On Saturday, Texas Longhorns defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will face arguably the most unenviable task in college football — trying to slow down the Oklahoma Sooners in the Big 12 Championship Game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Orlando admitted on Wednesday that Riley is the top offensive mind in the country, so he can’t expect to enter Saturday’s game with some of the same blitzes and coverages that worked in October with the belief that Riley doesn’t have an answer now.
“There’s some things from a game-plan standpoint that — not with a coach like Riley — you’re just not going to go out and do certain things the way you did because they’re the top guys,” Orlando said. “He’s the top guy in the country when it comes to game planning and in terms of play calling. So if you go out there and you’re throwing stuff out there that they’re prepping for, you’re a fish in a barrel. That’s the way I look at it.”
For a second-year defensive coordinator in Texas, Oklahoma has an unusual amount of film on Orlando’s defenses against the Sooners — Houston bested Oklahoma in 2016, Orlando’s new program faced off against Riley once he took over for Bob Stoops last season, and the two teams have played once already this season.
As a result, both sides had three games to review to find weaknesses and tendencies and exploit them or cover them up through self-scouting. The chess match will be real and incredible on Saturday when Oklahoma’s offense is on the field.
Freshman safety Caden Sterns emphasized the need to play fundamental defense and communicate well on the back end.
“If you go watch the Oklahoma game last time that’s what really got us, there were a lot of plays where we were not communicating, and guys were running wide open across the field,” Sterns said on Tuesday. “So, again, just fundamental ball which Coach Orlando talks about all the time — knowing your assignment and making tackles, that’s half the battle right there.”
The pace of the Oklahoma offense provides the biggest threat in that regard, as Murray and the Sooners are experts at catching defenses before they are properly aligned. Crowd noise will also likely play a role — just like the Cotton Bowl in October, AT&T Stadium will almost certainly be loud through much of Saturday’s game.
For senior defensive tackle Chris Nelson, it’s all about making sure that the defensive front trusts their teammates do their jobs. Against Oklahoma’s explosive rushing offense, one player out of an assigned gap trying to make a play could result in a huge play the other way.
Whether it’s a breakdown in gap control or run fits or miscommunication in the secondary, the Sooners make opposing defenses pay for those mistakes with touchdowns. With an absolute quickness.
Orlando learned some hard lessons in October, particularly in regards to Kyler Murray’s touchdown run in the fourth quarter. I had asked Orlando about the Oklahoma GT Counter that week because it’s such a devastating play. In a moment where Orlando anticipated that the Sooners would try to pass the ball, he left the defense open to the QB GT Counter run by Murray, the fastest quarterback Nelson has ever played against.
“The biggest thing I learned is when he has the ball in his hands, he’s just as dynamic. He can run 50 or 60 yards just as fast as he can throw a football 50 or 60 yards. We gave up a play on the QB run, and we gave up a play on a screen, and next thing you know, it’s a ballgame.”
Murray made him pay. With a quickness.
In 10 plays and 3:16 seconds, Oklahoma scored three touchdowns and covered 178 yards to eliminate the 21-point fourth-quarter lead for Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
Life comes at you fast.
The reality of quick-strike Oklahoma plays through the air or on the ground, purveyed with relatively equal effectiveness, Texas defenders have to keep plays in front of them and bounce back from the big plays that will be as inevitable on Saturday as death and taxes.
“To me, it’s just play the next play,” Orlando said. “That’s like our motto around here, 1-0. We screwed that play up. It’s fine. Let it go. The biggest thing is not letting people behind us to give up 60-yard touchdowns. They catch a ball for 30 or 40 yards, and it’s in front of you, and you get them into the tight red zone, you play well there and can give up three points, that’s what it’s about.”
A day before, Nelson had echoed that point, noting that this Texas team, perhaps unlike some in previous years, isn’t going to come to the sideline arguing about why a big play happened. There’s enough communication and mental resiliency now to move beyond that.
Stops and turnovers. Learning. Playing fast and loose.
If enough of those elements come together on Saturday, Orlando’s defense may just have a chance to do enough to win.
The final lesson learned by Orlando, though? This rivalry game takes on its own personality — it’s not even about schemes as much a letting players go make plays and staying out the way so that they aren’t slowed down by some rarely-used call.
“What do we have to lose? Nothing. Go out there and be free, go play as hard as you can, and we’ll see what happens.”