A 4-1 record. Four consecutive wins. Two ranked wins in two weeks. A No. 19 national ranking.
Despite what on paper appears to be the program’s most impressive résumé in recent memory, the jury is still out as to whether or not the hype suddenly surrounding the Texas Longhorns will foretell the direction the Horns are headed under head coach Tom Herman, or if it’s fool’s gold.
The verdict may very well be decided on Saturday at the Red River Showdown, which will pit a ranked Texas team against a ranked Oklahoma Sooners squad for the first time since 2012. In the words of FOX Sports analyst, Joel Klatt, “Texas is 60 minutes away from being back,” and no matter how the game goes, Texas is in for the most challenging 60-minute stretch of its season.
The latest edition of the Red River Showdown is especially intriguing in that the same sentiment is true for Oklahoma. Thus far, the five previous Sooners foes have compiled a collective record of 9-14, and Oklahoma is one of only two top 10 teams yet to face ranked competition — the other is No. 4 Clemson.
That will change on Saturday with No. 19 Texas occupying the opposite sideline, and bearing in mind the Big 12 implications at stake, Saturday’s Red River Showdown may be the most meaningful to take place since 2009.
The stakes for next week's Red River Showdown: pic.twitter.com/Y5l9aWvxFC— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) September 30, 2018
Baker Mayfield is gone, as are Mark Andrews and Orlando Brown, but next to nothing else has changed for Lincoln Riley’s offense. That reality remains true thanks in large part to Riley himself, who earned high praise from Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando this week.
“This isn’t some kind of luck that Oklahoma has had the best offense in the country for the last four years,” Orlando said. “This is scheme and players, and a play caller that’s dynamic. Lincoln Riley is a dynamic play caller. When he gets you on the ropes, he can finish you.”
While it’s Riley’s revered play calling that pushes opponents onto the ropes, it’s his deep stable of heavyweight offensive weapons that deliver the knockout blow. Oakland Athletics signee Kyler Murray is now in Baker Mayfield’s place at quarterback, and he, too, is eyeing a Heisman Trophy after amassing 1,460 yards and 17 scores through the air en route to a remarkable 230.95 passer efficiency rating, which is complemented by 285 yards and four touchdowns with his feet.
Murray hasn’t been tested to the extent he will be on Saturday, but thus far, he’s overcome each obstacle with flying colors. Murray’s most recent outing against Baylor, which ended with Oklahoma pouring 66 points onto the scoreboard, saw him become the first Big 12 quarterback since Graham Harrell in 2008 to total six touchdowns through the air and another score on the ground in a single game.
“Indeed, the early S&P+ rankings slot Oklahoma as the nation’s top offense. The offense is among the nation’s most explosive and efficient, even on passing downs,” Burnt Orange Nation’s Wescott Eberts wrote. “Murray already has seven passing plays of 50 or more yards, with four more of those plays going for 60 or more yards.”
While it’s Murray who steals the headlines, his success has certainly been aided by the abundance of weapons that surround him.
Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and CeeDee Lamb are one of the most highly-touted receiver tandems in college football, and they’re performing up to that praise thus far. Brown’s team-high 24 receptions have netted 544 yards on a 22.67 yards per catch average, which respectively rank eighth and ninth nationally.
For as rich as Oklahoma’s offense is with a bevy of big-play threats, Brown may be the best of the bunch, as his six receptions for at least 40 yards least the nation.
Another Marquise Brown long TD. 5/132/2 so far pic.twitter.com/LDzmzpZgdD— Greg Brandt (@devywarehouse) September 29, 2018
Lamb is blossoming into an elite option in his own right as a sophomore, reaching the end zone on five of his 19 receptions and totaling 348 yards along the way. He and Brown will likely absorb the bulk of Murray’s targets on Saturday — the two have hauled in 43 of the team’s 84 receptions through five games — but former walk-on Lee Morris and tight end Grant Calcaterra, if healthy and ready for the Red River Showdown, should have some semblance of an impact.
Morris has only secured six receptions this season, but he’s crossed the end zone on three of those catches and is currently averaging 28.7 yards per reception.
As expected given the explosive options Oklahoma brings to the table, the Texas secondary slowing the Sooners elite receivers is the matchup the Horns must win in hopes of a notching their most monumental win of the season.
The good news to that end is Texas passing efficiency defense is positioned at No. 25 nationally (108.58), which is far and away the best Oklahoma will have seen this season. However, on the other hand, the Sooners aerial attack is as elite and explosive as any the Longhorns will see this season, as Oklahoma has produced 24 plays of at least 20 yards through the air and ranks third nationally with an average of 18.32 yards per completion.
Texas true freshman Caden Sterns is tied for second nationally with three interceptions, while senior cornerback Kris Boyd is tied for fourth nationally in passes defended (9) and pass breakups (8), but the unit as a whole has been susceptible to sacrificing the big play.
If that trend continues on Saturday, it could be a long afternoon for the Longhorns.
