Funny how conventional wisdom changes through the start of a college football season.
Entering the 2013 campaign, the expectation was that the experienced offensive and defensive lines of the Texas Longhorns would help provide a rare advantage in the trenches over the Oklahoma Sooners, especially the Texas offensive line against a thin and inexperienced Oklahoma defensive line.
It's a crucial consideration in the Red River Rivalry, a contest that has been decided in 13 of 14 meetings between Bob Stoops and Mack Brown by the team with more rushing yards. The only exception? The 2006 game, which featured both teams picking up the exact same number of yards on the ground.
Win in the trenches, win the game -- it's been that simple.
Fast forward almost to the halfway point of 2013, and the Sooners seem like the prohibitive favorite to control the lines of scrimmage, at least as reflected in the betting lines and the overall performance of a resurgent Oklahoma defense in its second season under defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, one that ranks No. 16 nationally in S&P (unadjusted).
In fact, the performances of Mike and Bob Stoops coaching up and scheming up their defense may be among the best work of their respective careers.
Short on defensive ends and defensive tackles, Oklahoma has been playing with a three-man front and bringing pressure from a variety of swarming defensive players.
One of the revelations has been sophomore hybrid linebacker Eric Striker, a 6'0, 200-pounder from Florida who only made six tackles last season, but has been harassing opposing quarterbacks in his second season on campus, racking up five quarterback hurries, two tackles for loss, and putting the pressure on Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees that forced a crucial early interception against the Irish.
Some players just have a knack for pursuing the quarterback and Striker looks that way on film. Explosive with his first several steps, Striker can run the arc against opposing offensive tackles without wasting steps or letting them get their hands on him -- the difference between getting to the quarterback and being locked up.
The Sooners may continue to use speed edge players to crash down on the backside of plays and limit the cutback opportunities for Texas running back Johnathan Gray, who excels in that area.
Other than using quick players off the edge, Oklahoma went exclusively to Psycho fronts against TCU in the first half on third and long plays. It appeared that they left their three defensive linemen on the field, but typically operated with two with their hand on the ground and a number of linebackers and defensive backs in two-point stances feinting into various gaps.
The hope is to produce massive confusion for opposing pass protection schemes and though the sack numbers for Oklahoma suggest that there hasn't been a great deal of success producing stops of the quarterback, those third and long looks are dangerous and have perhaps helped the Sooners rank 11th in the country in opponent third down conversions, allowing offenses to stay on the field only 27% of the time. It doesn't hurt that the group ranks 20th nationally on standard downs, which helps force those third and long attempts.
Overall, the sack and tackle for loss number for the Sooners aren't particularly impressive -- eight sacks ranks tied for 84th nationally and tied for 56th nationally with 29 tackles for loss. Consistency from down to down is the name of the game for this Sooner defense.
The odd thing is the overall rush defense for Oklahoma -- the Sooners have seen the third-fewest rushing attempts against them in the country, but have given up 4.26 yards per carry, which ranks 79th in the country. Comfortable leads in quite a few games have helped force opponents to pass the ball -- if Texas can take an early lead and hang close, the Longhorns might have the ability to exploit that potential vulnerability.
Fall behind again early, as they have the last two years? Well, that plays right into the hands of the excellent Sooner secondary.
On the other side of the ball, the pendulum has finally swung back for Oklahoma. After years of finesse spread offenses that passed the ball all over the field, the emphasis is now on the running game and especially the long-missing quarterback run game, now helmed by behemoth quarterback Blake Bell.
Ranked 20th nationally in rushing yards per attempt at 5.32, Oklahoma has their best rushing attack of the last seven years (at least) in yards per rush. Bell and former starter Trevor Knight have accounted for more than 300 rushing yards themselves and 28% of the rush offense.
Senior Brennan Clay has been the revelation with the running backs, as he pairs nicely with the big quarterbacks as an outside threat and has produced big games against West Virginia (170 yards on 22 carries) and TCU (111 yards on nine carries), taking over the mantle of leading rusher from senior Damien Williams, who broke off the long run against Texas last season.
Explosiveness has been a part of the small, shifty Clay's game, as evidenced his 76-yard touchdown run against TCU broke the Horned Frogs. It was a simple outside zone run to the strongside of the field and Clay was able to hit a cutback lane against a blitzing safety and outrace the other TCU safety to the end zone.
In fact, both Clay and Williams do an excellent job of finding cutback lanes on the outside zone and zone stretch plays that Oklahoma loves to run this season, taking advantage of linebackers flowing quickly play side. This isn't an Oklahoma offensive line that seeks to blow opponents off the ball and they give up some negative plays (29 tackles for loss allowed), but they are giving the quarterbacks and running backs some opportunities and the skill position players are taking advantage.
On both sides of the ball, the Sooners look a little bit different than they have in past years with no dominant defensive linemen and a running quarterback, but in a year when everything was supposed to come together for the Longhorns to have a rare advantage in the trenches, it appears that once again the Sooners are executing at a higher level and ready to out-perform a more experienced Texas offensive line and render the talented Texas defensive line irrelevant with their horizontal run game and running backs with the ability to hit cutbacks.
On paper, the Longhorns should still have a chance to run the football with their experienced offensive line and the Texas defensive line has been excellent at times this year. Thing is, all the stats and match ups on paper haven't mattered in the least the last two seasons, so despite a patchwork defensive line, the expectation is once again that Oklahoma will win in the trenches on Saturday, a big change from just a few weeks ago.