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No. 21 Texas vs. No. 6 Oklahoma preview: Defensive battle may be on tap for Saturday’s Red River Showdown

The No. 6 Sooners feature a strong run defense, shaky pass defense, and underachieving offense.

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NCAA Football: Nebraska at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, one of the best weekends of the year is here. The smell of fried food, the sight of Big Tex, and the Cotton Bowl perfectly divided in burnt orange and crimson and cream. This years Red River Showdown features an undefeated No. 6 Oklahoma Sooners team that has looked shaky at times.

After splitting the first two games against Tom Herman, Lincoln Riley has won the last three matchups against the No. 21 Texas Longhorns. Riley’s predecessor Bob Stoops lost his first Red River Showdown game before winning the next five against Mack Brown. Can Riley win his third straight Golden Hat?

The legacy of Texas head coaches is largely impacted by their teams' performances against Oklahoma. Can Steve Sarkisian be the first Texas head coach to knock off Oklahoma in their first Red River Showdown since Mack Brown? Or will the Red River stay crimson and cream?

This year’s Oklahoma offense is not as explosive as prior Lincoln Riley/Bob Stoops offenses to which we’re accustomed. Statistically, it’s the worst Sooners offense in total yards since 2013, passing since 2014, and rushing since 2010.

OU averages just 155 yards on the ground per game, far from the stout rushing attacks that have blistered Texas in the past.

Why the drop in production? Some of that can be credited to the loss of All-America center Creed Humphrey and tackle Adrian Ealy. Bill Bedenbaugh’s unit added a pair of transfers in Robert Congel and Wayna Morris, but is still looking to find consistency in the ground game.

Struggles in the ground game aren’t anything new for Lincoln Riley’s offense. After averaging six yards or more per carry in 2018 and 2019, Oklahoma averaged 4.7 ypc last season and currently average 4.6 ypc.

Texas held OU to 3.8 ypc in last year's game, but was still decimated by T.J. Pledger, giving up 131 yards, two touchdowns, and six yards per carry to him. However, Pledger is gone, along with Rhamondre Stevenson, but Kennedy Brooks has returned and the running back unit added talented Tennessee transfer Eric Gray.

Brooks torched Texas with 105 yards on a ridiculous 10 attempts in 2019’s victory but the offensive line, as well as the offense, look a little different for Oklahoma. Brooks only saw 15 touches against Kansas State, gaining 91 yards and averaging just over six yards per clip.

Oklahoma’s success over Texas in the past decade has been because of its ability to run the ball. Texas rush defense has been susceptible this season, only above Kansas and TCU in rushing yards allowed per game (170.0).

A lot of focus is on Spencer Rattler, but this game will come down to whether or not Texas can stop the run.

Speaking of Rattler, the quarterback has received criticism from his own fan base, even going as far as booing the redshirt freshman and chanting “we want Caleb” during the Sooners last-second win against West Virginia. But are the complaints justified?

Compared to last season, Rattler’s stats in yards per game, yards per attempt, and quarterback rating are all down. But according to Pro Football Focus, Rattler owns a 93.7 passing grade on throws 19 yards or less, and against Kansas State last week, the quarterback completed 21-of-22 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns.

Where Rattler has struggled this season is on the deep throws, where according to Longhorn Network’s Alex Loeb, he is just 3-of-12 passing with two interceptions and zero touchdowns.

PFF’s passing grade for Rattler on deep throws is 34.2, drastically down from last year’s 98.1. So has Rattler been underperforming this season? If you judge it by the lack of big plays through the air he’s generated then sure. But overall, Rattler is just as dangerous. Don’t let Oklahoma fans or national pundits fool you.

Rattler was a little rattled in his first Red River Showdown last year to start, tossing one interception early along with two fumbles (one recovered by Texas, the other recovered by Oklahoma). Riley pulled Rattler, let him calm down, and started him in the second half where he looked more comfortable; leading the Sooners to a pair of touchdowns on the first two drives out of halftime.

He finished with 209 yards passing, 51 yards rushing, three touchdowns, and one interception, but averaged just six yards per completion. By no means did Rattler have his way with the Texas defense with Oklahoma’s last four drives in regulation ending in punts.

Rattler’s longest completion in last years game was just 26 yards, showing that Oklahoma doesn’t need to connect on the deep ball to win this game, but could alter the game by doing so.

While getting Josh Thompson back will help the Texas secondary, no one from Oklahoma’s receiving corps have stood out this year. They have a deep group with eight returners including Marvin Mims and Theo Wease along with four-star freshman Mario Williams.

Though opposing TE’s haven’t been too active in the passing games against Texas this year, look out for Riley to try and get them involved in this game, especially in the red zone.

I wrote earlier that statistically this one of Oklahoma’s worst offenses in nearly a decade. I wish I could say the same about the defense. Alex Grinch has been an outstanding hire for Lincoln Riley as the Sooners boast the seventh-best rushing defense in the country, holding opponents to under 80 yards per game.

They held a Nebraska rushing attack that ranks 14th in the country with 237.5 yards per game to just 95 yards on 2.5 yards per attempt.

The most rushing yards in a game given up this year has been 100 (twice) while not letting a runner eclipse more than 56 yards individually. Bijan Robinson has yet to rush for under 60 yards this season and the Texas offense hasn’t rushed for lower than 272 yards in a game since the Arkansas loss. It’s gonna be a fun one on Saturday.

They return nearly everyone on the defensive line and linebacking unit including sophomore Nik Bonitto, junior Perrion Winfrey, and junior Isaiah Thomas. The 38 tackles for loss by the Sooners rank 15th in the country along with 15 sacks (Bonitto, Winfrey, and Thomas account for 9.5 sacks).

The Sooners passing defense isn’t as strong as their rush defense, allowing 241.4 yards in the air per game (83rd in the nation) and outside of West Virginia’s Jarret Doege, every D1 quarterback they’ve faced this season has thrown for more yards than his average output.

Kansas State’s Skylar Thompson had only thrown for 300-plus yards once in his career, but tossed for 320 last week despite playing through a knee injury.

I’m not blowing anybody’s mind by saying that the key to Saturday’s game will be Bijan Robinson versus Oklahoma’s run defense. If the Sooners run defense is as good as the stats show, however, winning the game may fall on Casey Thompson’s shoulders.

Without looking it up, can you guess who has won the turnover battle in the last four years? Texas. And it’s not even close.

Lincoln Riley’s Sooners have turned the ball over nine times compared to just three times from Texas. OU is 3-1 in those four years. And all three of the Texas turnovers came in last year's loss to Oklahoma. So between 2017 and 2019, Texas did not turn the ball over and still only defeated the Sooners once.

Football logic will tell you that if you lose the turnover battle, you’ll lose the game but Oklahoma has been able to defy that for the most part under Riley.

Off those nine turnovers, Texas scored five times for a total of 23 points. That’s about 2.5 points per turnover. Too many times Texas has been unable to take advantage when Oklahoma gives the ball back.

Under Sark, Texas has been a bit better on scoring after forcing turnovers. They’ve scored 30 points off seven turnovers this season, including nine points (three field goals) against TCU.

I know — kicking field goals is lame, but those nine points were the difference in that game.

Rattler has thrown four interceptions this season and turned it over twice last year against Texas but the Horns have to create more points. It hasn’t hurt OU drastically in the past, but the Longhorns have to change that to win on Saturday.