The Sooners ground game won’t garner the same type of attention, largely due to star running back Rodney Anderson’s season ending early due to a knee injury, but Oklahoma’s backfield has been plenty capable.
With sophomore Trey Sermon serving as the the Sooners makeshift lead back, at least for the time being, Oklahoma is averaging 178.6 rushing yards per game throughout its three appearances without Anderson.
Though his carries have fluctuated since Anderson’s injury, Sermon enjoyed a 119-yard effort in a win over Army, and freshman Kennedy Brooks could emerge as a solid complement after totaling 107 yards and two touchdowns on only eight carries in a win over Baylor.
However, for a Horns rush defense that ranks 29th nationally and hasn’t allowed a Power Five foe to rush for more than 143 yards this season, the tallest test will undoubtedly be containing Murray. The Sooners gunslinger is averaging 57 rushing yards per outing and leads the team with four touchdowns, and more notably, he presents the added dimension of a play-maker capable of keeping plays alive and extending drives with his feet.
When this entire collection of talent is bunched together, and then coached by Lincoln Riley, the result is a unit that leads the country in plays of at least 40 yards (14), ranks eighth in scoring (48.6), 12th in total offense (523.2), and seventh in third-down conversation rate (.545).
The Sooners defense, on the other hand, has been a bit suspect, and that’s putting it politely. For example, just consider some of Oklahoma’s current national averages:
- 90th in total defense — 405.2
- 95th in passing yards allowed per game — 252.4
- 99th in third-down defense — .424
- 116th in first downs allowed — 119
- T-121st (last) in red-zone defense — 16/16, 13 TD
However, while the deficiencies defending on third down and in the red zone are inexcusable, as are the issues with tackling, Oklahoma’s defense isn’t entirely putrid, despite the picture its raw stats may paint.
The Sooners front six, led by linebackers Kenneth Murray and Curtis Bolton, who combined for 84 tackles the past two games, can be considered the defense’s strength to this point.
“I think Kenneth Murray is a hell of a player,” Herman said this week when asked what stands out about Oklahoma’s defense. “He’s the glue that kind of holds them together. Their front six is the strength of their defense. We’re going to — it’s going to be a battle trying to block those guys. It really is.”
Defensive tackle Neville Gallimore (22 tackles, two TFL) has emerged in the middle, and Jack linebacker Mark Jackson Jr. (33 tackles, three TFL) and former key Texas defensive end target Ronnie Perkins (three sacks) are doing the same on the edges.
Allowing Army to run its way to 383 yards hasn’t helped the general perception, but beyond that, Oklahoma’s rushing defense is sacrificing only 106.3 yards per game. Furthermore, averaging three sacks per game is good for a place within the top 20 nationally, although Sam Ehlinger’s ability to escape pressure and make plays outside of the pocket could force that average to fall following Saturday.
The struggles in the secondary have been a different story, and that narrative is far more negative.
As noted above, Oklahoma is allowing upwards of 252 yards per game through the air, and that average could be far worse had it not been for Army’s run-heavy offense managing only 40 passing yards and Florida Atlantic being limited to 192 yards.
A more accurate sample to consider as it pertains to Texas would be how poorly the Oklahoma has performed against Big 12 competition. In two meetings against Iowa State and Baylor, the Sooners have allowed 776 yards and four scores through the air, and more notably, the Cyclones and Bears enjoyed a 75.7 percent success rate on 99 attempts.
Much of the success for Iowa State and Baylor came from Oklahoma’s inability to find much success against bigger, physical receivers such as ISU’s Hakeem Butler (five catches, 174 yards two touchdowns) and BU’s Denzel Mims (11 catches, 114 yards, one touchdown) and Jalen Hurd (nine catches, 104 yards, one touchdown).
This should come as music to Texas’ ears, as the Longhorns budding star receivers are a 6’6 Collin Johnson and a 6’4 Lil’Jordan Humphrey. Oklahoma isn’t without talent in its defensive backfield, such as safety Kahlil Haughton (30 tackles), cornerback Parnell Motley (two interceptions, four passes defended) and former Under Armour All-American nickel back Brendan Radley-Hiles. But that talent just hasn’t equated to success, so much like the need for the Longhorns to limit Oklahoma’s passing attack, expect Ehlinger to target his top options more aggressively than we’ve seen thus far.
Odds are Texas will enjoy some success implementing that strategy, and a heavier dose of Keaontay Ingram should prove helpful, but the Longhorns offense just hasn’t pieced touchdown drives together on a consistent enough basis to instill too much confidence that Texas can outpace Oklahoma.
That said, Texas has topped Oklahoma in two of the last five Red River Showdowns, and its three losses have each come by just five points, so it’s safe to expect another closely contested matchup. Courtesy of its far more explosive offense, though, Oklahoma seems a bit more likely to leave the Cotton Bowl with a close win.
Prediction: Oklahoma 31, Texas 27