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Opponent Preview: Oklahoma State

Texas looks to win in Stillwater for the first time since 2014.

Iowa State v Oklahoma State Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

The Texas Longhorns snapped a four-game losing streak against the Oklahoma State Cowboys last year in a thrilling 36-30 victory in Austin that Texas almost let slip out of their hands. This year, head coach Tom Herman and the Horns will look to win in Stillwater for the first time since 2014. But unlike the powerful Cowboys offenses that we’re accustomed to, Mike Gundy has himself a defense. Here’s a look at one of the best defensive units in the Big 12 and, oh, don’t forget about Spencer Sanders, Chuba Hubbard, and Tylan Wallace.

What to expect from the Cowboys offense

Oklahoma State’s bread and butter is their inside zone run play for Chuba Hubbard and L.D. Brown. They will run it so many times on Saturday you’ll be sick of it. At first you won’t get what the big deal is. They’re only gaining two yards what’s so special about it? Then those two yards turn to five yards and then it turns into a first down and the next thing you know...

And that’s not even Hubbard!

Hubbard also will bounce outside instead of running in between the tackles where he’ll gash you for a first down nearly every time.

Through four games this year, Hubbard is averaging around 110 yards per game on nearly 22 carries. It helps that Hubbard is running behind one of the best offensive lines in the Big 12, but that’s not the full story.

I mean... that should be a loss of two yards at minimum, but Hubbard’s ability to break tackles and then accelerate through the gap is uncanny. He reminds me a little of Le’Veon Bell or LeSean McCoy, two tailbacks who would almost pause in the backfield and then somehow end up with a 15-yard run.

In last year’s 36-30 victory, the Longhorns defense did a great job of limiting Hubbard. While he did run for 121 yards, it came on 37 carries, which averages out to just over three yards per carry. Credit the Texas defensive line for stopping Hubbard — the front did a great job of not allowing the Pokes offensive line to get any really push.

Next to Hubbard is sophomore quarterback Spencer Sanders, who returned last week after missing two games with an ankle injury. Sanders didn’t play exceptionally against Iowa State, throwing two interceptions, but made enough plays for the Pokes to win. Sanders tossed for 235 yards and a touchdown, but what makes him such a threat is his ability to run.

Iowa State has so much respect for Hubbard that by the time they realize Sanders has the ball, it’s almost too late. Sanders also has great speed as he showcased against the Horns last year...

The Horns did a fairly good job against Charlie Brewer, who rushed for 75 yards in last weeks loss on 18 attempts. They’ll need to replicate that success against Sanders, who they held in check until that 33-yard rush above. Take that away and Sanders finishes with 76 yards on 17 attempts.

Josh Thompson does a great job of blowing this play up by running into the lead blocking TE who can’t get out in front and allows Sterns and Ossai to catch Sanders.

Iowa State’s corners do a great job of reading this play and bringing down Sanders for a loss, although he had no help from his blockers. Nevertheless, the point is that the Texas defense needs to bring the same effort level it brought against the Cowboys last year and against Baylor last week. Horns cannot afford to let Sanders to get past the defensive line and into the second level or else...

It’s not just Sanders’ ability to run outside of his pocket, but also his ability to throw.

Most quarterbacks would throw this away immediately. Not Sanders. He rolls out of the pocket and keeps his eyes downfield before delivering a strike. But at times he looked rusty against Iowa State and his health poses a serious question for Oklahoma State. Sanders essentially played one series against Tulsa before leaving a fumbled handoff between him and Hubbard. He also missed the final three games of the 2020 season with a thumb injury. Sanders’ durability and lack of game reps is something to watch out for against Texas.

The third member of the Pokes three-headed monster is senior wide receiver Tylan Wallace. Wallace is by far the Cowboys leading wideout with 401 yards on 24 catches and two touchdowns. The next best wideout statistically? Braydon Johnson with eight catches on 102 yards.

Jalen Green and the Texas DBs did a phenomenal job against Wallace last year, holding him to just five catches for 83 yards. If that doesn’t impress you then remember that Wallace blistered the Horns secondary for 10 catches, 222 yards, and a pair of touchdowns in 2018.

Sanders will go to him early and often but what makes Wallace dangerous is ability to make big plays. Name the route and Wallace can run it. He also has a great ability to high-point the ball and make incredible contested catches.

Wallace won’t be defended by Kris Boyd this time around and the Texas corners have done a good job of limiting opposing wideouts this season. Horns have yet to allow a receiver over 100 yards so far with D’Shawn Jamison and Josh Thompson both having solid under-the-radar seasons.

Bottom line: Chuba Hubbard will get his 25 or more carries but this game will come down to Spencer Sanders and if Texas can force him into turnovers. Sanders was able to get away with it against Iowa State because of the Oklahoma State defense but like last year, it may not work against the Horns.

Defensive Powerhouse?

While most of Mike Gundy’s teams at Oklahoma State have been known for their offense, this year it’s his defense that’s making headlines.

Out of teams that have played more than one game, the Cowboys rank sixth in passing yards allowed per game (176.0) and 12th in total defense (303.0 YPG).

The third-down conversion rate is a ludicrous 19.3% percent, which is third best in the nation, but No. 1 out of teams playing more than one game. They average nearly four sacks per game and have the 12th-best defense in the red zone, giving up only two touchdowns out of nine opportunities.

They’ve faced the Jarret Doege and Brock Purdy, two of best quarterbacks statistically in the Big 12 not named Ehlinger or Rattler, and held them to 447 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. It also helps your secondary when you can rush four lineman and still pressure or sack the quarterback.

But there’s always a but. Oklahoma State’s run defense is a little suspect having given up 188 yards to Iowa State running back Breece Hall and 65 yards to Purdy. You could argue that is an outlier since Hall ranks second in the nation in running but besides Iowa State, the Pokes haven’t gone up against a potent rushing attack. Of course, I wouldn’t say Texas has a potent rushing attack, but they rank higher than Tulsa, West Virginia, and Kansas.

The Cyclones found success running a package with two blocking tight ends to pave the way for Hall who did the rest.

Give up 188 yards to anyone and you’ll forget about the quarterback running, which is what happened a few times when Purdy would keep it himself on a read option.

Bottom line: This cannot turn into a Sam Ehlinger vs. Oklahoma State battle and the Horns cannot afford to start lethargic and face a nearly insurmountable margin like in 2018. Ehlinger had help from Keaontay Ingram and connected with Devin Duvernay, Brennan Eagles, and Jake Smith for big plays. They’ll need that again. Oh, and the offensive line can’t let Ehlinger be sacked or pressured every other play. The Horns haven’t faced a defense like this all year but are the statistics high because of OSU’s opponents? Or because they’re real.

The Horns did not play their best game against Oklahoma State a year ago in Austin, narrowly escaping with a 36-30 victory. Ehlinger threw a tipped interception in Texas territory and Jake Smith and Brandon Jones both muffed punts that resulted in 14 points for the Cowboys.

I’ll go ahead and state the obvious — Texas is not good enough to make mistakes like that and win. Sanders threw for two interceptions against the Horns last year and that’s a key to success again. Hubbard is going to get his 100 yards, but if it’s going to take 40 carries, that’s a win for Texas. Coach Herman and his staff had a conservative, but effective gameplan against Baylor that worked. But Spencer Sanders is not Charlie Brewer and the Bears didn’t have the weapons that the Cowboys possess.

Horns must afford costly mental mistakes and let Oklahoma State do it themselves. If not, Texas will fall to 1-3 against the Cowboys in the Tom Herman era.