats), but the ‘Horns will probably need to get to Mayfield at a higher rate than they did against Oklahoma State to truly get last season’s Heisman Trophy candidate off balance and disrupt plays and drives.
2) Can Texas get off the field on third downs?
Texas is currently tied for fifth in the conference with Texas Tech and ranks just above Oklahoma in the percentage of third-down conversions it allows to opponents.
Both the ‘Horns and Sooners are sitting right around 40 percent, which places Texas at 70th nationally.
This means two things.
There will probably be a handful of long drives from both teams this Saturday with each team converting on multiple third-down situations.
More importantly, Texas will do itself favors if it can come out of this game giving up fewer third-down conversions than the Sooners.
Given it’s a rivalry game and how each team matches up, I imagine this game will be closer than what the line indicates (currently around 10.5 in favor of the Sooners, I believe) so every drive will count.
Texas can’t afford a ton of three-and-outs and it also can’t afford to let Oklahoma eat up clock and control the flow of this game by converting multiple third downs and sustaining long drives.
3) What will Charlie Strong’s defense look like?
Now that the Texas head coach has officially taken over this unit, everyone will be watching to see what the defense looks like and how it performs.
After missing a ton of tackles last week, tackling will of course be at the top of the list this week given the talent at running back the Sooners have to lean on.
In addition to tackling, performing better in pass-coverage is another no-brainer Texas will instantly have to improve on this game.
I wouldn’t say Oklahoma’s passing attack is as prolific or on par with Oklahoma State’s, Cal’s or the other top passing teams in the Big 12 Texas will face. But with Mayfield under center, it’s a capable unit.
The two main receivers Texas will have to keep in check are 6’0 senior Dede Westbrook, who has 312 yards and two touchdowns on the year, and 6’5 sophomore Mark Andrews who has 217 yards and four touchdowns so far.
Behind those two receivers, running back Joe Mixon ranks third in receptions on the team, which means the Texas linebackers and second-level players will have to get their assignments and drops correct to avoid giving Mixon to much room to work when he leaves the backfield to catch a pass.
4) Can some key Longhorns freshmen step up in this game?
Quarterback Shane Buechele, along with his fellow freshmen, will be playing in their first Red River Shootout (I’m still calling it that) come Saturday. Of that group of freshmen, there are a few key individuals Texas will likely need to lean on for some good contributions against the Sooners.
I’d expect a healthy Buechele, being the gritty, competitive, and poised young quarterback he is, to have at least a solid game against the Sooners. This is the game he grew up hearing about and watching. And this game is one reason why he turn on his Sooner family to don burnt orange.
The issue with Buechele, though, may be his rib injury he sustained against Cal. Hopefully he’s able to continue to play through it, but there’s been some speculation that the injury has been effecting his throwing ability, which is understandable if that’s the case.
Along with him, freshman running back Kyle Porter and freshman center Zach Shackelford are two other guys on offense I see as key freshmen from whom Texas could really use solid games.
With running back Chris Warren out with a knee injury and D’Onta Foreman possibly entering this game less than 100-percent healthy, there’s a good chance Porter could see a healthy dose of carries against the Sooners.
Defensively, we’ve already talked about how important sacks and pressuring the quarterback will be in this match up. And one guy that has been one of the most effective pass rushers this season has been freshmen Fox end Malcolm Roach.
If the trend continues from last week, Roach will continue to dominate the snap count at one of the end positions, as he should. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Strong continue to move Roach around the line a bit to give him a better opportunity to get to Mayfield.
In the secondary, Texas is looking for anyone to step up and start making more consistent plays.
After getting the start against Oklahoma State, freshmen safety Brandon Jones was pulled off the field for a bit due to a missed tackle before getting back out there as the game went on.
What Jones brings more than any other safety is speed. And if he can utilize that speed in pass coverage, he could fill a void on the back end of the Texas defense that has been missing for too long.
5) If Texas gets down early, can it fight back to win?
This has been one of the issues Strong and his Longhorns have faced more often than not. When his Longhorns teams get down in games, they struggle to fight their way back and come out on top.
If Texas does get down early in this one, ideally the defense will be able to make enough stops and the offense will have enough healthy contributors to help the ‘Horns get back in the groove of the game.
There’s a ton riding on this game, more so than normal for Texas and its head coach. This would be an ideal time for a comeback win if the game starts to tilt in the Sooners favor early.