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Can the Texas offense exploit the vulnerable Oklahoma pass defense?

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With a commitment to downfield passing, this may be the game when the Texas offense finally produces big plays through the air. It may have to be to have a chance.

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Make no mistake about it -- the annual Red River Showdown between the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners in the Cotton Bowl is a game defined by physicality.

The team with more rushing yards typically wins and that could be dangerous news for a Texas team with a young offensive line and five-star running backs who have trouble creating anything more than what is blocked for them.

Last season, the Horns rushed for 255 yards on 60 carries behind tough running from Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, while receiving a dominant effort from an offensive line that rarely achieved such feats.

The return of Oklahoma nose tackle Jordan Phillips will complicate matters this season. At 6'6 and 334 pounds, he's the stuff of nightmares for redshirt freshman center Jake Raulerson, who will give up more than 50 pounds to his opponent.

So far, the Sooners have given up only 3.13 yards per attempt on the ground and sit at No. 14 nationally in rush defense S&P.

Establishing the run is likely going to be even more difficult because the Sooners will probably load the box in an effort to ensure little to no success for the Horns rushing attack. Head coach Charlie Strong explained on Monday why that's been happening so much.

"See, right now, why you're loaded up [in the box] is that teams don't feel like you can throw the football." he said. "So if you can't throw it, they're going to load the box and force you to run the ball. So with them loading the box, you're not going to get the run established."

In other words, as much as the progress in the running game against Baylor with redshirt freshman Darius James in at right tackle was heartening, this won't be a game for stubbornness in pounding the ball into eight-man fronts.

The big plays for the Horns will likely have to come through the air -- the Texas running game has only produced one play over 40 yards, which came in the opener against North Texas. Even more troubling is the fact the the Horns have struggled to even produce smaller chunk plays to keep the chains moving, sitting tied for 109th nationally with only 19 rushing plays of 10 or more yards.

In pass defense, the Sooners have been vulnerable over the last two games, as the Mountaineers threw for 376 yards on 9.2 yards per attempt and the Horned Frogs racked up 318 yards on 8.2 yards per attempt.

As a result, the Oklahoma defensive backs got together last Monday night to put in some extra work and attempt to fix the coverage busts that led to wide-open TCU receivers streaking unimpeded down the field.

Cornerback Zach Sanchez even used the word "complacency" to describe the unit, while safety Quentin Hayes called the game last weekend a "wake-up call."

On the season, Oklahoma has allowed 20 passing plays of 20 or more yards in only five games (tied for No. 91 nationally) and sits at No. 30 in passing S&P despite featuring the No. 10 defense overall in S&P+. The cornerbacks are vulnerable over the top and will also concede some passes in front of them due to the preferred Oklahoma coverages.

In 2013, Texas was able to use a wheel route to wide receiver Marcus Johnson to create separation and could attempt to do so again versus man coverage.

Texas head coach Charlie Strong understands the importance of throwing the deep ball and is dedicated to the continuation of those efforts.

"You've got to get a chunk of yardage play to kind of get everything going, which we haven't gotten yet," he said. "But, we're going to continue to do it.  We're going to continue to release the ball down the field."

But on passing plays for the Horns, the biggest concern isn't whether the receivers can create separation, it's whether the pass protection will hold up for sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes.

Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker is a terror with his speed off the edge and he's versatile enough to cause problems dropping into coverage if Swoopes doesn't identify where he is early in the play. The 6'0, 220-pound junior possesses a unique skill set, has 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss this season, and pin-wheeled Case McCoy last season.

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GIF credit: ABC

His last name is fitting, no?

On the other side, fellow outside linebacker Geneo Grissom is on the jumbo side at 6'4 and 252 pounds, but he's been impactful in the passing game with an interception and four passes broken up. He returned an interception 54 yards for a touchdown last year.

Both players could be dangerous controlling the edges when Texas attempts to run the rollouts that play caller Shawn Watson favors for Swoopes and the Horns passer will have to avoid the self-sacking behaviors that have hurt him in the last two games -- the outlet for him as a runner will most likely be right up the middle, where his lack of lateral quickness doesn't impact him as much.

The magnitude of the game is also a concern. Swoopes admitted to being nervous last week against Baylor and the Oklahoma defense may well be coming at him from more different angles, all while the crowd in the Cotton Bowl will be ready to explode with any big mistake.

Senior wide receiver John Harris either didn't pick up on the nervousness or wasn't willing to publicly criticize his quarterback on Monday.

"I don't really even sense it," he said. "All I can tell Tyrone is to go out and play, and just know if you can win this game you can win any other game. This is about as big as it gets in the state of Texas. Just don't worry about the nerves, just go out and play your game yourself. Once you get out there your nerves will calm down and just go through the emotions and just play."

Whatever the case, the fact remains that having shaky nerves last week kept Swoopes from finding the flow of the game.

"Everybody's expectations are to score, so you like to score points," said Strong. "But you've got to develop a rhythm. Offense is all about rhythm. We had to develop a rhythm. Like I said, when you're good on offense, it's going to come from your quarterback position. When he has it going, then your offense is going to get going. When you look at the start of the second half, we've got to play well as a total team, not only our offense, but our defense and all three phases need to play well."

To find that rhythm the Horns may have to break out the junk plays that produced so many explosive moments under former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin.

Current play caller Shawn Watson acknowledged the need to have some trick plays available in a game where the offense is expected to break out all the stops in an effort to create game-changing plays. Though Watson described those plays as a base part of the Texas offense, the only thing even approaching trick plays this season were the reverses that the Horns have run twice to freshman wide receiver Armanti Foreman.

The ideal for Watson is to have the Horns look like the Cardinals from the last several seasons on offense with a mix of the run/pass read plays that offensive coordinator Joe Wickline brought with him from Stillwater.

Watson acknowledged that those efforts are still a work in progress.

For Texas to have a chance against a talented but potentially vulnerable Oklahoma defense, the offense is going to have to look a lot more like a finished product than it has at any point so far this season.