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Tulsa presents a formidable rushing attack as Texas aims to reach 1-1

The Longhorns should overmatch Tulsa based on sheer talent, but the Golden Hurricane ground game could present some problems for the Horns.

NCAA Football: Houston at Tulsa Joey Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time ever, the Texas Longhorns and Tulsa Golden Hurricane will share the field on Saturday for a Week 2 matchup featuring two programs aiming to take a step forward from their season-opening efforts. Head coach Tom Herman’s Horns, of course, were toppled by the Maryland Terrapins for the second time in as many seasons, while Tulsa, led by head coach Phillip Montgomery, escaped with a 38-27 win over FCS foe Central Arkansas after trailing 27-24 in the fourth quarter.

Texas enters as a 23-point favorite and owns a 92 percent chance to win, per ESPN’s FPI, but as the Longhorns have learned time and time again throughout the past several seasons, with the most recent example coming just days ago against Maryland, games aren’t played on paper.

That said, on paper, this is yet another game Texas should win, and the Horns should do so fairly handedly.

As is often the case with Tulsa teams, the offensive side of the ball is the one worth writing home about, and it’s one the burnt orange nation should be quite familiar with by this point, despite Saturday marking the first meeting between the two programs. Remember when Sterlin Gilbert’s offense helped pave the way for D’Onta Foreman’s 2,000-yards Doak Walker Award-winning campaign to cap the same season a true freshman Shane Buechele passed for just nearly 3,000 yards in 2016?

That veer-and-shoot system is still in place at Tulsa, where Montgomery implemented it after several seasons doing the same as Art Briles’ offensive coordinator at Baylor. Injuries were largely to blame for Montgomery’s offense not being quite as productive as expected in what ultimately became a 2-10 campaign in 2017, but several key contributors are back in 2018 and in their first appearance of the season, the Golden Hurricane netted nearly 500 yards of offense.

Thanks in large part to an experienced offensive line, which features three multi-year starters, 297 of those yards were gained on the ground courtesy of 63 carries — only Air Force (77) and New Mexico (66) totaled more carries in their opener.

Sophomore running back Shamari Brooks led way with 27 carries for 129 yards and two touchdowns. Fellow sophomore Corey Taylor II nearly matched those contributions with 20 carries of his own for 110 yards, and to add another dimension to the offense, sophomore quarterback Luke Skipper is a capable runner, as evident with his 13 carries for 53 yards and one touchdown in the opener.

With Skipper still fairly unproven as a passer — in eight career appearances, he’s completed 86-of-151 attempts for 1,337, five touchdowns, and four interceptions — expect Tulsa to lean heavily upon its ground game to open up opportunities through the air.

To that end, Skipper does have some talented options at his disposal, including senior receiver Justin Hobbs, who earned second-team all-conference honors in 2017 after hauling in 55 receptions for 830 yards and three scores. Junior Keenan Johnson (44 receptions for 539 yards in 2017) is capable as well, and he currently leads the Golden Hurricane with two catches for 63 yards.

With the purpose of Tulsa’s offensive game plan being to spread a defense out with wide splits, run the football down its throat, and then attack over the top when the opportunities present themselves, the key for Todd Orlando’s defense is quite simple — control the line of scrimmage and prevent Brooks and Taylor from putting on a show. If that plan proves successful, the passing game should suffer as a result, although the Longhorns secondary will be without safety Brandon Jones, who was ruled out with a high ankle sprain.

Tulsa’s defense, on the other hand, could force the Golden Hurricane offense into a shootout in hopes of exiting Austin at 2-0.

This typically isn’t the type of contest you’ll see Texas win many of as of late, but the Tulsa defense surrendered an average of 528.9 yards per game in 2017 and may not be too much better this season. Defensive coordinator Bill Young’s unit does feature experience and incorporates several JUCO additions, but as noted by Tyler Gross of Underdog Dynasty, it could take some time for the defense to gel.

The Tulsa defense is still in a bit of a transitional phase, to put it nicely. There was an infusion of new talent this offseason that this defense needed desperately, but I think it could take multiple games for that unit to fully gel and play well together. The offense ran the ball well and was efficient in throwing the ball but a sack and fumble late in the game was costly.

In their season-opening win, the Golden Hurricane allowed only 247 total yards, albeit against an FCS foe. Nevertheless, Tulsa didn’t allow Central Arkansas to convert a single third down in 10 tries. Keeping Texas from converting a single third-down attempt is a tremendously tall task, but the Longhorns only managed to move the chains three times in 15 attempts against Maryland.

If this trend continues against a Tulsa defense that returns a decent amount of experience in each level, especially throughout the secondary with standouts such as cornerback Reggie Robinson and safety McKinley Whitfield, the Golden Hurricane could stick around and make things interesting if Montgomery’s offense is clicking.

This should only prove to be the case if Texas continues to get in its own way, though.

Between a senior-laden Texas offensive line, a cupboard stocked with four former four-star quarterbacks, a trio of capable running backs set to receive touches, and NFL-caliber talent at wide receiver, the sheer talent level the Longhorns boast should allow Tim Beck’s unit to move the ball with relative ease, similar to Texas’ 56-0 outpouring over San Jose State in 2017.

Just as with winning games, though, that’s far easier said than done.

Despite the tremendously slow start against Maryland, which slammed the Longhorns into a 24-7 deficit, Texas still mustered upwards of 400 yards of offense when it was all said and done. There were flashes of offensive upside as the game progressed before ultimately stalling in the fourth quarter, and in a similar sense, after getting torched to begin the game, the Longhorns defense limited the Terps to just 10 points after falling behind early in the second quarter.

The biggest task for Texas may not be Tulsa, but putting leaving its past performance in the past.

“It’s the responsibility on the guys who consider themselves leaders to understand there is absolutely nothing we can do to change the past,” quarterback Sam Ehlinger told the media on Tuesday. “If we want to be a great team that we still have the capacity of doing, we have to move forward. That’s day in, day out with your attitude and mentality around the facility.”

Prediction: Texas 41, Tulsa, 17