It happened. The No. 7 Texas Longhorns are 11-1 for the first time since 2009 and returning to the Big 12 Championship for the first time since 2018. Not only is it great to see head coach Steve Sarkisian turn the team around, but to do it just in time for the Big 12 departure is the cherry on top. Even without a playoff appearance, I think I speak for most Texas fans when I say I would be grateful for just winning the conference one last time. This week, the Longhorns will take on another set of Cowboys in Arlington at AT&T Stadium, facing off against No. 18 Oklahoma State. The theme for this week’s game is simple — run and ruin.
I have constructed these running direction charts before, but I find it useful when going into a matchup with incredible backs. Below is a chart showcasing how Texas has decided to run the ball in the past two games without Jonathon Brooks. An easy guide for interpretation is to envision the gaps of an offensive line. LE would be a run outside a tight end lined up on the left, LT would be outside of the left tackle, LG is between the left tackle and left guard, and ML is between the center and left guard.
Something interesting is that Baxter and Blue received a lot of outside handoffs to the right. This makes sense as Jaydon Blue has shown his best glimpses when he can ramp up in open space toward the boundary. Blue also created some explosive runs up the middle last week, which is promising as well. Although Savion Red has been utilized in the Wildcat throughout the season, all of the snaps shown come from the recent Texas Tech game where he and Tre Wisner received a fair number of snaps in the back half due to a large lead. While prior to this, Brooks and Baxter were often fed towards the LE, it is great that Sarkisian has adjusted to his ability to run off either end.
Ollie Gordon II has established himself as the favorite to win the Doak Walker Award this year (pour one out for Brooks). He has 20 touchdowns and averages 6.4 yards per carry. He ranks only second to J-Brooks in yards after contact per attempt as well at 3.78.
You will notice that the Cowboys have found a way to get Gordon into every gap efficiently which makes planning against him a nightmare. He is most often directed to the LE which is also his second most productive direction (8.5 yards per carry), while the RT is first (11.3 yards per carry). Similarly, he has forced 11 missed tackles in the LE but 9 in the MR and 12 in the RG. He has also scored 13 of his touchdowns through the MR, RG, and RT gaps. Knowing that T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy will be eagerly awaiting him in the middle-right area, it will be up to the edges Ethan Burke and Barryn Sorrell to prevent the breakout runs.
I bring up the havoc rate again because I continue to believe it is the difference between a good defense and a great one. I spoke on this topic preseason and mentioned that the Longhorns had the highest number of pressures, but an abysmal sack conversion rate last year. This year, our front took that step into the upper echelon of defensive lines and has effectively shown how they can ruin opposing gameplans. As a reminder, havoc rate is the percentage of plays that end in a “havoc event” which is a sack, tackle-for-loss, fumble, pass breakup or interception.
The graph below showcases the havoc rate above expected. The calculation for this was simply the havoc rate from the game against that opponent compared to what that opponent’s offense has allowed on the season. This is then further split into the front seven (defensive lineman and linebackers) versus the secondary (defensive backs).
Despite some fluctuations earlier in the season, the defense has become every team’s worst nightmare. The only time we could say the d-line’s performance was imperatively underwhelming was in the Oklahoma game, which was a struggle overall. The lack of turnovers generated in the Red River Rivalry proved to be an anomaly as we have seen in the back half of the season.
For reference in this season, Texas has averaged rates of 11.4 percent and 7.2 percent for their front seven and secondary, while Oklahoma State has allowed just 7.5 percent and 6.7 percent respectively. However, Texas ranks fifth in strength of schedule while Oklahoma State ranks 39th with OU and Kansas State really being their toughest matchups. To further prove the schedule discrepancy, I couldn’t even gather the data for their game against Central Arkansas when replicating the defensive havoc rate for the Cowboys.
You will notice that the Cowboys front grew to be a storm leading up the Bedlam game against the Sooners. Even then this was primarily due to the pass rush — the Cowboys rank 91st in the nation in run yards allowed per carry with 4.6. But their secondary had just one shining moment in their win over Kansas. In every other game, they have performed worse than most teams. To encapsulate that story, they are 124th in yards allowed per pass attempt with 8.5. Now the real question here is whether they carry the same level of spite for Texas as they do for OU. Will they ramp up their energy for the big game? The neutral site also helps us in this case, but the Cowboys have always been a surprising menace every year we have faced them.
The Cowboys run a 3-3-5 defense with a rover position who is a hybrid safety and linebacker playing in the middle of the field. In the pass rush game, Nathan Latu (26 total tackles, 2 sacks) and the linebacker unit are the highest graded on the team. The linebackers consist of Will Collin Oliver (68, 6), Sam Xavier Benson (56, 1.5), and Mike Nickolas Martin (120, 6). Edge Anthony Goodlow (36, 2) and nose tackle Justin Kirkland (17, 0) are the best-graded defenders in the run game.
Oliver (5 pass breakups, 0 interceptions) and Martin (0, 1) also rank well in the conference in pass coverage. Behind them sit the aforementioned rover Kendal Daniels (0, 1), who is often rolled down, along with cornerbacks Korie Black (5, 1) and DJ McKinney (4, 0).
Although they possess a star in the backfield, Oklahoma State passes for a staggering 54.5 percent of their possessions, ranking third most in the conference behind Baylor and Houston. Alan Bowman has mostly been behind center for the Cowboys this season. He likes passing deep to the outside 20-plus yard range but isn’t successful on the right side completing only 4 of 23. However, on the left, he is 8 of 16 with three going for touchdowns.
Bowman’s biggest weakness is the middle — granted the bulk of his passes are targeted in this area — but he has thrown two interceptions in the 0-10 yard range, and five in the 10-20 yard range. When kept clean he is a decent performer, but he has not grown accustomed to dealing with pressure. Although he faces pressure in about 20 percent of his dropbacks, he possesses the second most turnover worthy plays in those situations in the conference. Ideally, the Longhorn attack up front will create opportunities for momentum shifting plays.
Rashod Owens and Leon Johnson are the tall and fast outside threats while slot receiver Brennan Presley averaging 9.8 yards per reception with 6.2 of those coming after the catch. Presley has tallied five touchdowns on the season and has pretty impressive numbers considering 64% of his catches are contested. Texas defensive backs will have to stay tight with him before he slips through for extra yardage and first downs.
Below are the box score and advanced metrics for the rest of the offense.
Texas has all the weapons in their arsenal to walk out with a win while simultaneously praying for a Florida State or Georgia upset. Bowman isn’t an exceptional quarterback and the Texas coverage was more aggressive in the past two games, keeping opposing quarterbacks from gaining any momentum with easy connections. Limiting the Cowboys to only running can play out just like the Tech game. Even with an extraordinary running back, the lack of line yards created up front just need to be paired with stopping the outside run with help from edges and linebackers. On offense, the Longhorns have faced tougher teams, whether they burst out to a big lead in the second quarter versus the fourth quarter is still up in the air. But the Longhorns have a chance to display why the committee should consider them if they approach this with the same mentality they showcased last Friday. The current spread on DraftKings is -15.