Following a culture win by the No. 20 Texas Longhorns over the Iowa State Cyclones in Austin last Saturday, head coach Steve Sarkisian’s team heads on the road for a difficult matchup against the No. 11 Oklahoma State Cowboys in Stillwater at T Boone Pickens Stadium.
In a strange decade-plus for the series, Oklahoma State is 5-1 in the last six games in Austin and Texas is 3-2 playing in Stillwater, but the Longhorns are currently in the midst of a tough stretch on the road under Sarkisian — since last year’s win over the Horned Frogs in Fort Worth, Texas has lost the last five straight true road games.
But the Longhorns are riding a three-game winning streak and will enter the weekend at 5-2 overall with a shot at the Big 12 Championship game as long as they can reverse their recent road misfortunes. Oklahoma State is 5-1 after losing for the first time this season in a double-overtime defeat by TCU.
“This week we’re going to play a very good team on the road, a veteran football team,” Sarkisian said on Monday. “Oklahoma State, Coach Gundy has done a great job. These guys, they attack you with great tempo offensively, they’ve got a veteran defensive front that is one of the best in the country at creating negative plays tackles for losses, sacks, so another great challenge for us this week.”
Arguably the biggest storyline entering Saturday’s contest surrounds the health of Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders, the athletic and often mercurial four-year starter who is dealing with an injury to his throwing shoulder that kept him from practicing last week prior to the double-overtime loss to TCU.
In the last two games, Sanders has completed less than 50 percent of his passes overall and taken five sacks. At times against the Horned Frogs, Sanders appeared to have his usual velocity, but after going 7-of-9 passing for 107 yards on the game’s first two drives, he finished 9-of-27 passing for 138 yards, a concerning development for the Pokes that resulted in too many field-goal attempts.
Of course, Sanders is still extremely dangerous as a runner with 28 carries for 124 yards and four touchdowns in the last two games, including a 29-yard touchdown run against TCU. Whether it’s in the quarterback run game or scrambling, Sanders will test the rush-lane integrity of the Texas defensive front and may force the Longhorns to play more zone coverage than they’re preferred this season.
When Sanders does throw the ball, Braydon Johnson is an experienced big-play threat averaging 19.90 yards per reception, as is Bryson Green at 17.75 yards per reception. Those two wide receivers have combined for seven of the 15 touchdown passes thrown this year by Oklahoma State, but the Texas defense will also have to be wary of the running back screen game by the Cowboys.
In the trenches, Oklahoma State has an experienced offensive line that ranks No. 24 nationally in sack rate, having allowed only eight sacks this season, but they have struggled to create running lanes for Dominic Richardson, slotting at No. 82 in average line yards and No. 80 in standard downs line yards. In October, Richardson is averaging 3.3 yards per carry and doesn’t have a run longer than 19 yards all season — the explosive running plays come from the legs of Sanders, although freshman running back Ollie Gordon did have a 53-yard touchdown run against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the only run of longer than 30 yards by the Cowboys this season.
“Most of what we have to get accomplished on offense is rushing the ball effectively enough to balance who we are and make a difference with where we are on the field,” Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy said on Monday. “If we can rush the ball a little bit better, then we can balance up — we can avoid being one-dimensional to makes us a better team.”
But that may be a difficult task for the Cowboys because the Longhorns lead the Big 12 by allowing only 3.28 yards per carry, including 2.91 yards per carry in the three games this month. In the blowout win over West Virginia, the Mountaineers only gained 61 yards on 30 carries (2.03 yards per carry) and last week against the Cyclones, Iowa State managed just 74 yards on 28 attempts (2.64 yards per carry).
As Sarkisian mentioned, success for the Oklahoma State defense starts up front with a talented veteran group that has contributed to the team’s 54 tackles for loss, fifth nationally, and 17 sacks, tied for 28th nationally. Defensive end Tyler Lacey leads the way with 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, but defensive tackle Sione Asi is also disruptive with 5.5 tackles for loss of his own.
With Oklahoma State’s strength at the point of attack, they’re allowing only 3.70 yards per carry, but TCU was able to break through with 43 carries for 224 yards (5.21 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. In fact, the five rushing touchdowns allowed by the Cowboys in the last two games represent 55.5 percent of the season total.
In the back seven, losses loom large for Oklahoma State — star linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez is gone, along with linebacker Devin Harper, safety Kolby Harvell-Peel, safety Tanner McCalister, and cornerback Jarrick Bernard-Converse, a group that represented five of the team’s top six tacklers last season.
At linebacker, Mason Cobb has stepped up as a playmaker with 54 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks, but the secondary has struggled in pass coverage at times and lacks playmaking. On the season, Oklahoma State’s defense has only forced six turnovers.
Limiting explosive plays in the opposing passing game has been the biggest issue — the Cowboys have given up 10 pass plays of 30 or more yards, five pass plays of 40 or more yards, and two pass plays of 70 or more yards.
Even though Saturday’s game will be on the road instead of at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and even though Sarkisian understands that the Longhorns will have to play better this Saturday than last, Texas still established a blueprint against Iowa State for how to win close games.
“Obviously there were some self-inflicted wounds on some things that we did in the game, but I think commonly in football, a couple of things held true. We ran the ball well, we defended the run well, and we won the turnover margin two to nothing and generally when you can do those things, you give yourself a pretty good chance for success in the game,” Sarkisian said.
At DraftKings, the line now favors Texas by 6.5 points* with ESPN affording the Longhorns a 66-percent win probability.
*Odds/lines are subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.