Every year when the Texas Longhorns and the Oklahoma Sooners square off in the Cotton Bowl, it seems as if the entire college football landscape takes a look to see what will happen. This year, more than any in recent memory, has much more than pride and a trophy on the line.
Both the Longhorns and the Sooners are trying to validate their place among the nation’s elites, while the quarterbacks for both squads do the same. Jalen Hurts and Sam Ehlinger are easily in the conversation now, but will one or both of them stay there after Saturday?
Burnt Orange Nation: One of, if not the, biggest stories for Oklahoma is the performance of Jalen Hurts, who right now looks like he has a legitimate shot at becoming the third consecutive OU quarterback at winning the Heisman trophy. His skill set is different than Kyler and Baker, at least from the outside, so what is OU doing offensively to maximize his talents?
Crimson and Cream Machine: One thing that Hurts obviously brings to the table is a viable high-volume running threat at the quarterback position, which is a departure from what Lincoln Riley has had at his disposal in the past. Kyler Murray could fly and Baker Mayfield could scramble, but designed runs weren’t exactly the norm. Hurts, on the other hand, is averaging over 10 carries per game without playing the entirety of any individual game, so that just gives opposing defensive coordinators one more thing to prepare for when game planning against an offensive wunderkind like Riley.
They’re not only utilizing him as a runner, but are actually using the threat of his legs to open things up down the field. For example, Oklahoma will occasionally give a zone read look, have Hurts tuck the ball, follow a lead blocker and run to the boundary before having him pull up and hit a target down the field. If that won’t turn a defensive coordinator’s brain into a pretzel, I’m not sure what will.
Dating back to his time at ECU, Riley has always done a great job of adjusting his scheme to suit his personnel, which includes accentuating his quarterback’s strength while veiling his weaknesses. In this instance, he’s putting Hurts in situations that don’t require him to fit the ball into particularly tight windows. Is he capable of completing those types of passes? To a degree, yes, but it’s not necessarily his strength.
BON: The Oklahoma defense may not be where fans want it to be, but there’s been a vast improvement statistically from year to year, improving nearly 70 spots from last year. What’s the difference for Oklahoma this year?
C&CM: The most positive change has occurred up front with the switch to a one-gap scheme — gone are the days of three down linemen simply eating up blocks and allowing the linebackers to make plays. The focus is now for Neville Gallimore, Ronnie Perkins and company. to get around blocks, get into the backfield and cause chaos. So far, so good on that front, as the two aforementioned players are looking like two of the best defensive linemen in the conference. Meanwhile, linebackers like Kenneth Murray don’t have quite as much on their plate and are able to simply attack the ball. As a result, gap integrity and things of that nature have improved.
The cornerbacks have shown a bit of promise, but the safety position clearly still needs work. The guys who are back there don’t really fit the physical mold of an Alex Grinch defensive back, so it might be a few years before that group looks like anything close to a finished product.
All in all, Oklahoma’s defense currently ranks 36th in defensive SP+. If you would’ve told me this unit would be doing that well entering this game, I would tell you that most rational OU fans would be more than content with it.
BON: In some conversations a lot is being made about the opponents Oklahoma has played against to get to their 5-0 record. On that same note, the Sooners have done what you’re supposed to against outmatches opponents. Is this an overblown talking point or does it give you pause when you think about Saturday?
C&CM: It’s difficult to say. The OU defense hasn’t faced elite offenses, but you can just tell that the implemented scheme change and change in culture (as overstated as the latter can be in CFB conversations) are having an exceedingly positive effect, which leads one to believe that the group will fare better in big games than they have over the past few years.
Offensively, the inexperienced and hampered offensive line is a very legitimate. In the absence of Adrian Ealy and Erik Swenson, Kansas was having its way with the line in the first half. Fortunately, Bill Bedenbaugh must’ve lit a fire under their asses at halftime, as they looked like a competent group after the break. Still, Texas obviously provides the stiffest test for the offensive line to this date, which brings about more concern than anything else entering Saturday.
BON: What’s one key matchup you have your eye on for Saturday?
C&CM: Definitely OU offensive line vs. the UT defensive front. In the first half of the win over Kansas, Oklahoma’s running game was bottled up, and the shoddy pass protection was causing Hurts to make uncharacteristic mistakes. If poor offensive line play results in an early turnover or two, I like Texas’ chances. Early momentum plays of that nature have sunken the eventual loser of this game so many times in recent years, so it’s up to Bedenbaugh’s group to make sure that Oklahoma gets off on the right foot.
BON: What’s your prediction for Saturday?
C&CM: One rule of thumb for the Red River Shootout/Showdown/Rivalry/whatever is to never put money on it. The games have been an absolute crapshoot this decade in spite of the fact that Oklahoma has typically fielded the better squad.
I’ll give the slight edge to Oklahoma if only for the fact that UT is missing so many vital pieces on the defensive side. Additionally, I think OU’s new-look defense will do just enough to help the team squeak one out. However, if you put a gun to my head and forced me to place a bet, I’d definitely pick Texas to cover the 10.5.
BON: Much to the chagrin of many fans on both sides of the Red River, Lincoln Riley said Monday that OU players would be instructed to not use the “Horns Down” hand sign. If you were to design a new hand sign to get the point across, what would it be?
C&CM: One of the most common suggestions is to do the same sign but pretend that it’s actually in solidarity with Jordan Brand, as ‘Horns Down’ somewhat resembles the Jumpman logo if you try hard enough to view it in such a way.
SoonerScoop.com’s Carey Murdock concocted another suggestion, which was to just add the middle finger to it and make it “The Shocker”.
I’m a bigger fan of the first one, but it might be a tough sell to Bob “Charlie Brown’s Teacher” Bowlsby and the Big 12 officials.