Last week, the No. 20 Texas Longhorns came away with a narrow 24-21 victory against the Iowa State Cyclones, who possess the best defense in the conference. As the winning streak continues, Texas will be back on the road and play the No. 11 Oklahoma State Cowboys, who I believed to be to the best in the conference until their loss to the TCU Horned Frogs this past weekend.
Texas has lost eight matchups against Oklahoma State since 2010, including a disappointing 32-34 loss in Sarkisian’s first year. The Cowboys are still in the Big 12 championship race and can remain contenders with a win this weekend.
TCU and Kansas State are the two remaining teams with undefeated conference records and will be playing each other this weekend as well. No matter how it plays out this weekend, we will have moved from four to three teams to view for championship contention.
The obstacles do not stop here though. Texas will have to play KSU and Kansas on the road as well, and both have serious potential to hinder the Longhorns’ revenge tour. They will host TCU and Baylor which are also going to be difficult games as the remainder of the Longhorns’ schedule consists of teams who have all been ranked at some point this season.
Texas was not as high scoring as they typically have been with quarterback Quinn Ewers under center, generating just 172 yards through the air as Ewers completed 17 of his 26 passes for three touchdowns and a QBR of 80.3. Despite the Cyclones’ tough rushing defense, running back Bijan Robinson had 135 yards on 28 carries and fellow running back Roschon Johnson had 71 yards on 11 carries. The Longhorns showed some extreme grit in continuing to push the ball down the field — Iowa State had a stop rate of 29 percent and seven tackles for loss, but Sark continued to trust his backs and put the ball on the ground. Here are the PPA and usage statistics for the Texas offense in their game last weekend.
Oklahoma State has allowed 479 yards a game, putting them in the bottom 10 percent in the nation. Their defensive tackles are their weak point while their edge defenders have great run stopping and pass rushing grades. These include Tyler Lacy (23 total tackles, 3 sacks), Brock Martin (20, 4), Collin Oliver (13, 3), and Trace Ford (5, 0). Their linebacker unit includes Xavier Benson (42, 0), who is a designed run stopper, and Mason Cobb (54, 2), who plays more in pass coverage. While their pass rush is strong, the Cowboys coverage has been out of sorts this season, giving up 301 yards through the air per game, which ranks 126th out of 131 teams in the nation. Texas will have to work towards running through gaps up the middle, and getting the ball out quickly, targeting the weak secondary.
Texas was able to come away with a victory almost primarily due to a forced fumble caused by safety Anthony Cook and recovered by linebacker Jaylan Ford in the last two minutes of the game. Texas was able to hold down the fort in the rushing game, allowing only 82 yards on 27 rushes. However, their passing defense struggled against Hunter Dekkers who had the worst QBR in the conference coming into the game.
The Longhorns allowed 329 passing yards on 37 passing attempts; this resulted in Cyclones having a passing PPA of 0.52, putting them in the 85th percentile. Oklahoma State boasts an average PPA of 0.35, which is in the 78th percentile. Needless to say, the Texas secondary flashed some worries after having such a strong start to the season. They will turn to safeties Anthony Cook and Jerrin Thompson, and cornerbacks D’Shawn Jamison and Ryan Watts, to be able to turn it around before the next game.
Below is a table showing how the Texas defense has performed relative to the expected offensive productions of their opponents. I was unable to collect EPA data from the UTSA game because there was no play-by-play published but I believe that data point would have also fallen in the top left quadrant, if not inching towards the top right.
The Cowboys are also looking to regain momentum after blowing a 24-7 lead to lose 40-43 in overtime against TCU. Quarterback Spencer Sanders should not be underestimated with a 78.7 QBR on the season — the senior completes 58.5% of his passes and has amassed 1,639 yards through the air. He has also tallied 13 touchdowns, three interceptions, and seven sacks while gaining 309 yards on the ground.
Texas had difficulty with scrambling quarterbacks earlier in the season against UTSA and Texas Tech and caught a break in their past three games with pocket passers. Sanders’ dual threat ability is unlocked with his 37 deep pass attempts, forcing the secondary to give him room to run. The table below shows the season averages for the Cowboys offense.
Sanders is surrounded by many talented receivers as well. Deep threat Braydon Johnson has 20 receptions for 398 yards and three touchdowns. Slot receiver Brennan Presley is used frequently in the short passing game and has a special ability to move after the catch. He has 30 receptions for 252 yards and a touchdown on the season. John Paul Richardson serves as the other slot, tallying 22 receptions for 251 yards and three touchdowns. Lastly, Bryson Green is used to keep defenses from being able to double Johnson in the deep game. With frequent comebacks and flats around the 10–15 yard mark, he sneaks between zones, having 16 receptions for 284 yards and four touchdowns.
Their run game is lacking with just 153 rush yards per game. Dominic Richardson struggles in breaking pass the first five yards past the line of scrimmage, partly due to the offensive line ranking 81st in line yards.
This week I opted to look at two-dimensional analysis of the top running games. Not just comparing running backs, but also including an offensive line metric for reference. The table below maps out the line yards generated by the O-line per rush attempt versus the PPA for the top running backs in the league. They needed to average over 3.5 yards a carry and the graph only includes teams that are either in the AP Top 25 or Big 12. I say this so we don’t overreact to Bijan being in the middle of the pack. He is in the middle of the pack of the top performing backs from the top teams.
Generally, there is a trend between offensive lines and their running back performance, just look at Ohio State, Oregon, and UCLA. Robinson has averaged 5.65 yards per carry on 138 touches and Johnson has 5.3 ypc on 56 carries. Despite the talented running back unit in the Texas locker room, they are still not the best at running the ball in the Big 12. Richard Reese of Baylor and Eric Gray out of Oklahoma both generate more points per play over expected with their offensive lines performing about the same. Oklahoma State’s weak run game is confirmed as Richardson has been the worst among backs with similar low-performing O-lines. Outliers include Clemson’s Will Shipley, who has a phenomenal rating despite a weaker O-line, and Deuce Vaughn, who receives many touches, but his PPA ranks low.
The Cowboys defense has generated 17 sacks this season, leading the conference. But that seems to be where the intimidation falls short for OSU. Texas will need to focus on avoiding the pressure and creating quick plays to avoid losing momentum early on. On the flip side, there is no doubt that Texas will be able to stuff the Cowboys run game but whether that extends to stopping Sanders from scrambling is questionable, especially with a disappointing performance in containing against Iowa State. This is also the most efficient passing offense Texas has faced in the Big 12 as well, despite them being 6th in the conference. The Longhorns are coming in as a 6.5-point favorite, according to DraftKings.* The combination of two powerful offenses with vulnerable pass coverage could result in a close game, but a higher scoring game as opposed to last week’s matchup.
*Odds/lines are subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.