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Must-win matchup: The Texas secondary vs. Oklahoma’s wide receivers

If the Texas can’t limit Oklahoma’s offense from producing explosive plays through the air, Saturday could be a long day for the Longhorns.

Oklahoma v Texas Photo by Richard W. Rodriguez/Getty Images

If the No. 19 Texas Longhorns are to improve to 5-1 on Saturday with a win over the No. 7 Oklahoma Sooners, it will likely be largely due to Texas’ secondary holding its own weight and then some against an explosive Oklahoma passing attack.

Failing to do so almost certainly means Texas’ four-game winning streak ends at four.

Baker Mayfield is now playing for a paycheck, but yet again, a Heisman candidate is lined up behind center in Kyler Murray, and at his disposal is some of the most dynamic pass catchers that college football has to offer; namely, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and CeeDee Lamb.

Last season’s edition of the Red River Showdown saw the duo total 147 yards on only seven receptions, and they’re even more lethal this time around.

Brown is now undeniably among college football’s very best, ranking eighth nationally in receiving yards (544) and seventh in yards per reception (22.67). Six of Brown’s team-high 24 receptions have covered at least 40 yards, which currently stands alone as the best effort in the entire country.

None of the above should come as much of a surprise considering Brown’s mind-boggling speed, which he’s utilized to the tune of five touchdowns.

Lamb lines up on the outside opposite of Brown, and the Sooners’ second-best option would headline the vast majority of Power 5 programs.

Only a sophomore, Lamb surpassed the 800-yard mark in 2017, and through five games, he’s on pace to exceed that effort this season.

His 19 receptions are second on the Sooners behind only Brown, and in addition to his 348 yards, five of his receptions have ended with seven points being added to the scoreboard, which means he’s averaging a touchdown every four touches.

Collectively, Brown and Lamb have hauled in nearly half of the team’s receptions and 10 of the 18 touchdown passes thrown to date.

Though they’ll headline Jason Washington and Craig Naivar’s game plans, they do have a bit of help surrounding them, such as junior receiver Lee Morris and sophomore tight end Grant Calcaterra, who has some vast shoes to fill with Mark Andrews off to the NFL. Thus far, the two have totaled only 15 receptions, but they’ve been exceptionally productive in those limited opportunities, amassing 319 yards.

Three of Lee’s six receptions have crossed pay dirt, and he’s flashing upside as an explosive option in averaging 28.7 yards per reception.

In short, from top to bottom, Oklahoma’s entire aerial assault is essentially comparable to the Fourth of July every Saturday — offensive fireworks and explosive plays are often capped with celebrations.

Through only five games, Oklahoma’s potent offensive has already provided 24 plays of at least 20 yards through the air; eight of which came last Saturday in a 66-point showing against Baylor. This isn’t exactly welcomed news for a Longhorns secondary that’s sacrificed 13 such plays.

Furthermore, Oklahoma has churned out 16 30-plus-yard plays, 11 that eclipsed the 40-yard mark, and seven that swallowed up at least half of the field.

All totaled, the Sooners are averaging a mind-boggling 18.32 yards per completion, which stands as the third-best effort in college football.

Simply put, the Horns haven’t seen the likes of an offense quite as explosive as the one the Sooners boast this season, but in a similar sense, Oklahoma hasn’t been face-to-face with a secondary quite as formidable as the one it will see on Saturday at the Cotton Bowl.

It’s no secret that the Horns have struggled with sacrificing big plays early this season, allowing four 20-plus-yard plays to Maryland, USC, and TCU, but Texas’ secondary has been fairly efficient otherwise.

Freshman safety Caden Sterns is currently tied for second nationally with three interceptions, and senior cornerback Kris Boyd is tied for fourth nationally in passes defended (9) and pass breakups (8), which has helped lift the Horns to a defense that headlines the Big 12 and ranks 25th nationally in passing efficiency defense (108.58).

Although this figure considers post-Oklahoma stats, the best passing defense the Sooners have seen thus far is Iowa State, which currently ranks 81st in passing efficiency defense with a grade of 134.93.

Top to bottom, the Longhorns secondary, which features three seniors in Boyd, Davante Davis, and P.J. Locke, a budding star junior who’s building an NFL resume in Brandon Jones, and the top-ranked safety in the 2018 class in Sterns, is likely the best Oklahoma will have seen, but that doesn’t mean head coach Lincoln Riley’s offense — abundant with weapons — won’t be able to exploit it.

Bearing in mind how the TCU and Kansas State games played out, and the fact that more times than not, he’ll be matched up against the speedy Hollywood Brown, odds are Oklahoma will look to attack Boyd early and often.

If that does prove to be the case, Texas head coach Tom Herman thinks his senior will be just fine if and when he’s challenged on Saturday.

“I think the structure of our defense, when you’re out there by yourself a lot, you’re going to get challenged,” Herman said of opposing offenses targeting Boyd in coverage. “And I think his aggressiveness is something that we all love at times. We’ve got to do a better job of coaching him to not be quite as susceptible in a double move. And then we’ve got to do a better job coaching him how to play the ball, the deep ball in the air and we’ve got to turn our head quicker.”

“He had great coverage on the one down the sideline — I mean great coverage. And if he just turned left instead of right to try to find the ball, he would have been fine,” Herman added. “So minor things, really minor things. But I think he’s playing well. He’s playing -- he’s making a lot of plays and a few corrections here. But I think he’ll be fine.”

For Texas, the unfortunate reality is that Oklahoma’s offense is quite simply too explosive to be stopped entirely. Oklahoma hasn’t produced one of the nation’s most prolific offenses by chance, and with weapons en masse, the Sooners should continue to see some semblance of success in the Red River Showdown.

However, how well the Longhorns can limit Murray and his band of big-play pass catchers will almost surely be what determines which team is celebrating with a gold cowboy hat on Saturday afternoon. Last season, Texas allowed Oklahoma to amass 344 yards through the air, but 262 of those yards came on a mere seven plays, including the 59-yard touchdown strike to Andrews that ultimately sealed the Sooners 29-24 win.

If the Sooners enjoy similar success on Saturday, the Longhorns are likely looking at their first loss since the first week of the season.