For the first time since 1998, the Texas Longhorns and the Oklahoma Sooners will enter the Cotton Bowl for the Red River Showdown at 11 a.m. Central on Saturday with neither team ranked and the biggest matchup in the Big 12 happening in Lawrence as the No. 19 Kansas Jayhawks face off against the No. 17 TCU Horned Frogs.
But with the Longhorns staring at a four-game losing streak against the Sooners and Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian trying to reach .500 in his tenure with Horns while seeking his first signature win, there’s still plenty to play for despite the 3-2 records held by both programs.
Oklahoma enters enters the game coming off of losses to Kansas State and TCU with last weekend’s Cowtown Beatdown featuring a handful of injuries that could impact Saturday’s game against Texas. Starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel suffered a head injury, running backs Eric Gray and Marcus Major were banged up, as were the starting tackles, and safeties Billy Bowman and Damond Harmon both left the game.
So even though it’s worth throwing out the records in any given Red River Showdown, a game of massive momentum swings, the injury situation for the Sooners could be a game-changer for first-year head coach Brent Venables, who is not off to an ideal start in his return to Norman.
Following the head injury suffered by Gabriel last week against TCU, Oklahoma faces an unusual prospect this weekend — playing without their starter for the first time since Trevor Knight suffered an injury in 2014 that forced Cody Thomas into action against Texas Tech. It was an ugly performance for Thomas, who went 10-of-20 passing for 133 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions in the 42-30 win.
Similarly, it was an ugly performance last week for Pitt transfer Davis Beville in relief of Gabriel as the 6’5, 225-pounder was 7-of-16 passing for 50 yards, an average of 3.1 yards per attempt. In addition to dealing with accuracy problems, Beville was also sacked three times as he struggled to get the ball out on time and in rhythm.
So offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby may give junior college transfer General Booty or consensus four-star 2022 signee Nick Evers a shot against the Longhorns. But protecting whichever quarterback gets the nod will be more difficult if tackles Wanya Morris and Anton Harrison aren’t available or limited by injuries, especially if Gray and Majors aren’t available or limited.
Even when healthy, this Oklahoma team doesn’t have the same level of offensive line play it received when it won the Joe Moore Award in 2018 as the nation’s best. And there isn’t the same playmaking depth at wide receiver behind star Marvin Mims, who leads the team with 22 receptions for 438 yards and three touchdowns.
For a team coached by a longtime defensive coordinator with three national championships and a Broyles Award, the performance by the Sooners against the Horned Frogs was outright shocking.
Oklahoma missed 20 tackles against TCU and allowed four touchdowns of more than 60 yards thanks to two busted coverages on long passing plays and missed run fits on long running plays. And then there were three big defensive pass interference penalties that featured Sooners defensive backs showing poor technique and discipline.
“Guys aren’t trusting their eyes or what their keys are telling them,” Venables said on Saturday. “They get bad eyes, start trying to do too much, and bad things happen.”
The performance in Fort Worth was, in short, a complete disaster as OU allowed 55 points and 668 yards on 8.91 yards per play, the worst defensive performance by the Sooners since allowing 63 points and 692 yards in the 2019 College Football Playoffs loss to Joe Burrow and the high-flying Tigers.
Texas doesn’t use the quarterback run game, so the success of Kansas State’s Adrian Martinez and TCU’s Max Duggan doesn’t translate well to Saturday’s game, but the issues with run fits and tackling suggest that star running back Bijan Robinson could replicate the success of Deuce Vaughn (25 carries for 116 yards) and Kendre Miller (13 carries for 136 yards and two touchdowns). Miller’s 69-yard touchdown run was particularly indicative of Oklahoma’s struggles — the lone box linebacker stunted into the line of scrimmage and the safeties both took bad angles.
Kendre Miller is the type of prospect TCU made a living on under Gary Patterson. 2,800 yard rusher (14.5 ypc) at the 2A level from deep in East Texas, beat out a handful of G5 programs for him. Looks like a sure fire NFL talent https://t.co/2DnvzWpnkr pic.twitter.com/ClBhc5Vfw2— Charles Power (@CharlesPower) October 1, 2022
Again, there are applicability questions here with TCU in 10 personnel on this play even as Oklahoma demonstrates the problems they’ve been having defensively that could benefit Robinson on Saturday as he seeks a season-defining performance.
A potential return for Bowman could stabilize the back end of the Sooners secondary, but the Longhorns should consider attacking the cornerbacks vertically regardless given the proclivities for committing pass interference.
Bowman’s absence would impact more than the defense, as the Denton Ryan product is also a dynamic kick returner, although wide receiver Jalil Farooq filled in ably against TCU with a 47-yard return. On punts, Mims has a 41-yard return this season.
The kickoff coverage unit has only had to deal with five returns in 2022, although the one return by Kansas State went for 58 yards. Punt coverage has been better with five returns losing two yards combined as Michael Turk averages 45.8 yards per punt. Taking over for longtime place kicker Gabe Brkic is Zach Schmit, who missed a 39-yard field goal against Nebraska, but has made his other five attempts this season, including three from more than 40 yards.
Overall, the Oklahoma special teams rank No. 8 nationally in SP+.
With all the injuries to Oklahoma, there’s a wide delta of availability that could swing the game from a potential blowout for Texas to a contest with much more narrow margins, particularly with the possibility of Quinn Ewers returning following a three-game absence due to his own injury.
As things stand on Wednesday with Venables unwilling to provide injury details, ESPN’s matchup predictor slots Texas with a 68.2-percent win probability while the line at DraftKings* now has the Horns as seven-point favorites.
As always, however, the Cotton Bowl remains unpredictable and Texas has its well-documented closing issues.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.