The Texas Longhorns finished with an impressive 38-20 performance against the West Virginia Moumtaineers last weekend. They were able to gather themselves after a disappointing loss to the Texas Tech Red Raiders the week prior and can consider themselves still in contention for a spot in the Big 12 Championship game.
This week they face the Oklahoma Sooners in the classic Red River Showdown. It will be the first time since 1998 that both teams will be entering the game unranked. To add insult to injury, every other Big 12 matchup this weekend will have a ranked team playing.
One of the biggest questions circling this matchup is that of the starting quarterback for both teams. Texas is expected to get Quinn Ewers back and take the offense to a new level. Granted, Hudson Card has performed decently well since his takeover in the Alabama game. Yes, he is surrounded by talented stars, but he still deserves appreciation from the Longhorn fanbase for keeping the passing game alive.
Oklahoma quarterback Dillon Gabriel took a dirty hit from linebacker Jamoi Hodge in their 24-55 loss to TCU last week. With what appeared to be a concussion, I would be surprised to see if Gabriel is cleared to play this Saturday. As of Tuesday 10/4, we are still unsure who will be the starter for Oklahoma if Gabriel is officially ruled out.
Card had one of his better performances last weekend, completing 21 of his 27 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns for a QBR of 88.7. He was aided in this endeavor by Xavier Worthy who had seven receptions for 119 yards, two receiving touchdowns and a passing touchdown of his own. Ja’Tavion Sanders had five receptions for 78 yards and two touchdowns. He was PFF’s third highest rated tight end this past week with a grade of 84.7 and received the John Mackey TE of the Week award. To complement the passing game, Bijan finished with 101 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown. Below marks the usage and PPA for the Texas offense in the game against the Mountaineers.
Oklahoma’s defense has struggled as of late with upsets from TCU and a 34-41 fall to Kansas State the week before. Blown coverages and missed assignments has been alarming news considering the hiring of defensive minded coach Brent Venables. Below is a table showing how OU’s defense has allowed a higher success rate since the beginning of Big 12 conference play against some higher caliber opponents. Note: Success rate is derived from a successful play which is one where an offense achieves 50 percent of the yards needed on first down, 70 percent of the yards needed on second, or a full conversion on third or fourth.
Oklahoma now ranks 108th in total defense, allowing 423 yards per game. Venables typically operates out of a 3-4 line, opting to add DBs in a nickel formation. Besides the D-line, the defense has struggled in run-stopping and pass-rushing. This D-line rotation consists of nose tackles Jeffrey Johnson (7 total tackles, 0 sacks) and Isaiah Coe (7,1), plus defensive tackles Jordan Kelley (3, 0), Jalen Redmond (10, 1), and Josh Ellison (7, 0). In addition, linebacker DaShaun White is frequently rolled down (24, 0). The UT O-line is still developing and needs to learn fast before matchups against top performers like Oklahoma State.
On the season, Gabriel is 85-of-133 passing for 1,215 yards, 11 touchdowns, and no interceptions. He has a QBR of 76.6 for the season which ranks 27th in the nation, and fifth in the conference right after Card (76.9). Assuming Gabriel is out for the game, my guess for the starter would be Davis Beville seeing he is the only other one that has seen playing time this season. The 6’6, 220-pound transfer from Pitt was a three-star recruit out of high school. Apart from two completions in the Nebraska game, most of Beville’s snaps came from the back half of the TCU game. He went 7-of-16 passing for 50 yards and three sacks. Considering TCU is currently eighth in the conference in PPA allowed per game, this is an exhibit that he struggled to get going. Below are the offensive stars for the Oklahoma offense and their stats for the season.
We have seen some talented wide receivers for OU in recent years with the likes of Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb. Slot receiver Marvin Mims might be their next big star; he leads the team with 22 receptions for 438 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Brayden Willis is also notable problem that the Texas linebacker unit will need to solve. He has 13 catches for 185 yards and four touchdowns this season. Without Gabriel, it is difficult to claim that their receivers can have the same impact based purely on the small amount of time we have seen Beville. There is a high level of uncertainty with how well he can execute the RPO scheme as well as Gabriel, which is the reason the deep pass and run game are both respected.
Oklahoma has a deep running back unit as well. Eric Gray has 460 yards on 66 carries this season (7.0 ypc), and three touchdowns. Jovantae Barnes has 223 yards on 44 carries (5.1 ypc) and two touchdowns. Lastly, Marcus Major has 164 yards on 33 carries (5.0 ypc), and four touchdowns. He is not as elusive as the other backs, but his trucking ability is incredibly useful on 3rd or 4th and short. He is also currently ranked as the 11th best rated halfback according to PFF.
A concern I still have for the Texas defense is their stamina. In back-to-back games, they have showed that fast tempo offenses get the better of them eventually. The only difference is that Texas Tech was able to do this sooner with 100 plus plays. West Virginia still exhibited the same trend. The Red Raiders tired out the passing defense, and the Mountaineers were able to slow down the front seven and establish the run game later on. Below is a table looking at the PPA allowed by the Texas defense per quarter in the past two games.
For perspective in the upcoming game,
OU*: Average PPA Oklahoma offense produces for the whole season
OU**: Average PPA Oklahoma offense produces on just the last two games (against Big 12 opponents)
The Sooners’ rushing offense seems to come out strong in the first and third quarters of their games and could catch Texas off guard with another comeback win. We see it all too often, but this weekend will be another test if Texas can hold up down the stretch.
Conference defense comparison
As promised from last week, a look at the conversion rates allowed by defenses across the conference. You will find that Texas falls into the middle of the pack for both passing and rushing defense. An example of reading this is that Texas allows their opponents to convert 29 percent of their first downs, for a total of about 17 new first downs. They allow 32 percent conversion on second down for 22 new first downs, 42 percent of third downs for 20 new sets of downs, and 55 percent of passing fourth downs for six conversions. They have an average of 32 percent conversion rate allowed for passing and have given up 66 total first downs on the season. The teams are sorted in order of conversion rate first and then by total downs given up.
Iowa State leads the conference with the best passing defense by both conversion rate allowed at 25 percent and first downs allowed at 37.
The next graph follows the same model but with rushing defense. Texas Tech has the best rushing defense by conversion rate of 16 percent, and Oklahoma State leads by total rushing first downs at 24.
Texas hasn’t taken the golden hat home since the 48-45 thriller in 2018. Later that year they fell to the Sooners in the Big 12 Championship game and haven’t been back since. In the past three years, Texas has lost by a score or less. And in Sarkisian’s first matchup, the Longhorns came out hot, going up 41-23, only to allow another comeback win. It is not just on the shoulders of the Longhorn defense. Sarkisian also must be able to reserve some of the same surprising concepts and gutsy play calling for the second half. Texas has shown they are not good at running out the clock and playing conservatively, so they need to keep an aggressive mentality for the whole game. The data set we have from Texas coming in as a favorite AND unranked is quite small. DraftKings currently pins them as nine-point favorites*. Oklahoma is in a vulnerable spot at the moment, with a defense that is out of sorts, and possibly without their starting QB. But Texas cannot take another win for granted and I am still optimistic that Sark is the culture shift we have been waiting for.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.