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Inside the Texas defensive game plan to slow down Oklahoma State

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Todd Orlando put his defense in a position to win Saturday’s game. His defense responded.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

AUSTIN, Texas — The nation’s leading rusher entering the game. The nation’s leading receiver entering the game. A dynamic quarterback capable of making plays with his arm and his legs.

Statistically speaking, the Oklahoma State Cowboys trio of quarterback Spencer Sanders, running back Chuba Hubbard, and wide receiver Tylan Wallace is arguably the best in the country.

So the Texas Longhorns needed an inspired game plan from defensive coordinator Todd Orlando to come out with a victory on Saturday evening at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and that’s exactly what they got. The game plan became even more important when the defense suffered a myriad of injuries during the game, eventually resulting in true freshman Chris Adimora having to play nickel late in the game.

Despite the reputation of Oklahoma State as a wide-open offense, head coach Mike Gundy puts a heavy emphasis on running the football — the Cowboys attempted 51 runs in each of the previous two games against the Longhorns, so the first step was to slow down Hubbard.

A starting defensive line that is collectively 90 pounds heavier than last year’s starting group provided a baseline from which to work for Orlando, ensuring that he had the resources necessary to stop Wallace and drop defenders into coverage.

But perhaps the most important development was the play of the linebackers and how they decided to defend Hubbard. On film, the Longhorns noticed that Hubbard likes to use the flow and aggressiveness of opposing linebackers against them to find cutback lanes. Once that happens, he can make defenses pay for over-committing.

“So we worked hard during the week with playing with technique and fundamentals, staying square, moving our feet and not committing before he committed,” sophomore Joseph Ossai said, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

The plan worked, as the linebackers were active — Ossai had eight tackles, including two for loss, senior Jeffrey McCulloch had six tackles, and sophomore Juwan Mitchell and redshirt freshman Ayodele Adeoye combined for seven more — and Hubbard struggled to break big plays.

Against Tulsa, Hubbard had a 75-yard run after a 53-yard burst to open the season against Oregon State. In both games, Hubbard went well over 200 rushing yards, but he needed 37 carries to gain 121 yards against Texas, an average of only 3.3 yards per carry after he entered the game averaging 7.9 yards per carry. His longest run went for 13 yards.

“I thought our front played really well and clogged some things up and made him have to bounce it to the un-hatted guys,” head coach Tom Herman said.

Just as important was how the Horns opted to play in coverage.

“I thought the game plan was great by our defensive staff,” Herman said. “In our base call we were going to trap the corners, trap the nickel, and really kind of squeeze everything from the outside in, other than to Wallace’s side. To his side we were going to double him.”

As a result, the normally aggressive Orlando dropped eight into coverage much more frequently than he did against LSU. In the past, Orlando has often opted for a variety of blitzes against young quarterbacks, but instead chose to play more conservatively against Sanders.

Rather than bringing extra defenders in an effort to rattle Sanders early, Orlando made the bet that the Oklahoma State offense was limited enough by his inexperience that he would eventually miss enough throws for Texas to win.

It worked, as Sanders completed less than 60 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions. Six passes were broken up by Longhorns defenders who almost always had plenty of support in coverage.

Due to injuries, the Longhorns played with senior Brandon Jones at nickel and junior Chris Brown at the Joker position normally occupied by injured sophomore BJ Foster. Because the defensive front controlled the running game with some help from the cornerbacks on the edges, Texas was able to play the inverted Tampa 2 coverage borrowed from Iowa State to reduce big plays.

Texas also used its best cornerback on Wallace — sophomore cornerback Jalen Green, who was playing an excellent game until he dislocated his shoulder late in the first half. After the injury and with Oklahoma State moving Wallace around in an attempt to create favorable matchups, it became a team effort to slow him down.

And it worked, as Wallace had two of his five catches on the first drive and never found the end zone. In all, he was targeted eight times and finished with 83 yards on those five catches, significantly less damage than he caused last season when he had 222 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Holding Wallace to a little more than 10 yards per target counts as success against a player that the Texas coaches called the nation’s most complete wide receiver entering the game.

Strong leadership and an improved culture makes a difference, too, when teams aren’t playing their best football because of injuries and a strong opponent — it’s not always just about a game plan.

Senior defensive end Malcolm Roach made one of the plays of the game when his penetration stopped Oklahoma State on 4th and 1 deep in Texas territory, but his leadership also had a major impact on the game.

“I heard him a couple different times when there was some stoppage of plays, you know, dang near begging his teammates. ‘Don’t do it for yourself. Do it for each other.’ That’s something that is learned,” Herman said.

“When you’re doing it for yourself, you’ve got no shot. No shot. As hard hitting and as banged up as those guys were, even the ones that stayed in, they were feeling that game for sure.”

Now players are echoing what they’ve been taught by the coaching staff during important moments in big games.

Combine that with an inspired game plan from the defensive staff and Texas was able to overcome three turnovers and all those injuries to win the type of game it lost for a solid decade.