Eleven years ago, the No. 3 Texas Longhorns traveled to Stillwater on Halloween and left the No. 14 Oklahoma State Cowboys — and Eeyore there — with no doubt that it would not be a good morning when the sun rose again on north-central Oklahoma, thanks to the resounding 41-14 Texas victory.
Winning on Halloween is something of a tradition at Texas. In fact, the Longhorns are 15-2-1 all time on All Hallows’ Eve, including that 2009 win. A trip to Ames in 2015 resulted in the type of loss to Iowa State that Texas inflicted on Oklahoma State, but before that, the Horns had reeled off 10 consecutive wins on Halloween spanning close to 80 years.
A little more than a decade since the last Halloween win, Coach T will need to take his A Game north of the Red River because this time it will take an upset for the Horns to leave T. Boone Pickens Stadium with a victory, and it almost certainly won’t involve a margin of nearly four touchdowns for the visiting team.
“We’ve got it in us, I know we do — we’ve been building towards it,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said on Monday when asked about the team bringing its A game. “We continue to improve as the season goes on. Certainly defensively, I think we’ve all, at least internally, I would hope that everybody out there that follows our program has seen the same things that we have seen, which is a definite improvement on the defensive side.”
As always, the Longhorns have the talent advantage, ranking No. 5 nationally in the 247Sports team talent composite. The Cowboys rank No. 42.
Despite the disparity in the recruiting rankings of those players when they arrived at the two respective schools, Oklahoma State has tremendous skill position players offensively and a defense with excellent experience and continuity.
After missing several weeks with an ankle injury, Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders returned against Iowa State with 43 rushing yards on five carries and 249 passing yards and two touchdowns. He receives assistance from one of the nation’s top receivers in Tylan Wallace and one of the top running backs in Chuba Hubbard.
The running ability of Sanders is of particular concern for the Texas defensive line.
“We got to be very cautious in our rush lanes because he’s an incredible athlete and he extends and makes plays with his feet,” senior defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham said. “I think we have to be very cautious when we’re trying to get out there and rush the passer in those lines so he can’t get loose.”
Stopping Hubbard on the ground is no easy task, either — the Canadian averages 119.5 yards per game this season and has five rushing touchdowns. Last year, Texas was able to slow down Hubbard, holding him to 121 yards on 37 carries, but doing so again this season won’t be easy.
For Graham, limiting Hubbard is about playing disciplined football, which means fitting gaps correctly in the defensive front and then tackling well.
“We have to be in the right spots at the right time,” Graham said.
The unusual challenge in terms of the Texas series against Oklahoma State is that the Cowboys have one of the program’s best defenses since Gundy took over in Stillwater. Perhaps even the best. Six of the 11 starters on defense benefited from redshirt seasons and three other starters are juniors or seniors.
Aided by the pass-rushing ability of Trace Ford on the edge, the Cowboys frequently pick up sacks without blitzing because the cornerbacks are capable of playing man-to-man coverage without needing help from the safeties. The linebackers are both highly experienced and productive — Oklahoma State likely has the best defense that Texas will face off season.
The Longhorns will also have to make some difficult decisions about how to manage the game. A conservative approach offensively against Baylor was enough to win, but that almost certainly won’t be enough against Oklahoma State, even though Texas did benefit last week from the change in strategy.
In the Oklahoma game, Texas lost the time of possession battle by more than 10 minutes. With an increased emphasis on running the football even if there wasn’t a lot of immediate success, the Horns stayed on the field for more than four minutes longer than the Bears, allowing the defense to remain fresh late into the game.
Now the key is for both sides of the ball to put together a strong performance at the same time while playing with aggression on offense without exposing the defense to a big disparity in time of possession. It will be a tough balance to strike.
“I feel like you said that because we’re either playing really well on defense and and then start off slow offense or vice versa,” Graham said. “We might necessarily have been playing complementary football throughout a full four quarters.”
If that happens, Texas will finally put its A game on the field and, potentially, fulfill the program tradition of Halloween wins.